|Keepers of Asylums 1
However essential it may be for the comfort of the poor, that good buildings with convenient arrangements, furniture, &c., should be provided for their accommodation still all these things are secondary to that of the character and disposition of their keeper. On that appointment will their well or ill being mainly depend. If he is a kind, considerate, conscientious man, the mechanical conveniences of the home of the poor will be made to contribute utmost of their capacity to their comfort. But if he be a hasty, brutal and ignorant man, all of these conveniences will be of no avail. The sufferer on the rack experienced, formerly but little modification of misery, whether his tortures were inflicted under the eye of Royalty, in the splendid halls of the Inquisition, or were perpetrated by its satellites, in its gloomy dungeons beneath. From circumstances which have come to my knowledge, I am satisfied that the keeper of an asylum may establish as complete a despotism in his little domain, as exists on earth and that such things have been done, among us. It is sometimes made too much of an object in hiring the keeper of an Asylum to procure a good laborer for the farm, rather than a good care-taker for the poor. And I fear that there are instances where keepers are allowed to understand that the more labor they can get performed by the poor, the better satisfaction they will give their employers. It seems no more than just that such of the poor as are able to work, should be employed in labor according to their ability; but if inconsiderate young men are placed over them and encouraged to over work the poor, great oppression may be caused by it. When the spirit is broken, as in the case of most of the elderly inmates of poor houses, labor is hard to perform, and it is unreasonable to require as much service of such, as of laborers of the same apparent physical ability, who work for hire.
In visiting the poor houses it was my lot to arrive at some of them late in the day, and I have observed in some instances that old men, who had been engaged in labor, had retired early to bed and seemed worried and fatigued. However amiable he may be in character, it is scarcely possible that a young man should be a proper keeper of the poor. Buoyant with youthful expectancy and full of the vigor and health of youth himself, - he cannot rightly estimate or make due allowances for the infirmities of old age. He cannot realize the change that comes over the spirit of man as he advances in life, even when attended by every outward blessing, much less when old age comes on, accompanied by all the privations of poverty and want. He has not yet felt that the arm of man is unnerved for toil when his spirit becomes weary of the world.
I would prefer that the keeper of an Asylum should not be less than 50 years of age of a gentle and considerate, but of a firm disposition; and that his wife should be of the same character, His mind should have been expanded by reading, or by a general intercourse with mankind and he should have a good knowledge of human nature.
Extracts from the Rules and Regulations of Portsmouth Asylum
To show there is a necessity of some State supervision over the poor in Rhode Island, I have thought best to present for your consideration, the following extracts from the Rules of the Portsmouth Asylum.
Rule 14th. No one of the poor shall go off the farm without permission from the Commissioners or Keepers every one who obtains their permission shall return in good order, at the appointed time; if any one is suspected of bringing strong liquors or stolen property into the said Asylum, or on the farm, the keeper shall search such persons, and if found guilty, shall be punished as the Commissioners, or any of them, may direct.
16th. In all cases of solitary confinement for criminal conduct, the person shall be debarred from seeing or conversing with any person, except the Commissioners, the Keeper, or the persons employed to supply their wants, and their food shall consist of bread and water; and shall be kept in confinement as long as the Commissioners, or any one of them may direct.
18th. If any person maintained in the Asylum, shall willfully deface walls, or break the windows of the house, or injure any of the premises; or shall disturb the house by conversing loud, or shall quarrel, abuse, or strike any of the family; or shall behave disrespectfully towards any of those having the care and charge of the house; or shall drink to excess, or be guilty of theft or embezzlement, or shall profanely curse and swear, or be guilty of lying, shall be put into the dark room and there kept as long as the Commissioners or any of them may direct.
20th. If any person capable of working, shall refuse or neglect to work, or shall be idle and will not perform the task for him or her prescribed, or is allotted; or shall spoil or waste any thing delivered to him or her, or shall violate any of the orders of the keeper or keepers, shall be punished as the Commissioners or any one of them may direct,
I believe that it was a maxim of some ancient sage or philosopher that, the government was the best, which gave equal protection to its citizens, without distinction of persons.
If I understand the theory of our own republican institutions, they are sought to be based on this maxim. Our laws are not intended to be framed in reference to persons , but to things. It supposes the administrators of the law, to be deaf and blind to all but the facts relating to the subject before them. Under the same circumstances, the same judgment to be meted to the rich and the poor, and the little and the great. It is the maxim of our laws that the punishment shall not exceed the offence. The Constitution of our country declares “that cruel and unusual punishments shall not be inflicted.”
Now admitting the extremity of poverty to be a crime in the name and behalf of the pauper poor of the State, in all seriousness, I respectively ask you as conservators of the rights and privileges of he people of Rhode-Island, to define what the punishment of that crime shall be.
It seems there is one town, at least, in the State, who, in virtue of authority delegated by you to them to provide for the care of their own poor, have decided poverty to be a crime of so deep a dye, that any one found guilty of the offense within its jurisdiction, shall no longer be deemed worthy to partake of the inestimable privileges of an American citizen. Henceforth, such persons are taken from under the protection of the institutions of their country, and compelled to submit to laws made especially for their government, and of so severe a character, that for offenses so venial as not to entitle them to be reckoned even as misdemeanors in national or state jurisprudence, they are condemned to undergo punishments that would be deemed unusually severe for our State courts to impose for the commission of most flagrant crimes. The operation of these arbitrary laws are rendered still more galling from the fact, that their administration is solely entrusted to one person, from whose decision there is no appeal, and who is empowered to set totally irresponsible to any other authority; neither is he obligated to render any account of his acts to any earthly tribunal whatever. You will observe that in one short section of the laws passed by the town of Portsmouth for the government of their Asylum for the poor, there are thirteen offences enumerated, for the commission of any one of which, it is made the imperative duty of the commissioner to sentence the criminal to solitary confinement in a dungeon, there to be kept on bread and water during his pleasure. So completely are all the safeguards that have been reared for the protection of the rights and liberties of American citizens, annulled in this unmitigated despotism, that the keeper of the Asylum frequently becomes in his own person, accuser, witness, and executioner of the law. When it is considered that this Asylum is insulated from public inspection, that a great part of its inmates for many years past, have been insane and idiotic, and most of the remainder, old and decrepit persons, it will require neither testimony nor argument to convince men acquainted with human nature, that the poor of this town must have been subjected to great wrongs. Neither could such men fail to perceive, that in case the keeper of the Asylum should happen to be a man of a tyrannical and ferocious character, that he would be likely soon to usurp all the powers of the despotism, and administer as well as execute the laws himself. That such a man might be guilty of the greatest enormities in a community over which he could exert so despotic a power, there can be no doubt. It will be observed that one offence thought worthy of solitary confinement during pleasure, is lying. By one of the rules it is made the duty of a commissioner or of the keeper to read the laws to the inmates of the Asylum once a month. It is to be presumed that if any person in the establishment should venture to make any demonstration of complaining of his or her treatment, that in reading the 18th section of the laws already quoted, a significant glance by the keeper to the rebellious pauper and thence toward the dark hole, would convey a hint sufficient to prevent any exposures. It seems to have become an established maxim with some people that all of the public poor are liars, and with such the keeper’s word would doubtless be sufficient to convict any pauper of being guilty of that offence, and consequently a complaint entered to the visiting commissioner would most likely result in the complainant being sentenced to the dungeon for his temerity. Let no one suppose that this is an idle sketch of fancy, and that these laws are never executed. In a community, where a majority can be found to enact such laws, depend upon it individuals will be found to execute them; and that such have been found, not only to execute, but even to abuse them, I have not the least doubt. Turn not lightly from the contemplation of these outrages because the poor only are liable to suffer by them; we know not who may be poor. We know not but that our mothers, our wives, our sisters, our daughters, may yet become the inmates of a poor house; what then if, through the operation of such laws as these, they become subjected to a ruffian's lawless will; what if a widowed wife, or a gray haired mother, at some future day, rendered desperate by oppression, (which is said to make a wise man mad,) should, for daring to complain, be cast into a dungeon and there fed on bread and water, with only a plank to lie upon for days and nights together. And yet would not this be a fit retribution for those who, knowing of such things and having the power to remedy them, refused to do so? Why, it was precisely wrongs like these, that once kept the climax of human forbearance and drove a nation mad that made all France to rise in mass and with gigantic fury, hurl from his throne their monarch to the grave, raze the fabric of the Bastile and tear its dungeons from the ground. The Bastile, once a word of fear throughout the world; its very name had power to chill the heart and make the blood to pause in terror; and yet, the victims of tyranny confined within its cells suffered none the more for the celebrity of their prison- house.
The dungeon of Portsmouth has scarcely been heard of beyond the boundaries of that town, and yet its victims suffer none the less. The bread and water of the captive in the Bastile was probably as sweet as that given to the feeble old woman or the broken spirited old man in the dungeon of Portsmouth; the stone seat of the one, was no harder than that of the other; the darkness all the same. - What then conferred such terror on the name of the Bastile? It certainly was not the stone and mortar of which it was builded as other prisons are. No, it was that in its dungeons lay the victims of a tyrants will; there, condemned to suffer at his caprice, without trial and without law. It was this, and not the prison itself, that nerved with hate the nations arm, and fired that fierce volcanic burst of frenzy that deluged France with blood.
 Thomas R. Hazard, Report on The Poor and Insane in Rhode Island; Made to the General Assembly at its January Session, 1851, Providence: Joseph Knowles, State Printer, 1851, pps 89-95.
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