Posts Tagged ‘Poor House’

While the welfare state is considered a modern development, caring for the less fortunate among us is not a new concern.  And while today it is considered a federal and state responsibility, until the last quarter of the nineteenth century it was a local concern.  In Huntington, the first record of aid to the poor is dated 1729.  The Town continued to care for the poor until 1872, when the responsibility was passed onto the County.

Caring for the less fortunate is an ancient practice.  Ancient Babylonian, Greek, and Roman societies imposed a duty to provide for the poor.  The Bible also imposes such an obligation.  The Old Testament speaks of the duty to aid the sick, the old, the handicapped and the poor.  The injunction is repeated in the gospel of Matthew:  “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

In medieval England, the responsibility to provide for the poor fell to the church through its extensive system of monasteries.  But with the abolishment of monasteries under Henry VIII, the obligation fell to secular authorities at first supported by voluntary contributions and then after 1572 by a compulsory assessment (i.e. taxes).  Further amendments led to the enactment of the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601, which was based on the principle of local relief supported by local taxes.  Under the direction of a town’s Overseers of the Poor, the unemployable were given direct aid, the young were given apprenticeships and the able bodied were given work relief.

This system was brought to the New World by the English settlers.  The obligation to provide for the poor led to restrictions as to who could settle in a town lest they become indigent and in need of relief.  In thirteenth century London, “No ‘stranger’ was allowed to spend more than one day and a night in a citizen’s house, and no one might be harboured within a ward ‘unless he be of good repute.’”[1]  Four centuries later the selectmen of Boston “prohibited citizens from entertaining strangers for more than two weeks without first securing official permission; if the visitors seemed likely to stay longer and become a public burden, such permission was denied.”[2]  Likewise, in 1662, the townsmen of Huntington ordered that no resident of Huntington shall sell or rent his house or lands to anyone who has not been approved by a committee appointed for the purpose of approving such transactions.  Failure to secure such approval would incur a fine of £10—a substantial sum to be sure.[3]

Due to its small population and approval of new inhabitants, Huntington probably did not have to worry about poor relief in its first three quarters of a century.  In 1729, the Town paid Eliphalet Hill £8 for “keeping Sarah Scudder the Last Year.”  This charge accounted for 80% of the Town’s expenses for that year.[4]  Over the next 23 years, others received support from the Town, but the need must have been limited because the Town did not formally appoint Overseers of the Poor until 1752.  For ten years, the Town’s Board of Trustees acted as Overseers of the Poor.  Beginning in 1763, a separate group was appointed.

The early records of the Overseers include payments to local doctors for tending to the poor and bonds posted by individuals to guarantee payment for the support of children born out of wedlock.  In many of these cases, the bonds are posted by the reputed father to secure payment for the education and upbringing of the child.  For example, in 1776, Nathaniel Youdal and Philip Youdal (presumably Nathaniel’s father) posted a bond in the amount of £200 to guarantee that the male child of Mary Jarvis, a single woman, would not become the responsibility of the Town. Nathaniel Youdal was reputed to be the father.  In many other cases, the bond was posted by the father of the newborn’s mother.  For example in another case from 1776, Hezekiah Smith posted a bond to guarantee the support of the child of Susanah Smith, his daughter.  The baby’s father was William Buchanan of Smithtown, which placed him beyond the jurisdiction of Huntington’s Overseers.

The main duty of the Overseers was to provide for the care of the poor.  This was done in a variety of ways.  Children could be placed in an apprenticeship.  Such was the case for five-year-old Samuel Hand in 1777.  He was bound to Sarah Bunce for a period of eleven years.  Young Samuel was obligated to faithfully, honestly, and obediently serve “as a good and faith[ful] apprentice ought to do.”  For her part Sarah Bunce was to provide sufficient meat, drink, apparel, washing, and lodging.

Older poor residents, such as widows, the disabled and the mentally ill, were placed with local families who would be paid by the Overseers to provide “them meat, drink, washing, lodging, mending & nursing Suitable and find all their Clothing that is necessary for one year from the date, and return them as well clothed as they took them.”  In these cases, care of the indigent was “auctioned off” to the lowest bidder.   Prices varied from person to person.  Without knowing the particulars of each person’s situation, it is impossible to determine why.  In 1806, John Conkling was paid $51 to take in Ruth Lewis.  Silas Plat was paid almost twice as much ($95) to take in Mary Williams and her daughter.  Meanwhile, Micah Bedell was paid the same amount ($95) to take in Henry Chadeayn.  Timothy Bennett received $19 for taking care of Elizabeth Price, who is identified as a child.  Other similar amounts must also be for children.  From this small sample, we can deduce that it was less expensive to feed, clothe and house children than women, who in turn were less expensive to take care of than men.

At the Town’s annual meeting on April 3, 1821, it was resolved that “the Poor of Sd   Town be put out in bulk and that one person be hired to keep them all together provided the Trustees of Sd    Town approve of the price asked and if not for them to be put out in the Usual manner.”  It appears that this new arrangement was not carried out in 1821 or in the subsequent two years.  In 1824, the Trustees were given authority “to dispose of the Poor of the Town in the most comfortable and economical manner.”  Likewise the Overseers records for that year refer to the possibility of providing a central house for the care of the poor.  Eventually, the Overseers and Trustees decided to buy a farm on the west side of the Green for use as a poor house.  Rather then being sent to various private homes throughout the town, the poor would be sent to this farm.  Within the poor house, the races were segregated.  According to the records, several people refused to go to the poor house.  The Trustees in 1825 ordered that all paupers were to be provided for at the poor house.  “Those who refuse to conform are to have no assistance except extraordinary cases at the discretion of the Overseers of the poor.”  That year nearly two dozen residents lived at the poor house.

In this respect, Huntington would be in the vanguard.  Throughout the state, resentment over the system of providing outdoor relief, that is, outside of a poor house, was growing.  Many felt that the poor were not thankful enough for the relief they received, and that aid destroyed the incentive to work.  In 1823, the New York State legislature commissioned Secretary of State J.V.N. Yates to conduct a study of poor relief throughout the state.  Yates sent questionnaires to Overseers of the Poor and presented his findings in February 1824.  He found that the auction system through which the poor were farmed out to private homes was inefficient; and that the poor were often treated cruelly.  “Moreover, the education and the morals of children were almost wholly neglected.”  Children “grow up in filth, idleness, and disease, becoming early candidates for the prison or the grave.”  Moreover, “the able bodied poor were rarely employed; home relief encouraged idleness, and ‘vice, dissipation, disease and crime’ resulted.”[5]  [According to the Yates Report, Huntington had 51 paupers in 1823 (22 males, 29 females), ten of whom were children and the Town spent $1,316.12 to support them.  “The paupers are placed in various families by contracts for the year, until the ensuing town meeting.”  There is no reference to Huntington experiencing the deplorable condition cited elsewhere in the report.]

Yates recommended that the poor be cared for in an institutional setting, which it was felt would be more efficient.  The legislature enacted the County Poorhouse Act, which directed each county to purchase land “and thereon build and erect, for the accommodation, employment and use of the said county, one or more suitable buildings, to be denominated the poor house of the county.”  Suffolk County did not purchase land for a poor house until 1870, however, so the relief continued to be given at the town level.

By mid-century, Huntington’s Town expenses totaled $3,000, of which about $2,100 went to care of the poor.  The number of poor helped by the Town averaged about 15.   Dissatisfaction with the expense of the program and the perceived mismanagement of the poor house led to a meeting at the hotel of Ezra Smith in Long Swamp to discuss the matter. Despite the stormy weather, the meeting was well attended.  Some argued that the poor house should be done away with.  Others argued that better care of the poor was possible with a woman in charge of the poor house—a woman could also be paid less than a man.   A committee was appointed to confer with the Overseers of the Poor to present a solution.  Three weeks later the committee presented its report recommending that those who could be placed with relatives at less cost than keeping them at the poor house should be so accommodated.  However, some of the poor had no relatives in town; others were inflicted by disease that would render such placement impossible.  The committee suggested that a suitable manager be found who could work the farm for the support of the poor and that the residents (inmates as they were then called) should assist with the farm work when able.  The Overseers were to make weekly inspections of the farm to ensure its efficient operation.

The next month, the Overseers engaged Nathan Wiggins to manage the farm and poor house.  He was provided with equipment to work the farm, the produce of which was used to support his family as well as the residents of the poor house.  Wiggins was also entitled to sell pine wood from the farm.  In addition, he was paid 98¢ per week.

The poor house approach was continued for many years thereafter.  However, in 1868, the farm on the Green was exchanged for the 70-acre Elias Smith place in Long Swamp.  The move was welcomed because it was felt that having the poor house in the middle of the village was a nuisance.  “A congregation of men and women so near the main road sunning themselves on pleasant days, and using all sorts of profane and obscene language, is not very pleasant for passers by, or those that reside in the vicinity.”  It should be remembered that some residents of the poor house were there due to mental illness.  The new location had the added advantage of being over two miles from town, which would dissuade ”the inebriates” from “the habit of having their bottle filled.”[6]

The new poor house was also used as a venue for Town meetings.  But it didn’t last long.  In 1871, a County poor house was established in Yaphank.  By May of that year, there was talk of selling the poor house.  On December 5, 1871,  at a Special Town Meeting, it was resolved to remove the poor to the County alms house and sell the Town House, as it was known. The Overseers of the Poor them met at the Town House to make arrangements for the relocation of the residents to Yaphank.  A fire was lit in an unfrequented room.  Due to a defect in the chimney, the fire escaped the chimney and spread to the attic.  The building was a complete loss.  “The inmates of the house were immediately carried to the Railroad station and sent to the County House the same afternoon.”  (The Long-Islander, December 15, 1871).

The poor house or alms house remained the means of providing relief in New York State until 1929 when the Public Welfare Law was enacted

[1] London, The Biography, by Peter Ackroyd (London: Vintage Books, 2001), page 61

[2] From Poor Law to Welfare State, A History of Social Welfare in America, Sixth Edition, by Walter I. Trattner (New York:  The Free Press, 1999), page 19

[3] Huntington Town Records, Volume I, page 40-41

[4] Records of the Overseers of the Poor Addendum 1729-1843 (Town of Huntington 1992), page 1

[5] Trattner, page 58.  Thanks to David Weinstein for locating an online copy of the Yates Report.

[6] The Long-Islander, April 3, 1868

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