Brief Sketches from Danvers Alms House in the 1850s

By Brendan Kieran, Library Assistant

In The Poorhouse: America’s Forgotten Institution (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2005), David Wagner writes that before the 20th century, when large-scale federal programs such as Social Security and Medicare were introduced, government social welfare efforts were largely local, and poorhouses, also called almshouses, were institutions that served many people (3-7).

The MHS holds a register of paupers at Danvers Alms House (Peabody, Mass.), which records the people who were in the institution between 1841 and 1859. Adino Page, the superintendent at the almshouse between 1850 and 1859, was mostly responsible for the entries in the register. As noted in the catalog record, the entries in the register list names, residences, entrance and departure dates, ages, and other information about them and their stays in the almshouse. The volume provides a glimpse into a 19th century Massachusetts almshouse, and documents the diversity of people admitted to the institution, the varying reasons for admission, and the experiences of those individuals.

One individual documented in the register is a 32 year-old man from Virginia named George Vannen. He entered the almshouse on March 11, 1858, and left two days later. Page lists Lowell as Vannen’s destination, and guesses that Vannen had escaped from slavery.

detail of register page with handwritten notes
Notes in entry for George Vannen

Luis Paul, age 20, and Mary Paul, age 19, both of Maine, entered the almshouse on 6 June 1852 and left the following day. Page notes that they are “Indians of the Penobscot Tribe.”

page from register showing columns of handwritten notes
Entries for Luis Paul and Mary Paul

Page’s opinions of the people under his care come through in a number of entries. An example is the entry noting the 2 July 1856 admittance of Mary Skinner of Lynnfield. Page notes that Skinner was engaged in prostitution [one of multiple women in the register with such a note], and follows this with “but good natured.” He does not extend similar remarks to Elisabeth Fuller of Danvers, who was in the almshouse between 1 January 1855 and 6 August 1855; he writes that she “is a bad character.”

Page from register of paupers at Danvers Alms House listing people who were there as of 1 January 1854

Page includes comments on a number of entries to note physical and intellectual disabilities as well as mental illnesses, using the language of his time. Most of the people with listed mental illnesses are women. 40 year-old Eben Smith and 36 year-old Marth M. Grant are two individuals who were in the almshouse as of 1 January 1854 and were noted as “Insane” by Page.

In one entry, for 49 year-old Lydia Smith, Page describes at least a perception of gender nonconformity. He writes that Smith “is neither male nor female.”

detail of register page with handwritten notes
Entry for Lydia Smith

One particularly tragic entry describes the death of Dean Carty, a 28 year-old Irish immigrant (one of many Irish immigrants listed in the register) who entered the almshouse on April 6, 1850, and died three days later. Page writes that “he became delirious, leaped from the window, 2nd story, he lived about 20 [minutes] after being taken up.”

detail of register page with handwritten note about Dean Carty
Notes in entry for Dean Carty

An account that does document longevity tells the story of Joshua Daniels. Page writes a lengthy entry about him:

Joshua Daniels, Died [February] 19th, 1850–Mr. Daniels was a native of Great Britain, was a soldier in the British army, served under [General] Burgoyne–was taken prisoner,  by the Americans, in 1777, as he informed. He would not return to the English. [H]e lived  in the towns of Billerica, Beverly, Middleton, and other neighboring towns until about the  year 1807, when he came to Danvers and married a Widow, Putney, who had some  property. Mr. Daniels was first sentenced to the home for intemperance, in 1814, and continued to sentenced [sic] here accordingly, untill [sic] May 17th 1826, he was committed as a pauper, he remained untill Death, at the age of about 104 years.

lower half of register page showing handwritten notes
Description of the life of Joshua Daniels by Adino Page

Wagner writes that “[d]eeply intertwined with the history of poorhouses . . . is not only the history of poverty but of old age, sickness, physical and psychological disability, alcoholism, child welfare, widowhood, single parenthood, treatment of deviance, unemployment, and economic cycles” (3). This register provides ample opportunities for investigation of these topics from the perspective of one Massachusetts almshouse superintendent in the mid-19th century.

The MHS holds some other records of almshouses that operated in Massachusetts in the 19th century, including the Boston Overseers of the Poor records, the Charlestown Overseers of the Poor records, the Overseers of the poor of Haverhill (Mass.) records, the Newton Overseers of the Poor account book, and the Roxbury almshouse records. If you would like to view the Register of paupers at Danvers Alms House or any of these other almshouse records, please feel free to visit the MHS library and explore our holdings!