Academic journal article The Historian

For Whose Benefit?: Social Control and the Construction of Providence's Dexter Asylum

Academic journal article The Historian

For Whose Benefit?: Social Control and the Construction of Providence's Dexter Asylum

Article excerpt

THE FIRST PUBLIC record of Eliza Ann Case contains no mention of her biography, her childhood past, nor even a note on her age. The quickly-scratched official payment order stating, "In favor of Ann Axtell for board for Eliza Case and Sibell Pitts," reveals only a simple and seemingly trivial historical tidbit: On 23 February 1827, a woman named Eliza Case was officially a dependent of the Town of Providence. (1) The payment order is unremarkable in itself--one among hundreds of seemingly random and hastily scribbled treasury notes signed by Providence's Overseer of the Poor and now preserved in the archive. Mention of Eliza commands attention only because of the frequent recurrence of her name among various documents relating to the town's poor throughout the next ten years. (2) Perhaps this particular barebones introduction to Eliza is fitting, for her dependence on Providence's system of poor relief, and the changing nature of this relief, structured and confined the rest of her adult life.

Though we have no information about Eliza's early life or the circumstances that left her a town-supported boarder in Ann Axtell's home, we can make some conjectures based on what we know about poor relief in Providence in the early nineteenth century. According to later documents, Eliza was twenty-one years old in 1827, but she was probably unmarried, and lacked any financially secure family still living in Providence, as Rhode Island law mandated that familial resources be exhausted before a poor resident could request public funds. (3) Nevertheless, because Rhode Island towns were especially wary of providing support to outsiders, we can guess that she was born or at least had lived for some time in Providence. (4) As one of two boarders living with Ann Axtell, Eliza could count on at least two other women for company, but her social network may have extended beyond the walls of her adoptive home. (5)

That was soon to change. In 1824, a wealthy merchant named Ebenezer Knight Dexter died and bequeathed a large piece of property called Neck Farm to the Town of Providence. His will expressly stipulated that the town must erect a facility on the property for the purpose of housing and supporting Providence's poor. The majority of the rest of his estate, including the rent received from numerous other real-estate interests, would be kept in a fund for use only on poor relief, thereby providing sustainable financial support for the future almshouse. He forbade the town from selling the farm, and demanded that at least "forty freemen" be present for any decision on the gift. (6)

The Dexter Asylum opened its doors on 31 July 1828, and soon Providence's poor were being rounded up and directed to the new almshouse. Eliza turned up on 19 October 1828, committed to the asylum by the Overseer of the Poor fewer than three months after its opening. She must have found her new residence much more regulated than her previous home at Ann Axtell's, though over the next few years she would get used to the contrast between life within and without the asylum's walls. Between 19 October 1828 and 29 September 1838, Eliza was discharged from the asylum six times, each time returning after as short as five months or as long as two years. (7) Her stays within the Dexter Asylum's walls ranged from two months to a final period of ten years from October 1837 to November 1847. During one of the shorter stints, she gave birth to Sarah Ann Case, whose brief life of 113 days elapsed completely within the asylum. (8) Like most of the details of Eliza's life, the identity of the father of her child remains a mystery. Despite the paucity of documentation, we can be sure that life for Eliza was not easy, and never stable: The record of her two-day stay in Dexter's "solitary confinement" for fighting with another inmate attests to just one of what must have been many low points in Eliza's life of dependence. (9)

Eliza Ann Case's story provides us a window into the changing nature of poor relief in early nineteenth-century America. …

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