Early alms house considered one of the best in the state
By Beth Cedarholm, Staff Writer, Galesburg Register Mail, Sept. 10, 1987
Galesburg – In January 1865, the Knox County alms house committee – composed of R.W. Miles, John S. Winter and Cephas Arms – reported to the Board of Supervisors (precursor to the county board) on the seriousness of conditions at the poor farm and of the urgent need to replace the structure.
According to the committee, the old six-room alms house was inhabited by the poor-master’s family as well as a number of paupers.
Two of the rooms and a small storeroom were occupied by the family. The two larger rooms were day rooms for the ‘idiodic or insane’ paupers, who were locked up in the two small chambers during the night.
The committee wrote that the poor-house was completely unable to meet the needs of its residents, especially those who were ill. They cited the example of the man with the frozen feet.
“…as in the case of the man with the frozen feet, it becomes as a loathsome pesthouse, not only to the paupers, but to the poor-master and his family; the stench from the gangrened foot filling every part of the building, and sickening the guests.”
One of the smaller rooms had been transformed into a cell for “Crazy Hannah,” a woman confined to her chamber until her death.
According to the committee report, Crazy Hannah was not allowed to go near the stove fire on even the coldest days because it was feared that she might start a fire.
After giving the details of Hannah’s condition, committee members asked, “With all the modern improvements for heating buildings suitable to persons in her condition, are we, as citizens of Knox County, doing our duty to the unfortunate of our county?”
After several years of reporting the problems of the alms house, the committee finally convinced the board that the building of new county poor farm was imperative.
On March 5, 1856, the Board of Supervisors purchased land located five miles east of Galesburg (where the present Knox County Nursing Home is located), and in 1866, the new Knox County alms house was finally constructed.
Only one wing and the main portion of the building were erected at this time at a cost of $26,000, but after the east wing and heating apparatus were added, the total cost was $39,000.
It was said to be not only one of the best alms houses in Illinois, but also one of the “finest pieces of architecture” in the state. The new structure was of Gothic style, made from red brick and limestone.
The building was made up of 97 rooms, 27 of them sleeping rooms for inmates under medical treatment and 23 of sleeping rooms for insane residents. In addition, there as a chapel, sitting room, dining hall and working department, where all articles of clothing were made.
According to the “Eads’ Illustrated History of Galesburg,” there as in the house, “in addition to the aged, orphans, idiotic, incurable insane, etc., a hospital for the reception of strangers, temporarily in the county who may be suffering from acute disorders.”
In 1855, when the history was written, 118 people were living in the alms house, but from 1872 to 1878, 539 paupers were received. The inmates represented 15 nationalities.
Although written histories of Knox County boast of the alms house, the poor farm was not without problems. Albert J. Perry’s 1912 “History of Knox County” tells of an investigation of cruelty at the alms house in 1894.
According to Perry, a petition was presented to the alms house board in July 1894 requesting an investigation into charges of cruelty to a boy living in the alms house.
The charges involved “snipping or cutting off strips of skin for the purpose of grafting upon the arm of another inmate.” The petition was signed by 86 temporary inmates of the alms house.
It was learned that permission from the boy had not been granted because he was “not capable of giving consent or of being made to comprehend,” but that aside from pain, “he suffered no inconvenience because he had nothing to do.”
The special alms house committee investigating the affair failed to find any good foundation for charges of cruelty or of willful and unnecessary injury to the young alms house resident, and, in their concluding report, insisted that care at the alms house was up to par.
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