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The State Wards

Creator: n/a
Date: April 7, 1883
Publication: The Lowell Weekly Sun
Source: The Pollard Memorial Library


Founded in 1852, the Tewksbury almhouse was one of three poorhouses run by the state of Massachusetts. Previously, poor people relied on the aid of their town or county. The influx of German and Irish immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century overwhelmed local poorhouses and created a large population of people who did not fulfill residency requirements for town and county poorhouses. Starting in 1866, the Tewksbury almshouse also admitted paupers diagnosed with chronic insanity.

Local and state almshouses had much in common. The managers of both types of institutions tried to provide care at the lowest cost possible and had little oversight—even after state legislatures established supervisory boards of charities in the 1860s and 1870s (termed the State Board of Health, Lunacy, and Charity in Massachusetts). Consequently, almshouses were rife with abuses and poor care.

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The almshouse investigation was resumed in the green room of the State House shortly after 2 o'clock Monday afternoon. Charles H. Dudley, formerly night watchman at the almshouse, resumed his testimony at the point where he left off last week. He testified that when he detected Mr. Marsh, as he had before stated, a conversation had ensued, Mr. Marsh telling him to keep still about what he had seen of the loading of the bodies at the dead house. Marsh said: "We have got to have some pay for our trouble taking care of these 'critters.'" Marsh then went at once to his room. A drunken man who was brought to the almshouse from Boston was left in a cell without any attention or food except water given him by Dudley, though the latter urged Dr.Lathrop, the resident physician, and also Capt. Marsh, to attend him, and the man died on the day after the third night. When Dudley got up in the afternoon he was told by "French Joe" that the man had died during the forenoon and that there was enough of them left. Saw Mrs. Marsh several nights taking clothes from the room where the inmates trunks were kept. The housekeeper, whose name is Mrs. Jennie T. Pope, and who is alive now, employed at the hospital for the insane at Middletown, Ct., told me that she had seen the same thing, and that the most valuable of the dresses were taken up by Mrs. Marsh to her private storeroom; Mrs. Pope added that, as they were out of style, they were cut over for the Davis girls, Mrs. Marsh's granddaughters, who lived at Exeter, N.H. There were some twenty children in one of the wards who used to cry at night, and they told me it was because they were hungry. The state of food for the inmates and insane was always very poor; the bread was sour nearly all the time, and the quantity was very small, especially for those who had to work about the farm; I spoke about it once to Capt. Marsh, and reported especially the condition of the hungry children; he said he guessed they got enough; I said I thought they didn't, and I had taken the liberty several times to carry them pieces of bread; he told me he didn't want me to do that any more. Several times I saw a light at the burying ground; I went down there and saw a double wagon and two men taking out coffins or bodies from the ground by means of a hook about five feet long; the coffins came up very easily, for they were only buried about four or five inches in light sandy soil; I remained there until they had removed four bodies; the men were Manning and his negro, and they started off toward Boston, as I suppose. Most any key would lock or unlock the dead-house; Thomas Marsh and I had each a key, and there might have been a dozen others for all I know. A man there named Thomas Hall drove the hospital team; he asked me one night if I was going to take up the work of packing the dead; I told him no; he said he had taken up 68 bodies inside of eight months, and had gotten very little extra pay for it; he showed me a roll of bills which had been paid him; said it amounted to several hundred; he left the next morning. After being night watchman I was appointed, with my wife, to the care of the female insane; we have an average of about 140 in our charge; I saw that they had taken the trunks away that belonged to the patients; I told my wife of that; then I noticed that the beds made of straw where in a rotten condition, fairly steaming with filth; most of the beds had only one sheet, and some not any; there was only one thickness of blanket; most of the females were without underclothing or shoes and stockings; nothing but a thin calico dress; this was in July; the cells were also in a filthy condition, as of the person has been confined there a week or ten days without their being cleaned; in the attic in another cell I found a woman lying on the straw perfectly naked; the straw was bad and filthy; I was told by one of the assistants that this woman had been in this cell about a year, she was so near a skeleton that she would not have weighed more than forty pounds; my wife immediately clothed her and I had the room cleaned out and fed her, and in five or six weeks we had the woman out of the cell and down into the sitting room, so changed that her own husband did not know her; her name was Mary Barron; her husband lived in Boston. There was another woman who told me that she'd been kept nine days in one of the filthy basement cells with nothing but water, and her story was corroborated by others, including Mrs. French; her name was Margret Hennessy; they said that she was very violent and was kept there to reduce her strength so that they could manage her; that woman was with us for a year and we never had occasion to use any such remedies; the insane women were employed at all kinds of work, including the care of patients at the hospital who might be afflicted with contagious diseases; I spoke to Capt. Marsh about that and his reply was that insane persons could not take a disease; I also told him that our women were so worked that their food was insufficient, and his reply on at least three occasions was that they were brought there to die; Dr. Lathrop used to come to the insane building about once a week, sometimes not so often; one night, after we had retired, one of the thirty-seven women in one of the dormitories fell out of bed and hurt herself; her name was Bridget or Margret Burns; we went and told Dr. Lathrop she was bleeding to death, blood was gushing from her, but he would not go to her aid, saying he was tired,-- she died that night of internal hemorrhage; he refused to go near the body next day either, and I buried her.

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