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.
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.
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…