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Gov. Butler's Charges Against The Tewksbury Almshouse Management

Creator: n/a
Date: March 31, 1883
Publication: The Lowell Weekly Sun
Source: The Pollard Memorial Library


From colonial times until the early-twentieth century, Americans followed English precedents in providing aid to desperately poor, disabled, and elderly people on a local basis. Each locality was responsible for caring for its poor, either through financial and food aid that enabled them to live at home or, from the 1820s on, in poorhouses (also called almshouses). Living conditions were generally poor in almshouses; towns attempted to feed, clothe, and house residents at the lowest possible cost.

In the years after the Civil War, elite reformers throughout New England and the upper Midwest turned their attention to the conditions in poorhouses and other publicly-funded charitable institutions. These activists argued that their states needed to take on the new responsibility of supervising public institutions—or society would suffer fearful consequences. Reformers charged that almshouses often served to enrich local officials instead of providing proper care for inmates. Limited supervision and indiscriminate mixing of residents reportedly encouraged immorality among poorhouse residents—even the reproduction of a new generation of poor people. Accordingly, during the 1860s and 1870s, reformers pressed state legislators to establish “boards of charities” that could supervise almshouses and other publicly-funded charities.

Politicians also found poorhouses to be a potent political topic. In 1883, Massachusetts Governor Benjamin Butler launched a campaign against conditions at the state almshouse at Tewksbury. He hoped that his campaign would further burnish his credentials as a populist. One of the most famous residents of Tewksbury—Helen Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan—later corroborated Butler’s claims of sordid conditions at the almshouse. Butler’s most extreme claims, however, were eventually disproven.

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The committee on public charitable institutions began Thursday evening, at the State House, its investigation of the management of the public institutions of the State. The committee consists of 6 Republicans and 5 Democrats, 3 of whom are Senators and 8 Representatives. In accordance with his promise Gov. Butler attended to make good if he could, by evidence, the charges against these institutions which he had preferred in his inaugural address. It had been expected that a large number of curious people would be in attendance, but such was not the fact, although the room was uncomfortably crowded. Half a score of ladies were in the company, which also contained numerous members of the Legislature. The Governor's request that the committee get the books of the State almshouse, at Tewksbury, was assented to. Senator Gilmore, chairman, then swore George P. Burpee as the committee's stenographic reporter. The Governor's private secretary and stenographer were present. E.P. Brown, Esq., announced that he was present as counsel for the trustees, the superintendent and the managers of the State almshouse, and asked that the charges be presented in writing. Gov. Butler replied that he was there not to make charges, or as a public prosecutor, but to present certain evidence and ask certain questions, and that ample time and scope would be given to them whom the evidence concerns to produce any evidence to meet the charges. The chairman said the theory of the committee was that the charges were substantially contained in the inaugural address of His Excellency the Governor, and in the veto message of the appropriation bill, being substantially, that there is gross extravagance and mismanagement of the Tewksbury almshouse; that 70 percent of the appropriation, substantially, is used for salaries; and that there have been from 150 to 250 bodies of babies sold to medical institutions a year. The committee decided to hear the Governor's evidence on these points as the basis of procedure.


Dr. John Dixwell of Boston was the first witness called by Gov. Butler. He testified that he was a regular physician, living at No. 6 Pemberton Square; that he was educated at Harvard College, and that he graduated from the medical school in 1873. He testified that during the three years he saw and knew of several hundred bodies of infants, each year, being brought to the school for dissection. They were brought there in trunks, in a country team, and were deposited in a little anteroom on crates or shelves until the students were ready to use them. The students obtained the bodies by applying to "Bill" Andrews, now dead, who fixed the price at from $3 to $5 each, for infants, or for part of an adult, according to the supply. Andrews was a prizefighter; he died by suicide. The bodies of infants were sought for by persons who wished to practice dissection, because they could easily be taken in a bundle and carried home. Personally he had two or three every week during the season. Some of those dissected showed that they had died from starvation.


The witness said that Andrews told him the bodies came from the Tewksbury almshouse. Dr. Dixwell further said that he had given substantially the same evidence before the grand jury for Suffolk County about five years ago. Have seen remains of infants packed up for disposal with those of animals, birds, etc.


After arguments between the Governor and Mr. Brown, the committee took a vote, and decided to suspend this line of inquiry.


Mr. John A. Chase of Lynnfield, formerly an official at the almshouse, was called. He testified: Was employed there from April 2, 1860 to July 15, 1881; have a son there now. He went on to tell that he, and also his son, have delivered dead bodies of infants to the Grove Street School in Boston; his son was paid $10 by Harvard and $12 by a female medical college for bodies, but was paid nothing for infants. Witness had seen billets of wood sealed up in coffins in place of infants, and religious services said over them by the deceived relatives, who then took the coffins away for burial.


The hearing was resumed yesterday evening. The witnesses examined were Dr. Dixwell, John H. Chase and Charles H. Dudley. The latter was night watchman of the almshouse from November 18, 1876, on; he testified at great length. He stated that when he first went there Capt. Marsh, the superintendent, told him twice: "But aside from the building being on fire, don't see too much." He also said: "Things here are in such a condition that every one looks out for himself." On further inquiry I was told I might get fees if I would join in the work done there nights. I also saw boxes filled with sheetings, bedding, carpets, etc. carted off to the railroad station at night; the family of Mrs. Marsh's daughter, who lived at Exeter, N. H., visited the almshouse very frequently and always took away boxes of such articles. I also saw Thomas J. Marsh, Jr., carrying off dead bodies by night in an express wagon to the depot in a stealthy manner.

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