Saturday, June 25, 2016

Poorhouse...the story of Columbiana County Part 2

Present day view of what was once the house for the insane later converted to a woman's dormitory in 1960.

A photo taken around the turn of the century of inmates taken in front of the men's dormitory. Courtesy of the Lisbon Historical Society

As these articles proceed I would just like to say that these stories can be pretty bleak. Our nation tumbled into madness in the era up to and after the Civil War. These were also dark times for our county. I in no way wish to sensationalize this time period of the poorhouse but also realize that it is part of it's history and plays an important role of who these people were and their story.

In 1860 the board of directors authorized a contract for the now named "County Infirmary". A new building was built for a new men's dormitory. It had a full basement and was two stories tall. It was completed in 1864 at a total cost of $12,570.00. This is the main building of the three that you always see in photos. Ironically this building was later added onto making it a "T" shape to accommodate more people in later years. Almost ten years to the completion of that building, another building to house the mentally insane was built at a cost of $8,000.00. It was three stories tall.  The three buildings as they are seen today are (from the left) the insane asylum (later converted to a women's dormitory), the men's dormitory, and the superintendent's living quarters. All three used the same red brick. The thing about the superintendent's house that has always bothered me is that it has the same sandstone foundation and the same red brick the other buildings do. I think the original farm house used in 1830 probably was torn down after it was used for the farm in some manor. I could never find any record of that though. In some of the old photos of the whole farm a wooden structure can be seen along with chicken coops and various farm sheds. I suspect that the original farmhouse was probably converted to a shed when a bigger home was built. The newer Superintendent's house had a full kitchen in the basement that was used to cook the meals for the inmates.
 The term "Inmates" has always been used from the earliest of entries in the books. All that it took to be "committed" was a recommendation from a family member with a doctor or a local judge and or a prominent public figure. Once on the farm they lived there until they died or were sent to live with other relatives that would claim them. Some of them however would just up and leave or runaway if they were able. The mentally disturbed and some of the handicapped however were kept under lock and key and usually never left the institution. People with what is now known as Epilepsy that suffered from violent and severe fits were kept in the asylum. The same goes for the mentally handicapped. If they were at all a danger to themselves or to others they were separated and locked down. The terms that the ledgers used to describe these poor souls were pretty crass by today's standards. The epileptic were described as having the "Fits" while the mentally handicapped were listed as "Idiotic". Well into the 1880's Epilepsy was still considered a mental illness. An illness that was also treated by dosages of Mercury which was a common treatment at the time. Over and over in these ledgers thats how people were described. It wasn't a lack of compassion it was just a total lack of understanding and most likely a tremendous amount of fear as well. 

Nothing about the the insane asylum was pleasant. It was not a treatment center but a warehouse to keep the insane and the handicapped. It was built primarily to separate the paupers from the people who were genuinely mentally insane, unfortunately those that were not insane but suffered with afflictions they did not understand were kept there too. The mentally ill often scared the regular paupers so a means of separation was necessary.

 The treatment of the insane in 1864 was pretty crude. In the bigger cities and state run institutions leaches, bloodletting, and the boring of skulls were commonplace as acceptable treatment. Thank God these practices were never practiced in our county ever. In fact many people that were dangerous or uncontrollable were shipped out to a state institution in a bigger city. The popular "Idea" at the time was a term called "Alienation". This idea suggested that the reason people were having mental issues was the cause of an advancing society. The inventions of steam engines, light bulbs, and countless other gadgets that transformed villages into cities in a short time contributed to the overall stress of mankind. Thus asylums and institutions were built in the rural areas to return the "patient" to a sense of calm. 

Since the very beginning the infirmary/Poorhouse had always had patients that were insane. With the Civil War ending in 1865 though the amount of people in need of mental health care exploded in the county. Everyone from surviving widows and children to solders with extreme post traumatic stress disorders. They were simply kept from hurting others and hurting themselves. Thus the new building was built with ten by ten "cells" to lock them down. Cell doors were solid with one small window that was barred and the doors were locked with a hasp from the outside. Each cell had  an outside window for light that in later years had to be latticed with iron because of inmates jumping out of them. Indoor plumbing ( running water, indoor sewage) would not happen on the farm until the 1930's ( almost seventy years later). Chamber pots were common at night and during the day for the confined. Early newspaper accounts and state reports relate raw sewage running near the old well pump in a trench that emptied into a nearby creek across from the farm. Many many years later a bath house was added to the basement floor. Paupers and the insane were usually bathed once a week. By bathed I mean about four at a time in a very large round cast iron tub.This was the standard for institutions across the state at the time. There was also a group indoor restroom that would accommodate up to ten people side by side on a long bench.

 At night it was a different story. It was not uncommon for inmates to be locked up inside their cells, four people in a 10' x 10' room (with some tied to their beds) unattended with the windows shut until morning. Imagine this in the summer? Take a minute and think about this. Imagine being committed here.. by a judge... by a husband.. for being "insane". As a women you could have been suffering from mere menopause or postpartum depression. I have ran across both as actual reasons for commitment. As a man you could have been suffering from PTSD occurred from the Civil War. Diseases such as Syphilis would cause insanity if left untreated long term. There were many many cases of that at the time. All were treated the same. There was just simply not enough help or money to provide 24 hr care for these people. It was the lack of understanding that doomed all unfortunately, and really what could ever be expected of that era? It was the beginning of mental health care for our nation. Nothing was understood and treated...just observed and noted unfortunately. These were people that most likely could have been helped by today's medicine and practices, but were simply warehoused.. kept away from the sane so they wouldn't "harm" them. How many were geniuses? How many were like Eisenstein? These are the things I think about when I read these ledgers. We will never know the greatness of these people, what they might have accomplished had they have gotten the treatment they actually needed. In a dark way they were the great ones, unfortunately they were the ones that paved the way for modern medicine. Paved the way for better and safer institutions. Their mistreatment and suffering should never ever be forgotten.

A cell as it is today. Complete with a barred door. The paint may be flaking but the size of the room has never changed in the last 152 years.

   A "barred" window of a cell.

This is the view of the 2nd floor of the "Insane Asylum". It's still there.. It adds credibility to the stories in the ledgers.. disbelieve, horror, and hope.. there is always hope... Twenty five years ago I drove by graffiti on an old bridge underpass in Cleveland that read.."Revolution is the Hope of the Hopeless".... I personally have never forgot this...ever. Sometimes recalling or discovering history is just that.. It's a revelation that starts a revolution. 


Early reports of the Ohio Board of State Charities, an inspection arm of the state, were developed to spot check these institutions for abuse and safety infractions. They would reveal problems in a yearly journal that was published for the public. Most of the poorhouses around the state would get an unannounced visit by an inspector. The inspector would note infractions and recommend solutions for each place. Everything was published both good and bad. Oftentimes the inspectors would just look at the surface and move on. As long as the sheets were clean and the rooms were in order all was well.  These same inspectors would also inspect city jails as well. These reports could be trusted as an honest third party objectionable view of the conditions at these institutions. Many times though things were missed. 

Local newspapers on the other hand were a lot different. Most of the stories were sensationalized to work up a frenzy with the public. Some reports tugged at the heartstrings of the public to cause anger against a superintendent that clearly the paper did not support. Although these reports always had some truth to them you had to take them for what they were sometimes. Here are two examples:

From the Ohio Bulletin of Charities and Correction April 1897.

Monday, April 27th, visited Columbiana County jail and Infirmary- the later institution in company with Dr. Moore, of the board of county visitors. At the infirmary I found two of the directors. The condition of this institution is vastly improved since my last visit. Suggestions made at this time in relation to the care of clothes of inmates and bed clothing have been adopted and as a result there has been a decided improvement in the appearance of the sleeping rooms. Formerly the clothes were hung on the walls and behind the doors and the rooms were further littered by the presence of trunks and boxes. Now all of these impedimenta are removed to the clothing rooms provided for such purposes. White bed spreads have replaced the dingy blue check gingham sheets formally used, the beds of the male inmates as well as those of the other sex have benefited from the change.
The infirmary buildings are old and infirm like so many of the inmates. They are as poorly arranged as could well be imagined. No amount of care on the part of the officers will be able to enforce the separation of the sexes. Everything that can be done to further this one of the essential considerations of the infirmary management is being done, but with no certainty of success, as is shown by the condition of one of the female inmates, a feeble minded women who at the time of my visit was enceinte (pregnant), the father of her unborn child being an inmate also of the infirmary....

Some of the earlier reports called out unsanitary conditions at the farm, the use of ropes being too tight that held the insane to their beds, and the lack of sufficient help. There were good reports as well, especially with some of the better superintendents that were hired in later years. Reports of a clean and well run farm and infirmary were common in these years. 

Here is a report from The Ohio Patriot paper in New Lisbon that ran in 1867:

Joe Bratt, a demented East Liver-poolian, escaped from the infirmary last week by tying his bed-clothes together and climbing down from the window by the improvised rope. He was, however, recaptured before leaving the grounds. Joe says his only purpose was to come to Lisbon and aid the editor of the Patriot in his crusade against the neglect of the superintendent to provide the inmates of the infirmary with butter on their bread...

As you can plainly see that yes an escape attempt probably happened,  but one can doubt that "Joe" was on a mission for the just cause of butter... let alone being a weekly reader of the Patriot...

There are so many stories and reports of mistreatment and abuse left to tell. It is incredibly sad. Sadness enough to last several lifetimes. Like I have said before though, this is only a part of this history.. I do however want to leave you with this final story.

From the same Ohio Bulletin Of Charities and Corrections report in 1897 was this entry:

There was also in this infirmary an exceedingly bright faced and intelligent Negro boy- about twelve or thirteen years of age sadly deformed. He had had the care of the children's home at Alliance for some time but was returned from that place several years ago to the poorhouse. This method of caring for homeless or dependent children who are further handicapped by disease or deformity, the denying to them of privileges granted to sound and healthy children, is pernicious. The time must come when the " Melancholy Residuum" as they have been called, those unfortunate children, mentally sound but weak or deficient physically, who are not wanted, either in private or public homes, and who if admitted to the latter must be discharged there from to go whither they may or to the county poorhouse, the time must come, I say, When this class will be given suitable protection that will supply as far as may be the natural advantages of which they have been deprived from the accident of birth or misfortune. At my request the clerk of the board of the infirmary directors of Columbiana County, C. D. Filson, has furnished me with a short history with the boy alluded above...

Andrew O. Bowles was born in Salineville Columbiana County. He was crippled in his limbs from birth but of sound mind. He was sent to the children's home in Alliance. The officers there would not keep him because they could not place him in a home on account of him being a cripple. He was returned to the infirmary on Sept 5th 1892 aged ten years. Since coming here he has learned his letters, music and fancy knitting, so you will see that he is capable of receiving instruction. It does seem to be a wrong thing to keep such children in the infirmary. His parents are dead.

If it wasn't for Caroll Bell and her research I would have never had known anything about this young man. His name jumped out at me on a page that she compiled detailing the deaths that occurred at the infirmary. I shared this story with my good friend Craig Wetzel. He did some research on Andrew's family and this is what he found.

Andrew's mother (Laura Lee Bowels) was born on September 4th 1856 in Berkeley County West Virginia (then Virginia). The 1870 census described her as a "Mulatto" (part African American part Caucasian). She was thirteen and listed as an Indentured Servant to the white family of Samuel Hopewell. Samuel was a prominent barber at the time. She was probably a debt that needed settled by her family and given up for this service. 

Andrew's father's history was a little sketchy. He was listed as being born in either Kentucky or Virginia in 1852. He was listed in the 1880 census as a black barber. Although other reports list him as a coal miner from Kentucky that moved to Ohio looking for work. They met and married in Hancock County WV. on May 13th 1875.

I don't care where you are from or where your background took place, (at any point in history). Undeniably the most powerful force in the universe has always been love. It doesn't reason, it doesn't think, it doesn't care about nationality or race..  it just happens.. It survives wars, it survives injustice, it surpasses all human reasoning.. and looking back into history it has always had a purpose...

By 1880 they moved to Salineville Ohio with two children, a boy named George (born in 1876) and a daughter named Martha (born in 1878). They also had two other children while living in Salineville, a son named Walter (born in 1880) and of course Andrew who was born on May 22nd 1882.

Andrew unfortunately was born deformed in his legs. No other explanation was ever described. Two years later his mother Laura died of heart failure from a hemorrhage on March 8th 1884 at 27 years of age. Soon after, their father placed all of the children in the Fairmount Children's home in Alliance Ohio. He apparently died a short time later from a coal mining related illness. 

So here we are a broken family not allowed to survive... but survival has so many different forms..things that we don't ever see coming..

 The son George was reported to have died in the children's home a few years later. Martha went on to be indentured by the home to a family in Cleveland. Later in life she became an educator in Ohio until she passed away. Walter somehow survived by being fostered out and grew up. He moved away to Detroit Michigan in his teen years. He worked as a chauffeur for a white family. While there he fell in love with a German immigrant woman who worked as a domestic (cook /maid) named Lydia and married her in Canada. They remained residents of Michigan until their deaths. They had three children and operated a successful auto mechanics business in Detroit. 

Andrew was different. He was handicapped, and not easily adopted out in those times. Though he hung on he was never to have another family. He was eventually sent to our county poorhouse because of being unable to be placed into a foster home by the orphanage. This is where the state inspector saw him and documented him in his report in 1897. Over one hundred years later Carroll Bell would list him in the Infirmary records that she had spent years going through compiling them from death certificates. The details of his death and occupation would eventually jump out at me decades later...

Andrew O Bowels.. passed away at the age of 26 on June 25th in 1908 from Pneumonia. He was documented as being colored and single. He is buried somewhere on the poorhouse property. What jumped out at me was his occupation. He was a barber.

He wasn't a war hero or a pottery owner. He wasn't a political statesman or a prominent community leader. He was a barber. He cut the hair of his "family" at the poorhouse.

 The definition of dignity has always been measured by character. Character has and will always be the cornerstone of dignity. Here is a young man that overcame emotional and physical problems all of his lifetime and served others. He chose to serve others.. his choices gave him his purpose. 

I can't think of a more dignified and humble example of a human like Andrew but there are hundreds more just like him. These were the men and women that somehow found themselves living in a poorhouse. People of resolve, people of character, people of perseverance, men and women that came from and impacted our Columbiana County. 

In the next article we are going to find out where these amazing people came from. 




  1. Very interesting story! I noticed the bell in the pics on the side of the story. Where is it located?

  2. Thank you! The bell is located at Our Lords Church Down town near ST. Als. More can be seen at:

  3. Where is the old poorhouse located?

    1. Between RT. 172 and RT.30 on County home road outside of the city of Lisbon.

  4. I may have a great grandfather who died of TB at the Infirmary. I am trying to locate the Infirmary Registry. Would you know of the registry's whereabouts?

  5. The Columbiana County Archive and Research center would have all of the ledgers indexed and copied. They are located pretty close to the courthouse in Lisbon.