Many of the characters in Orphans and Inmates and A Whisper of Bones are people who had some "respectable" job but ended up in the poorhouse as the result of illness or injury. Although the names are often different, the circumstances of many characters are derived from the actual inmate records. For example, Lucinda Gefroren from Whisper is based on a real person who had lost many of her children and other female members of her family to a mysterious condition recorded as chorea. The real woman was unable to hold a job because of her frequent fits and was admitted to the poorhouse, where she lived until her death four years later.
|Original cover sketch for A Whisper of Bones by Bob Higgins|
Among the many primary documents from the institution are the Erie County Hospital Mortality Ledgers from the last two decades of the nineteenth century (soon to be available at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library). These ledgers listed the individuals who died under treatment at the Erie County Poorhouse Hospital. Among other variables, the occupations of the people who died there were recorded. Not all of these people were inmates of the poorhouse. Most of them simply could afford no other care. A look at the means by which these early residents of Buffalo made their living reinforces the notion that reversals of fortune were not uncommon in those days.
The majority of men listed in the ledger were unskilled laborers, and many of the woman were domestics. For these folks even one day of lost wages could have left them destitute. Also of no surprise were the prostitutes and those having no occupation. However, there were over 1,300 people (just over 21% of the entire sample) who had skilled jobs or professions before they were admitted to the poorhouse hospital. They were confectioners, slate cutters and ship builders. Some were machinists, engineers or teamsters. There were some jewelers, stonemasons and carpenters. I had to look up more than a few jobs. A hostler works with horses, a huckster is a door to door salesman, and a hackman drives a carriage. The most unusual occupations listed included that of an evangelist, a florist, a showman, and a fur model.
What stood out to me the most was that many patients did not end up at the poorhouse hospital because they were lazy or apathetic. Often they were regular people who had experienced accidents, illness or violence. We may never know why or if they chose the poorhouse hospital over the others. It may have simply been the most reasonable solution for the immediate crisis facing them at that point in their lives. Some patients may have expected to die in hospital, but others likely saw their situation as temporary and planned to continue in their chosen lives when they were well again.