In my book Digging For Genealogical Treasure in New England Town
Records, I spent considerable space describing how the towns took care of
their poor, disabled, or ill inhabitants. Into the twentieth century each town
was responsible for the care of their "recognized inhabitants"; these included
the needy people born to recognized inhabitants, the women who married
recognized inhabitants, or those who lived in a town and paid taxes for a
certain number of years. But by the nineteenth century there were a growing
number of people, especially in the cities, who had no connection to any
particular town, so state resources and some private organizations were formed
to handle those who could not take care of themselves.
All of the records mentioned in this article are available at the Massachusetts State
Archives and on microfilm through the Family History
Library . All of the institutions kept various kinds of registers that
recorded basic information about the patients or inmates, such as name, age,
town of residence, why they were in the institutions, admission and dismission
dates, etc. At the end of this article I will list those institutions that kept
these registers, but first I want to discuss those institutions that recorded
case histories - because such histories yield the most useful information.
In the course of doing research, you may find from family papers that a
kinsman spent some time at one of these institutions. You may find a family
member living in one of these institutions in a state or federal census, or you
may find on a death certificate that your kinsman died at one of these
institutions. Most of the registers and records of case histories that I
examined were indexed either in the front or the back of the volume.
Several years ago while transcribing the 1855 and 1865 state censuses of
Massachusetts, I discovered a man named Nothing Particular who was an inmate at
the Ipswich Insane Asylum in 1855, and at the Tewksbury State Almshouse in 1865.
I was not completely certain that these two entries referred to the same man
until I consulted the register of weekly admissions and discharges at the
almshouse. There it was reported that Nothing Particular, who was transferred to
the almshouse from the Ipswich Insane Asylum on March 31, 1857, died September
7, 1895, at age 73.
One of the earliest of these organizations was the Boston Female Asylum,
founded and run by society women in Boston. The available records cover 1800 to
1867. Many mothers and fathers in Boston who could not take care of their
daughters voluntarily placed them in the Female Asylum. In order to do so, they
were required to sign the following statement that gave up all their rights to
We the Subscribers solicitors that our children should receive the benefits
and advantages of the Boston Female Asylum, and the Board of Managers being
willing to receive and provide for, and also place them out in virtuous Families
untill the age of Eighteen years, Agreeable to the rules and regulations of the
Society, provided we do severally relinguish our children to them, we do hereby
promise not to interfere on the management of them in any respect whatever, nor
visit them without their consent. And in consideration of their benevolence in
the receiving and providing for them, we do relinguish all right and claim to
them and their services, untill they shall arrive to Eighteen years of age. And
severally engage that we will not ask or receive any compensation for the same,
nor take them from, or induce to leave the Families where they may be placed by
the Board of managers of the Asylum.
The registers of the children admitted to the Female Asylum record the name
of the child, age or birth date, date of admission, and when and where the child
was placed. Some children were returned to their families, but most were placed
with families both in Boston and outside the city.
- Lucretia Cochran was admitted to the Female Asylum in October 1853 and
turned over to her mother in April 1854
- Catharine Hall was admitted in March 1827, and was placed with her
grandmother, Mrs. Mary Page, on October 27, 1841
- Mary Jane and Elizabeth Kelley, admitted in April 1844, were "Permitted to
go under the care of Patric Nolan to their father James Kelley of Dublin Ireland
- who sent for them" in March 1846.
- Clara Kingsbury was admitted in August 1860 and placed out in October 1864
with Mr. and Mrs. B. Howard of West Bridgewater
- Susan Rowson was admitted October 26, 1813 and placed out on January 21,
1821 with Mr. and Mrs. Cox of Portland, Maine
- Sarah McIntire was admitted July 31, 1810 and placed out in June 1816 with
Eliphalet and Mary Dickenson of Deerfield.
Some siblings were split up, as in these examples:
- Arria Sargent Renott and Jane Flagg Renott, who were admitted on March 31,
1812. Arria was placed out in September 1815 with Seth and Ann Terry of
Hartford, Connecticut, while Jane was placed out on March 30, 1819 with Rev. S.
Swift and his wife of Nantucket.
- Jane Elizabeth King and Helen Josephine King were admitted in March 1857.
Jane was placed out in June 1861 with Mr. & Mrs. N. Smith Jr. of Woodbury,
Connecticut, while her sister Helen was returned to their mother in November
Inevitably, a few of the children died while in the asylum. Rosanna Kenney,
who was six when she was admitted in August 1854, died January 21, 1857 of
consumption. Grace McFarlane, who was three years old when admitted on January
24, 1804, died just a few months later on October 8. No cause of death is
In the minutes of the Female Asylum meetings one will often find stories
describing why children were placed in the institution. Here are several
Mrs. May repeated the following representation of a woman from whose lips she
had a few hours before received it. She was born in Tewksbury, left that place
on her marriage, and has since resided in Boston; her husband some months since
died at sea, leaving her entirely without means of support, with one child, and
in daily expectation of giving birth to the infant which was now in her arms.
Her parents were dead, nor had she any friends in her native town able to
contribute to her relief. This statement was confirmed by the woman at whose
house she had lived, and who joined in soliciting for her oldest child, a
daughter five years old, admission into the Asylum. Adeline E. Nelson be
A child named Caroline Scholtz, was recommended to the notice of the
Board...Her situation was thus represented by Mrs. M.L. Smith. Her parents had
lived in very comfortable circumstances untill they became impoverished by the
extreme intemperance and improvidence of her father. The exertions of her
mother, on whom the care of his business and of their numerous family entirely
devolved, were their only support. She died during the last winter, leaving
seven children to poverty and wretchedness. The charity of friends was exerted
in their behalf, and the child for whom admission into the Asylum was not
solicited, set to a relative, who herself in indigent circumstances, consented
to keep her untill the next August, in consideration of receiving from her
father some articles of old furniture as a compensation. At the expiration of
the next month she would be thrown on the protection of a grandmother, who, at
the advanced age of eighty two years, procured subsistence by keeping a small
shop; and who already had the charge of two of these orphan children. These
circumstances, and the strength and fervency of the expressions of gratitude,
with which this aged and unfortunate woman received information of the
probability of her grandchild's admittance into the Asylum, were a very powerful
and efficient appeal to the feelings of those, who, unanimously acknowledging
the claims of age and poverty of childhood and helplessness.
The mother of Selina Sargent died about two years since, leaving five
children to the care of an indigent and intemperate father, who was utterly
incapable of performing this duty. The three oldest girls were placed at service
in respectable families; the fourth, a boy, is a wretched wanderer about the
streets. Selina, the youngest, being, from her extreme youth, incapable of
performing the service required in a situation like her sisters', remained with
her father, exposed to all the hardships of poverty and all the contagion of
vice. The house in which he lived was occupied by other boarders, of similar
grade and character to his own. One apartment only was appropriated as the
bed-room of the whole, and one bed contained the little Selina and her abandoned
father. She has two aunts whose characters render their interposition on her
behalf much more to be dreaded than wished. Her father is willing to give her up
to this charity, and the yet uncontaminated child may now be saved from the
destruction to which her present situation seems so inevitably to lead.
Mrs. Codman said she had on the preceding afternoon received the following
account from a young woman whose very apparent wretchedness gave painful
testimony to its truth. She has been left a widow with one child; had again
married and again became a mother. An illness which prevented her husband from
continuing his accustomed employment, brought its usual effect to those whose
daily support depends on their daily labour. Unable to raise ten dollars for the
payment of a debt he had contracted, he was threatened with imprisonment; to
avoid this, though hardly recovered from sickness, he left his family and fled.
His wife, deserted and in want, is now in daily expectation of giving birth to
another child. For her oldest girl, the orphan child of her former husband, she
seeks the protection of this society. The name of the woman is Brown, that of
the child, Mary Grant.
The Committee reported that three children had been admitted. The first,
Georgianna Conn, was the daughter of a poor widow who was going to support
herself at service if a home could be given to her child. The second, Eliza Howe
Smith, was brought by her mother, an American woman. Her father had belonged to
the Navy and had been lost at sea, leaving his widow with five little ones to
care for. Her friends were unable to aid her in the support of all these
children and she asked a place in the Asylum for her little girl. The third
child, Sarah Alice Holbrook, was the daughter of a poor American widow with four
children and no means of support. These circumstances being heard, it was Voted
That the admission of these children is sanctioned by the Board.
Two little girls whose case had been mentioned at the last meeting, had been
admitted. Their mother, Mrs. Kirk, had not heard from her husband since the
battle of Gettysburg, and wished a home for the children whom she felt unable to
support herself. The admission of Mary Parker and Maria May Kirk was approved by
State almshouses at Tewksbury and Monson began operation in the second half
of the nineteenth century. The available records for the Tewksbury Almshouse
include children's records from 1855 to 1869, inmate case histories from 1860 to
1896, and weekly returns of admissions and discharges from 1894 to 1918. People
were sent there from across the state and, depending on when they were admitted,
their case histories contain varying amounts of information as these examples
- James Carney, 26, from Boston 17 January 1868, born Ireland Co. Roscommon,
laborer, landed in Boston 1 1/2 years ago per the "Delivan," there 6 months,
then to Brookline 6 months, no relatives, in no other institution, frozen thumb,
discharged 18 February 1868.
- Bridget and Sarah Mulhearn, 33 and 8, from Boston 18 January 1868, born in
Ireland Co. Galway, husband Michael dead 2 years, landed Boston 18 years ago,
there most of time since, no relatives but sister Mrs. Wm. Boyle in Amesbury -
sister-in-law Mrs. Murphy 46 Athens St. South Boston, and Mrs. Rowley in 5th St.
South Boston, no other relatives, in no other institution, sprained
- William Thompson, 51, from Boston 29 January 1868, born St. Johnsbury VT,
married wife dead, turner, went to Sharon VT when 3, there 14 years, the n to
Bridgeton VT where father died, enlisted 1842 in Albany in 7th Regt. Infantry
served 11 years, enlisted 32d Mass. Co. I July 1862, lost eye at Antietam, then
enlisted in 2d Vet. NY Cavalry, served 1 year, then to Hartford VT, came from
Keene NH to Lynn 16 days ago, don't know how, wants to go to Keene, lived
Attleboro 2 months before enlisting in 32d, in Boston before that, no relations,
in no other institutions, bruised chest and face.
- Simeon Ford, colored, 30, from Charlestown 13 February 1868, born NY,
single, laborer, came to MA from NY 2 years ago via O.C.&N.R.R., in state
prison for horse stealing since, no relations in MA, mother Mrs. Frances Bird in
NY, in no other institutions, well.
- Frank Silva, 5, from Boston 13 February 1868, born Boston, mother arrested,
father off, sent from Little Wanderers Home.
- Mary Curtis, 18, from Boston 2 August 1867, born Deerfield, single,
domestic, lived in Deerfield most of life, mother died when she was young,
father Charles died 6 years last September in Deerfield, never owned property,
don't know where born always lived in Deerfield, no relatives living, never in
institution before, father of child Frank Steele, saw him last in Deerfield 8
months ago, he a hard drinker and gambler, left there now, sick soon,
Grandfather Gibben - farmer, mother Lucinda Smith of South Hadley.
- Honora Sullivan, 35, from Boston 3 August 1867, born Ireland, married
husband John, off 2 weeks, landed NY per "Wm. Tapicott," direct to Boston, 1
year to South Natick, then to South Natick 5 years, then to Boston since,
husband never in service, no relatives, never in institution before, well,
couldn't take care of family. [with her were] Margaret Sullivan, 10, born South
Natick; Daniel, 8, born South Natick; Timothy, 7, born Boston; Michael, 15, born
London, England; and Jeremiah, 12, born South Natick.
The children in the State Almshouse were often put to families throughout
Massachusetts; the follow-up visits until they were of age (eighteen years old
for girls and twenty-one for boys) can provide a glimpse of their lives.
Margaret Donovan was admitted from Boxford August 9, 1860 at age ten, she had
been born in Lowell. She was taken by William Stevens, Jr., of Marblehead in
September 1860. A visit on November 20, 1867, to Stevens revealed that she had
stayed with him for four years when he transferred her to his father William
Stevens, Sr., where she had been about a year. She was reported to be " 'below
par' in intellect, not capable of taking care of herself, untruthful &
careless about her person, rather given to lewdness." On November 6, 1868,
Margaret was returned to the Almshouse on account of mental disability. In
January 1869 she was taken on trial by Henry E. Worcester of Tewksbury and a
visit on March 9, 1869 found "Margaret happy & contented, likes her place
These records also contain the extraordinary story of George G. Leaverns,
born in England, who came to Massachusetts in 1844 and was admitted from Lowell
on January 10, 1856. He was taken by Mrs. Nathaniel Lowe of Tewksbury on June
[emphasis in original] A remarkable case of self education &
perseverance under difficulties. George was with the Lowes about 4 years -
previous to his going there, while at the almshouse, had the fingers of his
left hand cut off in a hay cutter; in the army, at battle of
Fredericksburg, was shot in the right arm which was amputated at the
shoulder; returned to Maine, after leaving hospital, fitted himself for
College; went to college, & is now holding high position as a teacher
at Rochester N.Y. Universal...It appears that his family had originally
occupied a good position in society, but the father died; hard times came upon
them, the mother & boy had to go to the Almshouse; the mother died there,
& on her death bed got a pledge from the boy that when out of the
institution, he would so act all thru life so to gain an honorable name; well
has George kept his pledge.
Not all of the children's stories turn out so well. Timothy Keenan was put
out to William Babb of North Barrington, New Hampshire, in 1864. When
representatives of the almshouse visited in August 1868, they were told that
Timothy had been with Babb only three or four months when he was returned to Dr.
McDaniel, who then put him out to George Ham of Stafford, New Hampshire. In
September, the representative "on my way to Stafford to see Mr. Ham, met a
gentleman...who told me that the boy was not there; had left about 2 years
before & that it was a hard place for a child...Mr. Hamm is represented as
being not a good master to send children to; he works them too hard & does
not school them as he ought."