Albany, New York’s Dutch Church started a “Poor Fund,” probably shortly after the arrival of Dominie Johannes Megapolensis (1603–1670) in 1642. Disbursements were being made from the fund by 1647. Albany’s Patroon, Dutch merchants and others contributed to the collections of the church and the church in turn was made contributions to support the community’s impoverished residents.
On April 23, 1652, Dutch Director General Peter Stuyvesant (1610-1672) granted land to the Dutch Church to construct a house to shelter the poor. Since at least 1664, surgeon Cornelis van Dijck (1642-1686) was paid an annual fee to administer to the poor.
In 1683, Governor Thomas Dongan (1634-1715, the 2nd Earl of Limerick, a member of the Irish Parliament, a Royalist military officer during the English Civil War, and Governor of the Province of New York from 1683 to 1688) convened the first representative body for the colony of New York, the New York General Assembly.
One of the first laws passed by the Assembly was a law regarding the treatment of orphans. In 1685, the Dutch Church constructed a building to house the poor by the side of the Rutten Kill. According to the Colonial Albany Social History Project:
“The Ruttenkill rises above today’s Lark Street as several feeders flow together. It was a small stream – swelled by rains and spring runoff. It runs from west to east and between Hudson and State Streets. Above South Pearl Street, the Ruttenkill created a deeply eroded ravine that inhibited development of that part of the city until the nineteenth century. On the eastern end, its banks were features of many early property lines. Historic maps show bridges over the stream as it ran across Pearl and Court Streets. It emptied into the Hudson just south of the foot of State Street.”
In the mid- to late-1600s the Dutch Church regularly gave alms (money or food) to about 6-12 Albany residents. In January 1695, the Dutch Church engaged Hans Kros and his wife Antje to provide Claes Janse with “lodging, board and washing.”
When Claes Janse died on June 12th the church paid all the expenses for his burial from the Poor Fund including:
1 Dead Shirt and cap 16g
Winding Sheet 14g
Making the coffin 24g
1 lb. nails and cartage of the coffin 3g 10s
2 half vats of good beer 30g
6 bottles of rum 22g 10s
5 gallons of Maderia Wine 42g
Tobacco pipes and sugar 4g 10s
3 cartloads of sand for the grave 1g 10s
Hendrik Roseboom for grave digging 30g
3 boards for the coffin and use of the pall.
Even though Claes Janse was destitute, he got a good send-off in the Dutch tradition. Much of the alcohol, pipes and tobacco may have been used by the “watchers,” who attended what probably was a three-day wake.
In 1703, the New York Colonial Assembly passed an act authorizing Albany to hire an Overseer of the Poor and granted authority for the city to take steps to protect and care for the poor. The Overseer of the Poor had existed long before 1703, but this act more clearly defined the authority of the office. It gave overseers power to purchase materials for setting the poor to work and appoint men to supervise them. In 1720, the act incorporating the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church referred to land set aside as a Poor House.
With the coming of the American Revolution in 1776 and the adoption of a Constitution for the State of New York on April 20, 1777, Albany was evolving from a feudalistic society (land owner and tenants) under the Van Rensselaers to a modern democracy with elected leaders and the responsibility for caring for the poor began to fall more to the state.
The newfound power of democracy brought the responsibility to provide for public works such as road, bridge and public building construction, and also the responsibility of providing social services and for the first time, instituting taxes to fund these programs.
In 1788, New York State passed a legislative act re-establishing most of the policies of the 1703 law. This act established an Alms House in Albany, among the first of its kind in New York.
In 1810, Albany’s new jail housed those convicted of crimes, but also provided housing for the sick and many alcoholics and others who had violated Albany’s laws against vagrancy. In a short time the jail filled with people who were not convicted of crimes, but were there for these other purposes.
In 1826, at a cost of $14,000, Albany constructed a new Poor House to house and care for the poor and the indigent portion of the jail population. It opened the first day with 123 occupants. The Poor House Farm, as it was then called, comprised 116 acres on lower New Scotland Avenue across from Albany Medical School.
By the 1800s, New York State had adopted the British laws on Poor Houses. Those laws assumed that people would live in the same local community for generations and that local community had the responsibility to care for long-time residents if they should fall sick or become disabled. If a poor person found themselves in a new community and destitute, they would be temporarily cared for by the new community, but then taken by a constable back to their traditional home. The traditional hometown would be obligated to reimburse any other town that had cared for him.
Under this law in New York, constables were constantly moving destitute people back and forth across the state. Also, there was much litigation between towns disputing responsibility and trying to recover funds spent on the poor. Sometimes the poor were moved back and forth several times as lawsuits and appeals were won and lost. The city and county of Albany jointly financed the Albany Poor House.
Residents of Albany’s Poor House fell into many different categories. The largest category was referred to as “Intemperance in the use of ardent spirits” which was estimated to be half of the occupants. Other groups included people with very low mental ability, psychological problems, disabled due to accident or birth defect, sick, unwed mothers, widows with children, disorderly persons who had been arrested on vagrancy charges, and as early as 1823 some were classified as malingerers (those who it was believed could support themselves with their own efforts, but refused to).
An additional problem was caused by Great Britain offering inducements to handicapped and indigent people, as well as criminals, to come to the United States. In some towns and most of the rest of the state, the practice was to force indigent people into indentured servitude. After the Civil War the 13th Amendment made indentured servitude illegal.
Towns could, and often did, solicit bids from individuals for the lowest amount the person would charge to house, feed and clothe the indigent person. The poor person would be given to the bidder that charged the town the least amount. Some bidders were Good Samaritans willing to help the poor; others were simply looking for workers that came with a town stipend and treated the indigent person somewhere between hired help and a slave.
In 1823, New York’s Governor Joseph Yates (1768-1837, Governor in 1823-24), at the request of the legislature, had the Secretary of State prepare a report on the status of “Paupers supported at the public expense” in New York. Albany’s Overseer of the Poor gave the most thorough report:
“In the city of Albany, 126 paupers were supported in, and 20 out of the alms house; 26 of those in the alms house are employed in cultivating the farm, the remainder in picking hair and oakum and in the internal and domestic concerns of the establishment. Of the 126 paupers in the almshouse, 56 are male, 70 female and 46 children under 7 years of age.
“The salary of the superintendent is $300; of an Overseer of the Poor is $100; two physicians are $250 each. Twenty-three paupers have been removed by order. The farm attached to the almshouse contains about 60 acres.”
Albany’s Overseer also reported (this has been lightly edited for clarity):
“The present system of common schools sustained by the direct patronage of our state government, provides education to the ignorant and poor and strikes at the root of poverty and vice. It now rests with the legislature to adopt a system to ameliorate the condition of the subjects of public charity.
“Intemperance in the use of ardent spirits is a fruitful source of pauperism and misery. Habits of intemperance are not to be conquered by any restraints which it is in the power of the civil authority to interpose, and all attempts to affect this object will be found vain.
“I am of the opinion however that if any measure could be devised to diminish the use of spirituous liquors the condition of the poor would be at once improved for it is doubtless the principal cause of the suffering of a large proportion of the poor.
“I have come to the conclusion that the erection of houses of industry is the only effectual mode of improvement. The legislature should compel the erection of houses of employment in the several counties in the state in a large and commodious building connected with a farm so all who are sent there might be employed. A house of correction should be attached to this building so that disorderly persons can be confined and employed. This plan would afford to the virtuous and unfortunate poor an advantage over the intemperate or vicious poor in reference to cleanliness, sobriety, submission, industry and faithfulness to their work and thereby avoid the indiscriminate arrangement in most almshouses.
“Plans of reform, like the one above proposed, will as a matter of course, and from its novelty and expense, meet with a cold reception and I am prepared to hear the popular objection.
“The transmission of paupers from county to county by constables is a feature of our Poor Law that ought to be abandoned. There is too much barbarity in this disposition of the poor. The expense upon this mode of disposing of the poor is enormous; the constable into whose custody the pauper is committed is compelled to rid himself of the pauper. The unhappy subject of this barbarous practice is handled about from constable to constable and not infrequently, from one extremity of the state to the other, generally in feeble health and in inclement weather. This practice must be abandoned.
“The litigation between towns to force paupers to become the responsibility of one or the other and to recover expenses should be terminated. The fraud growing out of the present system such as the common practice of procuring paupers to be set down in towns where they have no settlement is an imperfection in the present law.
“Permit me to state one case: a poor unfortunate lunatic, of the age of 18 or 20 years, was left in our streets this winter and in the night, who’s feet were in consequence badly frozen. He could give no intelligent account of himself but from all of the circumstances there was much reason to believe that this was one of the tricks frequently resorted to by towns to rid themselves of paupers. By necessity he was admitted to the Albany Almshouse where he remained for several months until an accidental admission by a stranger allowed his residence to be ascertained.
“There is another prominent defect in our Poor Laws that requires the support of foreign poor. Due to the constant influx of foreigners into our city, this bears extremely hard on us and all of the counties adjacent to the Hudson River. Our cost last year exceeded $2,000. I don’t know how to prevent an increase in this class so long as inducements to emigration are held out by the government of Great Britain.
“The sixteenth section of our law refers to the remedy to be given to a town burdened by a sick or lame pauper. A poor person is taken sick or lame in the city of New York whose settlement is the town of Buffalo, must be taken by constable to Buffalo a distance of 450 miles with his witnesses to substantiate the claim to two Justices of the Peace, who are authorized to cause the claims necessary to the maintenance of the pauper to be reimbursed by the town of Buffalo. It is necessary to spend $100 to perhaps recover $50. This section is basically remediless.”
Compare Albany’s operation of a Poor House to Coeymans:
“We have no Poor House or house of industry. Our method of managing poor of late is to sell their board and clothing to the lowest bidder and have them all supported at one place by one man. Previously, we had hired each one’s board at different places in our town, by the week and by the year. But we find no method of supporting our poor so easy as now.”
Or to Guilderland:
“There were 8 paupers sent to this town from the town of Knox by an order of removal. We appealed and the appeal is still pending in the Supreme Court. The costs will probably not be less than $800. I am convinced that a total alteration of the pauper system has become necessary.”
As a result of the Yates Report, laws were changed in New York in 1824 requiring counties to build Poor Houses. Indigent people became the responsibility of the county where they were located when they first needed assistance; they could no longer be shipped around. Each poor house was required to have an attached farm. Albany responded to this by building a new brick building of 10 rooms, warmed by furnaces and stoves with an adjacent farm.
Albany’s Poor House was located on the north side of what would be Holland Avenue, on the site of the current Veterans Administration Hospital and the Albany Medical Center parking garage.
A graveyard was developed at the site to bury Poor House residents who died and also: “The unclaimed dead of the streets, the river and penitentiary are buried in these grounds and the cattle and geese are here impounded.”
1857 Albany Poor House Report
Thirty-three years after the enactment of the Poor House Law in New York and just prior to the Civil War, Albany’s Keeper of the Poor House reported (this is lightly edited for clarity):
“This establishment embraces 4 buildings constructed of brick, one is 40 x 70 feet and two others 32 x 90 feet, connected to a farm of 216 acres, yielding an annual revenue estimated at $6,000. In the Poor House proper there are 10 rooms housing from 6 to 40 paupers in a single room.
“The average number of inmates is 350, and the keeper reports that the number is declining, and states the cause of decline is the reduction in the amount of immigration. They are supported at an average monthly cost of 90 cents exclusive of the products of the farm. The paupers who are able are employed on the farm and in the house. It is supplied with bibles and the city missionary preaches here once or twice each Sabbath.
“A teacher is employed here during the whole year, who teaches the common English branches to an average number of about 50 children. On arriving at a proper age (reported to be 9 years of age) they are bound out to various trades and employments by the Overseer of Poor of the city.
“To attend the paupers, a physician is employed at an annual salary of $800. He is assisted by two resident medical students, who are boarded for their services. The physician visits once each day and the students twice. For bathing, two bathrooms are furnished in the insane asylum and two in the fever hospital.
“During the year 32 births have occurred in the house and 71 deaths. The keeper thinks that 25 of these births were illegitimate offspring. During the same time, the inmates have suffered from small pox, typhoid fever and dysentery.
“They have a good pest or fever house, constructed of brick 24 x 100 feet and two stories high. It embraces 4 wards and 100 beds. It currently houses 32 sick; only two cases of fever, the rest chronic cases.
“Of the inmates, 73 are lunatics, 32 males and 41 females; 70 are paupers, the remaining three cases pay from $3 to $4.50 per week. There is an insane asylum in connection with the alms house, built of brick, 40 x 90 feet, two stories in height, containing 38 rooms and 8 more in the basement with convenient halls and yards. Thirty-nine lunatics have been admitted in the last year. They are under the care of the house physician and 4 attendants; 2 male and 2 female. When necessary, they are confined in small rooms, which is the only means of restraint used. When out of the building they are confined in commodious yards. Seven during the year were released as being cured and 2 more are improved.
“It is judged that two-thirds of the whole number of insane are improved. One lunatic escaped on the 5th of January last and froze to death. Frequent applications are made for admission to the State Institution but refused.
“Four paupers are idiots [meaning here people of low intelligence], three males and one female; two are under 16 years of age. There is one deaf and dumb [mute] – 14 years old, and three blind.
“One half, at least, of the paupers are reduced to their present position by reason of intemperate habits.
In the year 2000, the Poor House Burial Ground was partially removed and relocated to the Church Ground Section of Albany Rural Cemetery as new construction was begun at Sage Colleges. Several thousand people were moved but some interments are still believed to remain near the intersection of New Scotland and Holland Avenues.
Photo: Albany County Almshouse in 1932.