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The Story Behind Worcester’s Poor Farm

By Sande P. Bishop, Local Historian

In the index of records at Worcester City Hall, one particular entry beckoned further investigation - "1834 Hospital Records." Neither Worcester City Hospital nor Memorial Hospital existed until the 1870s; St. Vincent Hospital opened its doors twenty years later. What hospital were the selectmen concerned about in the 1830s?

At a meeting on December 8, 1834, Worcester selectmen reported, "Considering the great and increasing influx of foreigners into our town, it cannot be doubted that infectious disorders will frequently be brought among us..." Town officials diligently considered various options for "the security of our own citizens." They discarded the idea of taking a house by eminent domain as a temporary hospital during an outbreak of disease, even though the law authorized "the impressments of houses."

Perhaps they remembered the time during the Revolution when the British billeted soldiers in American homes, acknowledging "the obnoxious character of a law which justified the turning a man out of his own castle." The men thoughtfully continued, "...Who of us would wish to have an infectious disorder within our buildings?" Thus, the selectmen recommended "the erection of a suitable building to be used as a Hospital."

After further discussions about the size of the building, the selectmen voted in May 1836 to construct a "building, two stories high, of proper proportions, with four rooms and a kitchen upon the lower floor." In June, they voted to assess the estates of the inhabitants of Worcester the sum of $1,800 for construction. There never seemed to be any question where the Hospital would be located: It had to be "sufficiently distant from public travel and other not to expose any one to danger." The Poor Farm was the place. Thus, an enquiry into the hospital leads to a study of Poor Relief in Worcester history.

Historically, society has assumed responsibility to care for those unable to help themselves. The origins of Worcester Poor Relief extend deep into English tradition and law. Several Acts, some dating to the fourteenth century, influenced Worcester Poor Relief in the nineteenth century. Responsibility for support of the indigent always fell first on the family. Because relatives sometimes were unable or unwilling to provide for their dependents, laws evolved to provide rudimentary assistance to those in need.

In fourteenth-century England, after the Black Death, men roamed the countryside looking for work. To restrict the movement of vagabond laborers and make towns responsible for the relief of their own "impotent poor," Richard II introduced regulations in 1388 (often considered the first English Poor Law).

Over the next centuries, further laws defined and developed care for the poor. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, charity moved from voluntary support to a compulsory tax administered at the parish level. His daughter Elizabeth required every parish to appoint Overseers of the Poor, who were responsible for finding work for the able poor and setting up parish houses for those incapable of supporting themselves.

Collection of necessary funds, never a popular job, fell to parish Overseers of the Poor, elected by the parish vestry.

In 1662, another piece of English legislation, commonly known as the Settlement Act, passed. While the principles were traceable to the 1388 law, the new Act allowed local justices to remove (generally to their parish of birth) any newcomers deemed likely to be a cost to the parish.

Puritans, arriving in Massachusetts on the Mayflower, wanted everyone to achieve at least a minimal level of financial success. They recognized that some would be rich, some poor, and they thought the fear of Hell would inspire Christian charity for those in need. For good measure, however, they duplicated Poor Relief laws they had been familiar with in England.

Each Worcester Town Meeting records a budget item for support of the poor. Direct assistance was an early way to assist those who needed help. For example, in 1756 Worcester Town Meeting voters allotted the sum of two pounds thirteen shillings and four pence for the support of Margaret Ditty, while directing the selectmen to "take an Inventory of her Effects." By 1758, the responsibility passed from selectmen to elected Overseers of the Poor and the record reads, "Gard'r Chandler esq for sundrys for Margaret Ditty by order of the Overseers of the Poor 8/6."

The principles of the Settlement Act were also transported across the ocean with the early settlers. Worcester records are rich with examples of paupers being transported. In the 1760s, several examples are listed: "To Henry Ward for Transporting a poore Person to Shrewsbury, 4/6;" "To Cornelius Stowell for Carrying a Poore family to Leicester and one to Shrewsbury, 12/-;" and a more complicated transaction involving Dr. Green. The warrant contained the article, "To See if ye Town will grant a sum of money to ye widow Jane Ricky to pay Doct'r Greens account for Doctering her Daughter in her late sickness." A later article, possibly referring to this case, records, "Voted not to Allow Dr. John Green's account, as in the opinion of the Town, the Town of Bolton ought to discharge the same."

By 1807, paupers were no longer repatriated to their birth towns. Intertown payments supported transient indigents, and the state provided public welfare for those with no traceable hometown. The May Town Meeting report reads, "From the town of Mansfield for support of Prince Libbins child $21.46" and "by cash rec'd of State Treasurer allowed the town to support the state paupers $178.26."

The increasing cost of welfare justified a new solution. In 1818, the town bought Samuel Jennison's farm on Lincoln Street from his widow Rebecca. Known as the Poor Farm, it, at one time, covered about 600 acres, along the Boston Post Road on the Worcester-Shrewsbury line, extending from the present Clark Street School past Lincoln Street to the former Jamesbury plant site and across Mountain Street. Life on the Poor Farm was in many ways grim.

"It shall be the duty of the superintendent and matron to see that inmates labor in such a way...that no one may be permitted to lead an idle life... No person shall be allowed to converse or have intercourse with any person...without permission... no pauper shall leave..."

In 1845, the Report of the Overseers stated, "...The whole expenses to be $1,238.74. The produce of the Farm the past year was, Hay sufficient to keep the usual amount of stock - 330 bushels of corn, 101 bushels of rye, 140 bushels of oats, 585 bushels of potatoes, 60 bushels of roots, 14 bushels of beans, 2530 lbs of pork fattened, 1320 lbs of beef fattened."

In 1846, of 382 Farm residents, 45 were from Worcester, 55 from other Massachusetts towns, "49 from other states, 10 are from England, 9 from Canada, 6 from Scotland, 4 from Germany and 204 are Irish."

Americans feared pauperism and it is significant that the Poor Farm was located away from the community, ostracizing the inhabitants, and also on the Boston Post Road, where it was visible to travelers, suggesting public punishment and disgrace. A report by the Overseers for the Poor of Worcester, 1873, noted "many persons...would rather die than go to the Almshouse."

Eventually, the Farm became a piggery. Tons of Worcester garbage were collected daily to feed the pigs, and proceeds from the sale of pork helped the City's coffers. By 1932, the overwhelming stench of 8,000 pigs convinced everyone it was time to close the Farm.

And so the puzzle of the Hospital at the Poor Farm was solved: "The great and increasing influx of foreigners" bringing "infectious disorders" was almost surely the Irish laborers who had come to Worcester to construct the Blackstone Canal and Boston-Worcester railroad. Building the hospital at the Poor Farm made perfect sense, as the selectman reasoned, "All the means of a comfortable subsistence might be provided them [the ill] collectively, at much less rate, than in their scattered situation and according to the present system of supporting them - that there would always be well ones enough among them to nurse and take care of the sick and that the large bills for nursing, to which the town is now subjected would thereby be avoided..."

Sande Bishop is a local historian specializing in the development of medicine in Worcester. With thanks to David Rushford, City Clerk, and Nancy Gaudette at Worcester Public Library for assistance in this project.

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