Alternative Homes for the Insane

Johnson County (Iowa) Poor Farm and Asylum, courtesy Johnson County Historical Society

The U.S., like most countries,  had groups of people who failed to be self-sufficient. Widows and orphans, the unemployed, the elderly,  the sick (and sometimes criminals), fell into this category  when they had no families to help sustain them. England had usually looked to workhouses to take this population off its hands. Though they were seldom of the same punitive nature as English workhouses, a few American workhouses placed inmates in cells or put them in chains.

Like the English, Americans tended to resent people who fell upon public aid or did not do their share to sustain themselves.  In the U.S., many communities relied on poor farms to aid people who were unable to find work or keep a home for their families. Farm work was something the population understood, and even children could contribute their share by helping with tasks suited to their age and ability. There was still a great deal of shame and stigma attached to “going to the poor farm,” and most people wanted to avoid it.

Before large public asylums became more available, insane people were often sent to workhouses and poor farms when they had no one to care for them. These places  could offer nothing in the way of therapy, and these unfortunates were often doomed to a life spent in unhappy conditions.

Men Working in Broom Factory at Poorhouse circa 1915

Poor Farm in Buckheart Township, Illinois

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