Ohio History Journal

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Life Among the Lowly:

An Early View of an Ohio Poor House



The care of the poor in Ohio during the early nineteenth century was

largely based on English legislation of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and

eighteenth centuries. In 1795 statutes of the Northwest Territory provided

a means whereby the poor could be employed through a system of annual

farming-out to the lowest bidder. The "farmers" were thus authorized to

keep the poor at moderate labor. For the next two decades, various

modifications on this plan were used for the care of the destitute. By virtue

of an Act of February 26, 1816, Ohio counties received authorization to

establish poor houses wherever it seemed "proper and advantageous." The

creation of the county poor house, or indoor relief system, moved with the

tide of immigration, general economic conditions and the rise in the

numbers of the helpless and destitute.'

In one Ohio county, Greene County, implementation of the 1816 act did

not take place until 1827. During that year. county officials purchased a

hundred acre tract, a mile and one-half west of Xenia. where a brick

building sixty feet long and eighteen feet wide, and one story tall was

erected to provide for Greene County's indigent populace. Less than two

decades later, the county's needs required replacement of the structure. In

1840 Greene County built a two-story brick structure forty-by-one hundred

feet to replace the older building. Subsequently, a wing was added to the

building, and then a structure for the confinement of the mentally ill.2

Records of conditions in Ohio poor houses prior to the Civil War are

rare so that a letter on the Greene County Infirmary and its conditions

addressed to Governor Salmon P. Chase is extraordinarily enlightening.

The following letter, reproduced in its entirety from the Salmon P. Chase

Papers in the Archives-Manuscripts Division at the Ohio Historical

Society, provides a fresh look into the loathsome state of the poor house




Frank R. Levstik is the State Archivist of Ohio.


1. Aileen E. Kennedy, The Ohio Poor Law and Its Administration (Chicago, 1934), 19,

20. 32.

2. R. S. Dills, History of Greene County (Dayton, 1881), 305.