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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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