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Beware the Boston Almshouse

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  May 20, 2013 12:03 PM

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Boston Almshouse2.jpg
Public housing has always been a politically charged issue. That’s true in Boston today and, according to a pair of historians, it was true in late-18th century Boston as well, where residents of the burgeoning city had to figure out what to do with a rapidly expanding population of poor people.

One of their chief tools was the almshouse. In a new paper published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Ruth Wallis Herndon and Amilcar Challú of Bowling Green University explain that from 1795-1801, nearly five percent of Boston’s population took shelter for at least a short time in the Boston Almshouse, which was located directly adjacent to the Common. Many almshouse residents came from the densely populated North End; others were immigrants who’d lived in the commercial and shipping neighborhoods in the center of the city.

The almshouse was part public charity and part ghetto. Boston maintained a twelve-member board of overseers of the poor that was responsible for consigning the city’s most indigent residents to the almhouse (though many other poor residents took refuge there voluntarily, especially during the winter). However, when city magistrates encountered people “whose characters are suspicious, whose morals are bad, who have no settled reputable means for a livelihood,” they skipped the almshouse and instead relocated these unwanted citizens back to their hometowns using a legal mechanism known as “warning out.”

Begin forced from the city may have actually been preferable to living in the almshouse, which had a 20 percent mortality rate, most likely from infectious diseases. And in 1801 the Boston elite decided that the almshouse had become a blight, and so they moved it from the Common to the distant West End, which was still mostly rural at the time. The new almshouse had twice the capacity of the old one—but more importantly, it helped to sanitize the core of the prospering city.

Image of the Boston Almshouse on Leverett Street in the West End, 1828, via Wikimedia Commons.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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