Growing up I thought one of the worst things that could happen was to end up in the poor house. If we left the lights on, outgrew shoes too quickly, or took more than our share of food we’d hear, “Do you want to send us to the poor house?”
It wasn’t until I was an adult that it occurred to me that one, I never saw a poor house and two, I’d never even met anyone who lived there. As it turns out there really were poor houses throughout the country, including the Old West.
Though poor houses had been in the east since early colonial times, their numbers spread to the west following the westward expansion. Dreams of striking it rich fell through leaving many destitute. Families separated by great distances could no longer turn to each other for help. The Civil War also created a great deal of poverty. Men often returned home to find farms gone or taxes in arrears.
What we call welfare today was once called “outdoor relief.” Indigent people would have to go to an elected town official called an Overseer of the Poor or Poor Master and plead their case.
Before a person could move to an almshouse they had to take the pauper oath swearing they had no more than ten dollars to their names. Poverty was considered a sign of moral weakness so feelings of guilt and shame prevailed.
Being poor wasn’t just an embarrassment it was also treated as a crime, and many of these farms also served as prisons.
No such thing as Social Security existed at the time so, as you might expect, many paupers were elderly people with physical ailments. The greatest number of residents was widows and mothers with small children. Some famous people lived in poor houses including Annie Oakley who was sent to one at age 9.
Even back then, fraud flourished and people claimed to be paupers who weren’t. One farm superintendent accidentally found a $1000 dollars hidden in an inmate’s belongings. The man preferred living off charity than his own resources.
Paupers were expected to work and many of these farms grew cotton and other crops. Some poor houses were run with compassion, but most were not.
A Texas “Poor Farm” Romance
One story I came across involved a poor farm in Cass County, Texas. An elderly man ended up there after losing all his money. There he met a woman he had once been engaged to when he was a young man of 21 and she was 18. The families had been against the wedding and the two were forced to break off their betrothal. The elderly couple picked up where they left off and decided to marry. He asked the county supervisors to let them continue to live on the farm after they wed, but was denied permission. Two people were not allowed to marry after taking the pauper’s oath.
Soon after, the woman went to live with her daughter. She requested that a white rose be placed on her shroud to symbolize a love that had lasted through a lifetime, and hoped they would meet again in heaven.
Thank goodness Social Security put an end to poor houses, which brings up the question: What do parents threaten their kids with today?
Maggie Michaels is sent to Arizona Territory as an undercover mail order bride to track down the notorious Whistle-Stop Bandit. If she doesn’t prove the suspect guilty before the wedding—she could end up as his wife!