The site of the Portsmouth Asylum is silent now, overgrown with bittersweet and bramble on the southwest corner of the Raytheon property. The only clue to its presence, a stockwell, a cistern, and several sunken foundations, the stones covered with the coursing mud of years of runoff and neglect. Perhaps the well is still in use by local deer, their trails radiating through the thicket. The site has been largely forgotten. The modern age moves on, oblivious to an important era in local history where good intentions, tempered in the fires of deterrence, met poor results, and paupers were left shuddering in shame and repression.
A cautionary tale told to children, the poorhouse in myth was as bad in life. Nineteenth century poorhouses were all too real and their repression all too common. Dotting the American landscape, poorhouses were run by counties or townships. In Rhode Island, as in most of New England, strong, deep-rooted townships, and lack of will to collectively share cost burdens, yielded many poorhouses run by towns.
The town of Portsmouth, situated at the northern end of the Island of Aquidneck (once called Rhode Island), was settled in 1638 by Anne and William Hutchinson and William Coddington, refugees from religious suppression in Boston. The town thrived and became widely settled. Support for the poor typically took the form of auctioning off the poor to the lowest bidder, or outdoor relief, where funds were provided by the town to allow the poor to remain in their residences or paid friends or relatives to care for them. The funding for relief was through a separate poor tax, and good-will had a high water mark.
With poor relief rolls swelling, the poor tax rates began to rise precipitously. Resentment built between haves and have-nots and the poor were more and more viewed as a problem to be solved. The law in Rhode Island in support of welfare of the poor, at this time, was based on English law "43 Elizabeth",2 where the parish was established as the administrative unit responsible for poor relief, with churchwardens or parish overseers collecting poor-rates and allocating relief. This law also directed the provision of materials such as flax, hemp and wool to provide work for the able-bodied poor and the setting to work and apprenticeship of children. This 1601 law set out responsibilities for the overseers of the poor to create taxes "to set the Poor on Work"2 and also sufficient funding "for and towards the necessary Relief of the Lame, Impotent, Old, Blind, and such other among them being Poor, and not able to work".2 Reacting to the mounting tax burden, and the general impression of leniency on the able poor, the Town of Portsmouth, in 1832, set forth an act 3 to create the Portsmouth Asylum to commit those who require assistance "by their evil courses"3. Those taking in a friend or relative on Outdoor Relief, now had to care for them with their own funds or give them up to the overseer of the poor for commitment to the Asylum. As with other poorhouses of that period, deterrence was a large factor. The logic was to make poor farms so uncomfortable, that no able person would want to stay. This would reduce the number of poor chargeable to the town and hence lower poor taxes. Requiring the able to work was only one of the deterrences. It was the whole concept of deterrence and the way this concept was woven into the fabric of rules, regulations, and ultimately treatment of all inmates that not only made it disagreeable and uncomfortable for the able poor, it became oppressive for all inmates and deadly for some.
"I have suffered much for fear of the insane, and sometimes cannot sleep, for fear of being attacked by them."5She had reportedly had her arm broken by an insane women brandishing a fire hook, and later was hurt in rescuing a one year old child from the same insane woman, being hit on the shoulder with a chair for her efforts. The insane woman was ultimately chained, but not before her attack on old Mrs. Cornell, a woman of about 86 years of age as recounted in the report:
"She beat her with a broom stick on the head, back, and arm, and bruised her arm badly and hurt the bone - so that she could never after that, dress or undress herself."5Mrs. Cornell died shortly thereafter, a passing "hastened by the beating she received"5. There was no treatment for the insane in the Portsmouth Asylum, but a warehousing of them in deplorable conditions. The concept of curative treatment for the insane was relatively new at that time. Many thought insanity something to be endured, and with very little compassion. The severely insane, who might perpetually foul their clothes, were typically kept without clothing and away from fire, even through winter months. To be kept from getting underfoot, the insane were routinely chained to the floor or bailed with sackcloth, if the chains allowed too much range of motion. In his report to the Assembly, Thomas R. Hazard, the State commissioner for the poor, recalled an encounter with a bailed inmate named Dennis:
". . . a raving maniac, and not only chained at the Portsmouth Asylum, but absolutely baled, as it were, in sack-cloth. I remember, whilst he lay in this situation, putting an apple beside him, which he eat after the manner of a brute, by gnawing it as well as he could as it rolled about on the floor."5Though having respectable and influential relations in town, they were unable to get him transferred to a curative hospital. Some weeks later Dennis passed away. Though mostly hostile or indifferent to the plight of the Insane, not all in Portsmouth were coldhearted as recollected by Thomas Hazard:
"For some years great efforts have occasionally been made by the more humane portion of the people of the town of Portsmouth, to relieve their insane poor, but without effect. They have not only been uniformly out voted in their town meetings, but it has been too evident that their exertions in behalf of the poor maniacs have only tended to rivit more firmly their chains. However divided on other subjects, all parties seem there to unite under the banner of oppression. It was on one of these occasions, when the question of relieving the insane poor was under discussion, that I heard a former Commissioner of the poor, in a town meeting in Portsmouth, declare in a loud and boasting voice, that he had himself once severely flogged an insane person at their Asylum; and to all appearances, the shamless avowal of his brutish exploit, excited the approbation rather than the disgust of the majority of the assembly."5Work and Punishment
The Portsmouth Asylum was located on a farm in South Portsmouth and all able poor inmates were expected to work in return for food and shelter. Refusal to work or any one of several offenses could receive disproportionate punishment as recounted by Thomas Hazard:
"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."5Given the restrictive regulations and the swift disproportionate punishments, life in the Portsmouth Asylum was filled with few joys and many sorrows. From town records, we know that chickens were raised for egg production , sheep were raised for wool and meat, pigs were raised, butter was sold, onions grown, and apples sold by the bushel.6 Seaweed was also harvested and sold by the load, and oakum picked. It is this last item, oakum, which has connotations with prisons, brigs, and poor houses. Oakum is recycled fibers, tediously hand "picked" from old hemp ropes to create loosely twisted fiber yarn for caulking the hulls of ships. In 1849, 1601 pounds of oakum were picked by the residents which earned 2 1/4 cents per pound. 6 This was considered "busy work for idle hands" to while away winter days and inclement weather. Other opportunities for oppression arise where keepers are poorly chosen without experience or consideration as observed by Thomas Hazard:
"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."5Oversights and Reforms
Abuses at the Portsmouth Asylum did not escape the notice of the State Commissioner of the Poor, Thomas R. Hazard in his many visits. In his Report on the Poor and Insane in Rhode Island,5 Mr. Hazard outlines the abuses inherent in the current Town Asylum system in Rhode Island with Portsmouth as the example of the need for change. On the use of dungeons or dark cubes for solitary confinement Mr. Hazard recommended laws be passed:
"That corporal punishment, and all imprisonment or confinement in dark rooms, or in dungeons, be totally prohibited at Asylums for the poor, in Rhode-Island, by Statute law."5Experience with the abuses of confinement with chains and bailing led Mr. Hazard to recommend laws restricting their use:
"That the use of chains in Asylums for the poor, or bonds intended to confine the limbs, be positively prohibited; excepting in instances where they may be absolutely necessary to effect the removal of an insane person to a curative Hospital, or to transfer a pauper, charged with the commission of a crime, to the officers of the state."5In response to the lack of curative care for the Insane despite there being state resources with good treatment prospects, Mr. Hazard recommended a law:
"That after the passage of this act, all persons who may become insane and chargeable to the public shall be placed at the Butler Hospital, provided they may be received there at a rate not exceeding that which is now charged that institution for the maintenance and treatment of Insane paupers."5
The Fall of the Asylum
 Michael B. Katz, In the Shadow of the Poorhouse, a Social History of Welfare in America, BasicBooks, Tenth Anniversary Edition, 1996.
Origins of the Asylum
Insane In Their Midst
Work and Punishment
Oversights and Reforms
The Fall of the Asylum
Oakum-picking in a London Workhouse c.1904. © PRO 30/69/1663
Oakum-picking in a Victorian Prison was Considered "Hard Labor" from the Hulton Getty Picture Collection
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