This system of auctioning off paupers was prevalent in small town Massachusetts. Robert Kelso [1 ] describes the pauper auction in this way: “It became the custom, universal among our Massachusetts communities, to bid off the support of the town’s poor at public auction. The scene was usually at the village tavern on a Saturday night just following the annual town meeting.”
The records of these auctions lists the name of each pauper, the name of the successful bidder and the amount the town must pay to the winning bidder each week.
If the pauper died or was sick during the contract, the town was responsible for paying for the funeral and/or medical bills. In the event that a pauper ran away, or eloped, the contractor was responsible for bringing them back at his own expense. Pauper children were allowed the same educational opportunities as other children in the community. The contractor in turn had the advantage of the labor of the paupers.
As time passed, the system that gave rise to the pauper auction was modified so that all of the town’s poor were grouped into one-year contracts which in effect created privately owned and operated poorhouses.
For more information, see Pauper Auctions: The ‘New England Method’ of Public Poor Relief
1. Kelso, Robert W.. History of Public Poor Relief in Massachusetts: 1620-1920 (Patterson Smith reprint series in criminology, law enforcement, and social problems. Publication no. 31). Montclair: Patterson Smith, 1969.