Portsmouth Asylum
The Memoirs of William R. Fales

  The Portsmouth Cripple:
Tales From the Portsmouth Asylum

It was the summer of 1848, that the compiler of the following memorandums, in company with several others, made a visit to the Portsmouth Almshouse. Beautifully situated upon the Narragansett Bay, about eight miles from Newport, Rhode Island, was this humble abode of the blind, the aged, and the crippled poor. It was here that we first became acquainted with the subject of this memoir--William R. Fales (2).

These visitors were surprised to find that Mr. Fales enjoyed reading and writing, and quickly furnished him with books to read and a notebook with which to record his experiences. The notebook and various letters written by Mr. Fales during his stay at the Portsmouth Asylum comprise the memoir. The memoir also includes an introduction, written by the memoir complier, and a brief autobiography, written by Mr. Fales himself.

The bulk of the memoir appears to deal with Mr. Fales descriptions of his physical suffering and his resolute faith in God. This is, of course, typical of 19th century memoirs, which were oftentimes used as inspirational pieces. However, spliced within these descriptions are mentions of the asylum and its practices. Here are several examples:

July 23d, 1848:

"Four ministering Friends lately came to the Asylum and held a meeting with the poor afflicted inmates, during which they very tenderly exhorted us to repent and turn unto the Lord. They also gave us much instruction, mingled with kind persuasion, solemn warning, and heart-cheering encouragement. Truly it was a solemn, yet refreshing season"...(28).

August 15, 1848:
"On the 8th of this month, I was carried out in the air, a little before eight o'clock; the morning was clear and the scene reviving, and for a while I felt refreshed, but from continuing too long, I became exhausted, so that when I got back to my room I could hardly breathe or speak, and was exercised with severe pain in my left side, which prevented me from sleeping, and for several days I felt exceedingly sore and weak" (94).

December 14, 1848:
"There is now in our house a very poor, wretched old woman, lying at the point of death, and it makes me feel sorrowful to think of her state, for it is fearfully evident that, instead of spending her life in seeking salvation, she has been sinning against a holy and just God. [...] on the 26th of June she was brought by the overseer of the poor to this asylum, in a deplorable state of decline. But she has not seemed contented with her allotment, nor been obedient to her rulers; on the contrary, she has appeared passionate and ungovernable, using much profane language, having no fear of future judgment, nor caring what might become of her soul, saying she did not believe there was any worse place of punishment than this earth. She has been unwilling to listen to any religious discourse, or receive counsel from those who seemed interested in the welfare of her soul. [...] For some days past the poor creature was so helpless as to require assistance to turn in her bed, and it has been truly heart-rendering to hear her bemoan her situation, and to see how easily she would become enraged, and it was very distressing to hear her violent and abusive language, accompanied by bitter oaths and wicked blasphemy, whenever her attendants were endeavoring to render her situation more tolerable. Some thought her intellectual faculties were not so strong as common, and perhaps it was so. I am willing to make all possible allowance for the poor woman, for it is evident that she was very ignorant concerning the way of holiness, and that she had always been a stranger to that humble resignation to God's will which cometh from a steadfast reliance on his assistance. And thus she has lived, and thus she has died, and after death comes judgment. Yes! the poor soul has now gone to try the realities of that world from whence there is no return" (56-58).

Letter, December 19, 1848:
"A few weeks since I underwent much pain in having a large tooth extracted; and what tended to increase my suffering was the fact that my jaws were so much contracted by rheumatism as to leave but a narrow space between them, and being an upper tooth, it was impossible to pull it downwards without coming in contact with my under teeth. So, after being started so as to meet them, the doctor was obliged to wrench it out sideways, and thereby fractured my jawbone" (60).

Letter, April 24, 1849:
"The chilling storms of winter have now passed, and welcome spring has again returned. The weather daily is becoming more mild and temperate, and the sweet songs of the cheerful birds are ascending to their Creator in hymns of grateful praise. As soon as the morning light appears, I catch their artless strains, but cannot arise and go forth to see them: sometimes the sheep and lambs are admitted into the house-yard, to nip the tender grass, and I can hear the sprightly footsteps of the sportive little creatures under my window, but I cannot arise to behold them" (74-5).

Letter, June 8, 1849:
"I have been carried out in the air once this season; it was on the 17th of May, and I enjoyed the scene considerably" (86).

Letter, September 10, 1849:
"My right arm has been so lame as to deprive me of the use of it for a number of days. I could not even feed myself. The flies in my room were, and still are, numerous and troublesome, which renders my situation more distressing, as I find it very hard to keep them off with my poor, feeble left arm. I also find it difficult to keep them off whilst writing; and though my suffering is greatly increased whenever my right arm becomes useless, yet it is the Lord's will that it should be so" (95-96).

Letter, January 5, 1850:
"Surely the 28th of last month was an eventful day to me, for on that day I was removed from the Asylum, and though I felt loth [sic] to accept the kind offer, on account of my entire unworthiness, yet I plainly saw the hand of Providence in it, and thought it would be wrong to refuse so desirable a change. My friend T. R. H. told me that you had desired him to procure a place for me in a private family, where I might have things that were convenient, and receive proper attention. Accordingly, I was removed on the 28th, and bore the ride much better that I had expected" (111).

Letter, January 18, 1850:
"Surely the 28th of last month was a remarkable day to me. It proved a very eventful period in my history, for on that day, through the kindness of my good friend T. R. H., I was removed form the Portsmouth Asylum, in which I had resided during the last three years and five months. My mind was much tried with the prospect of being removed, but the day was pleasant, and I was enabled to bear the ride much better than I had expected, for which I felt humbly thankful. [...] I find that I have met with a favorable change, a desirable change, such a change as I had long felt the need of. Indeed, my feelings have undergone a great change since I left the poorhouse. The sufferings and privations which I endured for many years before I went there, and whilst there; the hardships I had to contend with, and withal the many difficulties which had hitherto been in the way of my spiritual enjoyments, all, all, are truly indescribable" (113-4).

After this letter, the memoir compilers note the following:

"It may here be remarked that William had not requested a removal from the Almshouse. It was a voluntary offer on the part of his friends, many of whom, though personally unknown to him, were not strangers to his particular trials" (117).

Mr. Fales did not return to the Asylum and made only one further mention of it, in his journal entry of June 26, 1850:

"I will inform you that since my last [letter] I have had some news from the Asylum. Poor old Joseph, I understand, has had fits, and was laid upon the bed in the same little room which I used to occupy. He had two slight fits whilst I was there. Poor old man, his privations are many and sore indeed; may the Lord be his helper. He is forsaken in old age, and left poor, blind, and friendless in a cold and unfeeling world, with no one to look to for comfort, nor to cheer him whilst groping on his way in darkness; in short, with no man to care for his soul" (144-5).

[1] Memoirs of William R. Fales, the Portsmouth Cripple. Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1851.

Thanks to Matthew A. Moore of NYU in Transcribing Excerpts of the 140 Page Memoir.


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

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