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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

The Poor: Lending Their Secrets, Part 2

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

Erie County, NY Poorhouse, Public Domain
Erie County, NY Poorhouse, Public Domain

In the early nineteenth century, New Hampshire towns shouldered the burden of their poor citizens. The community met this responsibility by taking the indigent into their local farms to perform labor to earn their keep. In some instances, the farmers received a small stipend for keeping a pauper.  

It was also common for paupers to be auctioned off. The central question in my work and the Etched in Granite Historical Fiction Series—what exactly is a pauper? Clearly, as evident today and throughout history, many fit into this category. This piece, and most of my research on social welfare development, primarily focuses on the nineteenth century. However, as this body of work continues to develop, it extends back to the mid-eighteenth century, expanding to Ireland, Canada, and the Southern United States. 

I understand that the County Farm(s) evolved over time, dissimilar from earlier days. A handful of individuals have shared memories of the County Farm from another era, not aligned with my timeline. Like all stories and memories, they are essential. I need to highlight the contrast between one period and another. Historically speaking, as most are aware, this is typically how we as a species either evolve or de-evolve, whatever the case may be. However, many elements in the social welfare system remain unchanged and unresolved. The contrast in the County Poor Farm operations between the 1870s and the early to mid-1900s is evident. 

While it is fair to say that the system was and continues to be messy, it is unfair to say that it is broken. To be broken, a previous state of wholeness must exist. Something must be intact before it can be broken or fixed. This has yet to be achieved. There is much work to be done.

Nineteenth-Century New England paupers included individuals of all ages, both genders—orphans, the mentally and physically disabled, transients, light criminals, and unwed mothers. A majority of the population were the elderly, also referred to as paupers.

As mentioned previously, the auction block was a common platform for distributing these poor souls. Unlike the traditional auction familiar to us in modern times, the pauper was sold to the lowest bidder. When I read this for the first time, I had to sit with it. When I mention it in lectures, I pause, providing the listeners an opportunity to grasp it. Some are aware of this practice, but most have no idea. It is often a topic of discussion.

So, how did this work? The winning bidder agreed to provide room and board for the lowest price. The burden being that of the town meant that they compensated the winning bidder.

What a deal! The winner of the auction was contracted to use the pauper as free labor in return for housing, food, and health care. An entire family—what we may refer to as a “lot”— was sometimes auctioned off together as a unit.  

The practice of auctioning the poor is a form of indentured servitude, a custom in this country that dates back to Jamestown’s first settlers in 1607. In 1629, my 8th-great grandfather, Richard Pettingell, came from England to Salem, Massachusetts as an indentured servant.

Regarding the paupers in New England, the town auction and poorhouse system seemed to work. The farm structure began to undergo changes when the burden of the poor transferred from the town to the county. Unlike the earlier term of indentured servants, typically seven years, this contract lasted for up to two years.  

Poor farms, poorhouses, or almshouses had laws, rules, and regulations that varied from state to state. Poor farms were tax-supported residential institutions. Initially, upon deciding whether a pauper went to a private farm or institution, a board determined the individual’s socio-economic class. As stated earlier, it was common for entire families to go before the board and were usually separated based on circumstances. 

The applicants then met with medical examiners to determine whether they were able-bodied, weak, or feeble. Generally, children and the vulnerable, elderly, or frail were institutionalized, which meant committed to the Poor Farm. They may have been separated depending upon the institution’s current population.

The board members were referred to as guardians, and some were more lenient than others. A lenient guardian might allow a pauper to keep his tools or personal possessions. In contrast, a stricter guardian may decide that the family goods be distributed to the county.  

A guardian may decide that a pauper can keep his tools in case he may someday be able to work independently and obtain prosperous employment. Usually, the paupers were stripped of their personal belongings and were left with no resources.

My conclusion is that the paupers were imprisoned. In fact, they were referred to as inmates, were disinfected, had their clothes taken away, and were required to wear a uniform. This is how prisoners are handled. 

An elected town official served as the Overseer of the Poor, sometimes referred to as a Poor Master. Inmates bathed once a week, had their hair cut short, and the men were shaved weekly. It was customary for unwed mothers to wear a different colored gown, usually yellow. This reminded me of the harsh Puritanic rules of the seventeenth century when women charged with adultery were forced to wear the letter “A” branding them immoral.

One difference between the nineteenth-century poor house and prison was that paupers could check themselves out. Still, it was not an easy process and happened infrequently. Some seasonal inmates habitually checked in during the long winter months because they could not sustain New Hampshire harsh weather conditions. Life on the Poor Farm was customarily restrictive and often punitive. The paupers were punished for being poor.

“In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard a thing it is to tell what a wild, and rough, and stubborn wood this was, which in my thought renews the fear!”

― Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy


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