Here, ranged about the table, sat the fathers of the town and such of those as by hard living and coarse thinking had arrived at a place in life where they could speculate upon the bodily vigor and the probable capacity for hard labor of a half-witted boy, a forlorn-looking widow, or a halt and tottering old man.The event was "a ceremony much resembling the slave auctions of the South, with this difference, if a slave was very old and feeble, he sold at a low figure, while a pauper of the same class sold at a high figure." Able-bodied paupers were sold cheap and worked hard. "Persons were sometimes bid off as low as from twelve to fifteen cents a week," one Maine historian commented in 1886. "Wonderful people some of the forefathers must have been."
It is one of the most exceptionable practices that ever obtained in the town. It was aggravated tenfold by the custom of furnishing, at the expense of the town, on those occasions, intoxicating drinks, for those who were present, serving to make the most prompt bidders of a class of men the least fitted to have charge of the bartered victims.The practice spread from New England to the Midwest, and—despite efforts to ensure that the paupers were properly maintained—its flaws became everywhere evident. There was little incentive for "farmers of the poor" to provide more than the bare minimum of support. Cases were reported of men refusing care to a stepparent or stepchild in hopes that the town would offer a subsidy. The aged and infirm "in comfortable quarters with families whom they liked" were forced to move to save a few tax dollars. Parents and children were often bid off to different households. By the mid-1800s, the similarities to Southern slavery could not be ignored. Samuel Hayes Elliott's semi-fictional indictment New England's Chattels: or, Life in the Northern Poor-House was published in 1858, its third and 32nd chapters devoted to the issue of public vendue of the poor.
Free white men, women, and children, educated—once, if not now respectable—voters, tax payers, the ill-tides of fortune bearing them to the town hall, they are "passed upon" as paupers and sold out—work, wages, food, clothing, body and soul—for the year, the town agreeing to pay so much money to him who will take the risk and do the best he can with it—working them as he likes, clothing them as he deems it pecuniarily safe, and so feeding them likewise; and in the event of sickness and death, quietly, and at such charges as he deems it wise for him, consigning them to the grave.Elliott's book could easily have been mistaken for "a Southern retort upon the North for Uncle Tom," but reviewers remained levelheaded: "If the stories are founded on facts, of course right-minded men at the North cannot object to their publication, and ought to be thankful that their attention is drawn to them."
For [poorhouses] reflected an attempt to mitigate the harshness of contemporary poor-relief practice by ending the auctioning of the poor to the lowest bidder and stopping the shunting of the poor from town to town regardless of their health or the weather. To their sponsors, poorhouses appeared an ideal way to accomplish a broad array of economic, disciplinary, rehabilitative, and humanitarian objectives.
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