As most of us know, for many years the Ulster County Fair and the Ulster County Poor House shared the fairground (“A Colorful History of the Ulster County Fair,” Gardiner Gazette, Spring 2014). Intrigued, I interviewed Susan Stessin-Cohn and Dr. Carleton Mabee, the Town Historians of New Paltz and Gardiner respectively. Ms. Stessin-Cohn, in the words of The New York Times, has “made it her mission to speak for… anyone… who had died, forgotten and ignored, in the poorhouse.”
The poorhouse system came into prominence locally during the period from July 4, 1827 through 1848, partly as result of the freeing of slaves in New York State. Known as manumission, the formal release of slaves was purposely phased over decades, presumably so the economy could supply jobs for the influx of former slaves to the workforce. Where this failed, the poorhouses took up the overflow. Poorhouses were not just for people down on their luck, however. They were filled with the “intemperate,” the insane, those of below-average intelligence, unwed mothers, crippled old people, and children as young as four. During the Irish potato famine in the 1850s, starving 14-16 year old Irish boys got off the boat at the Rondout with ship’s fever and were unable to work; the poorhouse ethnicity changed a lot during that time. Immigrants came from many countries, and the County rented houses to put them up. There was a nearby Lithuania House and a neighboring German House.
Today’s welfare system—whichever side of the debate you are on—is our version of what the poorhouse was then. Even before the poorhouse system, there were four ways that people unable to support themselves were “cared for” by the County. The first was fairly kindly; friends or family members signed a contract to take care of a pauper for a set price. The second, decidedly less kindly, was known as binding out; a pauper was contractually given to a person as an indentured servant. For boys this was until they were 21 years old; for girls, until 18. The most Draconian was public auctioning. Paupers were auctioned off to the lowest bidder. That’s right … the County gave you away to the person who bid the least for your upkeep! Talk about threats to one’s self-esteem. The County was then responsible for paying an annual fee for the upkeep of this pauper. Finally, there was outdoor relief, where a pauper would be given a certain minimal weekly allowance for their support.
The conditions at the poorhouse, including lack of heat and ventilation and treatment of the mentally ill using medieval wall-chaining, were no bed of roses but, ironically, they were non-discriminatory; conditions were bad regardless of your race, creed, religion or former financial status. And, as punctuation to an already hard life, to make way for the Ulster County Fairground swimming pool, it was eventually necessary to exhume the bodies of those former residents who ended up in the poorhouse graveyard.
Susan Stessin-Cohn was so moved by the poorhouse story, and by this final degradation, that she sought (and received) agreement from Trina Greene, sculptor of the Sojourner Truth statue in Port Ewen, to create a memorial statue and they are hoping to form a legislative subcommittee that would then look into funding. The statue would stand on the Ulster County Fairground as a tribute to the strength of the individual and the compassion of the community. Such a monument would be the right thing to do.
Those who would turn back the clock on the current welfare system are advised to study the poorhouse system a little better before actually doing it. Undoubtedly, the next version of welfare will not be a backward but a forward step, probably including the retraining of people to use their faculties in ways that will make them not paupers, but valued by other people to the degree that they are willing to pay them for their work.
To learn more about The Poorhouse Project visit http://ulstercountyny.gov/poorhouse.