Friday, May 5, 2017

The Muskingum County Infirmary

For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good....
                                                                                                                 --King James Bible, Mark 14:7

The admonition to care for the poor and the outcast has been around for quite some time, although the type of care provided was not often kind. In England, "paupers" were consigned to workhouses; in America they went to the poorhouse, sometimes known as the almshouse, or in the case of Muskingum County, the infirmary. Whatever the place was called, these "charitable" institutions were often inhospitable and inhumane, run by governing boards whose primary concern was keeping operating costs to a minimum. Being sent to the poorhouse was everyone's worst nightmare.

The infirmary about 1910
Muskingum County first authorized the establishment of a county poorhouse in 1816. Twenty-two years later, the county purchased one hundred acres in Falls Township to be the site for the "County Poor Farm". (Most early county poorhouses were actually self-sustaining farms.) Construction of the first "poor house" began in 1839. That building, partially destroyed by fire in 1859, was rebuilt and enlarged in 1860. In 1863, the county purchased an additional 100 acres adjacent to the original purchase, and although no longer officially called a farm, all but 30 acres of woodland was under cultivation. The building that stood on Newark Avenue until its recent demolition was erected in 1880.

The "poor house" was renamed an "infirmary" on March 23, 1850, in what today would be called a  PR move to improve the institution's image. "Poor house" was a misnomer anyway; like other poorhouses, the Muskingum County Infirmary housed not only the poor, but also those with developmental or physical handicaps, the frail elderly, and those suffering from mental illness. A page from the 1860 U.S. census of the infirmary illustrates the variety of human "condition" the poorhouse system attempted, with limited resources and understanding, to accommodate. On this page (one of three) fourteen people are listed as "pauper", sixteen as "insane", one as "deaf mute", and six as "idiotic".  One can imagine the near impossibility of adequately and compassionately serving the needs of this diverse population.

1 comment:

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