Ginny’s Genealogical Gems
PoorHouses, PoorFarms andAlmshouses
Befo r e t he re we re wel fa r e and social secur ity, towns and counties of ten had alms houses, poor houses or poor farms that were suppor ted by taxes and super vi s ed by an elected Overseer of the Poor. Very of ten these facil it ies had the only “medical” care so people could be admit ted to them when sick, but not indigent. If there were no orphanages then even very young children were inmates. Also the elderly or disabled people whose families could not ca re for them of ten ended up in these inst itut ions. People with ment al health issues also became residents of these facilities. Early poor houses were literally private homes whose residents ag reed to take care of the poor, sick or disabled for a price.
Those who were physically able were expected to work; laundry, cooking, cleaning, farm chor e s , sewing, mending, gardening; the chi ldren fed chicken s , col lected eggs, gathered f irewood and any othe r chor e s a s sig ned t o them. Rules wer e s t r ict and accommodat ions were minimal. When the inst it ution was ful l, some people were “auctioned off ” for a cer tain length of t ime to the person who bid the lowest. The overseer would then pay the bidder to house and feed the inmate dur ing a specif ic t ime per iod. The winning bidder could use the per son for manual labor through the durat ion of the contract. The overseer may also pay for apprenticeships for children and young people with an eye to getting them off public assistance permanently. See examples at http:// www. poorhousestory. com/ history. htm
The types of records that were kept i ncluded admi s s ions , d i s - charges, deaths and burials, accounts, apprenticeships and work invoices. Records can be found in State archives or libraries, university or other special col lect ions , histor ical and genealogical societies, ext racted and posted by individuals or in institutional archives. Many records have been destroyed because of storage issues or instit ut iona l pol icies. Most of these faci l it ies were shut down by the mid 1950’ s or early 1960’ s when welfare, social secur ity, Medicaid and Medicare and subsidized housing kicked in.
If you f ind a relative listed in the census as being in a poor house or as having some disability, you may want to check and see if there are p any records. Sometimes you wi l l f ind their death record list s thei r abode as an inst itut ion of some sort… check to see what records are available. These records are full of stories of triumph over life’s unfortunate circumstances.