Uncovering Stories of People in Poverty

The old administration building at Tewksbury Hospital, formerly the Tewksbury Almshouse.

I recently visited the Boston City Archives, located near the Charles River in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. The city archives house city departmental records, school records, city census records, jail records, and more. For anyone with ancestors who lived in Boston during and after the 19th century, it’s a valuable repository for in-depth research.

One of the collections I reviewed during my visit was the records of the Temporary Home for Women and Children. I’ve been inspired by the work of Irish genealogist Daniel Loftus through Project Infant, which documents the names of residents of women and children’s homes in Ireland. Many of the residents sadly died in these institutions, and their names were lost to history. I was curious about what records were available for similar institutions in the United States.

The Temporary Home for Women and Children was under the jurisdiction of the Overseers of the Poor, which was started in 1691 and incorporated in 1772. In 1864, the Overseers of the Poor fell under the jurisdiction of the City of Boston. As the name suggests, the home functioned as a temporary respite for widows, women who were deserted by their husbands, and others in distress. In addition to shelter, residents were provided with meals and employment assistance. The infirm were sent to be cared for at the almshouse. The home also received foundlings and abandoned children, who would be matched with families and raised in almshouses.

What surprised me most about this collection was the level of detail that was included in their registers. Institutional registers at this time usually collected minimal information: name, date of admission, age, and short details on the reason for admission. I didn’t expect to find full stories contained in these records. I’ll share an example below from June 1st, 1864:

“Margt Kelleher, age 30 years & her babe, a boy, age 3 months, born in Bridgewater State alms house, Margaret has a husband somewhere, he is a drunkard & has been employed in the Iron Foundry in Canton, Mass. She has had 2 husbands, no children by the first one, name of babe John Cornelius Kelleher. This woman wants a nursing place, appears healthy. We find from the mother having a bottle of milk for her child, that she has not sufficient nourishment to go into a family as a wet nurse, she agreed to go to the alms house this P.M. (Tewksbury) Dinner & Supper”

This description of Margaret gives us a much clearer understanding of why she was in the temporary home. It suggests that her husband had abandoned her, leaving her nowhere else to go with her small child. Many of the women who were admitted to the temporary home were immigrants, and may not have had family around them to support them in times of need. While this record provides only a brief mention of Margaret, we know from this that she should appear in the records of the Tewksbury Almshouse.

I did some research on Margaret and her son John. John Cornelius Kelleher was born on 3 March 1864 in the Bridgewater Almshouse. He was the son of Cornelius Kelleher and his wife, Margaret Mulligan. He was baptized the day of his birth at the almshouse by Father McMahon from St. Thomas Acquinas Church. The record of his baptism exists in our collection of Boston Roman Catholic records on AmericanAncestors.org.

Image of John Cornelius Kelleher’s baptism record

I examined the Tewksbury Almshouse Intake Records, which were digitized by UMass Lowell , in hopes of finding out what happened to Margaret and John after they were discharged from the Temporary Home. I could not find an intake record for Margaret and her son John. The trail runs cold for the moment. Perhaps one of you readers can pick up the trail and find out what happened to them.

A detailed finding aid for the records of the Temporary Home for Women and Children at Boston City Archives can be found here.

About Melanie McComb

Melanie McComb is a genealogist at NEHGS. She is an experienced international speaker on such topics as researching in Prince Edward Island and using newspapers and DNA in genealogy. Readers may know Melanie from her blog, The Shamrock Genealogist. Melanie holds a bachelor of science degree from the State University of New York at Oswego. Her areas of interest are Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Kansas, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec. She is experienced in genetic genealogy, genealogical technology, social media, military records, and Irish and Jewish research.

7 thoughts on “Uncovering Stories of People in Poverty

  1. My father and his brother were both adopted in Massachusetts. I have found my Uncle’s birth mother, Lena Mary Millete, b. 1925, was a resident of the Tewksbury Home for many years. She may have been a Catholic novice, as she passed away as a Nun in Harwich, Mass in 2006. Lena’s mother Catherine Laroche Millette also gave birth to Lena in the same Tewksbury home. Thankfully, my Irish gran (my Uncle’s adoption mother) saved 1 wonderful photo of Lena. My Uncle looks just like her! I hope to use the resources to understand more of their lives.

  2. I’m the town historian in New Castle, NH, and am working on a research project about the poor people who lived here. I’m finding lots of info. in old town records where the town is paying for firewood, food, clothing, doctors, nursing care and finally burial for the town poor. The people listed, I’ve found, have no presence in the normal vital records but a lot of them did have children. This will hopefully help future researchers find their long lost ancestors who’ve just disappeared out of the records. So, my tip to researchers is to also look at old town account books and similar financial records of the town.

    1. Carol – I would like to get in contact with you about New Castle and about Fort Constitution. I had at least two ancestors that were soldiers there during the time of the the War of 1812 and would like to know more about the town and the people. I grew up in Newmarket and will be back in NH in the middle of August. Any ideas of how we might connect? Possibly in person or by e-mail/text? Thanks

  3. I discovered a sad and interesting story about poverty and my family. My King line has a long history of of ship boiler makers who lived in Bath Maine and worked at the Ironworks there. They lived challenging lives. Many married young then had large families. Deaths of children and mothers were noticably more frequent due to poverty. For one family, when the mother of 5 died at only 25, 4 daughters were brought to the Bath Military and Naval Orphanage.

    Shortly after the sister’s arrived, there was a diptheria outbreak in the orphanage. Only one child died during the outbreak, little Hattie King, one of the sisters. There is a registry for the Orphanage that shows costs for the Outbreak.

    I uploaded a photo of the orphanage and the original newspaper article to Hattie’s FindAGrave memorial which I’m honored to have in my care. For anyone who would like to stop by, the link is:

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