by Matt Koucky
“I‘ll starve or freeze to death there (in these woods) before I go to that accursed poorhouse.” As expressed by Vermonter Seth Chase (Vermont History, published Fall 1989, Vermont Historical Society, Vol. 57, No. 4), that was a sentiment shared by many from Vermont’s founding in 1777 to the end of the poorhouse system in 1968.
The poorhouse was a product of Vermont’s earliest welfare laws, the first being a 1797 act that established that “every town and place in this state shall relieve, support and maintain their own poor … lame, blind, sick and other inhabitants within such town or place who are not able to maintain themselves.” This act gave the power of determining the process for poverty relief to each town.
Vermont towns, responsible for this grand endeavor, were required in a 1797 act to elect an overseer of the poor, who would be the chief welfare officer of the town. The overseer was given the power to determine “relief” systems for the poor. Rarely were the systems that overseers put in place true “relief” systems. They were much more often used as threats against the impoverished.
Overseers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries might use methods such as “warning out.” When an overseer felt a poor family or individual was becoming a public nuisance, or that they were likely to become the responsibility of the town welfare system, the overseer might order that individual to leave the town. This was, needless to say, a humiliating act and could leave entire families without a home or a source of income.
Town overseers also had the power to order that the property of a pauper be seized and sold to repay debts, and in the stead of this property, town residents would host the pauper and be given a stipend to pay for the upkeep of the pauper. Towns would hold auctions in which they would award the honor of hosting the pauper to the person who would accept the least pay for the time of their hosting. The auctioned poor would often be required to work for their host without pay, and rarely lived in very healthy conditions, because hosts were often themselves somewhat impoverished. It is certainly ironic, if not gruesome and unsettling, that this system of unpaid labor was instituted in the first state to outlaw slavery. The processes of hiring out and warning out fell out of fashion, however, with hiring out being outlawed completely in the mid-19th century.
The poorhouse was in the forefront of the Vermont welfare system from the early 19th century to the mid-20th century. The same 1797 act that established the overseer of the poor also established the practice of sending poor individuals to poorhouses. It stated that “the inhabitants of any town or district with town privileges, in this state, may build, purchase or hire a house of corrections or work-house in which to confine and set their poor to work.”
The majority of Vermont’s larger towns followed this model, with some towns opting to pool resources (after an 1837 act permitted them to do so) in order to purchase and maintain their poorhouses. One such partnership was the Montpelier-Berlin Poorhouse Farm, which, in the late 19th century was located off of what is now Route 12, on a road now called Crozier Road. This farm — isolated, and tucked away from any population center — was typical of poorhouse farms.
Towns would isolate poorhouses for a number of reasons, chief among them being that town residents did not want to be around the poor, and that isolation gave overseers and superintendents of the poor greater power over inmates on poorhouse farms.
The poor, at the time of the poorhouses, were seen as “a worthless population,” according to one overseer’s report. In fact, according to Andrew Nuquist, an author of many Vermont histories, to some people it was “a sin to be poor.” Thus, few Vermonters wished to be near the poor, fearing uncleanliness, disease and social insecurity that many believed the poor brought with them. This fear of the poor that had once manifested itself as warning out, now appeared in the form of isolation.
This attitude toward poverty, sadly for the poor, legalized the physical abuse of poorhouse residents. The 1797 act that established the poorhouses also put in place punishments such as whipping, shackling and fettering for individuals who refused to do the (unpaid) labor expected of them. By the 20th century, the practices of shackling, whipping and fettering were no longer considered legal, but individuals still could have food withheld for refusing to work, and would even be placed in cages or subjected to public humiliation for insubordination.
The last poorhouse in Vermont, located in Sheldon, closed in 1968. However, one could argue that the era of the poorhouse had been over long before that. Starting in the mid-19th century a population that made up a large percentage of the poorhouse population — the mentally ill and the disabled — was sent to the newly opened asylum in Brattleboro. In 1865, the Vermont Reform School opened in Waterbury, removing even more people from the poorhouse system. A century after the asylum opened, Roosevelt’s New Deal established a national welfare program that was considerably less harsh than the poorhouse system, dealing another blow to the integrity of the institution.
After the 1930s, the poorhouse became, more than anything, a threat that the Overseer of the Poor could dangle over the head of his targets. Ultimately, as numbers dwindled and the resident population in poorhouses aged, poorhouses became more expensive for the towns to maintain than they were worth. Towns began to shut down their poorhouses. Montpelier shut its poorhouse in 1956; St. Johnsbury and Burlington shut theirs in 1958; Middlebury closed its poorhouse in 1959. Between the 1940s and 1960s, poorhouses truly began to die out. Finally, in the 1967 Vermont Social Welfare Act, the practice was decommissioned. The office of Overseer of the Poor was replaced by state offices of welfare, and poverty became far less stigmatized in Vermont.
If there is anything to learn from the poorhouse system, perhaps it is that we should all strive to ensure that we do not allow anything of the sort to happen again. The poorhouse represented prejudice, abuse and oppression against those less fortunate. If we are to be a society truly based on the American values of equality, then we must ensure that all people have an equal opportunity to succeed. The poorhouse was a failure to uphold these values.