Thursday, February 25, 2021

Going to the Poorhouse: Dorothea Dix In The Adirondacks  

It must have been cold that November day in 1843 when Dorothea Lynde Dix, a confirmed spinster at the age of 41, boarded the Albany to Montreal stagecoach. The stage would take the 220 mile winter route through Rensselaer and Saratoga counties before continuing on into the mountainous Adirondack counties of Warren, Essex, and Hamilton. Having grown up in abject poverty in an icebound cabin in the wilds of Maine, Dorothea was well acquainted with the bitter cold of a Northeast winter but now, no hardship, not even the frigid North Country weather, would stop her.  She was on a mission.

Ever since she had discovered mentally ill people chained to the walls in the basement of the East Cambridge, Massachusetts jail three years earlier, Dorothea had considered it her calling to bring the plight of the lunatic as they were called, to the attention of the public. She spent the next two years visiting jails, almshouses, and even private homes, going where ever she was told there were people who suffered in their mind, the ones who heard voices, the ones they called mad.

In a time when it was considered unseemly for a woman to travel alone, Dorothea’s journeys by train, steamboat, stage and even local farmer’s wagon had raised eyebrows and spawned disparaging rumors and comments. Despite the public criticism, she fully intended to follow her calling. She intended to shame the elected officials whom she held responsible for the well-being of those whom society had neglected, into providing care and humane treatment.

Following her travels throughout the state, Dorothea wrote a county by county description of the horrors she had seen. In detail she described people kept in cages, locked naked in damp cellars, and hidden in closets. She had found them beaten, starved, and left to languish in their own filth and often found their fingers blackened with frostbite.  She presented her findings to the Massachusetts legislature, insisting that the state provide care for its indigent insane. However, being a woman she was not allowed on the floor of the House to deliver her own written report, so it was presented for her by the noted social reformer Samuel Howe.

Much to the legislator’s chagrin, Dorothea also published her Memorial to the Massachusetts Legislature in the local newspapers hoping to enlist the public in her cause. The resulting outrage had the desired effect. Funding was quickly voted for the care and treatment of the indigents who suffered an illness of the mind. It convinced Dorothea that she should undertake a similar review, or survey as she called it, in New York State. In doing her Massachusetts survey she had often inadvertently crossed over the state line. There she had found similar horrors despite the 1824 New York law, an Act for the Establishment of County Poorhouses, requiring every county to purchase land and build what was to be known as the County Poorhouse.

Prior to passing the new law, the towns in New York State had mostly taken care of their own. The town of Johnsburg had even purchased a small two story fifty year old farm for $211.31 a year earlier. It was said to hold 54 paupers, 3 of whom were considered “lunatic” when the legislature passed the law requiring each county, rather than town, to purchase a property to be used for the poor. The county was also charged with appointing a five member board to oversee the property and a Keeper who would be responsible for running it.

The new law stipulated that this structure was to be known as the County Poorhouse, the poorhouse being a catch-all for any indigent “who applied for relief.” This usually included elderly, disabled, sick, and infirm as well as orphans and unsupported widows. Dorothea was certain that mentally ill people would be found in these poorhouses despite the recent opening of the new state of the art asylum in Utica. Maintaining a person in the county poorhouse was significantly cheaper for county taxpayers than paying for their upkeep in the new facility that many considered unnecessarily ostentatious with its Corinthian columns and marble entryway.

What had also drawn Dorothea’s attention and raised her ire was the portion of the 1824 law that allowed the poorhouse Keeper to compel anyone in the house to perform labor that would defray the cost of their keep. While she heartily approved of providing constructive work for the inmates as they were called, too often she had found this meant sending people out to work on farms where they were kept in sheds, fed little more than scraps, and worked nearly to death.

Wasting no time, she secured a list of almshouses throughout the state from Dr. Theodoric Beck, a physician at the newly opened Utica Asylum. As physician he was responsible for admitting people from all the upstate counties and remarked that a citizen of Essex County was the oldest case having been admitted in 1830. Dorothea informed Beck that she intended to cover every county in the state and anticipated covering over 1800 miles to gather information for her Memorial to the New York State legislature. She began downstate with a tour of Blackwell’s Island and the Bloomingdale asylum in Manhattan. She then turned her sites on upstate and began working her way north.

The Albany Almshouse and farm, located on what is now New Scotland Avenue, she found to be “foul with noisome vapors” and the indigent insane kept in “dungeons and crazy cellars.” She traveled the short distance to Troy where she found the two story brick building on a 152 acre farm that housed the Rensselaer County House to be substantially better with the exception of the housing “for the insane” which she was never able to see despite repeated requests. Similarly the 116 acre Schenectady County Poorhouse on the Albany Road she found to be in good condition with the exception of the orphaned children who had been mixed in with the adults.    Then it was on to Ballston and the Saratoga County Poor House. She was pleased with the building and the “hired teacher” for the children but when she walked downstairs to the basement she found two women in horrific conditions. It seemed that regardless of how many improvements were made for the other residents of the poorhouse, conditions for the mentally ill were never changed.

Earlier that year, in October, she had visited the Essex County Poor-House near Westport and had found it “greatly neglected” in layout and organization. However, she was favorably impressed by the Keeper and his wife and recommended that funding be made available to them so that improvements could be made. She had also visited the Clinton County Poorhouse at Plattsburgh where she had found the house full to capacity. She was told that with the approach of winter and cold weather, it was usual for people to “throng to the poorhouse”. Finding no “insane in close confinement” she was surprised to find a man whom she was told was “subject to outbreaks of violence” seated quietly near the fire.  She was astonished to hear he occasionally was quite willing to help out with chores.  The overall “comfort and quiet” of the house she attributed to the “uncommon care and capability of the master and mistress of the house”.

From Plattsburgh she continued on the 50 miles of frozen road to Malone and the Franklin County Poorhouse. The small wooden farm had been purchased for $2000 in 1831 and it too was overcrowded. There were a few insane there, “comfortably housed”, she commented, but was told there were “many recent cases of insanity in the area”. When she asked why some of the more violent had not been sent on to the asylum in Utica she was told that “only a certain number from each county were admitted”. She was certain the real reason was that the county did not want to pay for the expense of care in an asylum.

The 48 miles from Malone to the St. Lawrence County poorhouse in Canton were cold and the first touch of frost was in the air. Dorothea found the home to consist of “several excellently constructed buildings” and was impressed with the order and cleanliness. Her main complaint was with the lack of religious instruction provided to the inmates. Like most of society at that time, she believed that moral and religious training would improve the lot of the poor in life.

She was not as impressed with the Lewis county poorhouse in Lowville. She found it “small and ill built” with an odor that the “frequent lime wash and scrubbing” didn’t seem to help. There were no appropriate places for the insane” although she felt the couple in charge of the house were doing the best they could.

From there it was on to Washington County. Because the stage line was following its winter route there was no direct line to Argyle but it wasn’t the first time she had needed to hitch a ride. Since the county home was conveniently located in farming country, she soon found a ride with a local farmer on his wagon. The Poorhouse was located in an area that many years in the future would be known as Pleasant Valley. Perhaps it hoped to conjure up the image of an idyllic place of final rest for the hundreds who would be buried in the Poorhouse cemetery there. She found “overcrowded rooms” and “noisome air” which the Keeper told her was responsible for the “pale and feeble” state of the children. Their condition was such that they had to be regularly dosed with bitters. But their condition was nothing compared to the twenty men described as “mostly simple, silly, and idiotic” she found “fettered with chains and balls”.

Leaving Argyle, Dorothea made brief stops at the Sandy Hill (now Hudson Falls) jail which she found “in poor condition and little used” as well as the Salem jail which was “better built and kept in order.” She wanted to assure herself that no mentally ill had been incarcerated there. Jails were commonly used to house the insane when no other place was available for them. Then, with the cold wind swirling through the foothills of the Adirondacks, she moved on to the town of Caldwell situated on the pristine lake named for the English King George II whose son himself had been rumored to be mad. When she was told that the jail had “recently been destroyed by fire” she shrugged and said it was in an inconvenient location anyway and continued on to her main objective, the Warren County Poorhouse in Warrensburg.

Situated on the banks of the Schroon River, 200 acres had been purchased in 1826 for $1,400. In 1830 a small wooden farmhouse had been built on 70 acres on the west side of the river and was farmed by the inmates. There was a large barn for the cows that would provide the home with milk, cheese, and butter and a goodly pigsty to assure a supply of pork and bacon. Other outbuildings stored the usual necessary farm implements. In addition to the acreage around the house, 120 additional acres had been purchased across the river. A portion of that area would become the final resting place of those who had only managed to leave the poorhouse in death. In later years a stone addition was constructed followed by two more additions to the burgeoning poorhouse. Obviously life was hard in Warren County.

Dorothea noted that the Warren County poorhouse was well located and she approved of the repairs that were taking place although she did not like the layout of the building. She noted that a large open common room for the poor was divided in half by wooden bars behind which the insane “when excited” were kept in cages. What she did find positive was the family that “had charge of the poor”. The Green family was “well-spoken of in the vicinity.”  Louis Green had been hired as Keeper. As was customary, he had moved his entire family, including four daughters, into the house where they would be responsible for cooking and cleaning assisted by the inmates.

That year had been particularly cold and already the Hudson River was reported to be closed around Albany due to the ice. Dorothea was told that Hamilton County was only “partially settled” and was an “almost unbroken extent of wilderness”. Since she had not heard of any mentally ill in the county and Fulton County was reported as having no poorhouse, she decided to move on. It was time to write her report.

The “Memorial to the Honorable the Legislature of the State of New York” was presented on January 12, 1844, by Dr. Theodore Beck. Dorothea herself had already moved on, she had set her sites on Rhode Island.

Although her Memorial did not create the immediate stir in New York that it did in Massachsetts, Dorothea brought to light the plight of the mentally ill that began a new age of enlightenment. Over the following years the county poorhouses were expanded and upgraded, old Keepers who believed in chains and neglect were replaced with new ones who believed in giving the inmates constructive work and compassionate care, and legislatures would approve the building of massive asylums that, for a time, would provide humane treatment, care and an alternative to chains and dark cellars. Dorothea Dix would be responsible for the building of over 30 hospitals for the mentally ill and, ironically, would spend the last years of her life bedridden in an apartment provided by the Board of Trustees in the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum. Frail, elderly, and sick herself, with no other place to go, Dorothea Dix had entered her own poorhouse.


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Jane Hartenstein is the author of three novels including Hearing Voices: Dorothea Dix and the Asylum Movement. She has produced and directed two films for the North Creek Depot Museum and participates in Gem Radio Theater's annual Graveyard Walk. Jane is a native of North River.

11 Responses

  1. What a lovely tribute to an amazing lady. Dorothea Dixon made an amazing amount of change in her very productive life.

  2. CommunityGuy says:

    What an amazing trek this article describes, and it was all in service to the cast offs and hidden of society. Dorothea obviously considered these people as humans like herself, not “The Other.”

    Having dedicated her life to these people, she ended as one of them. This is a good lesson for us all. We care for our community because we are in our community – we are caring for ourselves, not The Other.

  3. Betsy Mcdonald says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article. My great grandfather died in the Warrensburg poorhouse/county home in 1931.

  4. Adrienne Hull says:

    What an interesting article I want to thank you for publishing it because all the areas mentioned are areas that I’m familiar with I am also with knowledge of his mental institution and Utica having had a family member placed there for sometime. My thoughts about the Utica hospital remain the same as back in 1970 where I felt that the drug levels were at an overkill level. They kept the residence so drugged in a stupor it was hard to understand how any therapy if they actually got and he was going to be interpreted by the patient who was so drugged he didn’t even know his own name sometimes. The other form of punishment was to leave the residence in their pajamas if they had done something that wasn’t to the liking of the staff. I found both situations outrageous and certainly raised my displeasure with both at the facility a number of times. After much planning we were able to bring my family member home and see that he was cared for locally where he continue to live out his life with a lot of community support and lived until l the age of 59.I don’t mean to imply that I wasn’t thankful for his hospitalization I just felt it could be more humane. I was very happy to see the transition of residence eventually transferred into communities to live their lives and much smaller settings and in much more normal household environments.Not having any first-hand knowledge as to how that is all working out I just hope and pray that they are being monitored and well attended to because this inflection of having a mental Infirmity is not their fault.

  5. Ruth Gais says:

    Thank you for this sobering and important part of Adk history.

  6. Christine hildebrand says:

    What an interesting article about an awesome woman and he life’s work. When I was a child in NJ, in the 1940s, our street was the last one before what was called the “Poor Farm” I don’t know if it was as described here. A few of the “inmates” were allowed out and walked down our block while we were playing in the street. We made friends with them and looked forward, especially to Julius, coming to visit while we played. Being very young (under 6) we didn’t know anything about the conditions on the Poor Farm, only that it was there and we were quite aware of it. There was also a horse drown wagon that came from the Poor Farm, and was called the Rag or Junk man. They collected anything that the residents threw away.

  7. Patrick Tatro says:

    Great lady…interesting information….sad ending! I’m from the Malone area and interested in the history of my hometown. I have information on the original poorhouse and pictures of what followed.

  8. louis curth says:

    A truly wonderful description of an inspiring woman, and a part of our Adirondack history that we mostly overlook. Many times I have driven past the county farm in Warrensburg, and also the one for Essex County’s less fortunate. Each time I wonder what life was like in those places? Next, if at all, I would imagine what kind of person got the job of “poormaster” in these counties?

    Now, as I read of the determination of Ms. Dix, I wonder what she would think of us and the way we treat today’s less fortunate who are all around us? What kind of “poormasters” would we be in her eyes as we just drive on by the needy in a modern world that doesn’t care?

  9. I loved this piece. What an amazing woman. Thank you.

  10. Sara H says:

    My mother grew up in Oxford NY. I was driving with her in farm country near Preston (Chenango County) when we came upon a large ugly building close to and towering over the road. When I wondered what it could be, and she said with sudden recognition that it was the Poor House, she may have called it the Work House also. It was startling to see such a monstrosity still standing and apparently in use in some capacity.

  11. I loved this piece. I know when the Stanton family came to Long Lake they had to break away the ice inside the cabin before they could move in and Lydia Stanton had to do everything when William was gone four days to get their mail. They had to be tough to stay. If not, they did not last more than one winter (and somethimes still hightail it out after the first winter). I did not know Ms. Dix was from the north country. Thank you for publishing the article.

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