Waiting on the Auction Block
Chattel comes from the French word “chatel,” which comes from the Latin word capitale.
As mentioned previously, the auction block was the typical venue for the sale and distribution of these beings. Unlike the traditional auction, familiar to us in modern times, the pauper was sold to the lowest bidder. Like many nuggets of eye-opening information, I had to sit with it the first time I read this. During lectures, when speaking of this practice, I pause, providing the listeners an opportunity to grasp it. Some are aware of this, but most have no idea. It is often a topic of meaningful 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 off 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 often 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 reminds me of the harsh Puritanic rules of the seventeenth century when women charged with adultery were forced to wear the letter “A” branding them as 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’s 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