Your Sentence Has Been Lifted
Last week, I wrote about some of the core principles of the 1870s County Farm system. I began this research in 2004, and it has been an unending journey. This is so because the discoveries persist; the characters and stories continue to emerge. Once revealed, the truth cannot be unseen. More mysteries wait patiently to be cracked open. Before being told that finding the names of the 298—anonymously buried ones—was impossible, I hadn’t given much thought to records, fires, or entire populations allegedly lost.
Sure, I thought that records burning in fires happened, but as it turns out, it was an epidemic in the nineteenth century. So many institutions like the County Farm, asylums, almshouses, and orphanages all had such fires. In 1921, even the US Census Bureau lost much of their already compromised data (including military records) in a fire. Then, the town typically kept vital statistics in the late 1880s, but most did not begin until the twentieth century. Prior to that, churches maintained vital statistics. I have obtained many records from churches, especially when researching seventeenth-century Salem village. The same is true when working on my genealogy. Much of my present novel has roots in a Catholic institution that was up and running just a few decades ago. As a historian and author, I would be in an abyss of darkness if it weren’t for the primary sources that I have found. There is so little that we know and so much that we don’t know. If it weren’t for church records, diaries, letters, and newspapers, I would have next to nothing. I do not rely on or even bother with mainstream history books. You know why. So, getting back to what we do and do not know. I will continue to ask why the friendless, hopeless, elderly, poor, marginalized souls of our communities were sentenced to the County Farm? And upon being sentenced, why were they routinely referred to as inmates? Let’s break it down.
sen·tence | \ ˈsen-tᵊn(t)s , -tᵊnz \
(2) a JUDGMENT
specifically: one formally pronounced by a court or judge in a criminal proceeding and specifying the punishment to be inflicted upon the convict
(2) b: the punishment so imposed //serve out a sentence. Merriam Webster Dictionary
in· mate | \ ˈin-ˌmāt \
Definition of inmate
(1): any of a group occupying a single place of residence
especially: a person confined (as in prison or hospital)
Merriam Webster Dictionary
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ This has been glaring from the first moment I became aware of the words used in this context. During the first few years of discovery, the word shame constantly echoed in my head. Collective shame passed down intergenerationally and culturally clings tightly to the unconscious. Unknowingly wired, humans will fundamentally reject anything to do with the County Poor Farm narrative. I found that fact to be fascinating and wished to get to the root of it. It didn’t take long for a multitude of reasons for massive shame to emerge. It oozed out of every crack in every wall. For a while—shame and I—we were companions. It’s not pretty. However, having the strength and willingness to prevail is better than any sword in the way of self-protection and moving ahead.
The primary source of collective and individual trauma related to the County Farm is rooted in profound unawareness. Intentionally designed to stifle and hide some aspects of our socio-economic past, we lack basic knowledge. As a society and in regards to comprehending our history, we are as clueless as it gets. Last week, I received a message from a reader. She was greatly relieved to learn that it is probable that her ancestors—listed as inmates or having been sentenced to the County Farm—were not criminals. She went on to say that she initially believed that they were flawed characters, villains at best. Now she is aware that they could have been elderly, poor, disabled, or friendless. A soul sentenced to the County Farm was for reasons largely unknown to us. We were not there to witness their fate. We can only remember them with the tools that we have available to us. Records are not one of them.
Unfortunately, most records that we rely on are not available, or the fragments we find are simply unreliable. One of the most rewarding aspects is when individuals find ancestors chopped from their family trees. They lived, and they died. They were here in some capacity.
If, when reading about your ancestors, you see the term inmate, do not label them in your mind as criminals that we think of in the present. Say a prayer for them; release them from that limited narrative, for they were part of a confusing time in our history that we know less about than we imagine. They were not criminals. They were like you, me, your child, parent, aging grandparent, or lost teenager. Stripped of their belongings, they were sentenced to farm labor. If they were unable to work, they were tied in their make-shift beds or chairs. Some of them were not able to work and crushed bonemeal or rock for making brick.
They wore uniforms, had their hair cut off short, and ate a diet poor in nutrition. I am talking about the 1870s. If you have memories, we are not comparing apples to apples. Beginning in 1870, there are no original records to speak of anywhere. The documents I found were compiled by 1985 because there was a name listed with that death date. Why, in 1985 or later, did this list get shoved in a random property assessment records book leaving the master cemetery index blank? Just curious. I know, I know, people were just too busy to record the Book of Numbered Souls. Well, I am not too busy. Or maybe this is my busyness. To the toothless woman with messy white hair, the frail man with his pants held up by a frayed rope, the girl with a bastard son taken away at the same time she serves her sentence —your life matters. So, this essay is to assure you that if your ancestor is labeled as an inmate, sentenced on a specific date, don’t despair. They might have just seen a rough patch and had little or no resources. They couldn’t play the game. There was big shame in that. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ When I Am Laid in Earth Lyrics
Thy hand, Belinda, darkness shades me,
On thy bosom let me rest,
More I would, but Death invades me;
Death is now a welcome guest.
When I am laid, am laid in earth, May my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in thy breast;
Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate.
Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.
—Henry Purcell (1659–1695)
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