Thursday, March 12, 2015

Life at the Erie County Poorhouse at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Sketch of the Erie County Poorhouse by Robert Higgins

I have been collecting data from the reports of the Medical Department of the Erie County Hospital (1880-1910) for the last several months for a scholarly paper I am writing. The hospital was part of the almshouse complex and so these reports were contained in the Report of the Keeper of the Erie County Almshouse in the Proceedings of the Erie County Board of Supervisors (available at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library). I've found that I have fallen into yet another rabbit hole! The Keeper's Reports are absolutely fascinating. In addition to vital and demographic statistics, they contain detailed inventories of every single item made, purchased or otherwise obtained for the care of the inmates and the support staff who lived on site. These reports provide a glimpse of life at the poorhouse, particularly at the turn of the century when they contained the most detail.

The inventories become more inclusive through time. Looking at the report from 1900, the enormity of the facility becomes apparent. Supply rooms documented thousands of pounds of meat, produce and dry goods. Hundreds of sheets, pillow slips, items of clothing and even funeral shrouds were listed in the various storage rooms. Kitchens housed piles of dishes, flatware, pots and pans. High end items, like an ice cream freezer, were noted in the Keeper's private kitchen.

In addition to the Keeper's quarters, there were private sleeping chambers for the Matron, physicians, and attendants. The 1900 Report also documented a Firemen's Room with furniture enough for two occupants.  Fire was a persistent problem at the Erie County Poorhouse throughout its ninety-seven year history and the reports often indicated precautions taken to reduce that risk.

The various inventories provide some insight into how life at the poorhouse was organized. Administrative space included an office, a private office, and a reception room. The carpet, furniture and wall hangings were noted for each space, along with equipment and supplies. The Keeper had private quarters for himself and his family, including a separate kitchen, laundry, cellar and garret. The inmates quarters, clothing storage, washrooms and dining areas were segregated by sex. There was also a Old Ladies' Dining Room, an Old Men's Dining Room, and a Workingmen's Dining Room. The dining areas for elderly inmates had tables and chairs, whereas the dining room for able bodied working men had tables and benches.

Institutions of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were designed to be self sufficient, many were working farms. Barns and storerooms contained livestock, equipment and stores of produce grown on the farm. The 1907 Report listed 115 tons of hay and 16,000 heads of cabbage among its bounty. There was a bakery, a tailor shop, a boot and shoe room, a barber shop, a carpentry and paint shop and a lamp and oil room. There was even a Religious Services Room with a pulpit, an organ, bibles, hymnals, benches and chairs.  

On the surface, it seems as though the almshouse had adequate facilities to care for Buffalo's institutionalized poor. Certainly there were times when the facilities were over crowded and had fallen into disrepair. There were often discussions in these reports of the need to replace or repair different parts of the poorhouse, insane asylum, or hospital. Early reports indicated times when the quantity of food was not adequate. However, it must be remembered that individuals who chose to seek refuge there or were sent there by the authorities, had no other options and might have died from starvation, disease or exposure if they had not found their way to the poorhouse.   

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic at the Museum of disABILITY History, Buffalo, NY

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic at the Museum of disABILITY History, Buffalo, NY. 

Last Friday evening I attended the grand opening of The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic at the Museum of disABILITY History in Buffalo, New York.  After 126 years of operation as a state mental health hospital in Upstate New York, the Willard Psychiatric Center closed its doors in 1995.  The discovery of over 400 suitcases and trunks in the attic have provided unprecedented insight into the lives of mental health patients in the early twentieth century. The exhibit is based on the book of the same title by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny.  I highly recommend both.

Haunting, riveting, and heartbreaking, seem insufficient words to describe the stories told through the contents of baggage left behind in the attic of the Willard Psychiatric Center.  It did not come as a surprise that most of the suitcase owners were admitted to the facility against their will.  The revelations lay in the lives they had before that fateful day. Some of the patients came from well to do families, some from the military, and some were just hard working folks.  Photos and other mementos found among their belongings indicated good times with loved ones, talents and skills that were abandoned with their luggage upon admission, and important vocations that involved helping others or serving their country.  

Case files reported many reasons for commitment to the Willard Asylum, like anger management and mild paranoia.  Often patient interviews were not indicative of serious mental illness by modern standards, although the diagnosis dementia praecox, later called schizophrenia, was used often.  Patient records told of personal tragedies in the past that were not considered in the diagnosis or treatment of the individuals being evaluated.  Their physical ailments were often dismissed as hypochondria and their emotional needs were simply not considered.

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic at the Museum of disABILITY History, Buffalo, NY.

Many of the suitcase owners lived out the remaining decades of their lives at the hospital, subject to what we now deem appalling treatment.  Some patients accepted their fate without question, others argued tirelessly for their release.  A few managed to carve out a niche for themselves, or maintained contact with friends and family outside of the hospital.  However, when they passed, many were completely forgotten.  If it were not for the objects they left behind in that dusty attic, we would never have known who they were before they became patients.

 The Museum of disABILITY History, a project of People, Inc., is dedicated to advancing the understanding, acceptance and independence of people with disabilities.  Bringing this exhibit to Buffalo is part of their commitment to illuminating over a century of forgotten history.  Poorhouses, insane asylums, workhouses and orphanages were established throughout the United States during the nineteenth century to meet the growing needs of an impoverished urban population.  These institutions ultimately were unable to accomplish their goals and many ceased to exist or transitioned into modern institutions like elder care facilities.  Many people ended up losing their battle for survival in the very asylums that were supposed to help ease their suffering.  Those pour souls, for the most part, were buried in unmarked graves, their plight long forgotten by the modern world.  In addition to the Willard exhibit, the museum boasts the Monument for the Forgotten, which commemorates the individuals who lived and died in institutions around Western New York and Almshouses and Schools, which focuses on the evolution of care for people with disabilities and the development of early poorhouses and schools.  If you are local, I highly recommend a visit.  If not, check out their Virtual Museum.  Either way, you won't be disappointed.