Here to return to
IN 1736 the Massachusetts General Court passed an Act whereby the Town of Boston was authorized to build a Workhouse for the accommodation of idle and vagabond persons, rogues, and tramps. This was done in 1738, the expense being met by popular subscription. The new building adjoined the Bridewell, and extended, partly in front of the latter, down the incline, facing the Common. Its lower portion abutted on the western border of the Burying-Ground, and reached to the northern line of the present Park Street Church lot, where the Granary then stood. The Workhouse was a well-proportioned, brick building, having two stories and a gabled roof. Its length was about one hundred and twenty-five feet, and it contained a large common Hall.1
In October, 1739, certain rules were adopted for the management of the Institution. It was ordered that “the Mistress take care that the victuals be well and seasonably dressed; the bread and beer prepared according to the direction of the Overseers; that the rooms be swept, and the beds made every day; and that the people be kept clean and neat in their apparel. It was also specified that the common work of the House should consist in picking oakum, and that such of the women as were capable, should be employed in carding and spinning wool, flax and yarn; also cotton yarn for candlewick; knitting, sewing, etc.” The inmates were forbidden to smoke tobacco in their beds, on penalty of being denied smoking for one week.
It appears that the Workhouse was used as a Hospital for British soldiers during the period between the Battle of Bunker Hill and their departure from Boston in March, 1776. This fact is evident from the following deposition. Whether the large quantity of arsenic therein mentioned was left in the Workhouse with sinister intent or otherwise, is a matter of conjecture.
I, John Warren, of Cambridge, Physician, testify and say that on or about the twenty-ninth day of March, last past, I went into the Work House of the Town of Boston, lately improved as an Hospital by the British Troops stationed in said Town; and upon examining into the State of a large quantity of Medicine there by them left; particularly in one Room, supposed to have been by them used as a Medicinal Store Room; I found a great variety of medicinal articles laying upon the Floor, some of which were contained in Papers, while others were scattered upon the floor, loose. Amongst these I observed small quantities of what I supposed to be arsenic; and then received Information from Doctor Daniel Scott, that he had taken up a large quantity of said arsenic in large lumps, and secured it in a Vessel. Upon receiving this Information, 42
I desired him to let me view the arsenic; with which he complied; and I judged it to amount to about the Quantity of twelve or fourteen pounds. Being much surprised by this extraordinary Intelligence, I more minutely examined the Articles on the Floor, and found them to be chiefly capital Articles, and those most generally in demand. And judging them to be rendered intirely [sic] unfit for use, advised Scott to let them remain, and by no means to meddle with them, as I thought the utmost Hazard would attend Using of them. They were accordingly suffered to remain, and no account was taken of them.
Then Dr. John Warren made solemn oath to the truth of the above written deposition:
a Justice of the Peace throughout the Colony
. . . . . . . . . .
The French traveller, Brissot de Warville, who visited Boston in 1788, wrote that “the Workhouse was not so peopled as one might expect. In a rising country, where provisions are cheap, good morals predominate, and the number of thieves and vagabonds is small. There are vermin attached to misery, and there is no misery here.”
At a Town Meeting, March 12, 1821, a Committee was chosen to consider and report upon the subject of “Pauperism at large.” From the investigations of this Committee it was learned that the buildings on Park Street, formerly belonging to the Town, “consisted of two ranges, one of which was used as an Alms House, for the reception of persons whom it became a duty of charity to relieve from distress; and the other as a Work House, where disorderly and dissolute people were restrained of their liberty, and compelled to work for their support.” Between these two buildings there was a smaller one, called a Bridewell, with grated cells. This served as a House of Correction, for the confinement of such persons as were not amenable to milder treatment. These several Institutions were intended for the accommodation of all classes of the poor. But a distinction, previously neglected, was made between the virtuous and vicious. Enlightened public opinion demanded that innocent unfortunates should not be regarded as criminals, nor confined in the same institution with law-breakers. In the latter class the Town Records designate vagabonds, pilferers, beggars, night-prowlers, wantons, stubborn children, wandering fortune-tellers, and other individuals whose freedom from restraint was deemed a menace to the public welfare. As early as 1662 authority was given magistrates to cause the arrest of idle vagrants, and to confine them in a House of Correction.
1 The location of the Almshouse and Bridewell is shown in a sketch, idealized from Bonner’s Map (Edition of 1743) and from a study of the Surveys of the City Engineer’s Office. This sketch is in the possession of Dr. James B. Ayer.