More Tales from the Poorhouse, by Juliana Smith

Blackwell Island death certificate samples, February 1864I want to thank everyone who wrote in a couple weeks ago following my article on Mary Tobin. I’m sorry I left everyone hanging on what Mom found at the library, but I took off a few days for some family time. This summer has really flown by!

Anyway, I’m back now and have copies of several poorhouse records. For those of you who missed the first column, a few weeks ago, elation at finding an obituary for my fourth great-grandmother, Mary Tobin, led to more questions when we found a Mary Toben who was near enough to the correct age of ninety-eight to be our Mary enumerated on Blackwell’s Island in 1870.

With Mom conveniently visiting Salt Lake City for a conference, she was able to squeeze in a few hours at the Family History Library and locate two records of admission for Mary. I’ve posted images of these records and some other samples here (click on the images to enlarge them) and today I thought we’d explore these finds a bit more.

Death Records from Blackwell’s Island
The first thing Mom checked were the death records available for Blackwell’s Island. We had already checked indexes for both Brooklyn and Manhattan and located a Mary Tobin in a Manhattan death index at the Family History Library. (Naturally that certificate was among a string of certificate numbers that were missing and had not been filmed.) There are certificates of death available for the years 1853 through 1873 (the year our Mary died) for Blackwell’s Island and we thought perhaps we might find one there, but unfortunately this was not the case.

She did grab some samples though, and the records she copied reveal a bit about the conditions on Blackwell’s Island. She copied three pages, with each page containing copies of eight certificates. Of these, one was too dark to read, leaving twenty-three records.

Nearly half of these records listed the cause of death as some form of diarrhea or as enteritis (inflammation of the small intestine caused by ingesting something contaminated by bacteria or viruses–typically food or drink). Three listed “marasmus” as the cause of death (a form of malnutrition). None of these three victims were older than three months.

In fact, of the twenty-three death records, seventeen (roughly 74% or three out of four) were for children under the age of one. Of the remainder, two were twenty-nine years old, one was fifty-two, and the remaining three were in their sixties. The children died mostly from diarrhea or marasmus, and there were two who died in January of pneumonia and bronchitis.

This is an admittedly small sampling and all were from January and February of 1864, but it was eye-opening nonetheless.

Admission RecordsMary Tobin admission, Blackwell's Island, 11 March 1870, page 1
Mom’s next stop was the admission records that were also available on microfilm, and here we had some luck. She found two admissions for Mary Tobin, both in 1870.

The first record gave her name, date of admission (11 March 1870), age (ninety-eight), nativity (Ireland), “cause” (vagrancy), by whom admitted (since the names in this column were repeated throughout the records, it’s obvious that this refers to a person affiliated with the institution admitting each person), occupation (widow), how long in U.S. and where landed (forty years/New York), and remarks. The remarks were really interesting. In this record it said “W.H. 3 mos. Mar. 10 (Inmate).”Mary Tobin, Blackwell Island admission, page 2

The only thing I can think of for W.H. is workhouse. But what could she have been doing in a workhouse at age ninety-eight? I poked around a bit online and found some information on a website for New York Correction History Society. In the section under “The Workhouse” it says,

“The women are made to do the housework and cleaning of the various institutions on the island, and are employed in washing, mending, sewing, knitting, etc.”

That made it a little easier to imagine.

The second admission record for Mary, six pages later, was dated 5 April 1870 and gave us a little more information. All of the identifying information matched up, including the date of the first admission on 11 March 1870. The remarks field gives us more on the route she took with the comment stating “from Almshouse.” Presumably, the first record was her admittance into the Almshouse. So where was she being admitted now? Under cause we find her listed as “incurable.”

In addition to the almshouse, workhouse, and penitentiary, Blackwell’s Island was also home to a smallpox hospital, a hospital for incurables, a charity hospital, and a lunatic asylum. She may have been moved to any of these other facilities on the island.

We can consider the possibilities. If she had some sort of disease that was contagious, it’s possible that was the reason she was no longer living with family. Or, she may have suffered from dementia and posed a danger. As a number of readers reminded me, the hat business at that time was quite toxic. There was an article in a past issue of the “National Genealogical Society Quarterly” (Vol. 89, No. 1, March 2001), by Charles E. Healy, Ph.D., DABT, called “Ancestral Occupations and the Impact of the Workplace on Daily Life: An Application of the Science of Technology.” It discusses a number of occupations that posed significant health hazards to those who worked in those professions.

Hat-making was included and the article discussed how mercury was used in the “felting” process. When heated, the mercury could be vaporized and subsequently inhaled. The symptoms of mercury’s toxic effects are “the root of the familiar term from Lewis Carroll’s nineteenth-century classic, Alice in Wonderland, ‘mad as a hatter.'” With Mary’s family steeped in the hat industry, it’s quite possible, particularly at her advanced age, that she was a victim of the mercury fumes.

An Eye to Geography
I had a lot of help this week from readers and I want to thank all of you; in particular, I want to thank Dr. Kennedy, who has been so generous with his knowledge of Brooklyn and many other matters. He made some important observations. The Tobin brothers mentioned in the previous article had by this time moved from Manhattan. I found Peter and James in Brooklyn in 1860. In fact, Mary was living with Peter in 1860. So why would Mary end up in the almshouse for Manhattan? Shouldn’t she have been in the Kings County poorhouse?

However, as he also pointed out, Peter lived at 366 Hudson in Brooklyn, near the Navy Yard where there were likely a number of commercial ferries departing for Manhattan. A quick check of an 1866 map of Brooklyn and Manhattan showed that indeed, the “Jackson Ferry” appears to depart from the north end of Hudson Ave. If Mary was suffering from dementia, she could have wandered off and ended up crossing into New York City.

More Follow-Up
All of this is still speculation and happily I have a lot of work ahead on this case. (Yes, I said happily. Although this is not the joyful scenario I would hope for my ancestress, I am certainly enjoying unraveling the puzzle!)

I still want more definitive proof that this is our Mary. Although we couldn’t find another Mary Tobin (or anyone close) listed in 1870 with such advanced age, it doesn’t mean it’s not possible that there are two, or even more of them, or some other explanation for her absence.

My next step will be to order a film of discharge records from Blackwell for the time period that Mary was an inmate. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough time to look at that one when Mom was in Salt Lake City. Perhaps if we can find her in those records, we’ll add another piece to the puzzle. I will also be doing more complete research on her sons.

A Vanity Thing?
There have been articles written debating the reasons we research our ancestors. Some believe that we are merely looking for a claim to fame. Mary reminds me that that is not what this is about. It’s about learning all of the stories–the good and the bad, the happy and the sad–and making sure that none of our ancestors from any level of society are forgotten. They all live on in us and so should their stories.

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Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for more than eight years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at  m, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

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8 thoughts on “More Tales from the Poorhouse, by Juliana Smith

  1. I want to thank you for the excellent article re the NYC poorhouse. Some excellent books that may help others better understand that era in NYC with respect to povery are “How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob Riis, and his other book “The Making of an American”. If the ancestors are German, then I also recommend and “Ship Ablaze” by Edward T. O’Donnell. I’m still searching for a relative reputed to have died on Blackwell’s, so this was really helpful!

  2. “…and making sure that none of our ancestors from any level of society are forgotten. They all live on in us and so should their stories.”
    For me I have a softspot and often think about my female ancestors (not direct of course) who never had children of their own. It seems like nearly every generation had them. I realize not everyone desires children, but I believe many did. These women have become special to me and have “adopted” them and collect their stories.

  3. This brought back memories. My grandmother, Ava Jane Dawson, Lancaster and her children were in the “Poor House” in Wetzel County, WV. Her husband, my grandfather had been killed, and she had no way of providing for her children. There was no welfare. And times were rough. And she didn’t want to split up her children. So that is what people in her position did, they went to the “poor house”. There they worked, I remember my mother worked for a doctor. These are just things I remember being talked about by the family. I wish I knew more about that time and the “Poor House” but everyone is gone that would know. By the way, my grandmother ended up marrying the director of the “Poor House”. He was a great step grandfather, his name was William Thomas Huggins.

  4. I have found these articles regarding the poorhouse’s very interesting. My fathers mother died in a poorhouse in Iowa. I was always told as a child that she had died a long time ago, but my mother told me, right before her death, that my grandmother had actually died in 1954. My father was always too embarrased about this situation, so he said his mother had died when he was a child. It appeared that his mother had went into a mental institution/poor house when my father was around 3. Shen subsequently died in a poorhouse in Iowa. I have not had much luck in finding a death certificate for her. Any suggestions woulf be appreciated. Thanks.

  5. Hi ,
    I wish more articles were available with records for the poor houses. I have a couple great uncles and a great grandfather who were born out of wedlock. Two of them were born before the 1870 census in Jackson county ,Arkansas. I also have 3 grgr aunts who were orphaned and cant find them in the 1870 census either… I wish I could have acess to poor house records in the state of Arkansas and Oklahoma. Would love to see if they were there. Grgr granny Ollie was only 15 when the first one was born and she was farmed out to house keep for the Dowell family which is where she became pregnant,but the children werent with her . So who had them?

  6. Would a hospital/sanitarium be called a poorhouse in West Virginia in the 1910-1960 era?

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