A Source of Controversy and Relief: The Marion County Poor Farm

The earlier blog post about Venerable Flackville stimulated some comments and conversation about what is identified in the maps appearing in that post as the “Poor Farm” and the “Central State Hospital Colony,” so I thought a more in depth look at this property is needed. Initially, I want to clarify that despite the Central State name used in some maps, this facility is not the Central State Hospital campus, which is located a mile or so to the south. Instead, this ‘poor farm’ has a history which preexisted the Central State Hospital and served a role from the early years of Marion County and Indianapolis, and which evolved over the many years of its existence.

Indianapolis Marion County #indyturns200 bicentennial
Credit: Library of Congress

The poor farm for Marion County was located on the northwest corner of the present-day intersection of 21st and Tibbs Avenue on 220 acres of land in what was then a completely rural area of the county, just south of Flackville (red square in the 1855 Condit map, above). The Marion County facility was identified under a few different names in the 19th and 20th centuries, including the Poor Farm, County Asylum for the Poor, and County Infirmary. Since 'poor farm' is one of the most frequently used names, that is how I will refer to this institution for the remainder of this post. Note, the property was separate from the ‘official’ Marion County insane asylum located at Julietta on the far southeast side near the intersection of Highway 52 (Brookville Rd) and County Line Road. This facility still stands, and is now known as the Hope Center, although at its creation it was the Marion County Hospital for the Incurable Insane at Julietta.


Before delving into the history of Marion County's poor farm, some discussion about the background of the poor farm as an institution and its function in general can provide some context. A ‘poor farm’ was a common staple in Indiana counties from the first two decades after statehood onward. Early on, these facilities were components of early social assistance, and provided shelter and food for residents living in poverty, whether young and old. The 1816 Indiana constitution, Article IX, Section 4, made accommodations for poor relief, and called for the General Assembly to establish poor farms:


“[P]rovide one or more farms to be an asylum for those persons, who by reason of age, infirmity, or other misfortunes may have a claim upon the aid and beneficence of society; on such principles, that such person therein find employment, and every reasonable comfort and lose, by their usefulness, the degrading sense of dependence.”


In general, the responsibility for implementing poverty relief laws enacted by the state was put on local officials, primarily those at the township level, and the board of county commissioners, with the latter appointing staff to the poor farms. Township trustees would engage directly with indigent people and provide relief services. There were changes to the statutory schemes that governed poor relief over the years although the direct control stayed with local officials. There was even a 1830 statute that required that any free African American coming into Indiana be required to post a bond of $500 (about $14,000 today) which was "conditioned that such person should not, at any time, become a charge to the county in which such bond was given, nor to any other county in the State." Cory v. Carter, 48 Ind. 327, 339-40 (1874) The underlying intent of the law was to discourage African Americans from emigrating to Indiana.


As the name suggests, those living on the poor farm would work the land and raise crops and maintain gardens in order to help provide food for the community and for sale, although in practice many residents were not capable of field work due to underlying disability and medical conditions, or just old age. An 1895 state report regarding poor farms noted that the annual operating costs for all the farms in the state was $281,380, while $24,187 was recouped from the sale of farm product, which was typically the excess not used by the poor farm’s residents.


The individuals residing at the poor farm were almost universally (at least in the Indiana centric sources I reviewed) referred to as ‘inmates,’ which seems an additional layer of stigma on top of that already associated with having to resort to living at the poor farm. In 1943, legislation was introduced to change the name of poor farms to “county homes,” intended to “get away from the stigma attached to the traditional name.” But the stigma associated with the poor farm, and the attitudes towards those who resided there was often evident, especially in local media. A 1901 Indianapolis News article, with a subheading referring the poor farm as providing “care of the aged, the sick and the vicious," explained that “[a] trip to a poor farm is like a trip to the bottom of the sea. Here are the wrecks of life, the derelicts which, through vice or misfortune have gradually sunk to the bottom. It is not a pleasant sight.”


As noted above, poor farms were operated in counties all over the state. An excellent 2000 article by Joan E. Marshall, titled Shaping Poor Relief for the Sick‐Poor in Indiana’s Pioneering Era, Tippecanoe County, Indiana, 1826‐1846, examined the poor farm, and benevolent outreach activities, in Tippecanoe County. While the article was focused on Tippecanoe County, it does provide background information about the operations of poor farms in general. Marshall noted that on the frontier the new European settlers could fall victim to any number of injuries or accidents, which “could incapacitate the settlers who were dependent on their own physical labor and could be reduced to abject need.” This, combined with the lack of local familial support, especially in the early frontier days, would leave individuals vulnerable and destitute. Marshall refers to individuals in these situations as the “sick-poor” and noted that poverty and sickness were judged “harshly” on the frontier.


These ‘sick-poor,’ individuals who were unable to support themselves due to illness was part of the reason for the variation in names seen with the Marion County Poor Farm, including the use of the terms “asylum” and “infirmary.” Often the poor farm became a default residence for individuals with chronic mental and physical illness or disability, which prevented them from being able to support themselves. While the medically disabled or aged were expected to receive relief at the poor farm, it was anticipated that those with mental health related problems would be treated at a specialized facility (if they existed), although often those individuals would languish at the poor farm in a transitional state. Marshall describes that relief measures for the poor had two parts: outdoor and indoor relief. The former was when a destitute individual was boarded with a local resident, sometimes a family member, who then received a stipend from the county for the care of the individual. Indoor relief was the use of a county facility, or poor farm, where individuals could be housed. Medical care was provided at the county's expense for both kind of relief, with the poor farms often having medical personnel on staff.


S. Ethel Clarke, an inspector for the State Board of Charities (who had previously worked at the outdoor mission at Fairview Park), authored a paper in 1911, describing the evolution of the poor farm. She stated, in terminology, which was common of that time, that “[i]nto these institutions in the earlier day were gathered dependents of all classes. Men, women, and children, sane and insane, idiots, epileptics, incurables, the blind, deaf and dumb, the cripple, and the sturdy loafer were all dumped together.” Clarke noted that some of these classes of residents were eventually moved elsewhere, as facilities were opened to address their specific needs. She also hoped that the old system would undergo a “revolution” so that the poor asylums would focus on the aged and infirm, “whose misfortunes have made it impossible for them to longer provide for themselves.” Clarke recognized that a person could end up in the poor asylum as a result of their own actions, or just as a victim of circumstance, although she believed everyone was entitled to help: “Whatever may have been their past life, are they not entitled to our care and attention, and is it not our duty to make their years of helplessness as endurable as may be within the limits of a reasonable expense?”

Indianapolis poor farm #indyturns200
Indianapolis News, December 14, 1901

Marion County’s poor farm got its start sometime in the 1830’s and the main building (the so called "poor house") was originally a small log structure, later upgraded to a simple brick dormitory, and eventually a four story brick structure (image above). This building was later replaced in the 1920's. Records from the Board of Commissioners for Marion County during the early years of the poor farm note numerous payments made to various people in the community for the care of poor individuals, likely ‘indoor relief’ as described above. There are also referrals to the poor farm (see excerpt below) made by the township trustees for individuals who appear to have originally been placed with local members of the community for indoor relief, but for some reason were transferred to outdoor relief. The excerpt below involves payment to a township trustee for the transport of a person from their outdoor location to the poor farm.

Indianapolis #indyturns200 Marion County
Marion County Board of Commissioners Record, April 1835 session

One constant with the operations of the Marion County poor farm were regular controversies and scandals associated with the institution. Reports about the poor conditions and treatment of residents at the farm, and/or the corruption of the employees, regularly appeared in government reports and local newspapers. A few of these cases are highlighted in this post, but these are by no means all such cases, as a full breakdown of all the scandals and claimed degradations would be better suited for a book or scholarly work.


For Marion County, the problems started early. During the April 18, 1836 session of the Board of County Commissioners, the Commissioners ordered that the Sheriff of Marion County serve subpoenas on several individuals associated with the poor farm to appear the next day “to give evidence in relation to the poor farm and the manner in which the paupers are and been kept on the said farm.” Witnesses appeared, and the Commissioners’ record reported that “whereas certain rumors came to the ears of this Board in relation to the manner of keeping and conduct towards the pupers[sic] of the Asylum farm by John Redwine and Aquila Hitton the keepers of said farm, whereby this board were induced to and did appoint a committie[sic] of three of its members to visit and inspect the said farm…” The Board of Commissioners reported that the committee they had appointed to investigate the poor farm found that “no misconduct” had been committed by Redwine or Hitton.

#indyturns200 Indianapolis Journal poor farm
Indianapolis Ind. Journal, Dec. 21, 1842, advertising bids for operating poor farm.

In 1852, Calvin Fletcher reported in his diary that he and several other members of the Indianapolis Benevolent Society visited the Marion County poor farm, reported by Fletcher to be five miles to the northwest of the city. The Benevolent Society conducted clothing drives and gathered funds to donate to the poor of Indianapolis. Fletcher was a founding member of the organization in 1835. During his 1852 trip to the poor farm, the only trip his diary mentions, he reported that their party had to “go thro[sic] mud & water to get there” The visitors found 27 inmates, a mixture of men, women, and children, and Fletcher opined that the inmates looked “tolerably well.”


The 1866 Warner map of Marion County and Indianapolis (below) shows the poor farm as the 'county asylum,' with a access road to the main building off of present day Tibbs. Today this road is called Lawnview.

Indianapolis Marion County #indyturns200 map
Credit: Library of Congress

Note the cemetery in the southeastern corner of the poor farm property. This was the cemetery for the poor farm itself, and only appears in a few of the available maps for this area (compare it to the 1855 map at the beginning of this post). In January 1842, the Indiana General Assembly passed a law requiring that the Marion County commissioners clear and fence "the present grave yard of the poor farm for the burial of the paupers who die at the poor farm of Marion county." The General Assembly further decreed the enclosure would be no less than one acre, and the fence was "to be a good post and rail, or plank fence." It appears the cemetery in the map is the one at issue with the General Assembly, although its unclear why it was not included in the 1855 map, or any subsequent maps. This cemetery will be examined in a later post.


Turning back to the operations of the poor farm, on February 26, 1875, the Indianapolis News contained a short news brief noting that W.B. Fulton, the steward of the poor farm, and his wife, were facing indictments for “alleged cruel treatment” towards the residents of the farm. Fulton, who was also a doctor, claimed he and his wife were victims of malicious prosecution and claimed that they would vindicate themselves and their conduct. The March 3, 1875 edition of the News contained several interviews with residents of the poor farm, all women, who detailed various abuses inflicted by Fulton, including physical abuse, solitary confinement in the “dungeon” of the poor farm, and intentional exposure to the illnesses of other residents. However, the ultimate fate of the Fulton's was not reported.


In 1881, the Indianapolis News again reported on an inquiry made at the poor farm following a visit by County Commissioners which found the poor farm in disarray. The News described the testimony of various witnesses who were called to detail their interactions with the poor farm. The inquiry focused on the food being provided to the farm and a local grocer testified that he provided groceries, the quality of which “was not fine, but wholesome.” A butcher reported he provided “meats of all sorts” to the poor farm, some of which was rump pork, and that the meat “was old, but good for its age,” that it had been barreled, and that it was about a year old. Not surprisingly, most of the vendors questioned testified that they provided the poor farm with the best goods, or at least on par with that which they sold to the public. If they had stated otherwise, their time as vendors would likely numbered.


In 1888-89 the State Board of Charities was established to oversee and monitor, among other things, the operations and conditions at the county poor farms in Indiana. The inaugural report from the State Board of Charities in 1889-90 described the Marion County poor farm facilities as they existed at that time, and the report was not positive. The main structure on the site was described as being made of brick and had a maximum capacity of 230 persons at a “crowded” state. The report noted that the structure was “very poorly designed for its purpose, especially in the matter of ventilation.” The dormitories within the poor house were “small and inconvenient,” there was a limited number of windows in the facility, and the day rooms were lacking. Water supply and bathrooms were also found to be deficient. A separate building from the main facility was used for housing African American men was found to be in “bad order.”


At the time of the review by the State Board of Charities, the poor farm had facilities for insane individuals, and the Board of Charities reported that the men’s insane ward “is utterly unfit for its purpose,” while the female ward was little better, but was not as crowded. The Board noted a hope that the insane individuals could be transferred to State facilities, and that the ward could be abandoned completely. The Board report did give positive marks for the kitchen and “domestic departments,” and the food provided was decent, although the milk supply was “scanty.” Discipline was assessed as poor, and generally the dormitories, particularly for the men, were not clean. These conditions were quite the contrast to the report for the Madison County poor farm, which received rave reviews and an observation that the “cleanliness of the house was simply perfect.”

In conjunction with the description of the poor farm’s facilities in the Board of Charities report, above, the 1898 Sanborn Insurance map provides an overview of the Marion County poor farm’s facilities. The Sanborn, while two dimensional, gives some detail of the scope of the asylum building itself, and should be viewed in conjunction with the photo of the facility from the News in 1901, above. The view from the photo is roughly from the perspective of the word "asylum" below.

Sanborn Map Indianapolis #indyturns200 poor farm county asylum
IUPUI Sanborn and Baist Collection, 1898 Sanborn #85

The Sanborn depicts the one floor brick successor to the original log structure to the west of the main building (on the left side of the image). Per 1901 News article, this building was used to house a few men whose habits were too "dirty" to allow them to stay in the newer building.


1898 is also notable for new problems at the poor farm. Under the headline “Disgraces at Poor Farm,” the News again reported on scandal at the poor farm, noting that “[a] wretched condition of affairs has been disclosed at the Marion County poor-farm.” The superintendent, Flavius Meyers, was arrested for theft of supplies meant for the inmates and a search of his residence found a large stock of stolen goods. The News detailed that inmates were “neglected, and in some cases, beaten.” Drunken and immoral behavior by employees was also cited, an example of which was referred to as “open courtship.” Particular attention was given to an employee named William Sherman, and his wife, who oversaw the “insane ward” at the poor farm. Reports indicated that William struck residents at the farm, including an epileptic woman, seriously injuring her head. William claimed she was injured when she fell while being removed from “the crib,” a cage like bed residents were placed for their safety, a claim his wife confirmed.

Indianapolis News #indyturns200
Indianapolis News, November 19, 1898

An investigation by the township trustee’s office found that the injury was inflicted by Mrs. Sherman, but that her actions had been justified, although there were other reports of William Sherman beating residents. The News reporter, not identified as was common at the time, recounted how as he was leaving the insane ward, an older woman grabbed his hand and pulled him aside to speak to him. She stated that “I want to get out of here. Tell my children in the city that I want out.” However, Mrs. Sherman approached, and the older woman yelled for her to get away and told the reporter that Mrs. Sherman had broken her jaw that morning. The reporter noted a bruise across the woman’s face. The county prosecutor, William Brown, was quoted in regard to Meyers that “[i]t is just another instance of the temptation that comes to men who have their hands on public funds and of the disposition to loot the public treasury.”


Meyers was indicted for his theft related crimes and arrested on December 23, 1898. It does not appear any criminal charges resulted from the conditions at the farm, or the treatment of the inmates. He was tried in March of 1900, after many continuances of the trial date, but the trial ended in a hung jury (five for conviction, seven for acquittal). The state had the option to re-try Meyers, but there was a long delay in deciding to do so by Prosecutor Edwin Pugh, who took over the office from Brown. The prosecutor who succeeded Pugh, John Ruckelshaus, reviewed the case in 1901, noting that he would retry the case “if the people really want it.” However, he decided against it, due to speedy trial issues and because the state’s primary witness, a detective with the Indianapolis Police Department, had died a few years before.


Even with criminal charges pending against its former superintendent, the poor farm’s condition continued to be a problem, and attracted negative feedback from local journalists, the state’s Board of Charities, and politicians. In 1901 bad conditions at the poor farm was again noted by the State Board of Charities. The Indianapolis News recounted that the Board’s report stating that the living conditions at the farm “would have a tendency to drive them [inmates] to insanity,” and that previous recommendations for repairs and improvements to the facility had not been acted upon. The state report described that there was “an odor throughout that premises that is almost unsufferable and must be injurious to the health of the inmates.” The Indianapolis News reported that state authorities had expected the poor farm to improve once the ‘insane’ residents were transferred to the new county asylum at Julietta. The Board was also concerned that many at the poor farm were able to care for themselves, and that many “have no claims on Marion County for support.”

Indiana University Sanborn Collection, 1915 #692. Note the changes in the property versus 1898, above.

The population of the Marion County poor farm varied. Census reports for the farm indicated that in 1874 the farm had 130 residents, and in 1877 there were 273. The State Board of Charities 1889/1890 report indicated an average of 240 residents. As reported by Calvin Fletcher, there were only 27 residents in late 1852. In April of 1910, the Indianapolis Star reported a population of 223; 37 women and 186 men. Three men and three women were diagnosed as 'epileptic.' The increase in the residents with mental health issues became a more significant issue.

Credit: Indiana State Library Map Collection

The 1921 State Board of Charities reported on the populations of all the state's poor farms, although the census for each was broken into categories which reflected the increasing number of individuals with mental health issues being housed at the poor farms. The categories included feeble minded, insane, epileptic, paralytic, deaf, crippled, the latter being more appropriate for the poor farm, considering its purpose. In 1921 there were 180 residents at Marion County, with 32 of those being designated as 'crippled,' and 33 as 'sickly.' Only two males were reported to be 'able bodied.' The 1921 State Board of Charities report also provided a racial breakdown of those receiving 'outdoor relief' in Indiana as a whole in that year. 1% were Irish, 1% were German, 7.5% were African American, while 89 percent were categorized as "American," which presumably means native born white residents. The excerpt of the map above shows the poor farm in relation to Flackville, the Motor Speedway, and Riverside Park, in 1917, a few years before the 1921 report.

Indianapolis Times poor farm #indyturns200 bicentennial
Indianapolis Times, July 13, 1923

The 1920's saw continued problems with mistreatment of poor farm residents and other scandals. The condition of the facilities also began to be an issue as the structure pictured earlier in this post, and in the two Sanborn maps, began to deteriorate and the county considered a new facility. After a few years of debates about funding the improvements, the contract was issued in July 1923. The new facility, intended to house men, replaced much of the older multistoried brick building with several one story dormitories, although the women's building, seen on the right side of the 1915 Sanborn, remained, as did a few other structures. In the image below, the women's building can be seen behind the second building from the left.

Indianapolis Times #indyturns200 poor farm central state colony
Image of the new dorms at the poor farm as they appeared in the Indianapolis Times, May 8, 1924

However, even as the new facilities were being finalized, controversy arose when the quality of the workmanship was questioned. The Indianapolis Times reported on May 8, 1924 that its reporter who visited the new construction found cracks throughout the brick walls and floors. The reporter was even able to pry one brick out of one of the walls. These issues were only the beginning. As reported by the Times, the County Board of Charities and Corrections questioned the brick walls and concrete floors, opining that plastered walls and wood floors would be better for aged residents. They also expressed concern with the lack of hospital facilities, screens for the windows, guttering on the roofs, and window blinds. Doors inside the facility were hung incorrectly, as were many windows, which allows drafts to come in around the edges.


The Board of Charities noted that they did not know who to blame for the "faulty and very careless construction of this new building," and expressed a hope that the County Commissioners would give more "personal attention" to the construction process. Perhaps most damning, the Board described the new construction as "[m]ore like a cow barn at the State Fair ground than a place for human habitation." The County Commissioners initially declined to accept the construction, and within a week, the controversy reached the "buck passing stage," as termed by the intrepid Times, as the contractors and county officials argued about who was at fault. At one point, the county council recommended the new buildings be torn down due to the concerns with construction. Eventually repairs were made, and missing amenities installed after the Woman's Christian Temperance Union of Marion County threatened put 2,000 votes (its membership) to use "where they would do the most good," which inspired county elected officials to put forth funds to remedy the poor farm problems.


In the early 1930’s efforts were made to transfer the Marion County poor farm to the state as part of a deal which involved the Julietta County Insane Hospital. The plan was to transfer patients from Julietta to Central State, and then transfer the residents of the poor farm to the Julietta facility to serve as the new county infirmary, a term becoming more common than the ‘poor farm’ designation. The poor farm property would then be transferred to the state and would be used by Central State. Part of the rationale for the move was to allow more space for the inmates at the poor farm, since Julietta had more space. (as of January 23 1935, the Star reported there were 829 people at the poor farm.) The legislation to make this plan a reality was initially proposed in 1931, although political maneuvering and other delays prevented the transfer until a law was finally passed in 1937, and the 21st and Tibbs Marion County Poor Farm was transferred to the state in 1938.

Sanborn map Indianapolis central state farm colony
Map of the renamed Central State Farm Colony in 1940-41. Credit: IUPUI Sanborn & Baist Collection, #675

The now former Marion County Poor Farm location continued to be operated by Central State under the designation of the Central State Farm Colony. The 1940-41 Sanborn above shows the updated poor farm facilities, now the farm colony, which had been rebuilt in 1924. Note the women's building on the right side, which was a remnant of the old complex depicted in the 1898 and 1915 Sanborn maps, above.


However, the transfer did nothing for living conditions of the patients on the farm. Once again an investigation by the Indianapolis News revealed the terrible conditions at the farm colony, in addition to the main Central State campus in early 1968. Reporter Skip Hess visited both locations and reported that rats and cockroaches were infesting both Central State locations, with these creatures roaming the kitchen and wards, both during the day and night. Photos taken by Hess at the farm colony showed discarded food cans piled against the back of the supply building, and other trash had been simply tossed over a slope near the farm's buildings. Hess noted that "countless rat holes dot the slope."


Central State Farm Colony #indyturns200 Indianapolis bicentennial
Farm Colony Entrance off Tibbs. Credit: Ind. Medical History Quarterly, Mar. 1981, Vol. 7, Num. 1, Ind. Historical Society

1968 proved to be a significant year for the former poor farm, now farm colony, as the state moved to close the facility, and deeded the land back to Marion County on October 7, 1968. This transfer spurred a debate about what was to be done with the property, which included suggestions for redevelopment and outright sale. The ultimate reuse of the property and related events, as well as the fate of the of the pauper cemetery mentioned earlier, will be continued in Part II of this post.

poor farm Indianapolis #indyturns200
Aerial image of the poor farm property in 1960, from a larger image of the Speedway. (link to photo in sources)

Sources


Joan E. Marshall. (2000). Shaping Poor Relief for the Sick‐Poor in Indiana’s Pioneering Era, Tippecanoe County, Indiana, 1826‐1846. Social Service Review, 74(4), 560–587. https://doi-org.proxy.ulib.uits.iu.edu/10.1086/516425


Indiana Acts, 1842, 26th session

Indianapolis News: February 26, 1875, March 3, 1875, July 6, 1881, October 16, 1886, November 19, 1898, December 24, 1898, January 12, 1901, May 17, 1901, October 17, 1901, December 14, 1901, March 6, 1931, February 15, 1968


Indianapolis Star: December 22, 1908, April 8, 1910, February 28, 1931, August 9, 1932, January 23, 1935, December 28, 1937, December 2, 1924, February 19, 1943


Indianapolis Times: May 8, 1924, May 13, 1924, June 14, 1924, September 3, 1924


Indiana Bulletin of Charities and Correction, 1895

Indiana State Board of Charities Annual Report, 1889-1890 (pp. 39-40), 1921 (pp. 134-135)


Towards Freedom: The African American Experience in Indianapolis pamphlet, Freetown Village Collection, Digital Indy, Indianapolis Public Library


Marion County Board of Commissioners Volume 3, 1834-1840, Indiana Historical Records Survey, https://archive.org/details/commissionersrec03mari/page/500/mode/2up


Overhead Shot of the Speedway Golf Course, 1960, Indiana Memory, https://indianamemory.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/IMS/id/12545


The revised laws of Indiana: In which are comprised all such acts of a general nature as are in force in said state (1831), https://archive.org/details/revisedlawsofind00indi/page/380/mode/2up?q=pauper


Cory v. Carter, 48 Ind. 327, 339-40 (1874)


Indiana Bulletin of Charities and Correction, March 1898, June 1897, December 1895


Warner, A., Worley & Bracher & Bourquin, F. (1866) Map of Marion County, Indiana. Philadelphia: C.O. Titus, Publisher. [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2013593173/.


Condit, W. &. H. (1855) Map of Marion County, Indiana. Cin. O.: Middelton, Wallace & Co., lithos. [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2013593172/.


Gayle Thornbrough, ed. et al, The Diary of Calvin Fletcher (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1978), vol. 5, p. 510


Central State Hospital, Indiana Medical History Quarterly, March 1981, Volume 7, Number 1, Indiana Historical Society




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