Alms-House Department 1851

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It may be proper for us now to notice another source of gratuitous aid, for which the needy mortals of Gotham have reason to be thankful; and for the ability to help earth's needy ones over their rough and thorny way, others have reason to be more thankful still, for it is more blessed to give than to receive. There is no other organization in the city which extends a helping hand to the suffering, on so large a scale as the Alms-House Department, in all its branches.

The department is under the management of ten "Governors," two of which are chosen biennially. For the last Annual Report, the gentlemanly Clerk, G.B. Gilbert, Esq., will please accept our thanks.

The Report contains many interesting statistics, which the reader will hardly expect us to notice, when he is informed that it makes an octavo volume of over two hundred pages.

There are several Institutions under the charge of this department namely, The Alms-House, City Prisons, Bellevue, and other Hospitals, Penitentiary, Lunatic Asylum, Nursery Establishment, Potters Field, &c. This Department also partially sustains the "Colored Home," and "Colored orphan Asylum."

In glancing over the brief details of the several branches of this Department, the reader will probably pause, take a long breath, and say, is it possible, when his eye rests upon the striking contrast between native and foreign paupers, in relation to numbers.

Alms-House proper

The number admitted during the year was 2,355, of whom 1,810 were foreigners.

The total number of persons who received aid at this branch of the Department, was 3,468. Number of deaths 169. There remained in the Alms-House at the close of the year 1,304. This embraces but a small part of the field occupied by this department. From the Report of the Warden of the Out-door Poor, it appears that 11,986 persons have been relieved during the year with money, and 26,068 persons have been relieved with fuel. The average amount of money with which each family was supplied, was fifty cents per week, and the average quantity of fuel, was one quarter of a ton of coal, or one half load of wood per every two weeks.

City prisons

I have already briefly noticed one of the city prisons namely, the "Tombs," which is the principal one in town. I shall therefore speak of it on the present occasion only in connection with the general department now under consideration.

The total number of commitments to the city prisons during the year was 21,299 an average of a little more than one in every twenty-five minutes day and night. This is an increase of 3,257 over the past year. Such an appalling increase of crime in so short a period, calls loudly upon the city authorities, nay, every good citizen, to seriously inquire into the cause of so fearful a picture.

Of The Above Number

Were discharged
Sent to Blackwell's island
Sent to States Prison
Could not read
Could read only
Could read and write
Well educated

Alas! What a picture! Here are two items which every lover of our country ought seriously to ponder. Of this great army of prisoners about three-fourths were foreigners, and nearly nine-tenths were intemperate. But this is not all. Another consideration worthy of notice, and which ought to cause parents to shudder, is the fact that there were committed of this number, one hundred and fifteen boys under ten years of age! Not very flattering for new York. This, however, is but the dust of the balance. A detailed account of all the cases of juvenile depravity in this single town for twelve months, would make a volume large enough to break a man's back to carry, and horrible enough to break a mother's heart to read.

Bellevue Hospital

There were admitted during the year 3,728 persons, of whom 3,081 were foreigners. The total number under treatment at this establishment during the past year was 4,240. Of these 3,224 have been discharged, 445 have died (of which deaths 146 were caused by consumption) and 571 remained in the Hospital at the close of the year. The inmates of this Hospital have the benefit of some of the best surgical and medical talent in the city, though the bills of mortality may appear large to the reader. But it should be remembered that a very large proportion of the fatal cases were from diseases which were considered incurable when the deceased entered the hospital. This will be at once apparent, when we remember that about one-third of the whole number died from a single disease, namely, consumption.

Moreover, it is peculiarly gratifying to notice the favorable change in the bills of mortality in this institution for the last few years. For 20 years prior to 1847, the average mortality was 20 per cent.

In the year 1847
In the year 1848
In the year 1849
In the year 1850

17 percent
16 percent
13 percent
10 percent


The number of prisoners received into this prison, which is situated on Blackwell's island, during the past year, was 3,575 (159 of whom were females), which, together with 809 prisoners remaining in the prison at the beginning of the year, make 4,384. Of these 3,581 were discharged during the year, and 803 remained.

The prisoners have been employed in the various departments of labor, within and without, namely, some in the washing and mending departments; some in the blacksmith's, shoemaker's, and carpenter's departments; some in the stone quarries, and some in one way and some in another. During the past year a stone wall running across the island 600 feet in length, 12 feet high, 4 feet thick at the bottom, and 2 feet thick at the top, has been built by those who had rather work under keepers on Blackwell's Island than under boss masons on Manhattan island. At least it would seem so, for it is nothing str5ange for some of these workmen to serve an apprenticeship twice a year at the former place, as six months is the longest term.

Well, let them work, and the oftener they go, and the longer they stay, the better. At least some of them, for they will work nowhere else, except in digging holes through houses, in breaking bolts and bars, and in destroying and lugging off the earnings of honest men. But a word from the Warden's Report will perhaps lead the reader to suspect that many of the prisoners do not wish for so much of that sickly sympathy for them, as often abounds, for they do not altogether regret a visit now and then to Blackwell's Island.

"It may be true that convict labor has been of importance in various buildings and improvements on the island. The undersigned has no hesitation in saying that, in a majority of cases, the term of imprisonment, under present circumstances, is no punishment, and productive of no beneficial results to the prisoner or the public. It is rather a pleasant and comfortable residence."

The grounds belonging to the Penitentiary produced the past year 800 bushels of potatoes, 600 bushels of turnips, 4000 heads of cabbage, besides other vegetables.

Silence, and the utmost decorum are strictly enforced. A library of 450 volumes has been presented the past year to the institution by Mr. E.Z.C. Judson, which the prisoners are permitted to read every Sabbath, and every stormy day.

Penitentiary Hospital

There have been treated at this institution during the past year, 2,201 cases. 1,923 have been discharged. The number of deaths amount to 80, and there remained in the hospital at the close of the year, 198.

The physician of this hospital reports an interesting fact in relation to delirium tremens. That chloroform was freely used with the most satisfactory results, and that of 352 cases of this terrible malady, only three proved fatal.

Small-Pox Hospital

There have been treated at this branch of the Alms-House Department, during the past year, 221 cases of Small-pox, of which 41 proved fatal. The average number during the year was 10. Two had the disease the second time, and one of them at the same hospital two years before. Of the above, 40 were natives, and 168 were foreigners.

Lunatic Asylum

This Institution is also situated on Blackwell's Island, and the number of semi-convicts which had the benefit of a residence in such quarters without their consent, during the past year, was 792. Discharged during the year 251. Died 77. An asylum for the insane, if properly conducted, is one of the greatest blessings that mortals can bestow upon this unfortunate class. But to manage such an army of madmen to their advantage, is a task and a tax upon mind and body, skill and patience, of no trifling magnitude, and it is gratifying to the philanthropist to witness the noble efforts which are made at this and other similar institutions in our midst, for the benefit of those whose affliction, if not removed, is worse than death.

From the Gardener's report, it appears that the inmates of this institution, for their own amusement, and to their own advantage, performed, during the past year, 2,779 days' work, and raised 20,000 cabbages, 1,900 heads of celery, 700 heads of lettuce, 400 bushels of potatoes, 300 bushels of tomatoes, 60 bushels of spinach, 50 bushels of carrots, 40 bushels of beets, 8 of grapes, &c. &cs.

Nursery Establishment

This is the most interesting branch of the Alms-House Department. There is probably nothing to equal it in the world. The nursery buildings occupy a beautiful, healthful, and retired spot, called Randall's Island, which is situated in the East River, about three miles above Blackwell's island, and eight miles from the City Hall.

This institution was designed mainly for children; and the stranger who would sympathize with little ones, and see how well these tender and forsaken specimens of humanity are cared for, by the constituted guardians of our city, will do well to visit this lovely spot and affecting spectacle.

There were at the commencement of the last year, at t he nursery, 1,396 paupers, most of whom were children. There were received during the year 1,580, of whom 1,136 were children. Of the Children in the 9nstitution, 212 were bound out, 252 were put out on trial, 23 ran away, 77 were restored to friends, 20 were adopted, and 172 died.

It will amply pay any one to visit this establishment where some of the pleasant sights of New York abound; and as the stranger lands upon the island, and starts for the nursery buildings, he will say, surely, this does not look much like poverty.

This beautiful island, which contains one hundred and thirty acres of land, was purchased three years since, by the City Fathers, exclusively for the nursery establishment, and for which they paid $60,000, and cheap at that, as it would bring twice that sum, and probably more, if the same land were now in market. The establishment consists of thirteen buildings, namely, the Main Building, Dwelling-house, Quarantine, Boys' Nursery, Girls' Nursery, Infants' Nursery, Nursery Kitchen, North and South Hospital, Hospital Kitchen, a Boys' and Girls' Play-house, and a house for idiots.

The main building is occupied during the week as a school-house, and on the Sabbath as a house of worship. It is a substantial edifice, and is built of stone. The other buildings are brick, and usually three stories high. On first going to the Island, the children spend two or three weeks at the quarantine-building, previous to being put with the other children, to prevent communicating disease.

It is to be feared that very few children will leave this nursery, without going away from home.

Colored Orphan Asylum

Since the opening of this Asylum for Colored Orphans, 509 children, during the fourteen years of its operations have been admitted. The number in the institution during the past year, was 209, of whom 7 died. In this asylum there is a flourishing school, and also a Sabbath-school. "The Governors of the Alms-House Department pay fifty cents per week toward each child's support in this asylum, to the extent of two-thirds the number in the institution, provided the number supported shall not exceed one hundred."

This asylum commends itself to the sympathy and co-operation of the wise, rich and good. Let all remember the orphan, no matter what his color may be, or were he is found, whether in town or out.

Colored Home

This Institution, which cares for the aged and infirm descendants of ham, also receives aid from the Alms-House Department to the amount of sixty cents per week. There were admitted during the year past 508 persons, of whom 398 were discharged, and 96 died. The managers of this institution are encouraging manual labor.

No one can begin to realize the amount of money, time and labor, which are annually expended in this city for the comfort and improvement of the afflicted and unfortunate, without a little pains-taking. Much more of interest might be said, in relation to the operation of this humane establishment, which we must omit.

The total expenses of the Alms-House Department for the past year amounted to the sum of $380,534.31 or $1,042.56 per day. The Governors estimate the amount of expenditures for the present year at $400,000, and what it will be a century hence, nobody pretends to venture a "guess."


Website: The History
Article Name: Alms-House Department 1851
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


 BIBLIOGRAPHY: What I Saw In New York; or, A Bird's Eye View of City Life by Joel H. Ross Auburn, N.Y., Derby & Miller, 1851
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