In the Spotlight

News & Features

Conditions of poorhouses in Iowa
From The American Poorfarm and Its Inmates, by Harry C. Evans
July 29, 2002

The treatment of the "feeble-minded" and insane is of particular concern.

The State Auditor's report for 1924 shows the expenditures on poor farms for the previous year was $1,134,482, of which but $405,000 was spent for food, clothing, medicine, medical services, light, fuel, and water-the necessities of life. It's an extravagant business that requires 65 percent of the income for administrative purposes.

The various counties of Iowa have set aside 22,261 acres for poorfarms. It is splendid land, the best in the state. Iowa's idea is to make the farms support the inmates as nearly as possible, yet but three poorfarms are self-supporting. Only two states and the District of Columbia cultivate a greater percentage of the land - 73.5 percent being under cultivation. This leaves 5,895 uncultivated acres, an average of 60 acres to the farm. The land is valued by the government report at $186 per acre, a total land value of $4,151,327, which is $1,332 per pauper. Iowa has generously spent as much money in buying land for every pauper at a poorfarm as would purchase a good building lot in any town or city in the State. She has bought more than 7 acres for each pauper.

The valuation of the land with equipment and furnished buildings is $9,117,087 - a total investment for each pauper of $2,926. If this money were invested at 4 percent it would yield an annual revenue of $364,683. The annual interest charge per pauper is $117. The investment of this amount of money for each pauper in the state is about as silly from a business standpoint as it would be for a man with a large family to build a house for each member.

The annual cost of maintenance of all farms is $1,114,982, or $358 per inmate. The sale of farm products from Iowa poorfarms is much larger than from any other state, the total for the year being $309,345. This is $14 per acre, or $19 per acre for the cultivated land. This, however, is but $17,649 more than the pay roll.

Iowa legislatures make great professions of economy. Because, it is claimed, a county can support its insane cheaper at home than it would cost to send them to a state asylum, the legislature permits this practice. Of Iowa's 3,116 inmates at poorfarms in 1923, 1,424 were insane. If these insane were cared for at a state institution, where they would receive scientific medical treatment, instead of being dumped in a poorfarm, where little or nothing is known of their malady, there would be but 1,692 inmates left.

Passing the matter of the inhumanity of compelling intelligent, respectable old folk who are nearing the close of life without means, to associate daily with the insane, we call the attention of the economical Iowa legislator to the fact that Pennsylvania supports one poorfarm with 2,371 inmates at an annual cost of $570,000. Iowa's paupers and insane together are but 31 percent more, yet Iowa spends $1,114,982 for maintenance to $570,000 nearly twice as much. The one Pennsylvania farm has $2,767,000 invested to Iowa's more than nine million. It has 158 employees to Iowa's 431. Its annual cost per inmate is $241-Iowa's $358.

per year, against Iowa's cost per pauper of $358. In both the above cases there are more real paupers in one institution, and nearly as many inmates, as Iowa has in 97. If the Iowa legislature would prohibit the keeping of insane at poorfarms, pass a law consolidating her 97 poorfarms into 1, and let the State run it, there would be a great saving of money and a great service to both pauper and insane.

In 66 counties the mildly insane go to the poorfarm. In 21 counties the insane and the paupers are not kept separate. In 12 counties they mingle freely in the daytime, in 9 they live together day and night, using same dining rooms, sitting rooms, bed rooms, toilets and bath. All this is violation of the spirit of the state laws, and with the knowledge of the Board of Control.

The practice of sending the insane and the intelligent poor to the same county poorfarm is as vicious as the practice of the South in sending hardened criminals and paupers to the same convict camp, or of certain eastern states in sentencing short-term prisoners to the poorfarm. If a man has nothing that can be stolen, he undoubtedly would rather associate with a criminal than an insane person.

The practice is no more vicious than the general practice in all states of compelling intelligent paupers to eat and sleep and live with the feeble- minded. Feeble-mindedness and insanity are so closely akin that often the line cannot be drawn.

The astounding thing is that men who have been preferred for official places - town, county and state - should subject any intelligent human being, even a pauper, to such treatment. The insane and the feeble-minded should be eliminated. Perhaps 50 percent of those listed as paupers in Iowa are mentally defective. Some of them can be rehabilitated if taken out of the poorfarm and properly treated. The large majority of them could have been cured of mental blindness if they had been properly cared for in their youth. Most of them would never have been born if their feeble-minded parents had been properly restrained.

Eliminate all the mental defectives, and there will remain but few actual paupers who can be made comfortable in one institution at reasonable cost, or by pensions, or outdoor relief. We quote from "Social Legislation in Iowa", published by the State Historical Society:

"Many radical changes are needed in Iowa's system of poor relief. The county homes are notoriously ill adapted; there are no facilities for the segregation of the various classes of dependents and defectives; the treatment of inmates, to say the least, is unscientific; it is rare, indeed, that much attention is paid to comfort and happiness; stewards as a rule are untrained; poor management and inefficiency seem to prevail everywhere, The controlling factor in the appointment of stewards and matrons is politics. They are not selected through civil service. There are few graduate nurses. Conditions reported are in pauper wards - not insane wards."

ADAMS COUNTY-Food and lighting poor; no recreation or church services; no trained nurse; bedbugs; no examination of inmates at entrance as to mental capacity or physical disability; men and women associate freely, use same toilet and bathroom, bedrooms across hallway; bedrooms stuffy, bedding unclean, washed by inmates; clothing unclean; dining room unsanitary; toilets unclean; outdoor privy; well water, cesspool; building not fireproof, no fire escapes.

APPANOOSE COUNTY-No recreation or church services; no medical examinations; no examinations of inmates for disability; infected inmates use common toilets; their clothing go into common wash; bedbugs; no trained nurse; well water, outdoor privy, cesspool; building not fireproof.

BLACK HAWK-No separate toilet for infected and epileptic patients; their clothes go into common wash; the feeble-minded mingle freely with other patients; 53 insane in separate building; they do the farm work; no recreation or musical instruments.

CASS COUNTY-No running water except in kitchen; privies; no sewer age; feeb1e-minded mingle freely with other inmates.

FAYETTE COUNTY-Three-story non-fireproof building; 44 inmates sleep on third floor; no regular trained nurse.

MUSCATINE COUNTY-No medical examinations; bedrooms and toilets unclean; well water. cesspool; 30 paupers, 20 insane; 3 children at farm.

STORY COUNTY-The steward of the poorfarm was recently charged with raping a 24-year-old feeble-minded inmate. He was tried and convicted, was granted a new trial and acquitted. The inmate has the mind of a 10- year old girl. She was born in the insane asylum. Her mother is an insane inmate at the county poorfarm. Her grandmother is an inmate of the state insane asylum. (These are some of the penalties society pays for permitting the propagation of the unfit.)