THE ONONDAGA HILL POORHOUSE STORY
                                                                                       Excerpts from a Presentation by
                                                                                        Town of Onondaga Historian
                                                                                                 L. Jane Tracy
 
Children of the Poor House.
 
On November 10, 1831, an 8-year-old girl named Dorlaskie Wilkinson was admitted to the Onondaga County Poor House on Onondaga Hill. Imagine an 8-year-old girl who has just had her whole life turned upside-down by some terrible calamity, and now she's been brought to stay in this cold, forbidding looking building. THE POOR HOUSE! She'd heard people talk about the Poor House and it wasn't a place she'd ever dreamed of seeing. Who would cherish and care for her here?

One month later, on December 10th, the Poor House charged the town of Camillus $1.65 for a pair of shoes and a couple of yards of plaid cloth from which a dress was to be made for Dorlaskie. In December there were charges for shirting and thread - 22 cents & 10 cents; and another 6 cents on January 16 for a quarter yard of calico. The entry on January 19 reads "On Trial at Obadiah Williams, Manlius". Well, she was out of the Poor House, but was it better or worse? How long was she there? Dorlaskie was just one of the children sent out from the Poor House during those early years.

There are many stories in the 205 ledgers that are now at the Historical Society. In the ledger for 1827-1831, there are 2 pages listing the "Names of Children bound out, their ages, to whom bound". A page in the back of the 1831-1836 ledger lists "Pauper Children bound since January 1st, 1831".
The Standard, a Syracuse newspaper, ran an article on January 21st, 1856, as follows:
 
POOR HOUSE CHILDREN
 
Children of both sexes, from infancy to 15 years of age, can be obtained at the 0nondaga County Poor House. on trial for 2 months, and then if desired, to be bound out until the females are 18 and the males 21 years of age. Applications may he made to either the County Superintendent or to the Keeper of the Poor House.
Male and female help from the age of 15 upwards can be supplied for reasonable support and clothing.
signed H. K. Warren
 
Secretary
 
By 1875, The State Board of Charities had passed a law prohibiting admission of children over age 3 or under 16 to the poorhouse unless they were insane, epileptic or otherwise "unfit for family care". Children were instead sent to orphan asylums or placed with what we now call foster families.
 
The Beginnings of Poor Houses
 
New York State's first publicly supported institution for dependent people was opened in New York City in 1736 and was called "The House of Correction, Workhouse and Poorhouse". It housed the poor who refused to work, the poor who were unable to work and the poor who were willing but unable to find work. Following the opening of this institution, more poorhouses were opened throughout the province. A poor law enacted in 1773 was the last and most comprehensive since colonial New York poor law. It still relied on removal of non-resident poor as in previous Poor Laws, and parents and grandparents of dependents were required to provide as much of their support as possible.

The first state Poor Law, passed in 1784, increased local responsibility. Another law in 1788 made each town or city responsible for its poor and all towns and cities were authorized to build almshouses if desired. The poor could apply for relief to the overseers, who for the first time were required to register all applicants for poor relief. The overseers could place children in indentureships or apprenticeships.
A law of 1824 authorized counties to establish poorhouses. Town Overseers could send paupers applying for relief to the county poorhouse and could also send beggars under age 15 "to be instructed in labor" until they could be self-supporting. The poorhouse superintendent could direct inmates to work to cover the cost of their support.
 
"Please Tell Me Who I Am"
 
One evening, just after I began cataloguing the Onondaga County Poor House ledgers, I received a telephone call. A woman introduced herself and told me she was in another state with her ailing, elderly mother, who had just told her that she was an adopted child who had been born in the Onondaga County Hospital. She began a search for her birth record that brought her to me and the Poor House ledgers. Her adoptive mother told her that her birth date was correct and that she thought her birth name was Patricia. She told me her birth date was May 14, 1933. She gave me her address and I agreed to let her know as soon as I found out anything. The next morning I was at Town Hall, found the ledger titled "Record of Births - December 1927 - December 1937". The only birth on May 14, 1933 was for a female child named Patricia Ann Bennett. Then I went to the ledger for 1933 and located the admission record for her mother, Elodie Bennett. Elodie was an 18-year-old Nursemaid with a high school education, born in Oxford, Pennsylvania and moved to New York State with her family in 1926. Elodie's mother was Catherine Simons Bennett, her father was LeRoy Bennett. The sister who accompanied Elodie at the time of her admission was Ethel Bennett and they lived at 15 Frederick Street, East Syracuse, New York. I couldn't believe I'd found all this information. I lugged those heavy ledgers up the stairs, made Xerox copies and put them in the mail. That evening, I had another call from the lady checking on her birth. I told her I'd found the information, made copies, that it was in the mail and she'd probably have it tomorrow. Her reply to me was, "But I can't wait. Please tell me who I am."
 
Families in the Poor House.
 
The ledgers are filled with cases for over one hundred fifty years. The page titled "Manlius" tells us that on January 7, 1831, Betsey Houser, age 34, was admitted to the Poor House with her 6 children. There's a separate admission record for each child. Shortly after arrival, her eldest daughter, Emeline, 13 years old, was sent "on trial at James Cook, Skaneateles". Daughter Catherine, 19, was sent to Steward Field, Onondaga. Son William, 11, spent a little over a week at the Poor House, then was sent "on trial at the Onondaga Hill farm of Rufus Cossit". Twelve weeks and 6 days later, Betsey Houser was discharged with her 6-year-old daughter Margaret and 5-year-old son Charles. This came shortly after the April 2nd death of her year old daughter, Mary. Where was Betsy's husband? Were the mother and baby Mary ill when they arrived? Did Emeline and Catherine rejoin their mother or were they bound out until they reached legal age? As Historians, we'll immediately begin to put these people in their historical context, the time period in which they appear, and find out what was going on in the area at that time. Were these people coming into the Poor House during the time of an epidemic? Were they immigrants traveling through the area? Sometimes, they simply wanted a place for the winter, as we see in this article from the Syracuse Journal, November 20, 1861:
 
"Going the Rounds"
 
"There are some paupers who go the rounds of the poorhouses through the state, working on farms, canal boats or otherwise during the summer, and bringing up in the public almshouses of the county where they may chance to be when winter sets in. It is a matter of some difficulty to guard against the impositions of these professional vagabonds. One of this class recently made application to the Troy House of Industry and on being questioned, admitted that within a few years he had been an inmate of no less than 37 poorhouses."
 
Poor House Ledgers.
 
For the budget year of 1914, Onondaga County paid total wages of $25,593.19 to a staff which included a doctor, nurses, cooks, ward helpers, seamstresses, laundresses and waitresses. Monthly pay in 1915 for teamster John Ochsner was $30; for kitchen helper Augusta Richards it was $15. In January of that year, County Home Superintendent Elmer Van Benthuysen received $166.67. His wife, Hattie, received $41.69 for her work as Matron.
 
 An 1877 record shows causes of dependency of 362 persons at the Onondaga County Poor House as follows:

Vagrancy 127
Intemperance direct 64
Indigent and destitute 53
Lunacy 42
Sickness 30
Debauchery 13
Old Age 10
Bastardy 7
Lameness 6
Idiocy 6
Blindness 4
 
Deaths at the Poor House.
 
Deaths and burials of inmates seem to have been handled in two ways. Early on, the Poor House buried their own dead behind the Poor House complex on what has been called "Poor House Knoll" or "Bunker Hill". During epidemics we know they were buried there in mass graves. There is also a one-acre plot called Willow Grove behind the Walnut Grove Cemetery on Onondaga Hill that was a county burial ground for some years before the present Loomis Hill Cemetery. Deaths of inmates were kept on 2 pages at the back of the earliest ledger, 1827-1831. The next ledger, 1831-1836, contains one page of Deaths. By 1896, continuing through 1973, the deaths are listed in 4 separate ledgers. One page shows several deceased inmates were picked up by Syracuse Medical College. Pasted inside the back cover is the State Law which said, in essence, that corpses not claimed by relatives or friends within 24 hours after notice of death, were to be sent to the nearest medical college for the purpose of teaching medicine, anatomy or surgery.
 
Register of Pauper Indians.
 

Another particularly interesting ledger is titled "Register of Pauper Indians in the Onondaga County Poor House from 1895-1920". The probable reason for keeping these records in a separate ledger was that the charges for each inmate were billed to the appropriate municipality; the charges for Native Americans were likely billed directly to the State or Federal government. The first entry was on January 12, 1895 for Nancy Hill, age 30 and her 5 children, ages 12, 10, 8, 4 and 2. The family stayed at the Poor House until July 12, 1895, when it is noted that Nancy "recovered and returned to the Onondaga Reservation". However, the 5 children were "transferred to the Thomas Asylum for Indian Children". After some research I discovered that the Thomas Asylum was incorporated in 1855 as a private institution within the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation in Erie County. It was charged to receive destitute and orphaned children from all Indian reservations in the state. It was named for Philip E. Thomas, a benefactor of New York's Indians and an early financial backer of the asylum. In 1875 ownership of the asylum was transferred to the State of New York. Its emphasis was now on education, rather than simply a residence, and the name was changed in 1905 to the Thomas Indian School. It operated until 1957. The New York State Archives lists over 50 cubic feet of records for this school, including superintendent's daily diaries, daily diet logs, register of trustees and visitors, photographs of activities and facilities, financial reports, farm production reports and inmate records & case reports.
 
Ledgers transferred to Town of Onondaga
Historical Society.
 

The stories related here are among thousands contained in a truckload of ledgers transferred to the Town of Onondaga Historical Society by the Van Duyn Home and Hospital. These records had been carefully stored in the basement of the present county hospital, but the hospital's records are now automated and like most businesses, the hospital needed the storage space. The Historical Society is extremely pleased to become the caretaker of this treasure trove of historic information. The ledgers have been catalogued and shelved and are available for research.
Most of the ledgers have the names of the Keepers printed on their faces. The heading inside the first ledger says, "Onondaga County Poor House opened for the reception of Paupers, December 18, 1827 - Peter R. Skinner, appointed Keeper".
 
Growth of the Poor House and Hospital,
 
Another treasure is the original hand-written specification for the first limestone building. In 1817 the Town of Onondaga voted to raise $500 to build a facility to house the county's indigent and chronically ill. Up to that time, their care had been relegated to private homes at municipal expense. There was a time in Onondaga County when debtors were auctioned off to the lowest bidder. Perhaps it was this practice, as well as the rising cost of caring for the poor, that prompted the County Board of Supervisors in 1827 to purchase a 145-acre farm on Onondaga Hill for $18 an acre. The original 2-story limestone structure, a barn, cowhouse and backhouse were completed on December 18, 1827.at a final cost of $2,825. There was no mention of how many people they thought this facility would serve. They just thought it was a nice, big house and would take care of a lot of people. They had no idea how fast the population of the Poor House would grow. All early sketches and photos show it as a 3-story building and none of the files show it as it was originally built - a 2story building. Records do tell us that it wasn't until 1868 that the third story was added to the original building. Before that, additional stone buildings had been attached to the main building in 1854, 1860 and 1863. In the 1920's the yellow brick building was added at the end of the row of stone buildings. In the 19301s, 3 of the stone buildings were torn down and the red brick "Men's Building" joined the 1854 limestone building to the yellow brick building. These are still standing in 1996. (Editor's note: These buildings were razed in 1998.)

In 1827 when the Onondaga County Poor House was established as a residence for the destitute, the homeless or those without families to care for them, medical and nursing care were not contemplated. It was almost a half century before hospitals became available in the community. The first County Hospital or Infirmary was built in 1900 to the east of the original limestone Poor House building, and the more seriously ill were segregated there. Newspaper articles state that the famed Archimedes Russell was the architect for the first county hospital building. Ten thousand.dollars was appropriated, with stone suitable for the buildings to be quarried on the County Farm using inmate labor. In 1916 the Tuberculosis Sanatorium was completed nearby and the patients who were ill with tuberculosis were transferred there.

It might be interesting to think about what the early Superintendents of the Poor House must have had to face. Onondaga County was a heavily infested malaria region and smallpox, measles, typhoid fever and tuberculosis were prevalent. The War Between the States took many providers away from their families and provisions for dependents in those days were poorly organized. The old Pogey Pond provided the water supply for the Home and the barn and likely at first it wasn't fenced off from the pasture land. It was but a short time before that first Hospital building was filled to overflowing. In 1928 a new fireproof hospital building was annexed to the left of the original hospital. This new building had beds for 200 patients. About 1950, the original portion of the building was demolished and a new addition was added to the far right.

The cornerstone laying for the Women's Building is noted in a June 12, 1908 newspaper. This building was occupied for about 60 years and was demolished in 1968. All that remains today is the double line of beautiful trees bordering the path to the former front door.
 
Inventories and Reports:
 
An 1828 inventory of "Furniture on Hand at the Onondaga County Poor House" tells us a lot about the way these folks lived. There were: 3 pine tables and 1 cherry table, 7 benches and 31 chairs, 33 bed steads and bed cords, 41 straw beds and 4 feather beds. Also there seem to be enough blankets, quilts, comforters to have a couple for each bed. For the "Inner Man", there were 29 Testaments, 1 Bible, and 6 spelling books. All kinds of tubs, pails, pots, barrels, kettles and cleaning utensils. Two cradles were listed next to 2 large wheels and 1 foot wheel. Probably the women in the spinning room cared for the babies in the cradles next to them. There also was the equipment necessary to feed all these people: milk pans and pails, 6 baking pans, 2 coffee pots, 6 pepper boxes and 6 salt boxes, 1 coffee mill. For the workmen there was an adze, an auger, 5 jointers, 1 each jack plane, saw, hammer, hatchet and wedge. And of course, the shoe hammer, shoe knives, tacks and lasts to repair or perhaps make their own shoes.
 
The Superintendent of the Poor House made an Annual Report to the Supervisors of the County. In November 1829 they reported that there had been 45 paupers in the Poor House at the time of the last annual report and in the year since, they had received 226, for a total of 271. 155 have been discharged, 21 have absconded, 2 have leave of absence, 10 children are out on trial, 11 girls & boys have been bound out, 21 have died, 51 still remain on hand. Since they opened 2 years ago, they have had to take on a hired man, and the record justifies this by saying, "... it might be proper here to remark, very little reliance could be placed on the inmates for assistance, particularly the men, as most of them came sick or lame, and when sufficiently recovered to be able to support themselves, have been discharged...." However, the following list tells us that a lot of work was being done, and they only had one hired man. During the past year they had put out an orchard of 70 apple trees, built 35 rods of stone wall and 75 rods of new rail fence. The reported produce taken from the farm for the first year included: 5 acres wheat, 7 acres corn, 5 acres barley, 5 acres peas, 160 bushels potatoes, 12 bushels beans, 15 bushels onions, a large supply of garden vegetables, 6 tons of hay. They also had 16 hogs and 2 cows. The average weekly cost for keeping paupers in that year of 1829 was 88-1/2 cents. As was the case in most poorhouses, the inmates worked for their keep unless they were physically unable.
 
Changes in Name and Patient Care.
 

The New York City Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island was the first municipal mental hospital in the United States, founded in 1834. The State Hospital for the Insane at Utica was established in 1842. The first references to the insane found in the Onondaga County Poor House are in the first ledgers, in the column asking for "Cause of Dependence" and noting Lunacy. Page 300 of the 1874-1889 ledger is titled "Insayne Discharged and Died 1878 & 1877". A newspaper article refers to the 1863 stone building as "the new Insane Asylum - 32 feet by 76 feet, three stories high". Prior to this building, the insane lived with other inmates or the worst cases were interred in cells in the basement. An 1897 newspaper article tells of an unannounced visit by an enterprising reporter who found a dungeon or cellar in which an insane man was found "stark naked ... His shrunken cheeks, hollow eyes sunk deep in their sockets, and his emaciated feeble form, told of the shameful and degrading treatment this poor helpless human being had been subjected to, in being immersed in a dark, loathsome and filthy dungeon". Many newspaper items from this period tended to elaborate, so we can only hope the poor fellow wasn't quite as bad off as this would appear. However, later articles do tell of "Poor House Reforms" and a change made in the Keeper. Another clue to the changing social mores is the change of name from "County Poor House" in 1827 to the kinder "Onondaga Home & Hospital" in 1861. In 1954 the facility was renamed "Van Duyn Home & Hospital", in honor of a distinguished family of physicians who served the Syracuse area for almost a century. In 1959 the County took over the previous State Tuberculosis Sanatorium off West Seneca Turnpike, a few miles from the original Poor House complex, and in 1975, the new Van Duyn Home and Hospital buildings were built on this site. 

 

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last updated May, 2015