1864 Steuben County Poor House

“The county house of Steuben has ninety-five inmates, of whom eighteen are insane. Three others had been confined during the year, but had escaped without being returned. Nineteen were of American and three of foreign birth. One was admitted in 1839; all the rest since 1850. Ten of the number had at some time been treated in an asylum, so that the dates of admission do not show conclusively the full period of lunacy. Twelve are capable of labor. The others are provided with neither employment or amusement. The mechanical restraint employed is a close room and hand-cuffs. The house is supplied with water by three wells and two cisterns, but it has no bathing tub, and it is doubtful if the insane are required to wash daily. No arrangement is made for cleanliness, ventilation, or uniformity of heat in winter. The material used for bedding is straw, in ticks, not frequently changed. The cells are warmed only through the hand-holes in the doors of the cells from the heat in the common hall. In the house the sexes are separated, but not so when they go into the yard. Paupers give them what care they receive. The rooms are far from clean, and the air in them more or less foetid. Recent cases are received at this institution, which is designed to accommodate thirty or forty. Its whole condition may best be set forth in the language of Dr. A.H. Cruttenden, who made the investigation:

“But few remarks can be offered in this connection without entering upon an elaborate criticism of the house, grounds, and management of the institution in extended detail. Enough that the institution comes far short of the standard to which an enlightened community, with abundant recourse, should aspire. The grounds, though ample and possessing many natural advantages and surroundings for a true home of charity, are really destitute of an attractive feature— chilling to every sense of refinement or charitable sentiment.

“The buildings pertaining to the poor-house proper are old, comfortless, illy constructed, and never suited to the purposes for which they were designed. The insane house, though new built, of brick, and sufficiently large for the accommodation of its present number of inmates, is badly arranged. The cells are too small, with no provisions for ventilation. The air even now, in summer, when doors and windows are open, is burdened with noxious vapors and effluvia inconsistent with health or comfort to the inmates. The facilities for warming are very imperfect, so much so that patients confined in cells must suffer in extreme weather. The common hall is warmed by registers from a furnace in the basement, and the cells only through hand-holes in the doors, 6 x 8 inches square. The building is two stories. First, occupied by males; the second, by females. The brick walls are unplastered, coarse, and repelling, the partitions made of 1 1/2 to 2 inch plank unmatched, and now shrunken so that large fissures are exposed for the harboring of chinch and other vermin. Close stools constitute a portion of the fixtures of the cells, connecting with the vaults below (though these are now closed against use.) The idea is repelling, though the fact in part has been superceded. The bed-ticks, by their collapsed condition, indicate a short supply of straw, and that, old and well worn. Bed clothing, blankets and sheets (when existing), are worn with age, and have suffered long for soap and water; and even the patients throughout the house, in person and clothing, indicate most clearly that the institution is far from being hydropathic in its tendencies. The rooms are, many of them, lumbered up with old trumpery, old cloths, rags, bottles, old tobacco pipes, &c., &c., in a most untidy condition, save in two or three instances where the patients had a very healthy impulse towards cleanliness, be it sane or otherwise.

“One of the most evident evils connected with the institution is the want of systematic classification of its inmates. Male and female, old and young, sick and well, sane or otherwise, the vicious, profane and unclean with the virtuous, gentle and religious, are massed together in a common herd. In fact, the house is a sort of store room, where are thrown in together the odds and ends of a depraved and degenerated humanity—a hot-bed for the rearing and nurture of paupers, without an effort to reclaim from vice, folly, or disease.

“No especial provisions are made for the medical treatment of the insane. A physician is employed by contract, who is required to visit the house twice a week (a ride of two miles), subject to all accidental calls, and furnish his own medicine, for some years past; awarded to the lowest bidder at $50 a year. These facts taken in connection with the population of the house, ranging from one to two hundred—a proportionate large number of children and infirm persons—very little at best can be expected from the medical service rendered the institution towards alleviating the condition of these unfortunate creatures. Indeed, it is little use to write or talk; the half cannot be told.

“The county house of Steuben is and has been since I have known it a bye-word, a shame and disgrace to the county, and yet much credit is due to the keeper, and not a little to the respective superintendents for doing all they can perhaps in their respective positions, and the circumstances under which they are compelled to act. But, true it is, all have a responsibility in the premises; it is an institution of the people, for the people, and is an honor or otherwise, as it nears the full meaning of its lofty and Christian purpose.”

SOURCE: Documents of the Assembly Of The State Of New York, Eighty-Eighth Session, 1865, Volume 6, Nos. 199 to 112 Inclusive, Albany: C. Wendell, Legislative Printer, 1865, Pages 216-217.

New York State County Poor Houses.


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