by Paul W. Bennett – The Chronicle Herald
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.