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Caring for Longmeadow's Poor

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

Longmeadow Historical Society Archives

Anthropologist Margaret Mead famously identified a healed human femur as the first sign of civilization, reasoning that the care and protection of another person long enough for such a fracture to heal was not possible in a savage society. Caring for those in need is a tenet of most religions and philosophies and residents of early Longmeadow assisted their family members and neighbors when they needed it. While residents might have felt morally obligated to care for those in reduced circumstances, the town of Longmeadow, like all communities in Massachusetts, was legally obligated to care for them. Responsibility for the indigent fell upon the Overseers of the Poor; in Longmeadow, the Selectmen were also the Overseers of the Poor.

Town records in the archives of the Longmeadow Historical Society document hundreds of payments for boarding, medical care, transportation, and clothing for the town’s poor. One example, shown at the top of this article, is the agreement with Samuel Keep, Jr. to provide for Bathsheba Bliss at the rate “three shillings and sixpence per week”. Medicinal needs, “snuff and opium,” were to be provided by the town.

The rate to care for one pauper was not necessarily the same as the rate to care for another pauper. The following order from 1822 shows that Oliver Hawks was paid 42 cents/week to board Mary Hills; at the same time, Horatio Coomes was paid 46½ cents/week to board Asahel Bliss.

Longmeadow Historical Society Archives

Care for the town's paupers was intimately integrated into the Longmeadow community. Many paupers were kin, less-fortunate relatives of the prominent Colton, Cooley, Coomes, Bliss, and Burt families. And they were all members of the same church congregation until 1818 when the Baptist Society was incorporated. Records of First Church show that paupers were assigned pew seats next to their more prosperous neighbors. Since most paupers were housed in private homes, all members of the household got to know them as individuals. These personal connections to the poor, which many of us today do not have, helped to develop compassion for those who were suffering.

The town often found it financially challenging to support its poor, especially at times when large families of indigent persons arrived in town. As fiscally responsible stewards of the town’s finances, the Selectmen sought ways to reduce the town’s expenses as they fulfilled their obligations.

In some years, the town voted to auction their obligation to care for paupers to the lowest bidder. On Nov. 3, 1794, town citizens held this vote:

Town Records 1783-1841

Selectmen tried to prevent future support obligations. When John Spendler, a pauper supported by the town for six years, wished to move to New York, Selectmen availed themselves of the opportunity to ensure that he would not return and, once again, rely on public assistance. The below attestation from John Russell Spendler confirms that “neither myself nor my said Family shall return into any part of this Commonwealth at any time hereafter by which means the said Commonwealth might be subjected to further expense for our support.”

Longmeadow Historical Society Archives

To control costs, many Massachusetts communities set up poorhouses (also known as almshouses) that consolidated the indigent under one roof. Longmeadow, also, considered establishing a poorhouse and, on February 15, 1803, a committee was assigned to explore this possibility. The report, which was presented at the April 11, 1803 town meeting, recommended that a poorhouse be established “as soon as convenience will permit” and offered the committee’s “opinion concerning the support of the poor for the Present year supposing they might be maintained with considerable less expense than they have been maintained the year past and as much for their comfort and convenience provided they were collected together and put under the care of one person.”

Town meeting minutes document that a poorhouse was still under consideration through February, 1804. However, the subject does not appear on later minutes or warrant articles and a Longmeadow poorhouse was never established.

Where was this poorhouse to be located? The records of the June 24, 1811 town meeting give a potential clue: “Voted to grant the Baptist Society in this Town Some part of the property which has been appropriated to the purpose of building a poor house…”

Town Records 1783-1841

The 1831 map shows the Baptist Society in the southeastern part of Longmeadow, near to the present-day intersection of Somers Road and Parker Street in East Longmeadow. Perhaps the proposed location of the poorhouse was in this part of town.

1831 Map of Longmeadow

Selectmen continued to look for ways to reduce expenses. In the 1853 Annual Report, Selectmen questioned the existing system: “In providing for our poor, that course has thus far been continued which was adopted when the number of paupers was confined to but two or three. As each year shows an increase in numbers, and as a consequence, an increased expense, would it not be a better policy for the Town to provide for their poor in some other way? From present circumstances and future prospects, we believe some change desirable, and with barely suggesting the matter to your thought and inquiry, leave it for your consideration.”

The Selectmen’s concerns were valid. Two year later, Longmeadow paid $718.56 to support paupers. While this may not seem like much money in 2021, in 1855 $718.56 was 39% of the total non-school expenses of $1,837.28 and about 20% of the total town expenditures.

1855 Annual Town Report

In 1856, our enterprising Selectmen succeeded in reducing the costs of one pauper by securing annual widow's pension payments to offset the cost of her upkeep.

1856 Annual Town Report

In 1873-1874, Selectmen began reporting all town expenses with much more specificity. For paupers in Longmeadow, this meant that names of individuals assisted by the town, as well as names of individuals who were paid by the town for their support, were widely disseminated. Today, we would consider this to be public shaming. It is tempting to think that this was a plan designed to reduce the number of persons requesting financial support, but I have not found evidence that this was the case; Selectmen, for example, also named every person paid for laboring on the roadways. And, if that was the Selectman's plan, it was an unsuccessful one.

1873-1874 Annual Town Report

But, eventually, the town succeeded in reducing pauper expenses. In the 1908 Annual Report, Selectmen bragged:

1908 Annual Town Report

Today, of course, the many programs which support the poor are funded by federal and state governments, not by local governments.

Contributed by Elizabeth Hoff, LHS Board Member

Originally published September 9, 2021

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