Book Review- A Wholesome Horror: Buried memories exhumed in new book

by Paul W. Bennett – The Chronicle Herald

Brenda Thompson, author of A Wholesome Horror, reads from her book. (PAUL W. BENNETT)

Brenda Thompson, author of A Wholesome Horror, reads from her book. (PAUL W. BENNETT)

Torrential rain and fog did not deter some 75 local citizens from crowding into the Annapolis Royal Sissiboo Café clamouring for a copy of Brenda Thompson’s new book, A Wholesome Horror, the first study to reclaim the lost history of Nova Scotia’s poor houses. The turnout exceeded the author’s wildest expectations, almost leaving her at a loss for words.

Few local book launches generate such a burst of excitement. Whether it was the Maud Lewis effect or just a show of support for a well-respected local citizen was hard to tell. One thing was abundantly clear: There’s a thirst to know more about these mysterious institutions and a market for local lore in Annapolis Valley and along the Digby shore.

Standing among the gathered throng, Thompson seized the moment and rose to give what looked like an impromptu talk. She led off with: “It’s not an easy subject. My daughter tells me it’s a depressing subject. Let’s hope it encourages others to explore this neglected topic.”

One after another, a long line of Annapolis County folk lined up for a book signed by the author. With a cover photo of the Marshalltown Almshouse and a powerful, haunting image on the back from a Steven Rhude painting of Maud and local folk superimposed on the Poor House, it made for a most attractive gift. The book’s appeal ran deeper, however, as virtually everyone could be seen immediately poring over its contents and looking at the rare photos of the long-gone custodial institutions.

“Writing the book allowed me to combine two of my passions, social activism and local history,” Thompson said, taking a short break from signing books. “It’s really about the poor; how we treated them and continue to treat them.”

For seven difficult years, from 1986 to 1993, she had experienced poverty herself as an unwed mother on social assistance, caring for a young daughter and heavily engaged in very public anti-poverty battles.

“What I learned,” she says, “was the value of hard work, being resourceful, and just how mean people can be.”

After securing a job in Yarmouth, she stumbled upon the big, spooky, ramshackle Marshalltown institution on the side of Highway 101 near Digby and it sparked her curiosity. Two years later, in the autumn of 1995, on the same route, she actually witnessed the fire that finally claimed the abandoned building.

“Right then and there,” she recalls, “I decided that I would write about that building if I ever had the chance.”

How the book acquired its title is a fascinating story in and of itself. During her two-year research odyssey, the 55-year-old author discovered the writings of English social reformer Jeremy Bentham. He advocated poor houses where the poor, neglected and abandoned were offered bare subsistence and denied the comforts of home.

The poor house, according to Bentham, should be made into an object of wholesome horror so unpleasant that society’s poor would find it more abhorrent than their menial work, no matter how demeaning, degrading or dangerous was the workplace.

Nova Scotia’s poor houses, judging from the book, met that description. From the first one, established in Halifax in 1750, until the last one closed in 1980, the 32 scattered custodial institutions were dreary, isolated and, at times, dangerous places.

All of Nova Scotia’s poor houses are profiled in the book, accompanied by rare photos of the lost buildings. Most closed in the 1960s and 1970s but the Lunenburg Poor House in Dayspring lasted until 1980, and only one portion of one institution is still standing today, refurbished and functioning as an apartment in Argyle, Yarmouth County.

Thompson mined the annual inspector’s reports from 1879 to the 1950s, gleaning what happened inside their walls. Most of the wards, labelled as inmates, were elderly men and women who were destitute with no family to support them, or mentally- and physically-handicapped persons sent away by their families.

Poor houses like Marshalltown were segregated residential homes where men and women were kept separate to minimize the incidence of sexual assault. The surviving records, likely laundered, make only veiled references to assaults, but subsequent ground excavations turned up many unmarked graves.

All residents were labelled and carried a social stigma.

“We treated them all like they had done something criminal,” Thompson says.

Sadly and tragically, they were also labelled and confined to wards with crude designations like Poor Woman’s, Insane Women’s, Poor Men’s and Insane Men’s.

How the charges were treated depended upon the keepers and matrons. The author concurs with Maud Lewis biographer Lance Woolaver that Marshalltown supervisors like Guy Thomas and Olive Hayden were kindly, while some, such as Joseph Thibault, proved to be cruel sadists and murderers. Thompson put it succinctly: “It depended upon the keepers whether you got out or died there.”

Night watchman Everett Lewis, Maud’s husband, was rumoured to have perpetrated sexual assaults while patrolling the woman’s ward.

“It was impossible,” the author says, “to prevent sexual liaisons from happening in such institutions.”

Thompson’s A Wholesome Horror provides what might be described as the first draft of history in the form of reliable accounts of each of the institutions. The book, she recognizes, leaves a few stones unturned.

A Wholesome Horror: Buried memories exhumed in new book

The Last Halifax Poor House- Nothing to mark the deaths of 30 people by fire.

The City of Halifax had three poor houses; one in 1750 at the site of the current government house at the end of Spring Garden Road and Barrington (next to the Maritime Mall), then it was moved to the corner of Spring Garden and Queen, across from the current site of the new Halifax Library, then to the corner of South and Robie Streets, site of the current IWK Health Centre.

This third poor house was the last one for the City of Halifax. Built in 1869, it was originally planned to be built in the shape of a crucifix with a main building and two wings off the main building. Money and time, however, meant that this plan was thwarted and architects, Peters, Blaiklock and Peters, stuck with the more conventional style of building.

The Halifax Poor House on the corner of Robie and South Streets

In 1882 a fire destroyed the building, killing many of the poor people who were stuck on the top floor. The Inquest into the fire found that the design of the building, with the fire going up  the elevator shaft, lack of a fire escape, housing the bed ridden on the top floor, and officials sending the residents back inside the building even though it was burning,  contributed to the death of so many of the residents. The architects and officials tried very hard to blame the fire on the inmate who was stoking the boiler in the basement who was not only poor but African Nova Scotian. As  overt and systemic as racism and classism was in those times (and continues to be) the inquest found that he was not responsible. No one was held accountable for the deaths of 30 people

The building was rebuilt in 1886. The paupers were housed in the prison on Melville Island which was outside of Halifax. The criminalization of people in poverty even took place during a time of crisis.

The Halifax Poor House survived the Halifax Explosion of 1917 with mostly broken windows. Many of the survivors of the explosion were housed here during the winter while the city was put back together and houses were rebuilt.

You can read about the fire in Steven Lafolley’s book The Halifax Poor House Fire. It gives some first voice accounts of living in the Halifax Poor House at the time of the fire.

In the 1970s, the Halifax Poor House, by then known as The City Home, was torn down. The mentally ill were placed in a new facility known as Abby Lane and the poor were now (somewhat) eligible under the Canada Assistance Plan, also known as municipal assistance and provincial assistance. Those who were not eligible became homeless. Unwed mothers were not eligible for any kind of assistance until 1972. Prior to that, if an unwed mother did not have family or friends to help her, she would be forced to give up her child for adoption.

At the site of the old Halifax Poor House, the IWK Hospital was built. Today it is the site of a world class hospital specializing in the medical care of children.

The current site of the Halifax Poor House; a world class hospital for children.

To stand at the site, you would not know that such a tragedy as the Halifax Poor House Fire happened at this site. Yet again, there is no plaque, no monument, nothing to mark the passing of 30 people in such a horrendous accident at the site. Was it because they were poor and not considered worthy of note?





Book Signing-Saturday June 23

Hey All of your Brother and Sister History Buffs/Nerds! I will be at Chapters book store at the Mic Mac Mall, 41 Mic Mac Boulevard, Dartmouth this coming Saturday to my book A Wholesome Horror: Poor Houses in Nova Scotia from 12:00 to 1:30.

Then I’ll be over at the Chapters Book Store in Bayers Lake, 188 Chain Lake Drive, Halifax from 2:30 to 4pm to sign my books there. Come on over and talk poor houses and history.


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And then I’ll be rushing back to West Dalhousie, Annapolis County to take part in a play I wrote Asteroids, Acadians and Authors; The History of West Dalhousie  which will be performed at 7 pm. It’s gonna be a BUSY day!

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Announcement from the Weekly Bridgetown Reader

Halifax, Acknowledge Your Historic Poor!

A gentleman came walking quickly into the Sissiboo Cafe in Annapolis Royal on Sunday as I was working. “I just read about the burial ground for the Halifax Poor House in your book” he said. “The Old Burial ground is at the corner of Spring Garden and Barrington. Where, specifically, is the burial ground for the people of the Halifax Poor House?”

“At the spot where the old Halifax Library was, a former court house” I told him.

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Thousands of bodies of inmates of the second poor house in Halifax are buried beneath the ground here and so many people do not know this as they read their books and eat their lunch here. They do not know about the people buried here as there is no marker, plaque or monument to acknowledge them. 

“And there is no plaque, stone or anything to acknowledge them?” he asked.

“Nothing” I answered.

“Okay thank you” he said and he hurried off again. I am still wondering what that was about.

So many people lie down on the grass in the summer on this very spot in the summer. They are eating their lunches, having some fries from the local french fry truck, reading a book, meeting friends, enjoying the sunshine….all the while they are doing this on top of decayed bodies of inmates from the poor house. And they have no idea. I, myself, have done exactly that. It’s macabre.

The Old Burial Ground on the corner of Spring Garden and Barrington Street. It receives federal funding while the poor house burial ground across the street isn’t even acknowledged.

And, unlike the Old Burial Ground across the street on Spring Garden, there is nothing to note the final resting place of the human beings who had such a difficult time in life; who did not have an inheritance, a family, money to make things easier in their lives. Just unmarked graves where an old building stands and people enjoy their lunch in the summer.

The second poor house of Halifax was on the corner of Spring Garden and Queen Streets. The Bank of Montreal has stood there for many years. The site of the poor house is outlined in red. The site of the burial grounds for the poor house inmates the corner of Brunswick and Spring Garden. Brunswick street was not there at the time of the burials. It was just part of the yard of the poor house. Screenshot (24)_LI

Historian Thomas Raddall wrote:

“There must have been many an edifying spectacle for the gentlefolk sniffing the flowers across the way. There poor house dead were buried hastily in shallow graves in the yard, and for many years there were complaints about the smell which hung over this part of Spring Garden Road”

If you live in Halifax or visit Halifax, stop by the statue of Winston Churchill. Take a moment to sit and look around you. And pay a bit of homage to the people buried underneath. They do not receive any kind of funding to maintain their graves let alone any kind of acknowledgement that they are buried there. They might have died of disease, of old age, of ill health, an accident or by the neglect of poverty. That could have so easily been us if we had been born in a different time, a different era, a different family.

Halifax, you really need to acknowledge the most vulnerable of  your citizens buried there.


For further reading, these articles are very interesting:

The unclaimed dead beneath our streets

Poor House & Mi’kmaq Buried here

“Paupers Outside”

The Horton Poor House as it looked in the 1880s.


The poor houses of Nova Scotia did not just help paupers inside the house; paupers were often supported outside of the poor house as well. This was often referred to as Outside Assistance or “Paupers Outside”.  I write about this in my book A Wholesome Horror; Poor Houses in Nova Scotia. It was a tradition of helping paupers who were not in the house but may have had a house of their own but still needed some form of assistance in the form of wood, coal, clothing or money.

In 1915, the Township of Horton reported the following “Paupers Outside”:

Mrs. James Schofield                                       $10.15

Mrs. Fitzgerald                                                    11.00

Mrs. Williams                                                        4.00

Jonathan Welsh                                                    7.00

S. Keddy                                                                 12.25

Abner Keddy                                                        36.00

Nathan Fitzgerald                                               18.00

James Kelly                                                          11.75

Joseph Best                                                             7.08

Fred Pinch                                                            22.83

Frank Morine                                                         4.25

Rupert Morine                                                       4.00

Jacob Shaw                                                           57.00



It is interesting  to see the varying amounts. It would have been fascinating to see a break down of just what the amounts were to purchase. Was it wood? Clothing? Food? Were the Keddy paupers and the Morine paupers related?

Five years later, in 1920, the list changes from mostly men to mostly women. The Horton Poor House recorded the list of “Paupers Outside” in 1920 before the three county poor houses of Kings County amalgamated into one poor house.  The report states:

Paupers Outside 1920

Mrs. Albert Fitzgerald                                     $16.66

Mrs. Henry Golar                                                15.00

Mrs. James Berry                                                13.97

Mrs. Emma Turbit                                              14.75

Mrs. Jacob Shaw                                                  50.75

       George Lyman                                                     15.05

Wm. Walsh                                                           17.25

Noble Coldwell                                                    10.37

 Rupert Morine                                                    15.00

Total                                                                           $168.80


Notice that most of the applicants were female and most were married. It makes the reader wonder if the married women were widows or were they applying on behalf of the whole family?  Most of the married women used their husband’s names instead of their own first names with the exception of  Mrs. Emma Turbit. The women had their marital status recorded whereas the men did not. Were the  men single? Did the  married men make their wives apply for assistance?

It also makes you wonder what situation brought them to apply for assistance? Where ‘outside’ the poor farm did they live? The outside paupers would have lived in the catchment area of the Horton Poor House but what was their catchment area?

More digging in the history books must be made!


How to get out of the Poor House

Once you were into the local poor house, or in rural Nova Scotia the poor farm, it was not always easy to get out. Over the weekend, a friend of mine from Baltimore told me how her father used to go to the local poor farm every year and ‘…get a girl’ as a maid or servant for his house. This was normal. Everett Lewis, husband of famous folk art painter Maud Lewis, got out of the Marshalltown Almshouse when his mother was hired by a local man to be his housekeeper. She was permitted to take one of her children with her. She chose Everett. Her other children and her husband remained in the poor house where two of her children and her husband died many years later.

The Forden Workhouse, UK, 1794

Having someone come and hiring  you for a job was one way to get out of the poor house. Some inmates were lucky enough to have family appear and agree to take you home with them and support you. But most had already tried that route and either their family was too poor to support them or they were estranged from their family or simply did not have any family members left to support them. That was the case with many elderly inmates. They may not have ever married and had children; their children might have died before them or their children would not/could not support them.

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Kalmazoo County Poor House, Minn. US  May 18, 1905

Transients or “tramps” as they are commonly referred to, could sign themselves out of a poor house as they were not from the area and agreed to keep moving and not stay in the area. If they tried to stay long term in a poor house, they would be transported back to the village, town or municipality in which they were born. The place where a person was born was deemed responsible for their support as per the Poor Laws of the English King Henry VIII in the late 1400s. These laws were enacted in medieval times, brought to Nova Scotia with Edward Cornwallis in 1749, and stayed on our books until a successful  Supreme Court of Canada challenge in the year 2000!!

The last way to get out of a poor house was to die. This was the unfortunate route of many poor house inmates. They simply lived in the poor house until they died either of illness or old age or suicide.

Do you think that, as a poor house inmate, you will finally be permitted to rest in peace? Not necessarily…

Book Signing – June 16th

For those who are interested in having a signed copy of my book A Wholesome Horror: Poor Houses in Nova Scotia, I will be doing a book signing at Sissiboo Cafe and Art Gallery in Bear River (my absolutely favourite Nova Scotia Village and Artist Enclave!) on Saturday, June 16 from 2-4 pm.

The address is 1890 Clementsvale Road Bear River


Come on by and let’s talk history and poor houses!!
The AF Church map showing the location of the Poor House in Clementsvale.