Poor Intentions Portsmouth Asylum in the Fabric
of Rhode Island Social Reform

The site of the Portsmouth Asylum is silent now, overgrown with bittersweet and bramble on the southwest corner of the Raytheon property. The only clue to its presence, a stockwell, a cistern, and several sunken foundations, the stones covered with the coursing mud of years of runoff and neglect. Perhaps the well is still in use by local deer, their trails radiating through the thicket. The site has been largely forgotten. The modern age moves on, oblivious to an important era in local history where good intentions, tempered in the fires of deterrence, met poor results, and paupers were left shuddering in shame and repression.

A cautionary tale told to children, the poorhouse in myth was as bad in life. Nineteenth century poorhouses were all too real and their repression all too common. Dotting the American landscape, poorhouses were run by counties or townships. In Rhode Island, as in most of New England, strong, deep-rooted townships, and lack of will to collectively share cost burdens, yielded many poorhouses run by towns.

The town of Portsmouth, situated at the northern end of the Island of Aquidneck (once called Rhode Island), was settled in 1638 by Anne and William Hutchinson and William Coddington, refugees from religious suppression in Boston. The town thrived and became widely settled. Support for the poor typically took the form of auctioning off the poor to the lowest bidder, or outdoor relief, where funds were provided by the town to allow the poor to remain in their residences or paid friends or relatives to care for them. The funding for relief was through a separate poor tax, and good-will had a high water mark.

Origins of the Asylum
The early nineteenth century brought sweeping changes to New England. Industrialization placed skilled, well-paid, artisons in direct competition with masses of low-paid, semi-skilled, factory laborers. Improved transportation brought mass-produced goods from coal-choked cities to the smallest of towns. Apprenticeship, an economic staple of New England life, became less important, being either shortened or eliminated.1 The scourge of industrialization extended from cities to towns, as mechanical threshers eliminated winter work for many a farmworker.1 Long-settled areas, such as Portsmouth, exhibited subdivision of properties to children, to the extent that many were no longer self-sustainable. The work force, not able to sustain itself at home, was on the move, and with nineteenth century commuting limited primarily to walking distances, many had to resettle in other towns to find work. Extended families and the economic protection they provide were, in many cases, lost.

With poor relief rolls swelling, the poor tax rates began to rise precipitously. Resentment built between haves and have-nots and the poor were more and more viewed as a problem to be solved. The law in Rhode Island in support of welfare of the poor, at this time, was based on English law "43 Elizabeth",2 where the parish was established as the administrative unit responsible for poor relief, with churchwardens or parish overseers collecting poor-rates and allocating relief. This law also directed the provision of materials such as flax, hemp and wool to provide work for the able-bodied poor and the setting to work and apprenticeship of children. This 1601 law set out responsibilities for the overseers of the poor to create taxes "to set the Poor on Work"2 and also sufficient funding "for and towards the necessary Relief of the Lame, Impotent, Old, Blind, and such other among them being Poor, and not able to work".2 Reacting to the mounting tax burden, and the general impression of leniency on the able poor, the Town of Portsmouth, in 1832, set forth an act 3 to create the Portsmouth Asylum to commit those who require assistance "by their evil courses"3. Those taking in a friend or relative on Outdoor Relief, now had to care for them with their own funds or give them up to the overseer of the poor for commitment to the Asylum. As with other poorhouses of that period, deterrence was a large factor. The logic was to make poor farms so uncomfortable, that no able person would want to stay. This would reduce the number of poor chargeable to the town and hence lower poor taxes. Requiring the able to work was only one of the deterrences. It was the whole concept of deterrence and the way this concept was woven into the fabric of rules, regulations, and ultimately treatment of all inmates that not only made it disagreeable and uncomfortable for the able poor, it became oppressive for all inmates and deadly for some.

Insane In Their Midst
The plight of inmates was a grim, depressing existence with oppressive rules and regulations 4 and severe punishments which treated them like criminals. But it was not only the Asylum and its management which oppressed inmates. The insane and elderly poor were mixed together in the same residence, causing many to fear for their lives. This fear was well justified, with many documented abuses by the insane on the other inmates in Portsmouth. As mentioned in Thomas Hazard's Report on the Poor and Insane in Rhode Island5, Caroline Albro, an elderly inmate complained:

"I have suffered much for fear of the insane, and sometimes cannot sleep, for fear of being attacked by them."5
She had reportedly had her arm broken by an insane women brandishing a fire hook, and later was hurt in rescuing a one year old child from the same insane woman, being hit on the shoulder with a chair for her efforts. The insane woman was ultimately chained, but not before her attack on old Mrs. Cornell, a woman of about 86 years of age as recounted in the report:
"She beat her with a broom stick on the head, back, and arm, and bruised her arm badly and hurt the bone - so that she could never after that, dress or undress herself."5
Mrs. Cornell died shortly thereafter, a passing "hastened by the beating she received"5. There was no treatment for the insane in the Portsmouth Asylum, but a warehousing of them in deplorable conditions. The concept of curative treatment for the insane was relatively new at that time. Many thought insanity something to be endured, and with very little compassion. The severely insane, who might perpetually foul their clothes, were typically kept without clothing and away from fire, even through winter months. To be kept from getting underfoot, the insane were routinely chained to the floor or bailed with sackcloth, if the chains allowed too much range of motion. In his report to the Assembly, Thomas R. Hazard, the State commissioner for the poor, recalled an encounter with a bailed inmate named Dennis:
". . . a raving maniac, and not only chained at the Portsmouth Asylum, but absolutely baled, as it were, in sack-cloth. I remember, whilst he lay in this situation, putting an apple beside him, which he eat after the manner of a brute, by gnawing it as well as he could as it rolled about on the floor."5
Though having respectable and influential relations in town, they were unable to get him transferred to a curative hospital. Some weeks later Dennis passed away. Though mostly hostile or indifferent to the plight of the Insane, not all in Portsmouth were coldhearted as recollected by Thomas Hazard:
"For some years great efforts have occasionally been made by the more humane portion of the people of the town of Portsmouth, to relieve their insane poor, but without effect. They have not only been uniformly out voted in their town meetings, but it has been too evident that their exertions in behalf of the poor maniacs have only tended to rivit more firmly their chains. However divided on other subjects, all parties seem there to unite under the banner of oppression. It was on one of these occasions, when the question of relieving the insane poor was under discussion, that I heard a former Commissioner of the poor, in a town meeting in Portsmouth, declare in a loud and boasting voice, that he had himself once severely flogged an insane person at their Asylum; and to all appearances, the shamless avowal of his brutish exploit, excited the approbation rather than the disgust of the majority of the assembly."5
Work and Punishment
The Portsmouth Asylum was located on a farm in South Portsmouth and all able poor inmates were expected to work in return for food and shelter. Refusal to work or any one of several offenses could receive disproportionate punishment as recounted by Thomas Hazard:
"You will observe that in one short section of the laws passed by the town of Portsmouth for the government of their Asylum for the poor, there are thirteen offences enumerated, for the commission of any one of which, it is made the imperative duty of the commissioner to sentence the criminal to solitary confinement in a dungeon, there to be kept on bread and water during his pleasure. So completely are all the safeguards that have been reared for the protection of the rights and liberties of American citizens, annulled in this unmitigated despotism, that the keeper of the Asylum frequently becomes in his own person, accuser, witness, and executioner of the law."5
Given the restrictive regulations and the swift disproportionate punishments, life in the Portsmouth Asylum was filled with few joys and many sorrows. From town records, we know that chickens were raised for egg production , sheep were raised for wool and meat, pigs were raised, butter was sold, onions grown, and apples sold by the bushel.6 Seaweed was also harvested and sold by the load, and oakum picked. It is this last item, oakum, which has connotations with prisons, brigs, and poor houses. Oakum is recycled fibers, tediously hand "picked" from old hemp ropes to create loosely twisted fiber yarn for caulking the hulls of ships. In 1849, 1601 pounds of oakum were picked by the residents which earned 2 1/4 cents per pound. 6 This was considered "busy work for idle hands" to while away winter days and inclement weather. Other opportunities for oppression arise where keepers are poorly chosen without experience or consideration as observed by Thomas Hazard:
"I fear that there are instances where keepers are allowed to understand that the more labor they can get performed by the poor, the better satisfaction they will give their employers. It seems no more than just that such of the poor as are able to work, should be employed in labor according to their ability; but if inconsiderate young men are placed over them and encouraged to over work the poor, great oppression may be caused by it. When the spirit is broken, as in the case of most of the elderly inmates of poor houses, labor is hard to perform, and it is unreasonable to require as much service of such, as of laborers of the same apparent physical ability, who work for hire."5
Oversights and Reforms
Abuses at the Portsmouth Asylum did not escape the notice of the State Commissioner of the Poor, Thomas R. Hazard in his many visits. In his Report on the Poor and Insane in Rhode Island,5 Mr. Hazard outlines the abuses inherent in the current Town Asylum system in Rhode Island with Portsmouth as the example of the need for change. On the use of dungeons or dark cubes for solitary confinement Mr. Hazard recommended laws be passed:
"That corporal punishment, and all imprisonment or confinement in dark rooms, or in dungeons, be totally prohibited at Asylums for the poor, in Rhode-Island, by Statute law."5
Experience with the abuses of confinement with chains and bailing led Mr. Hazard to recommend laws restricting their use:
"That the use of chains in Asylums for the poor, or bonds intended to confine the limbs, be positively prohibited; excepting in instances where they may be absolutely necessary to effect the removal of an insane person to a curative Hospital, or to transfer a pauper, charged with the commission of a crime, to the officers of the state."5
In response to the lack of curative care for the Insane despite there being state resources with good treatment prospects, Mr. Hazard recommended a law:
"That after the passage of this act, all persons who may become insane and chargeable to the public shall be placed at the Butler Hospital, provided they may be received there at a rate not exceeding that which is now charged that institution for the maintenance and treatment of Insane paupers."5

The Fall of the Asylum
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, poorhouses, in general had suffered a big decline. As groups were identified and moved off to specialized institutions, poorhouse roles waned. Blind and Deaf inmates were sent to special schools, the Insane were sent to special hospitals such as Butler, children were sent to orphanages, and the poor to flophouses. The Portsmouth Asylum fared no better, closing its doors by the turn of the century and being sold to the public in 1929.

Copyright © 2002, William Saslow

[1] Michael B. Katz, In the Shadow of the Poorhouse, a Social History of Welfare in America, BasicBooks, Tenth Anniversary Edition, 1996.
[2] An Acte for Reliefe of the Poore, 43 Elizabeth, I. Cap. II, 1601.
[3] An Act Relating to the Overseer of the Poor and to the Asylum in the Town of Portsmouth: June 21 1832, the Portmouth Asylum Book of Registry, 1849-1882 from the Rhode Island Historical Society.
[4] John T. Pierce Sr., Historical Tracts of the Town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, 1991: Portsmouth, Rhode Island, Hamilton Printing Company.
[5] Thomas R. Hazard, Report on The Poor and Insane in Rhode Island; Made to the General Assembly at its January Session, 1851, Providence: Joseph Knowles, State Printer, 1851.
[6] The Portmouth Asylum Book of Registry, 1849-1882 from the Rhode Island Historical Society.

Origins of the Asylum
Insane In Their Midst
Work and Punishment
Oversights and Reforms
The Fall of the Asylum


Portsmouth Asylum Links
  Historical Context
  Act Establishing (1832)
  Inventory Report (1833)
  Rules & Regulations (1838)
  Committee Report (1840)
  Committee Report (1857)
  The Portsmouth Cripple (1848)
  Produce Sold (1849)
  Meat Sold (1849)
  Town Council Excerpts
  1865 Census Excerpts
  1875 Census Excerpts
  1892 Account Book
  Committal Letters (1867)
  Oakum and Idle Hands
  Newport Daily News Clips (1851)
  Site Mapping (10/5/01)
  NPR Interview

Historical Texts:
  Report on Poor & Insane (1851)
  Fales Memoir (1851)
  Peterson's History (1853)

Selected Biographies
  Thomas R. Hazard -1
  Thomas R. Hazard -2
  Seth R. Anthony
  William R. Fales

Fun and Games
A Day at the Portsmouth Asylum

Other Poorhouse Links
The Poorhouse Story

Over the Hill to the Poor-House
by Will Carleton, 1897

Over the hill to the poor-house I'm trudgin' my weary way---
I, a woman of seventy, and only a trifle gray---
I, who am smart an' chipper, for all the years I've told,
As many another woman that's only half as old.

Over the hill to the poor-house---I can't quite make it clear!
Over the hill to the poor-house---it seems so horrid queer!
Many a step I've taken, a-toilin' to and fro,
But this is a sort of journey I never thought to go.

What is the use of heapin' on me a pauper's shame?
Am I lazy or crazy? am I blind or lame?
True, I am not so supple, nor yet so awful stout;
But charity ain't no favor, if one can live without.

I am ready and willin' an' anxious any day
To work for a decent livin' and pay my honest way;
For I can earn my victuals, an' more too, I'll be bound,
If anybody is willin' to only have me 'round.

Once I was young an' hand'some---I was, upon my soul---
Once my cheeks was roses, my eyes was black as coal;
And I can't remember, in them days, of hearin' people say,
For any kind of a reason, that I was in their way!

'Tain't no use of boastin' or talkin' over-free,
But many a house an' home was open then to me;
Many a han'some offer I had from likely men,
And nobody ever hinted that I was a burden then.

And when to John I was married, sure he was good and smart,
But he and all the neighbors would own I done my part;
For life was all before me, an' I was young an' strong,
And I worked my best an' smartest in tryin' to get along.

And so we worked together; and life was hard, but gay,
With now and then a baby to cheer us on our way.
Till we had half a dozen, an' all growed clean an' neat,
An' went to school like others, an' had enough to eat.

An' so we worked for the child'rn, and raised 'em every one---
Worked for 'em summer and winter, just as we ought to've done;
Only perhaps we humored 'em, which some good folks condemn,
But every couple's own child'rn's a heap the dearest to them!

Strange how much we think of OUR blessed little ones!---
I'd have died for my daughters, and I'd have died for my sons.
And God He made that rule of love; but when we're old and gray
I've noticed it sometimes, somehow, fails to work the other way.

Stranger another thing: when our boys an' girls was grown,
And when, exceptin' Charley, they'd left us there alone,
When John he nearer an' nearer came, an' dearer seemed to be,
The Lord of Hosts, He came one day an' took him away from me!

Still I was bound to struggle, an' never cringe or fall---
Still I worked for Charley, for Charley was now my all;
And Charley was pretty good to me, with scarce a word or frown,
Till at last he went a-courtin', and brought a wife from town.

She was somewhat dressy, an' hadn't a pleasant smile---
She was quite conceity, and carried a heap o' style;
But if ever I tried to be friends, I did with her, I know;
But she was hard and haughty, an' we couldn't make it go.

She had an edication, and that was good for her,
But when she twitted me on mine, 'twas carryin' things too far,
An' I told her once, 'fore company, (an' it almost made her sick)
That I never swallowed a grammer, nor 'et a 'rithmetic.

So 'twas only a few days before the thing was done---
They was a family of themselves, and I another one.
And a very little cottage one family will do,
But I never have seen a mansion that was big enough for two.

An' I never could speak to suit her, never could please her eye,
An' it made me independent, an' then I didn't try.
But I was terribly humbled, an' felt it like a blow,
When Charley turned agin me, an' told me I could go!

I went to live with Susan, but Susan's house was small,
And she was always a-hintin' how snug it was for us all;
And what with her husband's sisters, and what with child'rn three,
'Twas easy to discover there wasn't room for me.

An' then I went with Thomas, the oldest son I've got:
For Thomas's buildings'd cover the half of an acre lot,
But all the child'rn was on me---I couldn't stand their sauce---
And Thomas said I needn't think I was comin' there to boss.

An' then I wrote to Rebecca, my girl who lives out West,
And to Isaac, not far from her---some twenty miles at best;
And one of 'em said 'twas too warm there for anyone so old,
And t'other had an opinion the climate was too cold.

So they have shirked and slighted me, an' shifted me about---
So they have well nigh soured me, an' wore my old heart out;
But still I've borne up pretty well, an' wasn't much put down,
Till Charley went to the poor-master, an' put me on the town!

Over the hill to the poor-house---my child'rn dear, good-bye!
Many a night I've watched you when only God was nigh;
And God'll judge between us; but I will al'ays pray
That you shall never suffer the half that I do to-day!

Oakum-picking in a London Workhouse c.1904. © PRO 30/69/1663

Oakum-picking in a Victorian Prison was Considered "Hard Labor" from the Hulton Getty Picture Collection
[Search!] [Survey] [Planning] [Projects] [Outreach] [What's New!]

Copyright © 1999-2002, REWHC. All Rights Reserved
2676 have visited