After years of whispered rumors, in June 1881 Indianapolis began investigating allegations of rampant abuse, negligence, and fraud in its county poorhouse. In spite of fears among the poorhouse’s inmates that “They will be thrown in the dungeon” by the superintendent of the poorhouse, Mr. Wright, if they offered critical testimony, several inmates (and they were inmates, more than visitors or residents) came forward to share their experiences. There were beatings, solitary confinement in the cellar, rancid food and drink, and inadequate ventilation, heating, blanketing, and medical care. Ed Akins accused the resident physician, Dr. Culbertson, of giving him diabetes from “a peculiar kind of tea” and then denying him any medicine. Samuel Churchwell’s two-year-old child was removed from its mother, left so underclothed in winter that “its legs had been frozen,” starved to the point of being unable to recognize its parents upon being returned to them, then caught a cold and died. A newborn died when Dr. Culbertson, who had no professional experience but a legal record with a conviction for assault and battery, waited two days to examine it. Oliver Thomas, an “insane idiot” child unable to recognize his own name, whipped Harry White, another child, several times when Harry screamed after being frightened by a dog. Mr. Wright had also beaten Harry with the cowhide that Wright always kept by his side, since Harry “had used careless language and was full of fun.”

That was just the beginning. The real bad stuff, and some thoughts on our views toward poverty then and now, follow...

From roughly the 1820s through the 1880s, the poorhouse was the method of choice for supporting people who could not support themselves. Initially, reformers had hoped poorhouses might serve a therapeutic purpose, treating and rehabilitating people who could be put back on the path toward independence. More commonly, they became a place where social undesirables could be warehoused, out of sight and out of mind, part of a larger attitude of making social dependency so frightful and terrible that no one in his right mind would refuse a day’s work, no matter how bad the pay or how dangerous the conditions.

The poorhouses often also became part of the local political machine. Under the same partisan control as the rest of the city and county agencies, poorhouses typically did not answer to any form of oversight other than highly partisan officials, like those that oversaw Indianapolis’s poorhouse, the Board of County Commissioners.  Mr. Wright and his family, for instance, had been hired by that board, and then provided all male inmates over the age of twenty-one with new suits of clothes in October 1880, in order to encourage their vote in the presidential elections. They then were offered only Republican tickets. Wright confiscated their clothes after the election.

Motivated perhaps in equal parts by partisanship, genuine sympathy for the inmates, and revulsion at the “parasites” supposedly allowed to prosper and thrive living in such an environment, Thomas A. Hendricks, a former Democratic governor of Indiana, U.S. Senator, and vice presidential candidate to Samuel Tilden, later the vice president to Grover Cleveland, presented his findings about the poorhouse to the Republican-controlled Board of County Commissioners. Although all the local newspapers reported the details of abuse with lurid and highly partisan interest, the focus of Hendricks’ case, and object of greatest media sensation, was a poorhouse resident known as “Big Moll.”

Big Moll was really either Molly, Mollie, or Mary Oliver, depending on which newspaper you read, and she was presented as the embodiment of everything that was wrong with the poorhouse system, and, by extension, everything that was wrong with the “parasitic,” “unworthy” poor. Life had not been easy for Moll. About twenty-eight by her own guess, she had either been born or abandoned in a poorhouse, spent time in jail, and shown “a remarkable facility for gaining admission to poor farms.” She had four children, each out of wedlock, at least one, scandalously, from a black man, and according to hearsay she had burned one of her children to death by resting it on a steam coil. At Indianapolis’s poorhouse, she seems to have cursed, mistreated, and fought with nearly everyone. Dr. Culbertson thought her “A boisterous, high tempered woman” and, after one alleged outburst, he had his male nurse sit on Moll and bind her with straps, “as she fought us all the way.” Once subdued and under the influence of morphine, they bound her wrists, dragged her by her arms along the floor to “a bad-smelling cell” in the basement -– the “dungeon” that had made inmates fear testifying about their experiences to the Board -- where she was kept for several days on a straw bed with no pillow and “with nothing to eat except two pieces of dry bread three times a day. When she was released she was so weak she could scarcely stand.” Culbertson dismissed any complaints about her wounds as the product of Moll having syphilis, “which causes her to have pains over the body occasionally.”

Molly Oliver probably was a difficult person, whether it be by choice, birth, effect of environment, or all of the above. But she also clearly had received a raw deal in life, and now, instead of having her testimony serve to illustrate the horror of conditions in the poorhouse, she was being used by Governor Hendricks as an illustration of everything that was wrong with poorhouses, and by the poorhouse’s attorney, as an illustration of everything that was wrong with the poor. One newspaper offered the following description:

She was utterly debased, without a humanizing trait. She was a product of
the poor house system. She was reckless and vicious. Her face was without
a gleam of virtuous impulse. She was not desperate for she had never
hoped. . . . She has only known poor-house care and poverty. She has found
nothing in that to awaken the gentler phases of woman’s nature. Her moral
sense is dull, because it has never been aroused and quickened. She simply
exists as she has always existed, friendless, hopeless, and alone, the sport of
passions and impulses purely animal, a creature for whom charity regrets the
birth. She serves to show, however, wherein our poor farm managements are
wrong. She illustrates what is the outcome of such conditions . . . [for] pauper
children. She suggests to the humanitarians what should be done. She stands
[as] an example and a warning.
She also was “rotten driftwood,” an “ill-looking, disgusting woman,” and “a great animal.”

Moll’s animalization, her sub-humanness, became a key issue in the investigation. Americans of the 1880s often thought about poverty in the way that we think of something like alcoholism or heart disease, today: it was a disease with a genetic component that might be activated by bad choices and environmental circumstances.  Hendricks argued that by leaving poor children in an environment like a poorhouse, these kids -- already hereditarily predisposition toward laziness, dependence, and crime -- would devolve into creatures as hopelessly squalid and biologically degenerate as Big Moll.

To prove this claim, in Hendricks’ closing remarks he discussed at great length a recent genealogical study that reformers commonly interpreted as proof that parents pass on traits like criminality and poverty to their children the way another family might pass on a prominent chin or nose. He warned that biology and statistics showed that the poorhouse was “raising up plants which would bring forth just such fruit” as Big Moll, and that these weeds would soon overwhelm the rest of the American garden. This is why the poorhouse needed to be overhauled or broken up: not to save the poor from the poorhouse, but to save society from the poor. The poorhouse’s attorneys accepted Hendricks’ evaluation of the poor, and used it instead to justify their rough treatment at the hands of Mr. Wright and Dr. Culbertson.

Presiding over an investigation of their own institution and employees, the Board of County Commissioners accepted this defense, and ruled that the food had been adequate, the cells in the basement “Reasonably suited to the purposes for which they were intended.” With one commissioner dissenting and then resigning, the board also ruled that Wright and Culbertson attended properly to the sick and that they were “not prepared to describe any of the treatment as abusive.” Big Moll then disappeared from the public’s view as suddenly as she had arrived.

One hundred and thirty one years later, I am struck by some of the similarities between the attitudes expressed toward poverty in this trial, and current political discourse. Whereas Hendricks griped, likely with some justification, that the poor were being forced to engage in voter fraud on behalf of Republicans, now we have spurious ACORN charges and Romney’s comments about the victimized moochers who blindly support whomever will give them a handout. As Mary Matalin’s recent remarks indicate, we still speak about poverty and dependence in terms like “parasite” that dehumanize and animalize the poor. In examples too numerous to discuss, our discourse on poverty and poor relief continues to betray biologically ignorant and racially prejudiced fears that the “wrong people” are reproducing too quickly and will swamp out the “good” and “real” Americans with welfare-babies. All of this in turn dovetails into misguided taxpayer resentment due to their perception that they pay taxes to support corrupt social welfare institutions that generously sustain our social, perhaps even biological inferiors. All that, in turn, leads to a culture that turns a blind eye to things like abusing and killing the homeless for sport, prison, nursing home, and reform school abuse, and the general dehumanization of the vulnerable.


1.  All quotations and content regarding the poorhouse trial taken from the Indianapolis Journal, News, and Sentinel, from the 9th of June through 14th of July, 1881.

2.  This diary reproduces and repackages content from the first chapter of my book, Almost Worthy, which will be released sometime around the New Year.

Originally posted to Transmission on Wed Sep 19, 2012 at 01:11 PM PDT.

Also republished by Income Inequality Kos, History for Kossacks, and Invisible People.

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