Are You Headed to the Poor House?

By Stephen D. Bowling

May 3, 1880 – Old age and infirmity have always been hard on the people of Appalachia. During the later part of the 19th Century, older residents without means of support were a growing problem for local governmental agencies. Under Kentucky law, an individual or their caretaker could petition the local Court of Claims for an annual pension or a “salary of living.”

The courts allowed claims under two categories: “paupers” and “idiots.” State regulations provided the payments as a means of caring for the older residents of the state long before social security was even conceived. The state also saw the need to provide financial support for families who cared for mentally disabled residents declared “idiots” by a jury of their peers.

The Breathitt County Fiscal Court, in its September 1846 Term, heard and recorded the sad case of Polly Ann Jones from South Fork:

Where upon came a jury to Wit– Samuel Holmes, Joseph Little, William Cox, John Gwynn, M.N. Crawford, Simon Gross, Wm. Newton, Andrew Couch, John Frazier, Charles McQuinn, David Hagins & Clabourn Crawford, who being Sworn according to law, to Enquire into the State of Mind & other Conditions of said Polly Ann Jones, after hearing the evidence upon their Oaths do say “We of the Jury find Polly Ann Jones (who is unable to be brought into Court by reasons of ill health), to be an Idiot about 12 years of age, that she has no Estate, that her parents are poor and unable to support her one year without great inconvenience to the rest of the family, that she has been a resident of the County of Breathitt for the last four years, & a native of Kentucky, that she is not Physically able to perform any labor— that there is no regular authorized practicing Physician’s in this County.  M.N. Crawford— One of the Jury.

John H. Riddel Esq. being appointed to Defend for said Idiot. Where upon it is considered by the Court that said Polly Ann Jones is an Idiot, as found by the Jury as foresaid, that she is allowed at the rate of $50 per year half annually, and H. C. Harris her committee is appointed to draw the same, the amount now due being $50, which is ordered to be certified to the Auditor of Public Accounts for payments.

Breathitt County Circuit Order Book One, page 335, September 21, 1846.
The Court’s declaration that Polly Ann Jones was in legal terms an “idiot” and entitled to support of $50 per year. Source- Breathitt County Circuit Order Book One, page 335, September 21, 1846.

Throughout the history of Breathitt County’s written court records, long lists of claims were submitted and approved by the Court between 1839 and the 1930s. Most of the claims were similar to the case of Granville Raleigh, approved on May 3, 1880, as follows:

“Ordered that Granville Rolley, a pauper of this county, be allowed the sum of $25.00 for his support until next October Court of Claims, payable out of the county levy of 1880 and the Sheriff of this county will pay the same and that Marion Day be appointed his committee.”

Breathitt County Fiscal Court Order Book 2, page 142. May 3, 1880.

Analysis of the annual Court of claims for Breathitt County reveals that a significant portion of the County’s yearly budget was directed toward the support of these two groups. After several years, Breathitt County’s Fiscal Court decided to limit the amount of time a person could remain on the rolls.  The Court started sending people to the Eastern Kentucky Lunatic Asylum (later Eastern State Hospital) on Fourth Street in Lexington as a way of relieving some of the strain on the county’s budget. The Asylum received both paupers and idiots as well as some who voluntarily paid to live there. Loss of records prevents historians from learning exactly how many Breathitt Countians spent time there.

Eastern Kentucky Lunatic Asylum Lexington

The same day the Court approved a motion for Granville Rolley (Raleigh), a motion by William M. Combs and seconded by Stephen Carpenter proposed that the county “purchase a farm for the purposes of erecting and operating a poor house” for the paupers and idiots of the county. County Judge James W. Lindon did not vote, and his opinion of the effort is not recorded in the meeting’s minutes.

The Court unanimously approved a motion to authorize commissioners William M. Combs, George Washington Sewell, and Stephen Carpenter to spend not less than $1,400 or more than $2,000 to buy the property and build the home. A quick search was made, and the commissioner found a farm a few miles up Quicksand Creek. The exact terms could not be reached, and the coalition that approved the home began to fall apart in late October 1880.

Granville S. Miller supported the construction of the “Poor House.” Later, he would serve as County Judge of Breathitt County and purchased the “Poor Farm.”

On the motion of Granville S. Miller, an order was approved calling for a vote to determine if a “poor house” should be built in the county. The Court was deeply divided with “No” votes coming from the “Jackson Democrats” Joseph Little, William M. Jones, William Terry, J. T. Chadwick, Thomas Herald, William H. Blanton, Wiley O. Davis, Henry Hudson, Stephen Carpenter, Wilson Fugate, Alexander Davidson, and William Smith.

The building was supported by the “Party Men,” which included Magistrates A. B. Short, Sam Henry Hurst, Granville S. Miller, Joseph Allen, James L. Moore. When the votes were tallied, the motion defeated the “Poor House” movement, rescinded the appointment of commissioners, and struck down the order to buy the land.

Elections sometimes change minds, and by 1885, a different set of magistrates and Granville S. Miller, the new County Judge, went ahead with plans and bought two houses to be used as the county’s “Poor Farm.”

The house operated for about four years and closed when the face of the Court changed with the next election and the ascent of Judge William Harrison Blanton. After the close of the home, the courts again started awarding annual pensions and support to Breathitt County’s paupers and idiots, which was often used for political patronage for political support.

An example of an early Social Security card.

Changes in Kentucky’s laws in the 1920s limited the number and amount of support awarded. The program was replaced entirely by the social programs instituted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, including Social Security. The Breathitt County Poor House lasted only four years, but the expression continues in the local lexicon.

Thankfully, we no longer use the antiquated and offensive terms of “pauper” or “idiot” to refer to the indigent or those with mental health issues. Treatment for mental health issues and changes to support systems like Social Security Disability Income permit more effective treatment and improved living conditions. Rather than hauling patients away to Eastern State Hospital or bringing them before the Fiscal Court, help is provided through several community resources.

The wealth disparity, however, remains a part of our community. Debt, the over-extension of credit, and financial ruin often coupled with poor choices also have remedies through the legal system. The fear of the “Poor House” does not loom as large as it did in 1880.

Yes, the expression still lives on in Breathitt County and in some places around the country. So, the next time you hear someone say that they are “headed for the Poor House,” tell them that is impossible because the Breathitt County Fiscal Court closed it down and sold the land in 1889.

© 2022 by Stephen D. Bowling.


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
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