Saturday, January 30, 2016

Almshouse Stories: Destruction of the Almshouse Cemetery

[An undated newspaper clipping forwarded to me by Philip Hayes, a very knowledgeable follower of our historical society's Facebook page]


Only one headstone remains standing at County's Old Burial Ground at East View, ploughed under for highway improvement.


EAST VIEW, Nov. 14. The purring wheels of modern automobiles traveling the Saw Mill River Parkway here pass over the graves of dozens of paupers. One headstone remains standing, ghost-white against the brown hillside, a silent marker of a Westchester Potter's Field which made way for the needs of the day.

The small cemetery was the burial place for inmates of the County Home who were without family or had no other place in which to be interred. It was a small plot of land at the East View Station. The potter's Field was in use for over 100 years, but was not used after the county acquired a new cemetery near Grasslands Hospital. The last burial was made there around 1920.

The burial ground was flat, so when the land was taken to build the parkway, the graves were covered with about 20 feet of dirt, and the Saw Mill River Parkway runs along on a ridge high above the graves. None of the graves were disturbed in the construction last year.

Francesco Servello, a one-time inmate of the County Home, was one of many buried there. His is the only grave which was not disturbed, and, with its simple fieldstone cross, stands like a neglected sentinel beside the parkway.

But Francesco Servello has not been forgotten, for once a year someone -- no one at the County Home knows who it is -- comes to the grave and puts flowers on it. Now, the spot is bleak and uncared for, with dead palm branches lying across it, and a stick from which once floated a small flag.

To get to the grave, one must either climb the wooden rail along the Parkway, or climb a barbed wire fence by the railroad tracks, and walk along the sharp brambles to the lonely marker.

According to Peter Makulov, an employee of the County home since 1915, the graves were all marked with either fieldstone or wooden crosses.

Almshouse Stories: Ann Eliza Young

The Westchester County Almshouse circa 1900 (Harvard University Library)
For those of you who have been following the long saga that is my journey to the PhD, you might be interested to know that I submitted my Master's thesis on Tuesday. The title is "'A Corpse instead of a Pauper': Graveyards as Sites of Ideological Production in 19th-Century Westchester County, New York." This is the newspaper article from which that title was taken, published in The Mount Kisco Recorder in 1886:
Mrs. Ann Eliza Young, an aged widow, once quite well to do, and residing all her life at Tuckahoe, was taken to the County Almshouse, last Thursday morning, and died of fright and a broken heart in the carriage which landed her at the door. The old lady wept all the way to the almshouse, and prayed that death might overtake her before she became a pauper. When the carriage stopped at the door she looked out of her carriage window, gave a shriek, threw up her hands and fell dead. Mrs. Young’s husband was once a prosperous stonecutter, and they lived in comfort, but about 20 years ago he was drowned, and since that time the widow has maintained herself on what remained of his property. This being all gone and she being childless, she became a county charge. She was buried at the almshouse. 
And here is some of what I wrote about it:

While the story of Ann Eliza Young featured in the Recorder in 1886 may have been colored by some degree of journalistic flourish, the almshouse records attest to its essential truth: that a woman who had "lived in comfort" could easily fall into a state of destitution in her old age ...

Ezra Yerks, a 69-year-old shoemaker and resident of Mount Pleasant, expressed a sentiment similar to that of Ann Eliza Young when he was admitted to the almshouse in 1867, suffering from paralysis: according to his admission record, "[h]e asserted on his arrival here that he would rather die than be obliged to become an inmate of a Poorhouse" (Record No. 159) ...

Despite what the title of the article implied, death had not spared Young the fate she had feared: she was, in death, treated as a pauper. A burial at the almshouse spoke to the same anxieties that surrounded the confinement of a living person: those of anonymity, disgrace, and exclusion from society. Buried in a sterile institutional setting, among strangers, in a grave that, if marked, was given only a minimal slab with a number, the pauper dead were denied the normative 19th-century program of rituals and trappings that served to beautify death and dignify the deceased. The starkness of the paupers’ graves, without an epitaph or icon to mitigate the terror of mortality, recalled the grim Calvinist attitudes of the early colonial era which had long since given way to romanticism.

Furthermore, paupers were not even guaranteed what had come to be considered every person’s fundamental right: that of an eternal resting place. In the 1920s, the Westchester County Almshouse graveyard was destroyed to build the Saw Mill River Parkway. A similar fate befell many other institutional burying grounds in the 20th century.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Almshouse Stories: Nicola Lofrano

After reading this story from 1892, I couldn't help but investigate:
Visitors to the Westchester County Almshouse have probably had pointed out to them an Italian named Nichol Lapano [sic], who is eyeless and armless. While employed by the Mount Vernon Water Company, several years ago, in Yonkers, nitro-glycerine exploded, maiming the unfortunate man for life. His life was despaired of for several months, but his great vitality brought him through. He was subsequently sent to the County Almshouse at East View. His counsel sued the company for damages, and obtained a judgment of $7500 in the courts. An appeal was taken to the Court of Appeals, and last week that body affirmed the judgment. Westchester News 25 December 1891 
Nicholas Lapano, an Italian, while in the employ of the Mount Vernon Water Company attempted to thaw out some dynamite cartridges, when they exploded and he lost both eyes and both hands. He sued the company in the circuit court and got a verdict for $7,500. The company took the case to the court of appeals, which has just affirmed the decision of the court below. Lapano is now an inmate of the Westchester County Almshouse. The Eastern State Journal 26 December 1891
However, my searches for Nichol(as) Lapano turned up nothing. I searched every variation of the name I could find. Finally I decided to search for "Mount Vernon Water Company" and "dynamite" and came up with this - the details of a lawsuit brought by Nicola Lofrano against the New York and Mount Vernon Water Company.
The complaint alleged that the plaintiff was employed by the defendant as a day laborer to dig out a reservoir, and aid in the construction of a dam at or near Pelhamville, in the county of Westchester; that the defendant negligently provided and used frozen dynamite cartridges and unsafe and improper means for softening the same; that the plaintiff was ordered and directed by the defendant to place said frozen dynamite cartridges before the fire in the open air, and warm one side first and then to turn them around and warm the other side, and that in doing so without any negligence or carelessness on his part, the cartridges exploded, to the serious injury of the plaintiff.
Unfortunately, that's all I've been able to find on him via the internet.

Tales of Providence: Frederick Almy and Mary Jane Usher DeVoll

Frederick Almy DeVoll
While perusing some old photographs at a used books store in Providence, I came across four portraits belonging to the same family. Since they were all being sold separately, I thought I should buy them in order to ensure they would stay together (perhaps that was the seller's intent all along). I have always loved perusing stores for old photographs but it frustrates me immensely when they aren't labeled with the subjects' names. Equally frustrating is when they're labeled "my mother" or "cousin Jane." Thanks, 19th-century people, that really helps.

Of the four photographs that I bought, three seem to be of the same person, Frederick Almy DeVoll. The other was his wife, Mary Jane Usher DeVoll. While researching them, I was able to uncover many interesting details about their lives, and in particular about their children. Frederick was born about 1845 in Massachusetts and Mary was born about 1844 in Rhode Island.

Frederick first appears in the 1850 census in Westport, Massachusetts. Since this census doesn't list relationships between members of a household, I had to rely on other evidence to confirm my speculations. Barney Wing, a 61-year-old sailor, was married to Abby Wing, age 48. Mary A. DeVoll was their daughter, age 24. Susan, Benjamin, and Frederick were Mary's children. But who was the children's father? The family obelisk in the Westport Point Cemetery (shown below) reveals that it was Benjamin DeVoll, who died in 1848, leaving his then 22-year-old wife with three children under the age of six.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Potter's Field, North Burial Ground, Providence, RI

Can you tell it's been a busy semester? Over the course of the last few months, I've researched and written two papers on the North Burial Ground in Providence. Initially, I was interested in the beautiful slate stones in the colonial section of the cemetery, which was established in 1700. As time went on and I explored the Burial Ground further, however, I entered into a mortuary realm that I had never experienced before: that of the "free grounds" and "potter's field." The former described areas of the Burial Ground that were set aside for people who could not afford to buy and maintain a lot in the main section of the cemetery, but could afford the $4 or so for burial and perhaps a monument. The latter described an area used by the City of Providence to bury the individuals who had no family or funds to provide for their burials: paupers, inmates of institutions, and unidentified bodies.

I have been to a lot of cemeteries in my time, probably quite a few more than your average 26-year-old, but I have to say that visiting the potter's field in the North Burial Ground was by far the most emotional experience that I have had in a cemetery in my life. Stripped of the sentimentalism and beauty that surrounds middle-class cemeteries, the potter's field offers an unvarnished view of mortality that most of us don't think about on a daily basis. It also shows evidence of a very unique and personal tradition of commemoration.

The graves in the potter's field are marked only with numbered markers. Or rather, some are marked. The potter's field was originally much larger than it currently is. In the early 1960s, developers moved many of the graves in the potter's field and western half of the free grounds into a mass grave near the area pictured above. I haven't been able to pin down an exact number, but my estimate is that at least a few thousand graves were moved. All of these graves were originally marked, but it was considered to much of a hassle to move the markers to the new location, so they were discarded.

When I came this place -- which is accessed through a bridge, through a band of forest in the northernmost area of the Burial Ground -- I had preconceived notions of what a potter's field would be like. I imagined undignified anonymity and neglect. My expectations were controverted by the reality I found. There is anonymity, certainly, but also evidence of ongoing memorialization. Some of the numbered markers have been replaced or supplemented by markers with names. Some of these supplementary markers are professional stones, of the kind you might find in other areas of the NBG, but others are makeshift (or "vernacular" as I might put it in a paper). I won't show you these markers, because they are all relatively recent, and I don't like the idea of publishing a photo of someone's gravestone that their family member might recognize, especially when the gravestone is in such a private location. However, I can describe some of them.

Two graves are marked with crosses made of planks of wood; the names are spelled out with the kind of stick-on letters you'd buy at a hardware store. One of these markers is surrounded by artificial flowers.

One marker consists of a slab of concrete spray-painted with the name of the deceased and a heart.

One person's grave is marked with a plastic label bearing his name, next to which is placed a toy car.

In one case, someone wrote the deceased's name and dates of birth/death onto the numbered marker with Sharpie.

And so on. These acts of commemoration seem all the more personal and touching because they were created by hand, rather than commissioned from a professional. They suggest that the people buried in the potter's field are far from forgotten. However, due to the type of materials they are made of, many of these markers are unlikely to survive for very long. It is possible that there was once many more of them, perhaps extending back into the 19th century, but that they disintegrated long ago.

In the oncoming weeks I hope to share more from the North Burial Ground, including stories of people from the 19th century who were buried in the free grounds and potter's fields.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Probates: Thomas H. Brundage

I've now reached the point in my Master's research where I am going back over all of the probate records I copied this summer and looking for interesting things to latch onto. Yesterday this stood out to me (words underlined):
Will of Thomas H. Brundage
The last will and testament of Thomas H. Brundage of the Town of Bedford County of Westchester and State of New York. 
I, Thomas Brundage of Bedford aforesaid, do make, publish, and declare this my last will and testament in manner following, that is to say - 
First: I direct my executors herein after named to pay all my just debts and funeral expenses. 
Second: I hereby authorize and by these presents give to my said executors full power and authority to sell and convey all my real and personal property. 
Third: I give and bequeath to my son Nathan Brundage the 1/3 of all the proceeds of my estate and to my sons John Brundage and Walter T. Brundage the 1/3 to be equally divided between them share and share alike. 
Fourthly: I give and devise all the rest and residue of my estate to M. W. Fish, one of my executors herein after named, in trust for my daughter Rachel Ann Brazill, wife of Richard, the interest and income to be paid my said daughter during her natural life, and I further hereby authorize my said executor, in case of my said daughter being in destitute condition and needing more than the interest to make her comfortable, to allow her such portion as he may in his judgment think she requires. And I further provide in case of the decease of my said daughter not leaving any lawful issue then I give and bequeath all that remains of such portion or share to my sons then living share and share alike. 
Fifthly: I hereby nominate and appoint my friend Moses W. Fish and Burnett Miller of Bedford executors of this my last will and testament hereby revoking any former will by me made. 
In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and seal this 5th day of December 1874.
Thomas H. Brundage [his mark]
My thoughts:

It's not surprising that Thomas Brundage set aside 1/3 of his estate for each of his sons with no strings attached, while appointing a trustee to look over his daughter's inheritance; such patronizing conditions were commonplace for female heirs. The fact that such conditions - and the inheritance itself - was intended to provide for the female heir's livelihood and prevent her from falling into destitution is likely implied in every case I have seen; that is to say, fathers who were making wills were anticipating that their daughters might need financial assistance in the future, and set up their affairs to ensure that they were taken care of.

However, I have never seen a father's concern for his daughter falling into destitution so explicitly stated. It's even more shocking considering that Thomas Brundage's daughter was married. Was this simply a "just-in-case" scenario, or did he have reason to believe that his son-in-law would be unable to provide for her?

Even in her hypothetically destitute state, Rachel Ann Brazill is made to rely on the "judgment" of a man - admittedly, a very judicious man (Moses W. Fish was justice of the peace for the county for many years and was very well-respected), but the belittling of Rachel, who was 31 at the time her father's will was written, stands out to modern eyes.

Of course, the patronizing attitude towards women is easy to explain as an artifact of cultural attitudes of the time; it likely has little or nothing to do with Thomas's personal views of his daughter or her financial acumen. Rather, it is the special concern that Thomas gives to Rachel's potential destitution, and his explicit mention of it, that stands out to me.

Gravestone of Susan Brundage (source)
To investigate, I looked up the Brundage family in the 1850 federal census. That year, Susan and Thomas had four children under the age of 13, and Thomas was working as a laborer, which implies that he did not have the same level of job security as a landed farmer or a skilled artisan. The value of his real estate was only $170. Thomas's neighbors, including several farmers and shoemakers, owned real estate valued at $200-$6,000. Relative to their neighbors, the Brundages may have felt disadvantaged, and possibly struggled to make ends meet.

(It's also notable that Thomas Brundage's will is not signed with his name, but with a mark, suggesting that he was illiterate. While illiteracy was much more common in the 19th-century United States than it is now, most of the people in the St. George's/St. Mark's community were literate. I suppose it is possible that Thomas Brundage was too weak at the time he wrote his will to sign his name - but many of the wills I have read mention being "very weake [sic] in body" and yet are still signed by name, in crabbed but still legible handwriting. I don't think I've come across another will belonging to a member of this community that was signed with a mark.)

In the next census (1860), Thomas was again listed as a farm laborer, this time with real estate worth $350 and personal estate worth $100. All four children were still at home, with 21-year-old John working as a shoemaker.

Susan Brundage died in 1868 at the age of 61. It stood out to me that she was more than 10 years older than her husband, and that her oldest child was born when she was in her thirties. Both would have been unusual at the time. Assuming that Thomas was Susan's first husband (which is a big assumption), they may have been married when he was around 20 and she was around 30, which would explain why she didn't have children earlier. Perhaps Susan was the last of her sisters to marry and as a result didn't receive as substantial a dowry as they did; even if this was not the case, her dependence on her natal family past the age when most women would have married could have placed a financial burden on them.

Of course, this is all speculation, but I'm trying to imagine what situations and personal experiences might have inspired a father to be more cautious about his daughter's financial welfare than usual. The family's history of financial instability could be a potential answer.

By 1870, the census closest to the date of Thomas's death, John Brundage had established his own household with a wife and two-year-old daughter. Fifty-two-year-old Thomas Brundage, now a widower, was living with his father John (74), son Nathan (30), and daughter Rachel Ann (27). Thomas was listed as a "farm hand," with an estate worth $500.

It was not particularly desirable for a man to remain a "farm laborer," "farm hand," or "laborer" throughout his life. The expectation was that the young farm laborer would work long enough to establish his own farm, or - perhaps more likely - inherit a part of his father's farm and become a proper landowner who would then employ young farmhands to do his dirty work. This was the cultural narrative, but of course it didn't always play out in real life. It might have been somewhat disappointing if Thomas ended up working as a laborer on other people's farms into his fifties. The fact that he had to support an aged father and adult children at the same time might have compounded his difficulties.

While it's possible that Nathan Brundage was also employed as a farmhand (although it isn't explicitly stated in the census), Rachel Ann's opportunities to provide for her own financial support would have been limited. Taking on the kind of employment that was open to women - such as millinery or teaching - might have reflected poorly on her father and brother's ability to fulfill their cultural roles as men. Thus it wouldn't be surprising if she was encouraged to marry - implicitly if not explicitly - in order to ease her family's financial burden and fulfill her own culturally prescribed role.

So what happened to Rachel Ann? Of course, we know from the will that she ultimately married, but I had the hardest time tracking her down. I guess it shouldn't have surprised me that in a document with a number of spelling idiosyncrasies - including "exutors," "autherize," "equily," "shair," and "intrest"- that Rachel's married name was spelled incorrectly. "Brazill" was actually "Bradsell."

Richard Bradsell, who was ten years his wife's senior, was born in New York to English parents. In 1880, the couple was living together in North Castle.

1880 Federal Census
Since Richard and Rachel weren't married until after 1870 (according to the 1900 census, they were married in 1874), Hiram Bradsell, a 21-year-old shoemaker, must have been Richard's son from his previous marriage. The other three sons were presumably Richard and Rachel's, her first-born son named for his grandfather Thomas. So Rachel, like her mother, didn't have children until her 30s. Given the trend in my own peer group, I suppose Susan and Rachel were just ahead of the times (though I doubt either was delaying childbearing until she was ABD).

According to the census, Richard was a "painter." The 1900 census is more specific - he was a house painter. In that year, he and Rachel were living with three of their sons - Thomas, Walter, and William - and Thomas's wife Theda. Rachel was said to be the mother of five children, one of whom had died. Thomas was a hotel keeper and farmer, Walter was a farm laborer, and William, who was only 14, was in school.

There are no real conclusions to be drawn here, only speculation. Did Thomas Brundage anticipate that his daughter would be destitute? Perhaps not, but the possibility was on his mind, perhaps because of his own experience struggling to support a family on a farmhand's wage. Perhaps the most important knowledge to take away from this, from my perspective, is the fact that people like Thomas were aware that women - even married women living in a middle-class community - could become destitute, and that the beneficence of their relatives might be all that kept them from the almshouse. Other fathers might have trusted that their sons would take care of their daughters in such a situation, but Thomas Brundage wasn't willing to take that chance.

While I can't comment on the moral character of Rachel's brothers in particular, I have seen records from the almshouse explicitly stating that a female resident was left destitute by relatives who either refused to support her or actually took her money. One widow allegedly had her savings squandered by her son and his wife; another languished in the poorhouse while her well-off children refused to provide for her. Perhaps Thomas Brundage wasn't even considering his son-in-law's ability to provide for his daughter; maybe he was looking ahead to her potential widowhood and the children, then only hypothetical, who might abuse or neglect her.

One part of the package of assumptions that overlies the middle class is that middle-classness is a relatively stable part of one's identity, much like race or gender. Class, then and now, is so much more than one's level of income or amount of property owned; it is a part of one's worldview and way of existing in the world. Yet middle-class people in the 19th century were often much closer to the margins than they would like to believe. Class could not be taken for granted, but had to be continuously cultivated and perpetuated from generation to generation. One couple's hard work to establish and maintain their middle-class status could all be undone if the next generation was too irresponsible or simply too unlucky. Provisions like those in Thomas Brundage's acted as insurance on the middle-class status - the class associated more than any others with simple "comfort," rather than luxury (upper class) or hardship (lower class) - of their successors. Thus, middle-class status was, in some respects, a heritable trait - but one that could be very easily lost.

Family Tree
  1. Thomas H. Brundage (1818-1875) m. Susan Brundage (1807-1868)
    1. John Brundage (1838-) m. Unknown
      1. Susan Brundage (1868-) 
    2. Nathan Brundage (1840-)
    3. Rachel Ann Brundage (1843-) m. Richard Bradsell (1833-) in 1874
      1. Thomas R. Bradsell (1875-) m. Theda
      2. Samuel T. Bradsell (1878-)
      3. Walter Bradsell (1879-)
      4. William Bradsell (1885-)
    4. Walter Timothy Brundage (1848-)

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Probates: Thomas Sarles

Thomas Sarles wrote his will on May 23, 1859, and died on October 9, 1860. I am willing to bet good money that this stone was not erected in 1860, or even 1870 or 1880. I don't think it was erected until after the death of Ann Sarles in 1887, when dark granite was fully in fashion, and it was becoming commonplace for couples to place their names adjacent to each other on one stone (rather than one above the other, in which case the man's name invariably came first).

Thomas Sarles is featured in the 1850 Non-Population Census, which records agricultural holdings. According to this record, Thomas owned 187 acres of improved land and 15 acres of unimproved land. His farm was estimated to be worth $11,500, with $250 in farming machinery. He owned three horses, thirteen milk cows, four working oxen, eight "other cattle," and fifteen swine. His livestock was valued at $1,034. Thomas Sarles's farm was the most valuable one on the census page. In the past year, he had produced:

150 bushels of rye
450 bushels of Indian corn
300 bushels of oats
100 pounds of wool
1,000 bushels of Irish potatoes
75 bushels of buckwheat
3,000 pounds of butter
80 tons of hay

As for the Population Census of that year, 54-year-old Thomas and 49-year-old Ann are recorded living with Samuel Sarles (29) and Aaron Sarles (12), plus a 14-year-old girl named Amelia Ford.

In his will, Thomas Sarles leaves his entire farm to Aaron, who appears to have been his youngest son. While the oldest son may have seemed like a more natural choice of an heir, it seems that Thomas's older sons George W. and Thomas E. had already left their parents' house and established their own farms prior to their father's death. Thus Thomas's will ensured that Aaron, who was only 22 at the time of his father's death, would also have a means of livelihood.

Although Thomas leaves his wife Ann $1000 and "the use of all my household furniture" (use, not ownership), she has no claim to his property. It may have been understood between Thomas and his son Aaron that Ann was to remain in the house for as long as she lived. Sure enough, in the census of 1870, Aaron - whose farm is now worth $18,000 - is living with his 70-year-old mother, who owns $3000 in personal estate. If Aaron had decided that he didn't want his mother to live with him, however, she would have had no legal protection. He would have had every right to throw her out of the house (with her furniture). This seems to have happened to several of the widows recorded living in the Westchester County Almshouse, except that they didn't even have $1000 to live on.

Thomas gives his sons George W. and Thomas E. more than twice the amount of money he gives to his daughter Phebe Hyatt, but as Phebe was already married, it's possible that Thomas had already given her money or property in the form of a dowry. In any case, as a married woman, Phebe would not have expected her father to provide for her, especially since her husband was Jackson Hyatt, a successful merchant who built the Mount Kisco Institute (which was later converted into the largest hotel in Mount Kisco). Still, the sum that Thomas did give his daughter - $2000 - was nothing to sneeze at.

  1. Thomas Sarles (1786-1860) m. Ann (1801-1887)
    1. Phebe J. Sarles (1824-1909) m. Jackson Hyatt (1819-1892)
    2. George W. Sarles (1826-1910)
    3. Thomas E. Sarles (1836-1869)
    4. Aaron W. Sarles (1838-1895)

Will of Thomas Sarles
I, Thomas Sarles, of the town of New Castle, county of Westchester and state of New York, do make, publish, and declare this my last will and testament in manner following, that is to say:

First, I do give and bequeath to my beloved wife Ann Sarles one thousand dollars and the use of all my household furniture during her natural life, and at the decease of my said wife I then give all my household furniture to my four children, namely George W., Thomas E., Aaron W. Sarles and Phebe J. Hyatt to be equally divided between them.

Second, I give and bequeath to my daughter Phebe J. Hyatt the sum of two thousand dollars.

Third, I give and bequeath to my two sons George W. Sarles and Thomas E. Sarles each the sum of four thousand and five hundred dollars.

Fourth, I give and bequeath to my son Aaron W. Sarles the farm on which I now reside with all the stock and all the farming implements, wagons, carriages, sleighs, sleds, hay, grain, on the ground or in the buildings on said premises.

Fifth and lastly, I give and bequeath all the rest, residue, and remainder of my personal estate or real not heretofore disposed of to my three sons namely George W., Thomas E., and Aaron W. Sarles to share and share alike.

Sixthly, I do nominate and appoint my sons George W. Sarles and Thomas E. Sarles my executors to this my last will and testament, hereby revoking all former wills by me made.

In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and seal this twenty-third day of May 1859.

Thomas Sarles

Witnesses: Moses W. Fish residing at Bedford in the county of Westchester; Philander G. Purdy residing at Bedford in the county of Westchester