2012-06-28 / News

JHS 100 years: The poor you will always have with you


In the hard times of the early 19th century, 30 percent of its residents deserted Jamestown – some for the more promising farmlands in Ohio and beyond, others for the factories of the industrial revolution. At home, formerly prosperous Jamestowners fell into debt, poverty and depression.

Until after the Civil War, debtors in Rhode Island could be imprisoned for defaulting on their obligations. One case from the immediate post-Revolution period seems particularly poignant.

Benjamin Underwood was born in Jamestown about 40 years before the Revolution began. He was a farmer and –by his record – a civic minded patriot. He was elected town clerk (1760-82), town warden (1768-73, 1776-81), and representative to the General Assembly in 1776. He was a captain in the Newport County militia regiment from 1761 to 1776 and recruiting officer in 1777 and 1780.

When the British occupied Conanicut Island in 1776, Underwood fled with his wife and six children to the mainland. When he returned after the occupation ended in 1779, he found his house uninhabitable and his farm a wasteland.

He tried to recover. The town owed him about 91 pounds – between $9,000 and $11,000 today – for his services as town clerk and in the General Assembly. In 1780, he received about a quarter of the amount owed to him. Samuel Babcock of South Kingstown lent him – perhaps had lent him earlier while he was living off-island – a sum approximately equal to the amount still owed to him.

In August 1781, Babcock sued for payment of the debt. Since Underwood was unable to repay the loan, he was imprisoned in Newport until he could.

Underwood languished in prison for 53 months, writing legal petitions for other prisoners and building wooden boxes and pails to get cash for food, since at this period prisoners were not fed by the government. During his imprisonment he kept a diary of which four pages, documenting 24 days of his life, have survived. Finally, in 1786, he petitioned the General Assembly that he “be discharg’d from the Contracts on which held and become a more Useful Citizen to the State.” The General Assembly released him and gave him three years to repay his debt. He died a pauper sometime in 1790.

Until 1927, when the office was renamed “director of public aid” and more recently “welfare director,” the “overseers of the poor” were responsible for ensuring that those who could not take care of themselves – either because they were unable to work or because they were mentally impaired or disturbed – were cared for by others. The number of paupers needing care was usually not large. In general, families took care of their own and out-of-town paupers were returned to their hometowns. In the 1840s, a decade for which some detailed data is available, no children and only five or six elderly or mentally disturbed adults were supported by the town. The cost to the town, in modern dollars, was about $11,000 annually.

George C. Carr, the president of the Town Council, explained the Jamestown system for a statewide investigation in 1850. The overseers advertised for proposals for keeping the poor and then contracted out their care. No security other than the written agreement was requested. Supervision was at the discretion of the overseers. No medical assistance was offered by the town.

Some of the poor, especially those with serious mental problems, were sent to an asylum in South Kingstown where they were housed, fed and kept under surveillance. (The only hospital where the mentally ill could receive treatment was Butler Hospital in Providence. No Jamestowners were at Butler at the time.)

If one story related in Thomas R. Hazard’s report on the 1850 investigation is true, Jamestown’s treatment of its insane could be cruel. “I am credibly informed that a small building ... formerly stood in the highway ... in which an insane man by the name of Armstrong had been confined for nearly twenty years, the year round without fire ... the building was elevated on posts some feet from the ground, and the floor made of slats, with spaces between them, after the manner of a corn crib – that the excrements of the prisoner might be allowed to pass, and thereby prevent the necessity of cleansing his house.”

Hazard’s report also accused Jamestown of misusing money given for the care of the poor. Andrew Freebody bequeathed his Jamestown farm to Peleg Potter on the condition that he and his heirs pay into the “hands of the overseers of the poor ... the sum of thirty dollars annually [to be] prudently applied as a surplus assistance for the comfortable support and maintenance of all real objects of pity.” Each year the $30 went into the general fund instead of being used for the specified purpose.

This is the 11th in a series of articles chronicling the history of Jamestown in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Jamestown Historical Society

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