Poorhouses evolved from the English poor laws, passed in the 16th and 17th centuries. They required the community, most often the town, to take responsibility for its poor residents.
During the earliest days of colonial New England, the poor often relied on families and neighbors for help. In Plymouth Colony, for example, most towns kept a herd of cattle to farm out to families in want so they could get milk for their families and birth calves while the cows were in their custody.
Eventually overseers were elected to find work for able-bodied people and help for those who were too old or feeble to work. A poor tax supported the overseer and the almshouse, poorhouse or poor farm.
The cost of caring for the poor caused some communities to warn out people who seemed likely to fall into poverty. Entire families were driven out of town.
The first poorhouse was established in Boston in 1660. Benjamin Franklin didn’t think much of it. “There is no country in the world in which the poor are more idle, dissolute, drunken and insolent,” he wrote in 1766. (Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher and companion, lived in a Massachusetts poorhouse.)
Often, poor people were hired out to work as servants or laborers, a practice that bordered on slavery. Such abuse inspired change in the early 19th century, and the practice of hiring out gradually declined.
Financial panics -- 1817 and 1837 -- touched off waves of poor farms, as did the Irish migration during the potato famine of the 1840s and 1850s.
The poor were kept out of sight, on farms down back roads or in walled-off buildings. By the late 19th century, states were building asylums for the mentally ill. After the turn of the century, poor houses declined and mostly old people lived in them.
Middletown Alms House
Since the 17th century, Connecticut's poor law required towns to take care of their impoverished residents. In the earliest days of the colony, blood relatives and neighbors took care of people in need. By the time of the American Revolution, towns began to build almshouses for the poor.
The Middletown Alms House, the earliest surviving house built to house the poor in Connecticut, was built around 1812. It’s one of the oldest poorhouses still standing in the United States.
In 1853, Middletown’s poor were moved to a more remote location on Silver Street.
The new facility – now an old brick building -- still stands on Silver Street between the Connecticut River and the old Connecticut State Hospital for the Insane. In 1920, the Report of the State Board of Charities reported, “The bedrooms and beds appeared to be in excellent condition and the inmates seemed contented and well cared for. About thirty-five acres of land are attached."
That year, 64 of Connecticut’s 168 towns had poorhouses or town farms. Other towns sent their poor away, sent them to the highest bidder or placed them in asylums and hospitals. By the end of the decade, only 50 towns still ran almshouses
Click here for more information about Connecticut poorhouses.
Maine after the American Revolution put its poor in the hands of overseers, who paid people to take them into their homes for a year.
Mercy Lovejoy and her five children, for example, were auctioned off in 1817 to a farmer who fed and clothed them in exchange for their labor. The town of Livermore paid him $3.95 for the six Lovejoys.
Many Maine towns established poor farms and almshouses after the American Revolution. The bodies of inmates who died in custody were shipped in barrels or boxes to the medical school at Bowdoin College.
Portland already had a workhouse – and may have had one since 1763. The town established an almshouse in 1803, located next to the city poor farm (now on the site is an ice arena). It functioned more as a workhouse.
The city’s police rounded up homeless people and sent them to the almshouse, where inmates’ behavior was strictly regulated. Those who could were required to work ‘cheerfully and faithfully.’
The poor farm and almshouse were closed at the turn of the century for a more modern hospital and workhouse. A cemetery on the property was dug up in 1904, and taken to a pit at Forest City Cemetery in South Portland.
Today a brick barn behind the Portland Expo still stands, the only remnant of the Portland almshouse and poor farm.
The Falmouth poorhouse is now the town's historic commission. It was built as a tavern in 1769. In 1812, the war caused a depression across Cape Cod, and the tavern owner packed up and left for Cincinnati. The tavern was moved 4-1/2 miles next to the Methodist Cemetery, and it became the Falmouth Poor House.
Before the war, Town Meeting had been held to decide what to do with the poor. A committee suggested remodeling a house to shelter them. The selectmen rejected the idea, but when the tavern came up for sale in 1840, the town bought it to be used as a poorhouse. The land was fenced, and in 1824 a barn was built. That allowed the poorhouse to be reclassified as a work house, which had a strict code of conduct. Anyone who refused to work would be confined in a cell or farmed out indefinitely.
In 1878 the poorhouse became a poor farm, which actually supported itself by selling food. It wasn't closed until 1960. The seven people remaining in the poorhouse went on welfare and moved to hospitals.
Strafford County Almshouse
New Hampshire had a system of ‘poor in, poor out,’ with some people living at home who got some help but worked.
Unlike the other states, which placed responsibility for the poor on a town or towns, New Hampshire by 1866 required the county to take care of the poor. Each of New Hampshire’s 10 counties had a county poorhouse.
In New Hampshire, poor people generally had to qualify for help by living in a town and paying taxes for seven consecutive years. A 1904 U.S. government report summarized New Hampshire poor laws as follows:
The parents, grandparents, children, and grandchildren of any poor-person, if of sufficient ability, are liable for his support. Town paupers requiring complete maintenance, except honorably discharged veterans who must be supported outside the almshouses, as well as those without town settlement, are cared for on county poor farms ... The overseers have authority...to bind out paupers, and to apprentice children.
A fire destroyed the main building of the Strafford County almshouse in 1881, killing 13 people. The county replaced it with a large, three-story brick almshouse, designed to shelter 300 people. The insane asylum was also located at the county farm.
Twelve years later, the insane asylum burned to the ground, killing 40 of 44 inmates. "Forty Crazed People Burned to Death," reported the local newspaper on March 10, 1893. "At the window could be seen the tortured faces of the demented inmates, now raging and howling fiends. Their cries and shouts for help were heart rending indeed as one by one they SANK OUT OF SIGHT first in the folds of the devouring and unrelenting flames. It was a perfect hell of fire.”
A controversy broke out about conditions at the county farms, especially for children. By 1898, most poor children were moved into foster care.
In 1907, Strafford County built a jail next to the almshouse. The county nursing home was built in front of the almshouse in 1970.
Rhode Island philanthropist Ebenezer Knight Dexter bequeathed the funds for the Dexter Asylum when he died in 1824. He left his Neck Farm to the Town of Providence and stipulated that a wall be built around it.
Previously, poor people were taken in by caretakers, who bid to the town for the job.
Dexter’s instructions for the wall were oddly specific: "a good, permanent stone wall of at least 3 feet thick at the bottom and at least 8 feet high and to be placed on a foundation of small stones as thick as the bottom wall and sunk 2 feet into the ground." It took eight years and $12,700 to finish the wall.
It was a working farm that housed the poor, elderly and mentally ill. Poor farms were then considered better ways to deal with poor people than to let them beg in the street. The Asylum was a working vegetable and dairy farm that was self-sufficient for a while. By the 1840s most of the residents were Irish immigrants indentured for six months. Men and women were separated, and visitors were only allowed once every three weeks. They were given bread and tea for dinner.
Those found guilty of drinking, immoral conduct, loud talking, disrespectful behavior or faking illness to avoid work were confined to a jail cell for three days and kept on a short allowance of food. The mentally ill were confined in ‘maniac cells.’
By 1849, the asylum was overcrowded with 190 residents and was overcrowded. Some of the mentally ill were moved to the new Butler Hospital. Eventually the population was capped at 100.
The Asylum shut down in 1957. Playing fields replaced its gardens.
Today part of Providence’s poorhouse survives as the rough stone wall bordering Brown University's Olney-Margolies Athletic Complex
Vermont’s treatment of the poor during the 19th century was typical of New England. Towns or groups of towns built poor farms and poorhouses.
The first poorhouse in Burlington was established in 1816. During the Civil War Burlington was called upon to help the families of deceased soldiers and to the families of men who had been drafted but whose pay hadn’t yet reached the families at home.
Many French transients came to Burlington from Canada in the depression after the Panic of 1873, while the Irish arrived during the potato famine of the 1840s and 1850s.
The Burlington poorhouse sheltered several hundred long- and short-term residents who slept on straw mattresses. In 1871, for example, for example, 62-year-old resident Jerusha Waters was a crippled long-term resident. Mary Marks, 73, was blind and had lived there for 19 years. Most were short-term residents, though, and lived at the poorhouse for a few months. Often they arrived in the winter when they ran out of heating fuel and returned home in warm weather.
By the turn of the century, poorhouses fell into disrepute. Burlington’s poor were directed to local affiliates of the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the Elizabeth Lund Home for unmarried mothers and private nursing homes.
Photos: By Steadyjohn - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5722133; Strafford County Poorhouse By Magicpiano - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34873317