History of Wilton’s town poor
Before homeless service agencies and Social Security, the welfare system in the United States was much different.
Today Wilton has a Social Services Department that works to assist and support residents in need by providing information and referrals regarding social service programs, financial assistance and short-term counseling, and sponsoring community programs. But that was not always the case.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, people without any means of support or livelihood were known as “paupers,” and the common welfare method was to “take bids for care of the poor, with the responsibility awarded to the low bidder,” according to Wilton town historian and former First Selectman Bob Russell’s book Wilton, Connecticut: Three Centuries of People, Places, and Progress.
The practice of bidding out the poor was eventually forbidden by law, and in 1804, the towns of Wilton, Fairfield, Norwalk, and Weston voted to erect a poorhouse.
Wiltonians Matthew Marvin and David Lambert were appointed a committee to work with the towns in building the house, according to Russell.
The poorhouse was built near the present-day Weston Public Library on Norfield Road, and a tax of seven mills was voted to pay for it. The estimated cost of building and furnishing the poorhouse was $1,000.
On March 20, 1810, the four towns adopted rules and bylaws for the poorhouse and formed a poorhouse visiting committee responsible for seeing that the regulations were carried into effect.
Under the b-laws, a “proper and discreet” person was employed as overseer, whose responsibilities were to make sure that:
- Paupers were well and reasonably dressed.
- Rooms were washed and bed linens changed and cleaned.
- Table linen, dishes and other necessary household utensils were cleaned daily.
- Beds and bedsteads were often examined and kept free from vermin.
- The poor were “kept clean in their persons and apparel.”
- No indelicate behavior was committed, “either by word or action.”
Anyone who broke these rules was punished by confinement in “the dark room,” where they were kept on bread and water for no more than 24 hours, “unless a further time be thought necessary by the visiting committee,” according to the bylaws.
No more than four paupers could lodge in a single room, and there were “distinct and separate rooms” for males and females in the poorhouse, with exceptions for married couples.
There were also rooms designated for the sick, but anyone with a contagious disease was not permitted to reside as a pauper in the poorhouse. If someone caught a contagious disease while living in the house, he or she had to leave.
Paupers were not allowed to use tobacco “in any way while in bed” or to “spit on the walls or floors,” and anyone who broke these rules was “deprived the use of tobacco for one week.”
No poorhouse resident was allowed to leave the property “without liberty from the overseer, in which case he or she [had to] return decently and soberly” at the time the overseer told him or her to return. If a pauper did not, he or she would be “denied going out for one week for the first offense and one month for every succeeding offense.”
The poorhouse was also a workhouse, and paupers were assigned jobs by the overseer and had to keep themselves “diligently employed.”
If a pauper committed violence on “the overseer, his family or any of the resident paupers,” he or she would be confined in the dark room and kept on bread and water for at least 48 hours. A second violent offense would subject a pauper to “reasonable chastisement under the direction of the visiting committee,” according to the bylaws.
In 1831, more than half of Wilton’s town expenses were welfare payments to 27 local families, individuals and caregivers for paupers, according to Russell. Because of the expense, the poorhouse was discontinued and “the old way of letting out the poor to town residents was resumed,” he writes.
During Wilton’s 1839 and 1842 Town Meetings, it was voted to “dispose of the town poor to the lowest bidder.”
By the 1850s, the town’s welfare system had changed very little, except for the use of deportation, according to Russell. For example, Wilton’s 1857 Town Meeting voted to remove pauper Polly Sniffen to Weston, “as the state law provided that the poor ‘shall be kept within the town to which they belong,’’ according to Russell.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Wilton residents like Charles E. Gregory, Robert W. Keeler, Sherman Morehouse, and Dr. A. B. Gorham provided lodging, services and supplies to the poor.
Gregory kept the town’s poor from 1877 to 1883, according to Wilton Annual Town Reports. He was the second owner of the present-day Gregory Sawmill at the corner of Pimpewaug and Danbury roads.
Keeler kept paupers on his North Wilton homestead for more than 30 years, beginning in 1878. Keeler owned the North Wilton post office and general store on the corner of Nod Hill and Ridgefield roads from 1884 to 1900, and a general store at 77 Old Ridgefield Road from 1899 to 1902 and again from 1904 to 1927.
According to a September 1990 Wilton Bulletin article, Ellen Wesley and Hester Ann Taylor were “two of the town’s destitute” who stayed on the Keeler homestead in the early 1900s.
Morehouse, the first Democrat to be elected Wilton’s first selectman, rented out his 198 Danbury Road home to the poor in 1881, 1887, 1888, and 1891-1897. In 1886, the town reimbursed him $27.15 for taking “insane paupers” Eben Fitch and Amos Chapman to an asylum.
Gorham, Wilton’s health officer, medically attended a number of paupers, including one well-known character in Wilton history — an African American and Native American man named John “Black Jack” Tonquin. At the time of his death in 1893, Tonquin was “nearly blind” and had been “supported by the town for several years,” according to his obituary.
A number of other residents cared for paupers from Wilton and neighboring towns like Norwalk and Weston, including:
- George Jennings, who kept paupers at his house in 1888-1889.
- A. M. Shew, who provided boarding and clothing for a number of “insane paupers,” including L. H. Giles in 1880 and Daniel Allington in 1885-1886.
- Noble L. Whitney, who housed and cared for paupers in 1907.