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  • Mj Pettengill

The Poor: Lending Their Secrets, Part 3


Except for the mentally disabled and the children, the type of work carried out on the poor farm was the same for all inmates. They put in the same number of hours and were allowed the same basic meals. The labor was quite physical and dangerous, and there was little or no relief due to weather or injuries.

Most of the work in Carroll County was related to farm activities. Still, there were other duties: crushing rock, grinding corn by hand, and grinding animal bones for fertilizer.

In many poor farms, the rules prohibited reading, including the Bible. Also, smoking was not allowed. Mothers were not permitted to speak with their children. Even though visits from outsiders were rare, they were closely monitored.

During the early days of the poor farm, to prevent unwanted pregnancy and more mouths to feed, married couples could not live together. This rule was amended later to allow couples to live together if they were sixty years of age or older. Married women who were of high moral character were housed with the elderly. In contrast, women of lower standing were housed separately.

The diet of poor farm inmates was meager, and meals were held in silence. The food choices were bare and varied little. The menu was based on a particular weekday; some days, they were provided with more rations than on other days. Because these were working farms, produce was available according to the season. However, the food was not shared abundantly with the inmates. This was also true with firewood or coal. Often, these structures were not airtight. Their leaky roofs and cracked windows meant frigid in the winter and stifling hot in the summer.

Women and children received slightly less food than men. The diet consisted of watery gruel, bread, and cheese. Except for potatoes, the diet was lacking vegetables, fruit, milk, or eggs.

A concern for me was the inhumane treatment, other than what I listed above. There were no commissions or boards on the premises to ensure the safety of the inmates. The wardens and overseers were in place, but the inmates had little or no protection, oversight, or advocates. The inmates’ risk was not only related to physical and mental abuse, but their well-being was at the hands of dishonest officers known to skim the funds for the provisions of the inmates resulting in their lack of proper food, coal, or other needs.

Countless ongoing scandals surrounded the poor farms, which are still in the headlines today regarding Senior Centers and Retirement Homes. In some cases, if a pauper was denied entry, he or she would be rejected and even starve to death. This did not happen frequently; however, it did happen. Once is too many times.

On the other hand, some inmates were sent to the poor farm even if they did not request help, but because they were caught begging in public. If a citizen showed signs of poverty and becoming a burden on others in town, they were reported to the Commissioners.

Contrary to popular belief, poor farms were not for debtors. Someone may have incurred a sizable debt, but if the individual could provide for themselves with basic necessities, he might have been able to escape the poor farm.

There were Poor Laws in place throughout the years; however, they were not always implemented. Until the 1850s, the harsh measures caused much suffering. The Poor Law Commission stepped in and resolved many safety issues. Then, they shifted the responsibility of the poor to the state level. This was the beginning of the social welfare system, which is in place today. Social work became an occupation related to the county and state. At the same time, churches began to organize charitable programs, asylums, and orphanages.

This was a great relief for all. Unfortunately, this shift—categorizing the poor, disabled, and marginalized into separate institutions—was still riddled with unimaginable abuse, mismanagement of funds, resources, and lack of oversight.

Around 1875, laws were passed, which removed mentally disabled inmates, children, and special needs individuals from the poor farms. They were placed in more appropriate facilities, and social welfare legislation was fully operational.

Government agencies such as Worker’s Compensation, Unemployment Offices, Medicaid, Medicare, and the Department of Social Security emerged and redirected pauperism in the nineteenth century. What used to be poor farms, almshouses, and poorhouses evolved into nursing homes, mental hospitals, reform schools, the placed out,* and the prison system, and medical hospitals.

What a tangled web we weave. In our collective desires to live our materialistic dreams, we do not have it sorted out. I hope that we discover a compassionate and fair solution for the care and treatment of fellow beings.

How? How do we do this, and where do we begin? For me, the ongoing journey of discovery, following our shared roots into the dark, where all was meant to be forgotten, and shining light is the beginning of healing.

We must begin to remember who we are. We cannot do that with so many blank pages in the stories of our past. To become whole, we must be aware of all of the pieces. We do not wallow around in victimhood. To do so would be to defeat our rising up and transmuting our previous unacknowledged wounds to the light. Only when we know what we are dealing with can we transform in ways we did not know were possible.

Many of you reading this might think, but that was them, not me. How does this affect me? It is nice to know, I guess. It is interesting to read, but healing? I do not get that.

By retracing our steps—retrieving names of the dead buried in mass graves without previous acknowledgment—we are freeing them. We are finding those who have been missing without previously realizing their existence. We are filling in fallen branches of our family trees. We reclaim them—the poor, orphaned, elderly, mothers, daughters, sons—all who met with unfortunate circumstances. To the best of our ability, we can comprehend what happened before us and how it did or did not work. When we uncover the buried pain and secrets of our past, we become one with the stories of our land. We extend a firm hand back to previous generations. By sharing, not judging, we add another layer to what we know, what it means to have an authentic sense of belonging.

To acknowledge our ancestors is to acknowledge ourselves, to come into port after being adrift for ages. It is difficult to heal from wounds you do not know, yet they make you bleed. We belong to each other and to the Earth itself. When we finally summon the courage to view our past, we may awaken from our troubled dreams. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ *The term placed out is widely known today as the orphan trains, a more romanticized term that came into being several years after the practice ceased to exist. Nothing is as it seemed.

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