Columbia County History: County’s 19th century poor and ‘insane’

SOCIETIES’ TREATMENT of their unfortunates is an old and usually sad story. In 1972 TV reporter Geraldo Rivera dealt with this in a shocking report on conditions in Staten Island’s Willowbrook State School, which housed children with intellectual disabilities. As Mr. Rivera and others reported, its residents were housed in filthy conditions and sometimes subjected to physical and sexual abuse.

New York State’s earliest attempt (as a state) to care for its poor and mentally ill came via a 1784 law mandating that each town elect two overseers of the poor to distribute money to the needy. Subsequently, an 1824 law attempted to promote more regulated humane treatment of the state’s unfortunates. County Boards of Supervisors had to purchase land on which to construct tax funded poorhouses. From a contemporary perspective, several of the law’s provisions, including use of solitary confinement to deal with difficult inmates, would be quite controversial. Also, although inmates were denied voice in the decision, they could be farmed out to private, outside employers. The employers had to give suitable support for such persons. This was not slavery, but it was arguably close to it.

The county’s first poorhouse, a part of which was a farm, was established in 1830 in Ghent. In 1857 the racially segregated facility was the subject of a comprehensive report which noted that it consisted of a brick main building and some two-story wooden ones, all unventilated. Paupers occupied 18 rooms of the main house, which was warmed by stoves. The basements were occupied as kitchens, etc. Also, a 204-acre farm, yielding an annual revenue of $1,400 was connected with the almshouse.

In 1857, the facility housed 187 inmates supported at a weekly cost of $1. Three-fourths of them were there because of alcohol problems. The sexes were segregated but were under a single keeper. The more able paupers worked on the farm and in the house.

The almshouse was supplied with Bibles, had religious services, a school and a physician, but no bathing facilities. Some inmates were children, who were probably orphaned; some had parents who could not afford to keep them. The boys were kept entirely separate and apart from the older paupers. The superintendents procured supplies, regulated the house’s governing, “binded out” the children on their arrival at “proper age,” (a phrase which was not defined) and exercised the power of discharging what the 1857 report called “lunatics.” The paupers were fed meat, bread, vegetables, tea and butter.

A “pest house,” for persons with communicable diseases or mental problems, was connected with the establishment. That year, it had five mentally deficient inmates and thirty-five “lunatics,” all paupers, save two, who each paid one dollar a week. Unfortunately, at least in the pest house, residents sometimes suffered severe physical abuse. Hardly a model of caring, four were confined in cells; one was so held so for three years. They were also restrained by mitts and by a ball and chain, and sometimes whipped or put on a diet of bread and water.

The Ghent facility was no Willowbrook, which in many respects violated the law. A good portion of the blame for less than humane treatment at Ghent lay with the state legislature which, in keeping with the time’s standards, authorized some harsh treatment of almshouse residents.

That same year, two mental patients escaped from the house; no search was instituted for them. The report stated that the house (although poorly constructed) kept the children were clean despite a lack of bathing facilities, and that the children were well fed. The cells, 24 f them, were also reported to be clean, and beds were provided whenever the mental patients would allow them to remain.

An 1864 statewide investigation revealed that some mentally ill people were shackled to the floors and walls. It also concluded that the facility had an inadequate water supply, a lack of cleanliness and ventilation and an uneven supply of heat in the winter.

In recent years, it’s been claimed that in growing their own food at the facility’s farm and assisting in maintaining their shared home, residents found personal worth. However, without full records, a balanced assessment of the almshouse’s efficacy is difficult to make. But it was not until 1955 that it finally closed and its residents were moved to Pine Haven in Philmont. Its main building burnt down in 1979 after brief use as a restaurant named “The Almshouse.”

Seventeen years after the almshouse closed and long after Rivera’s report, America’s poor and many mentally ill now make up the ranks of our 554,000 homeless nationwide.

Historian and writer Howard Blue is an occasional contributor to The Columbia Paper.

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