Pauper relief was up to individual municipalities
Growing up and living during the second half of the 20th Century, we were taught that it was our societal duty to respond to the needy and destitute. I was aware that our government showed mercy on the poor, elderly, physically handicapped, mentally ill, and people with social disorders.
A modern civilized society provides the needy with services and institutions for the treatment of their afflictions and financial aid so they can afford the basic necessities of life. While searching for local history about the town of New Scotland, I was offered 180-year-old Pauper Relief Papers dating from July 1833.
New Scotland was created from the town of Bethlehem in April 1832. By 1841, New Scotland’s population was 2,914.
It had not crossed my mind that local government was raising money by a tax for the support of the poor in the early 1800s. In short, one of these Pauper Relief Papers dated July 16, 1833, asking that the Overseers of the Poor in New Scotland expend, in the relief of Evert Sixbee, the sum of 10 dollars. This action was approved by the town’s first justice of the peace, Mr. James Wands II, and Mr. William Murphy, Overseer of the Poor.
The document goes on to say that the first New Scotland town supervisor, James Reid, orders the Overseer of the Poor to draw, in addition to the above sum, another 20 dollars from the Chamberlain of the City and County of Albany for the further relief of Evert Sixsbee.
Sixbee’s case, it is noted, had been investigated for its merits upon application, and that the facts and circumstances satisfied the justice and the overseer that relief was required by his necessities.
Earlier in 1822, a report from the Albany City Overseer of the Poor tells us that paupers sometimes were supported in and out of the almshouse. Alms were the charitable donation of money or food to the poor.
The Albany almshouse had an attached farm of 60 acres where paupers might be employed. Of the 126 paupers in the almshouse, 70 being female and 56 being male, 46 were children under the age of 7 years. There were also many transient paupers.
The overseer states, “The prosperity and happiness of a nation, depend on the industry, economy, and the morals of its people. To promote, encourage, and to protect these three great essentials of national wealth and character, is therefore of the first importance, a regard for religious and moral obligation is cherished, by diffusing the means of education to the ignorant and poor, thereby elevating the human character, and striking at the root of poverty and vice.”
“Intemperance and the use of ardent spirits, it is feared will long remain, a fruitful source of pauperism and misery. Habits of intemperance are not to be conquered by any restraints. It is doubtless that the use of spirituous liquors is the principal cause of the suffering of a large proportion of the poor. The condition of the poor would at once be improved if the use of liquors were diminished.
“Under our present system, pauperism is a growing evil; and I have come to the conclusion that the erection of houses of industry, is the only effectual mode of improvement. The government should compel the erection of houses of employment such as the farms attached to institutions. Those whose pride would deter them from entering these houses of employment fear becoming publicly and notoriously paupers.
“The virtuous and unfortunate poor should have an advantage over the intemperate or vicious poor, in as much as they might be classed, in reference to cleanliness, sobriety, submission, industry, and faithfulness in their work, and thereby avoid that indiscriminate arrangement, which one usually obtains in almshouses. The operation of this plan would have the happy tendency of abolishing the practice of selling paupers at auction, which prevails in many towns in our State.”
In 1824, Albany City and County called for a law requiring the establishment of a poorhouse and one was created that year.
In 1857, a review of the Albany poorhouse and its 216-acre farm notes that it housed 419 inmates; 299 females and 120 males. Eighty were under 6 years of age and 75 percent were foreign-born. From six to 40 paupers occupied a single room.
Paupers who were able worked on the farm and at the poorhouse.
Religion and education were provided with an emphasis on teaching English to immigrants. Children of a proper age being apprenticed to tradesmen and worked at various forms of employment.
A doctor was employed at the house with two resident medical students. During 1857, there were 71 deaths and 32 births of which 25 were illegitimate.
A fever hospital and insane asylum had been a part of the poorhouse establishment. Seventy-three of the inmates were listed as “lunatics;” 41 females and 32 males. Four of the paupers had been listed as “idiots,” one female and three males, two under the age of 16, while three more were blind and one was called “deaf and dumb.”
No corporal punishment was allowed or administered at the poorhouse, only confinement to cells or rooms.
This was the life of a pauper who was at the mercy of his fellow man in the early 19th Century. Considering the time period, religion probably was the overwhelming driving force enlisting sympathies for the poor and needy.
It is a good feeling to know that there are people willing to help the less fortunate and that we also require our government to do so. For misfortune may visit any one of us, at any time, and we must have the support of our fellow human beings.
Charity to the poor is a sign of what kind of people we are and whether or not we are truly civilized. Practice compassion and sympathy for others.
Editor’s note: Timothy Albright, a life member of the New Scotland Historical Association, has a lifelong interest in his native town, having designed its seal as a 13-year-old.
He also co-authored the book John Boyd Thacher State Park and The Indian Ladder Region.
He plans to donate the 1833 Pauper Relief Papers to the association for its museum.