No. 526
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
June 21, 2021

The Tewksbury Almshouse.

November 12, 2013
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The Tewksbury Almshouse.

Tewksbury Almshouse

 “To the eternal shame of Massachusetts, conceived in corruption, erected in humanity at Tewksbury” [more]

The Tewksbury Almshouse, in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, was established in 1852 as an asylum for paupers. It was built to house a population of 500 people, but by the end of its first month of operation the almshouse had more than 800 inmates. By 1874 the almshouse also housed mental patients and the chronically ill; about 40% of the inmates were mental patients.

By the 1880s the Tewksbury Almshouse had a higher death rate, particularly among infants, than similar institutions around the commonwealth, and the cost per inmate was also considerably higher. For years the almshouse had been dogged by rumors of abuse and corrupt management and in 1883, Benjamin Butler, the newly elected governor of Massachusetts, formed a committee to investigate. Butler’s investigation found that, not only were the rumors true, but affairs at the Tewksbury Almshouse were more outrageous than anyone had imagined.

Eaten by Rats

For twenty-five years the institution had been managed by Thomas J. Marsh. When he began there, Marsh was a poor man himself, but while working at the almshouse he was able to send two sons to Harvard. He did it by bilking the commonwealth and the inmates at every turn. Six other members of the Marsh family were employed at the almshouse and the family provided food for the institution. They would feed chickens on grain provided by the commonwealth, then sell the eggs to the almshouse—they had similar arrangements for milk and pork.

Harvard Medical

In spite of this, inmates were dangerously undernourished; some were described as little more than skeletons. In fact, care of the inmates was not a high priority at the almshouse.  When inmates arrived they were given a thin hospital gown to wear and their own clothes were sold by the Marshes. Conditions were unsanitary throughout the building.  Former inmates told of physical and sexual abuse among the staff and patients. The almshouse was infested with rats which would gnaw on the corpses; any inmate who was incapacitated might be eaten alive by rats. Foundlings brought to the almshouse would invariably die soon after—the babies were given morphine to stop their crying but were otherwise neglected.

Breast Shoe

Inmates who were able, were put to work sewing or knitting, producing goods to be sold. But Marsh soon realized that what the almshouse produced most efficiently were corpses and he found ways to make them pay as well. He had deals with Harvard Medical School and colleges in Boston to sell corpses for dissection—ten to twelve dollars for adults, about half that for infants. In some cases newly buried corpses were dug up at night, in other cases the body was never buried; a log was put in the coffin for weight. Sometimes there was no funeral at all, the body was put in a pork barrel and shipped to the school that way.

Tanned Skin

But even this was not sufficient for Marsh, he found another way to profit from dead bodies. He had the bodies skinned and their hides sent it out to be tanned. In one case a pair of shoes was being made from a woman’s breasts. The tanned skin was found in a shoemaker’s workshop being made into a shoe. The first shoe of the pair was already on display in a store window on Washington Street in Boston. Governor Butler explained to the committee why shoes like these were made:

What do you suppose people want of them? Well, there are old men and young men of jaded passions, worn out prematurely by their vices, and if they can put their feet in slippers made from a woman's breast, perhaps they can feed their imaginations.

Marsh denied tanning the skin, but there was no denying the skin had originated at the almshouse. One piece of tanned human skin discovered had a tattoo of a crucifix along with the name Charles J. Ekland and his date of birth. Ekland had been a registered inmate at the Tewksbury Almshouse.

Whitewash

The story became national news, partially because of its sensational nature, and partially because Governor Butler was actively seeking the Democratic nomination for president. The Massachusetts legislature and the investigating committee were controlled by Republicans, and the issue became highly partisan.  When the committee released its report, claiming that all was well at the Tewksbury Almshouse and all the problems had been in the past, they were accused by some newspapers of whitewashing the issue. Other papers accused Butler of exaggerating the story for political gain; the New York Times said that the investigation “…had been from first to last an infamous burlesque on a decent public inquiry.”

In any case, the investigation led to reform of the Tewksbury Almshouse. Over the years the institution began shifting its focus to infectious diseases, changing its name and its mission several times. Today it is the Tewksbury Hospital and presumably no longer abuses its patients.

 

 

 

 


Butler, Benjamin F. Argument Before the Tewksbury Investigation Committee . Boston: Democratic Central Comittee., 1883

Leonard, Clara T. The Present Condition of Tewksbury. Boston: Franklin Press: Rand, Avery & Co., 1883]

"The Tewksbury Investigation." New York Times 22 Jul 1883.

"The Whitewash is Too Thin." Puck 1 Aug 1883: 1.