Tip: Using Newspapers to Learn about Your Ancestor’s Life in the Poorhouse

Do you have ancestors who lived in a poorhouse? If so, newspapers are one of the resources you can use to discover what life may have been like for those family members.

Article about why many poorhouses are closing, 1938Alternatively called poor farms, county farms, or almshouses (depending on the region of the United States), poorhouses were typically run by counties (or sometimes towns) as a way to take care of people who were poor, old, disabled, or homeless and who had nowhere else to go. In Great Britain, such institutions were more often called workhouses. In the United States, poorhouses began to disappear after the Social Security Act was introduced in 1935, and they had almost totally disappeared by the 1950s.

It can be difficult to find records from poorhouses, so newspapers can be quite valuable in your research. Although individual “inmates” (as they were often called) of poorhouses are rarely mentioned by name in newspapers, you can typically discover quite a bit about the poorhouse they lived in from newspaper articles and piece together a picture of what your ancestor’s life in that poorhouse may have been like. (If you’re not sure if you have any ancestors who lived in a poorhouse, try reading this helpful article by Ancestry for guidance.)

If you know the name of the poorhouse where your ancestor resided, simply search Newspapers.com for the institution’s name to bring up search results. If you are unsure what the name of the poorhouse was in a certain area, use Newspapers.com to search the newspapers in the town or county (or even state) where the poorhouse was located using search terms like “poorhouse,” “county farm,” “poor farm,” or “almshouse.” You can then narrow the results by date range (such as your ancestor’s birth and death dates) if you desire.

If a broader look at poorhouses in America interests you, the St. Louis Star and Times published a series of articles on poorhouses in Missouri in 1922 and 1923 as part of a public awareness campaign to improve conditions in those institutions. Many of these articles paint a vivid picture of what some poorhouses were like at the time and can be quite eye-opening!

Get started learning more about poorhouses by searching on Newspapers.com!

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24 thoughts on “Tip: Using Newspapers to Learn about Your Ancestor’s Life in the Poorhouse

  1. All you tell me is WHY I should subscribe to your service. I know this already. You don’t tell me HOW to do it or HOW MUCH it costs or any of the other details. I will not subscribe until I know these things and until I know if it’s worth the cost.

    1. FYI, there is a lot you find out about subscribing well before you enter your CC#. Also, if you have an Ancestry account, you will get a significant discount, as they are partnered.

    2. Basic newspaper access is $44.95 for 6 month subscription. On sale now for $34.95
      Extra access is $74.90 for 6 month subscription. On sale now for $64.90
      I originally tried basic but found the newspapers I needed access to were not covered so I switched to extra and found it to be well worth the money since it has told me quite a bit of information about my ancestors. I highly recommend it.

  2. Interesting to see poorhouses highlighted today. Just yesterday I finally managed to track John Curtis, a “missing” brother of one of my g-g-grandmothers, through newspaper mentions in old Kansas papers. At one point an editor wrote him up as being a first rate clock repairer, urging people to bring him their business. It made me wonder if he was handicapped in some way, as he clearly wasn’t farming and had not studied law like all his brothers had done. Clock repair was not a skill anyone in the family had as far as I can tell, and it suggests an apprenticeship, which in turn suggests a possible need for a job he could do sitting down.

    A few years later another piece in the crime section of a paper farther south noted he’d been picked up as being insane, but at a hearing it was brought out that the sheriff had picked him up for the same reason a few yrs. earlier, only to advocate to the judge that John was “merely eccentric”.

    That got him off the first time and possibly the same thing happened the second time, but perhaps it wasn’t for the best; he seems to have drifted alone for at least a decade, until 1903 when his father and the rest of the family celebrated the old man’s 90th. birthday. Earlier that same year John attended a revival meeting in the same county and subsequently sent a brief note to probably the only brother he had an address for, a hotel owner. The brother ran it in the paper, perhaps to enlist help from those who could recognize John if they saw him. The note read,”Ben, I ask pardon of you and William. Answer, brother. J.M. Curtis”. The paper noted no one had heard from John in 10 yrs.

    Whether Ben and William were able or willing to answer John I don’t know, but later in the year their father’s birthday celebration was written up in detail, due to the old man’s extreme age, there being 5 generations present, etc. In the article it was noted that John’s whereabouts had been unknown “for some time”. So it sounds like the brothers didn’t make contact, or for some reason John changed his mind and didn’t make contact when they offered to meet.

    The last two censuses John was listed on before he died (1920, 1930) showed him living in a poorhouse called the Richardson County Poor Farm in Richardson County, Nebraska. How and why he ended up in Nebraska I’ll probably never know, but the Findagrave entry for this poorhouse says it’s long gone, no records, and only 3 marked graves left of the many people who were buried there. I’ll research it again today outside of Findagrave but I doubt there’ll be much to add.

    It’s likely John’s condition deteriorated and he lived out his life in this poorfarm. I can’t find any death record for him and suspect the only one ever made out is among the long-gone records kept by that facility, so I will probably never know. He was one of his parents’ last-born children and most of his siblings were gone or elderly by 1930. John was a single man who cut family ties and left very little by way of records. But thanks to access to the right historic newspapers at least I have a better idea of what troubled his unfortunate life.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story, Diane. Do you have a family history blog? I’d love to read it.

      1. Thanks and no, I don’t have a blog. Have never read anyone else’s either. How does a blog help with doing genealogy? Maybe it’s something worth looking into.

    2. Nebraska supposedly required deaths after 1904 to be registered, so you might try looking at the county level in Falls City (it’s the county seat) Out of curiosity I looked at the census and see him at the poorhouse in 1920 age 71, but don’t find him listed there in 1930, so he may have died between those years. I haven’t been back to that area for about 15 years, so I don’t know if they still keep records at the courthouse or if they have shipped them off, but it’s worth checking out. Good luck.

      1. I too figured he must have died between those censuses, Thanks for the tip about the courthouse!

  3. Yes. Newspapers from August 1936 told me quite a bit about a gr father I had just discovered thru DNA. My mother was given over to Charities of the Poor and placed in orphanage. No joy yet finding about that.

  4. Last night I found two of my great aunts living in what I thought might be an old folks home and they were called “inmates” on the census. One had been there for many years, she never married and had no children to take care of her in her later years. I wondered at the time if she had been mentally ill or physically disabled in some way. The other aunt married, but was widowed, and no children. I will use your tips to see what else I can find about the poor house in Newspapers.com. Quite a coincidence this information in Newspapers.com showing up just as I needed it. Thank you

    1. Susan. I recently read an article in the Oregonian Newspaper in Portland, Oregon talking about a poorhouse farm just east of Portland in 1940. It said that people staying there were called inmates, but they were not locked up. They could come and go as they pleased. It was just a term they used to describe the people and that later this term was later dropped.

    2. Susan. I recently read an article in the Oregonian Newspaper in Portland, Oregon talking about a poorhouse farm just east of Portland in 1940. It said that people staying there were called inmates, but they were not locked up. They could come and go as they pleased. It was just a term they used to describe the people and that later this term was later dropped.

  5. Looking for Mary Alice Smith of the Chotow tribe. Born September 16, 1899.
    Died 11, September 1961, Greenwood, Ms. Her son was Pinky Bailey before she became Calcote. She married Sidney Calcote (date unknown) they had many children, one was Richard Calcote, he died in 1991. All and any assistance is
    Greatly appreciated.

  6. I found this article to be quite interesting since in doing my genealogy, I had come across one of my great uncles listed as an inmate. I thought that meant he had been in jail. When I asked relatives, no one remembered any stories of him being in jail. Now I have another avenue to explore.

    1. Theresa, the exact same thing happened to me a few years back. Word of advice; get the inmate file of any institution where an ancestor lived if possible, and ransack the newspapers for that county and the county in which any parents were living or in which they had died; it still might count as local news, especially if that person grew up in a small community.

      This worked for me when my young g-uncle from Duluth, MN showed up on the 1920 census as an inmate in the MN State Men’s Reformatory in St. Paul, MN. Had I left it there all I would have known was that by the 1930 census he was a husband, father, and working as an accountant for a steel manufacturer. Ditto on the 1940 census.

      In other words he appeared to have spent the rest of his life handling other people’s money despite having been convicted of some kind of crime. By requesting his prison file I learned he’d been convicted of embezzling $69 through his job as a city clerk in Duluth, MN in 1918. So he was a convicted embezzler who went to the reformatory instead of the state prison and spent the rest of his working life handling funds in the same community where everyone knew what he’d done. There had to be more to that story.

      Historic Duluth newspapers had the details; a fatherless teen due to his parents’ marriage breaking up, he was a handsome young man of 18 when he started running with wealthy young Duluth friends, joined the Elks Club for the card playing and probably got himself into debt in his efforts to keep up with the lifestyle habits of his young companions and older, better card players.These contacts probably also helped him get the city clerk job at age 19, where he was well liked and thought quite competent for the next 6 yrs. He also supported his mother and younger sister.

      The newspapers revealed he’d actually had two trials, the first ending in a hung jury. Two lawyers represented him pro bono, a dozen character witnesses appeared on his behalf, and the city’s insurance audit reported the missing amount had gone down from the first claim of over $1k to the final $69.

      This amount in cash my ancestor pulled from his jacket pocket on the witness stand and offered to the prosecutor.

      He said he’d taken it home one night when he worked too late to deposit it, put it in his sock drawer and forgot about it before leaving on his fishing trip in his old boat along the Lake Superior north shore into Canada. Gone for two-weeks he was unaware that in his absence someone had launched an audit back in Duluth that generated the accusations he would meet upon his return home.

      The second jury convicted him but with a strong recommendation for “mercy and leniency” by the judge. His inmate file from the reformatory revealed letters from 30 Duluth residents as character witnesses, five of which offered him jobs upon his release. He went to work as an accountant for the steel mill, lived in a Duluth suburb, and was soon elected treasurer of his church. He kept both positions until he retired.

      Using the old newspapers I also tracked the prosecutor and city officials who accused my ancestor of this crime. They were all running for re-election around the time he went to trial and all were re-elected, most having many more years in public life.

      Was my g-uncle just an easy mark for ambitious politicians seeking to be big frogs in their little ponds? Was he that and guilty as well? He handled monies destined for the city coffers, had no family or personal resources, no father to fund his defense, no extended family of social standing to push back on his behalf. I’ll never know of course. But clearly he was regarded well by a number of people after his release from the reformatory, where he was sent by the judge who declared him redeemable and not deserving of the state penitentiary with hardened criminals.

      HIs inmate file showed he took two correspondence business courses and taught illiterate fellow prisoners how to read and write while in the clink. His only child didn’t know any of this nor had any of her four children learned of it even though they all grew up in Duluth. It made for some interesting family discussions and email exchanges in which we all learned more about a very strange, withholding and mysterious extended family of ancestors.

  7. I found the car accident that claimed my great grandparents in the Two Rivers WI newspaper. It was front page news. They collided with a train – the car was being driven by another couple who also perished. My grandmother was pushed out of the car by her mother and was the only survivor. That was in 1916. She was 16 and lived to be 75 years old.

  8. I wouldn’t consider that any person listed as an inmate is, or was, necessarily in jail or in prison. The staff and residents of many orphanages and even middle class old people’s homes were often listed as inmates on the census sheets. (I have not looked at any homes for the aged rich, assuming there were any.) The person in charge was often called Head, Superior, Superintendent, etc. Check the top of the census sheet to see which place is being enumerated.

  9. My genetic community is Eastern Puerto Rican. I do not have, at this time, specific information about my Europen ancestors, and or African ancestors, or Native American ancestors, etc. I will consider signing up for newspapers as soon as I have the names of European, and or African and or Native American ancestors.

  10. Do you have newspapers for Hudson County in New Jersey such as Jersey Journal or Hudson Dispatch for early 1900’s. My grandfather died in that time period and I do not have any information on him. He is my last brick wall. Then it would be beneficial for me to subscribe.

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  12. I have been on Ancestry for several years and have been unsuccessful in finding info on my gr, grandmother, Metti Anna Chamberlain from New Jersey, maybe 1870’s or so. Her grandparents originally from England as per family history say so. I only know she married a minister, Richard Levison Grainger and moved to Cleveland Ohio and died in 1957 there. I know all the family history in Cleveland but have nothing of her history in NJ and prior. I have hit a brick wall for her.

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