Although almshouses were a step above outdoor relief, the conditions usually left much to be desired. In the beginning the poor were housed with no concern for separation by gender, age, marital status or children. Criminals, drunks, and the physically or mentally disabled were grouped indiscriminately.
The early Massachusetts almshouses were usually seen in larger cities and towns: Boston in 1662 and Salem in 1719. In 1744, Massachusetts provincial law ordered towns to establish poorhouses. Although few complied at first, by the late eighteenth-century many Massachusetts towns experimented with building poorhouses as a cost-saving measure.
Boston’s first almshouse was in operation by the mid-1660s. In 1682, it was destroyed by fire, and was replaced in 1696 at the corner of Beacon and Park streets. In 1723 a prison (Bridwell) was added to the site as well as a separate workhouse in 1739. The Workhouse was designed for the poor who had the ability to work. Any profits earned from the labor of the residents were expected to cover the overhead of maintaining the Workhouse and, hopefully, the Almshouse. The principal job required of Workhouse residents in Massachusetts was the picking of oakhum, which entailed separating loose fibers from old rope to sell as caulking. The hope of the Overseers of the Poor for the Workhouse was that, according to Nellis, the Workhouse experience would “simultaneously correct the idle poor and instill in them a habit of industry by obliging them to work to earn their keep, and a little more to boot, under strict codes of industrial discipline.” (see The Boston Workhouse Act, 1735 (124.71 kB)) Thereafter the poorhouse was intended for aged and sick, or for anyone who, for whatever reason, was unable to work. The Workhouse was for the able-bodied poor who could work to help defray their costs. (See The Boston Workhouse Rules of Management, 1739 (86.87 kB))
In 1795, the Almshouse, the Bridewell prison, and the workhouse property were sold for redevelopment and a new almshouse built by Charles Bulfinch was opened at Barton’s point, near present-day Causeway Street. At this time, foreign-born residents began to swell the rolls of the Boston Almshouse.
In 1804, Beverly established their own Workhouse, and set up the guidelines see (Record of the Proceedings of the Overseers of the Poor for the Town of Beverly Begun March 1804, and related questions). These Proceedings also included a Workhouse Diet.
In 1822 a ‘House of Industry’ was built to replace the 1801 almshouse. It was intended to combine the functions both the almshouse and workhouse. Nellis states that “ the poor in the new republic would be now treated as a drag on civic enterprise, rather than a civic organization.” Newly elected mayor Josiah Quincy’s model for the House of Industry was based on the workhouse rather than the almshouse.
Between 1758 and 1800 the Boston Overseers of the Poor admitted around 7200 persons into the almshouse. A majority (between 70-80%) were individual men, women, and children (see Surviving Children Born in Boston Almshouse). The rest were families.
Report to Governor and Council of committee approval to “take under consideration” the almshouse accounts from Boston dated March 18, 1772. The accounts referred to were signed by Paul Farmer, Master of the Alms House and were certified by Joseph Jackson Esq., a Boston Selectman. (Courtesy of the Trustees of Boston Public Library/Rare Books )
These transcriptions of the almshouse admissions and discharges constitute the greater part of the surviving eighteenth-century manuscripts of the records of the Boston Overseers.
Chapter of The Eighteenth-Century Records of the Boston Overseers of the Poor, edited by Eric Nellis and Anne Decker Cecere.
Analysis of the homespun production of cloth, in ‘Economic and Social History of New England, 1620 – 1789, Vol. 2’
The Almshouse (external site)
Chapter 5 of ‘Old Park Street and Its Vicinity’ by Robert Means Lawrence, published in 1922.
Almshouse Census and Inventory
See the introduction to The Almshouse Census and Inventory, 1756 chapter, and try the following activities:
Surviving Children Born in Boston Almshouse, July 8, 1761 – November 3, 1773
|Child’s Name||Birth Date||Mother’s Name||Father’s Name|
|Lewis, Mehettable||7/21/1761||Lewis, Mehettable|
|Meloney, Barto.||12/12/1761||York, Mary|
|Lintee, Ann||12/20/1761||Lintee, Mary|
|Mullins, Elizabeth||12/31/1761||Mullins, Mary|
|Barry, Hannah||2/10/1762||Young, Mary|
|Lassley, Sarah||3/20/1762||Lassley, Ann|
|Eslon, Sarah||4/24/1762||Elson, Abigail|
|Tyrrell, Ann||8/29/1762||Tyrrell, Ann|
|Perry, Sarah||3/24/1763||Marshall, Elizabeth|
|Hammond, Elizabeth||5/9/1763||Hammond, Mary|
|Pimm, Elizabeth||11/15/1763||Pimm, Rebecca|
|Forbush, Thomas||11/29/1763||Forbush, Margaret|
|Lawrence, Lucretia||1/19/1764||Lawrance, Margaret||Park, Josiah|
|Herrin, George||6/10/1764||Caverney, Margarett|
|Johnson, Thomas||6/24/1764||Seergraves, Sarah||Johnson, Thomas|
|Bomfort, Robert||9/9/1764||Bomfort, Hannah|
|Lewis, Susanna||10/22/1764||Lewis, Mehettable|
|Mollogen, Margaret||10/30/1764||Mollogen, Alice|
|Rogers, James||1/6/1765||Turner, Mary|
|Daughter||1/28/1765||Clough (alias Mortail), Elizabeth|
|Thomas, Susanna||6/13/1765||Price, Jane|
|Bradley, Thomas||7/29/1765||Bradley, Rebeckah|
|Mollatio, [Daughter]||8/2/1765||Tuttle, Mary|
|Watt, Hannah||12/31/1765||Watt, Mary|
|Johnson, John||1/3/1766||Richardson, Lydia|
|Sandiman, George||1/7/1766||Charleton, Thomison|
|Lewis, Sarah||1/20/1766||Lewis, Dorothy|
|Fitzpatrick, William||3/1/1766||Johnson, Margarett|
|2 Boys, 1 Girl||3/28/1766||Waterman, Mary|
|Mortall, John||4/1/1766||Clough, Elizabeth|
|Daughter||6/27/1766||March, Mary||Miller, Henry|
|Negro Female Child||9/14/1766||Turner, Mary|
|Abigail (Negro)||9/24/1766||Glover, Abigail|
|Negro Male Child||10/10/1766||Storey, Nancy|
|Male Child||2/10/1767||Kelley, Elizabeth|
|Male Child||4/5/1767||Clark, Mary|
|Male Child||4/12/1767||Haynes, Mary|
|Male Child||4/13/1767||Grainger, Margarett|
|Girl||12/3/1767||Bodge (aka Jarden), Susanna|
|Boy (Molatto)||11/13/1770||Walker, Mary|
1. List the name of any children born in the Boston Almshouse that appear in the Children Bound Out Database.
2. List the names of mothers who bore more than one child in the Boston Almshouse and the number of children each bore.
3. Using the Almshouse Admissions 1758-1774 , for each mother listed in the surviving children born above, fill in the following chart to determine the time spent in the Almshouse prior to and after the birth of each child.