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CAPTAIN ROBERT KEAYNE, a philanthropic citizen, and founder of the “Military Company of the Massachusetts,” afterward known as the “Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company,” bequeathed to the Town the sum of one hundred and twenty pounds sterling for the purpose of erecting an Almshouse. Other bequests of one hundred pounds and forty pounds, to be devoted to this object, were made by Mr. Henry Webb, a public-spirited merchant, and Deacon Henry Bridgham, a tanner. At a Town Meeting, March 31, 1662, it was voted that these legacies be received, and that the Town proceed “to agree and compound with severall workemen for stones and timber for the erecting and finishing of the Allmehouse.”
Frequent allusions to this Institution are to be found in the Selectmen’s Records. For example, a woman named Elinor Reed is mentioned as having been entertained there in August, 1708. The first Board of Overseers of the Poor was elected in 1691; and from an early date its members were accustomed to make periodical visits to all parts of the Town, sometimes at night. They were accompanied on these occasions by other officials, and it was a part of their duty to observe carefully economic conditions among the poorer inhabitants. It devolved upon the constables to report cases of idleness and thriftlessness.
In Bennett’s “Manuscript History of New England,” 1740, the author stated that the Boston authorities provided very well for their poor, and were very tender of exposing those that had lived in a handsome manner. “And for the meaner sort,” he wrote, “they have a place built on purpose, which is called the Town Alms-house, where they are kepi in a decent manner.... There are above a hundred poor persons in this house, and there is no such thing to be seen in town as a strolling beggar. And it is a rare thing to meet with any drunken people, or to hear an oath sworn in the streets.” This first almshouse was built in 1662 at or near the corner of Beacon and Park Streets. It was burned down in 1682, and a new structure was erected four years after at the head of Park Street, where stands the large, brick building known as the Amory-Ticknor house. The second almshouse, of two stories, with a gambrel roof, fronted on Beacon Street. For some years this was the most pretentious, if not the only building on that thoroughfare, whereof the easterly portion, from School Street to the site of the present State House, was laid out in March, 1640. It was officially described in 1708 as “the way leading from Mrs. Whetcomb’s Corner, by the house of Captain Fairweather, westerly through the upper side of the Common, and so down to the sea.” In a Deed of the year 1750, Beacon Street is mentioned as the “Lane leading to the Almshouse.” In 1702 Francis Thresher was appointed “to take care in getting the Alms-House yard, Burying Place and Pound well fenced in and the Almes or Work House repaired; and to procure some Spinning Wheeles for setting the poor at work.” Although originally intended solely as a home for the deserving poor, the Almshouse was afterward used also as a place of confinement for criminals and vagrants, until the erection of a House of Correction or Bridewell on the adjoining lot in the early part of the eighteenth century. At a Town Meeting, March 9, 1713, one of the Articles of the Warrant read as follows: “to see whether the Almshouse ought not to be restored to it’s primitive and pious design, even for the relief of the necessitous, that they might lead a quiet, peaceable and godly life there; whereas ‘t is now made a Bridewell and House of Correction, which obstructs many honest, poor people from going there.” In 1729 there were eighty-eight inmates, the majority being strangers; and only one third “town born” children. The Almshouse, as well as the adjoining Workhouse, was used for the reception of British soldiers who were wounded at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
During the strenuous years of the Revolutionary War, the occupants of the Almshouse were left at times in a deplorable condition. In April, 1781, the Overseers of the Poor “represented in a most affecting manner the suffering and almost perishing circumstances of the poor in the Almshouse, and the necessity of an immediate and adequate supply of money to provide for their support.” A year later the Overseers reported that they were sorry to be under the disagreeable necessity of informing the Town regarding the unhappy situation of the Almshouse inmates, for want of the necessaries of life. In 1790 the building had nearly three hundred occupants; and a committee reported that the Boston establishment was probably the only Institution of its kind where persons of every class were lodged under the same roof. At a Town Meeting, May 25, 1795, Messrs. Thomas Dawes, Samuel Brown, and George Richards Minot were appointed agents for and in behalf of the inhabitants of Boston, “to sell at public auction all that parcel of land occupied for an Almshouse and Workhouse, and for other purposes, extending from Common to Beacon Streets.”
It was voted, moreover, to erect at Barton’s Point, on the north side of Leverett Street, a more commodious structure; and the new Almshouse was completed and occupied at the close of the year 1800.
“No More,” wrote Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, in his “Historical Description of Boston,” “will the staid townsman or the jocund youth, proceeding to the Common on Election or Independence Days, be interrupted by the diminutive hands thrust through the holes in the Almshouse fence, or stretched from beneath the gates; or by the small and forlorn voices of the children of the destitute inmates, entreating for money. Nor will the cries of the wretched poor in those miserable habitations be heard calling for bread, which oftentimes the Town had not to give.”Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.