Should Portland Bring Back the Poorhouse?

Poorhouse residents (many facilities unabashedly called them “inmates”) were subject to harsh rules, meager rations and few freedoms. And that’s if you could get in!

What was the deal with “the poorhouse,” where the indigent were housed back in the day? I know it was supposed to be terrible and inhumane, but at least our forebears were providing housing, which is more than we seem able to do. Should we bring it back? —Fartful Dodger

Most of us know the poorhouse (if we know it at all) as a warning from Depression-era grandparents about what happens to money-burning fools who turn on the air conditioner* and buy name-brand breakfast cereal. Yet for years these institutions were our entire social safety net.

Of course, that net was not exactly a comfy hammock. Poorhouse residents (many facilities unabashedly called them “inmates”) were subject to harsh rules, meager rations and few freedoms. And that’s if you could get in! Most houses accepted only women, children and the infirm. Healthy men were expected to work; those who refused could be sent to prison, a terrible place of harsh rules, meager rations and few freedoms.

Unlike the modern welfare state, poorhouses were administered at the city or county level. This gave local officials like Robert Cleghorn, superintendent of Multnomah County’s Hillsdale Poor Farm from 1870 to 1885, more or less unchecked power. Cleghorn appears to have had total control over who was allowed stay at Hillsdale—in fact, most news stories about him seem to be accounts of brawls with people he tried to kick out.

Henry Mitchell, for example, was sent to Hillsdale to recuperate from the loss of a finger on his right hand. Eventually, Cleghorn pronounced him sufficiently able-bodied to return to work. Mitchell disagreed and, with his right arm still in a sling, managed to stab the superintendent three times with his left hand, winning the fight. (But, it must be said, clearly losing the argument.)

A place like this wouldn’t work today for lots of reasons, starting with basic numbers. Hillsdale Poor Farm had to house only a few dozen people at a time. Even adjusting for population, that would be maybe a couple hundred today. If only! What kept Hillsdale’s numbers so low? The frontier economy? The social fabric of the 19th century? Reluctance to bunk with guys like Henry Mitchell? The secret is lost to the ages.

*My grandparents’ central air was strictly a deterrent, never meant to be actually used, like the Bomb.

Questions? Send them to dr.know@wweek.com.