The County Poor House
The Poor House was a common place for “inmates” to gather, not because they were confined to a cell as we have come to accept the word, but because they shared a common residence. In many cases, the confinement of one to a county poor house was, in fact, involuntary. A wife whose husband skipped town may not be capable of financially supporting herself or her children. An elderly man may be physically disabled with no family and no means to support himself. In other cases, individuals suffered long-term, physically or mentally debilitating conditions that made self-sufficiency nearly impossible.
The records of the County Poor House are filled with antiquated terminology that is reflective of the infancy of medicine and of the mentalities of the past. Phrases such as “idiot,” “lunatic,” and “dumb” were commonplace. As an example, the phrase dumb was a derivative of “dum” in Dutch or “dumm” in German meaning “stupid,” as if a person’s ability or inability to speak was based solely on mental capacity. Although offensive by today’s standards, they provide a window into how medical conditions were approached over 100 years ago. By understanding the context in which the phrases were used, we can learn far more about the past than using a current lens.
In 1880, the federal government instituted the “Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent” schedules for the U.S. Census. Surfacing in the earlier years of “new immigration,” the government sought new ways to restrict immigration, focusing on physical disability as a common factor for evaluation. The schedule sought to pinpoint those who were blind, deaf, dumb, “idiotic,” insane, “maimed, crippled, or bedridden,” and those in prison, in orphanages, or in poor houses. Perhaps one of the more iconic cartoons appearing in Harper’s Weekly in the early 1880s was that of the “Poor House from Galway,” depicting a ship with Irish passengers aboard; those destined to become charges of the public and residents of the local poor houses.
Although a great deal could be written about the Orleans County Poor House and the development of the physical institution locally, more should be said about the lives of those forced to live the remainder of their lives at the institution due situations beyond their control. The County Home, as it was often called, was supplemented financially by the 155-acre farm that raised livestock and grew crops. Those who passed away while living in the home were occasionally interred at local cemeteries by family and loved ones. Others, who had no financial means or families to support such a burial, were laid to rest under sandstone markers with numbers in the County Home burial ground now located off of West County House Road.
The purpose of this exhibit is to call attention to the history of the Orleans County Poor House and those who relied upon the services it provided.