Social Order & Welfare
Who Pays for the Poor?
In early Vermont paupers were the responsibility of their town of legal residence. They could not move to another town and claim support there. Overseers of the poor kept careful watch on comings and goings, and new residents with no means of support would be warned out of town. If the paupers did not move on, their town of settlement could be sued, and they could be forcibly removed. Some overseers became genealogy experts to prove their cases.
In 1860 the Elmore overseer of the poor traced three generations of a family’s migrations through Massachusetts, New York, Canada, Maine, and Vermont. He needed to prove that Elmore was not responsible for supporting widow Mandana Moore and her six children. It all started in 1794, when Gideon Sabin moved from Massachusetts to Hardwick. Sabin’s grandson, Sampson Moore, married Mandana Pray. Throughout their wanderings, the Moores never gained a legal residence of their own. So when Sampson died in Elmore in 1859, where was his family to go? It all came down to “derivation settlements.” Mandana was chargeable to Calais through her father. Sampson had no settlement through his parents, only through his grandfather. Even though the Moores had never lived in Calais, the town was responsible for them. Calais appealed to the supreme court on a technicality, but lost.
Conducive to Health and Sobriety?
In 1904 St. Albans petitioned Franklin County Chancery Court to be permitted to withdraw from the Sheldon Poor House Association. The city claimed that poor house funding was “unjust and inequitable.” Towns were charged according to their tax base, not the number of paupers they sent. St. Albans preferred to support most of its poor at home, but still had to pay the full charge. Master Jonathan Ross found no legal grounds for the city to withdraw. He also frowned on keeping paupers at home, saying they were better off at the poor farm, where “surroundings and habits [were]...more conducive to health and sobriety.” Based on his report, Chancellor Henry Start dismissed the case. St. Albans was not allowed to leave the association until 1941. The Sheldon poor farm remained open until 1968.
Bastardy and Child Support
Children born to unmarried women were likely to end up as charity cases, so overseers of the poor often took the lead in legally pursuing the fathers. Bastardy cases were often settled out of court or discontinued, either because the father agreed to pay for support, or because he had left town. Proving paternity in the days before DNA tests could be a complicated matter, involving multiple witnesses.
In two Caledonia County bastardy cases the mothers (and overseers) succeeded in winning child support. On May 16, 1833 Mary Gray was “delivered of two Bastard children… one daughter and one son.” She charged Jefferson Leavitt with paternity. On trial, he attempted to prove she had had intercourse with other men who might be responsible. Gray won, and Leavitt was ordered to pay $33.33 per year for five years. The amount would be halved if one of the twins died. On appeal, the supreme court affirmed. Perceival Gray had to pay $150 in child support after a successful county court suit by Caroline Gray in 1851. Case files include depositions and affidavits commenting on the woman’s character and conduct with other men. There is also a reference to her requesting and drinking tansy tea, commonly used to bring on a miscarriage.
Cause of Death in Franklin County
In the early 1800’s, before inquests were taken over by medical professionals, a grand jury would be called to view the body in cases of questionable death. Accident, suicide, and “visitation of God” were the most frequent causes of death, with intoxication as a contributing factor in many cases.
Pre-1850 Franklin County Court case files include numerous inquests, or “inquisitions.” In 1832 James Stewart of Bakersfield hanged himself from a hemlock tree. Neighbors testified that he had believed himself to be possessed by the devil. Stewart had said that “he should never take any more comfort as long as he lived for the devil was to be chained in him for a thousand years.” He “should be willing to be cut open and have his heart taken out if it would relieve him.” Hanging was the most common means of suicide. Amy Searles of Berkshire used a handkerchief tied in a “square knot” to hang herself from a fallen tree in 1837. She was found with an open Bible beside her body.
The grand jury faced an especially sober task in 1838, when the body of an infant was found in a St. Albans cemetery, under the slab on Daniel Ryson’s grave. “The body was found unwashed, incased in the upper half of a pillow case… a full grown female foetus… There are suspicious appearances of violence about the neck of the child.” Townspeople testified about two mysterious female boarders who had been in town for several weeks. Jury members concluded that the child came to its death by “culpable neglect or violence by some person or persons…unknown.” The body of another unknown female infant had been found in the Lamoille River just the year before.
Care of the Elderly
A fascinating subset of chancery court foreclosures gives a glimpse of pre-Social Security America. These “eldercare foreclosures” involved parents who transferred their house or farm to a son or daughter in return for support for the rest of their lives. They would draw up a mortgage defining terms of care. This would typically include housing, food, clothing, medical care and a proper burial. Sometimes there were special requirements, like spending money or a wagon and team of horses. If old and young were unable to live together peaceably, matters might wind up in court. The chancellor had to weigh the behavior of both parties against the terms of the agreement and decide what was fair and equitable. Often he would appoint another attorney, called a master, to find facts on the case.
In 1885 Sarah Ball foreclosed on her son Daniel and his creditor James Trefren. She claimed he had failed to provide “suitable meats and drinks and wearing apparel,” and that she had to work too hard for a woman “of her age and infirmities.” Daniel insisted Mrs. Ball was well-treated and “hale and hearty.” Master AE Rankin found fault with both, but concluded that Daniel had not shown his mother enough kindness. “There were many things at times wanting that an old lady would have found to her comfort.” He recommended that Daniel keep the farm, but be required to support her in another home. Chancellor Ross decreed that he pay $62.50 semi-annually, cover funeral expenses, and place a marble headstone on Mrs. Ball’s grave.
Pamelia Young became unhappy living with her son Orrin after transferring ownership of her Waterford farm to him. Other family members got involved, and everybody chose sides. Mrs. Young moved in with a daughter and claimed support there. Orrin refused. Master Luke Poland assessed the situation. He discounted Mrs. Young's claim that she had not been “properly supplied with fresh meat and whiskey.” As to the charge that Orrin and his wife had allowed her to become “very filthy,” Poland pointed out that she refused to be helped out of bed when nature called, and that she dropped pipe ashes and matches in the bedding. He described the Youngs as “wilful and pugnacious, and not burdened with too much sweetness and amiability of character.” Mrs. Young won a chancery decree, but Orrin prevailed. The supreme court under Homer Royce reversed the decision and dismissed her foreclosure case.
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