Poverty was a real problem in Sedalia and Pettis County during the 1870s, especially for widows, wives of disabled men, and children. Jobs for women were severely limited. No formal systems for alleviating poverty, other than the county poor farm, existed. Conditions then at the county poor farm were bad, with poor quality food and unpleasant living conditions.

Social Security’s benefits, workers’ compensation, and various government welfare programs did not exist. While some fraternal orders offered life and disability insurance, these were not universally available.

In Sedalia, each year collections were taken, generally by the well-to-do women in the community, to gather food, warm clothing, blankets, and coal, or to raise money for medicine and other things needed by the “worthy poor.” The collection was hampered, according to J. West Goodwin of the Sedalia Bazoo, by people who donated spoiled food and torn clothing. Poor relief was also hampered by attitudes that scorned contributions by people known to be a part of Sedalia’s criminal class. In addition, the process of applying for relief was humiliating; a part of demonstrating that one was “worthy” was the ability to grovel.

On Oct. 27, 1877, the Sedalia Democrat reported a situation involving two of Sedalia’s poor that was both heart-rending and disgusting. Two women, a mother of 77 years named Mrs. Beck and her daughter, a 50-year-old named Mrs. Phillips, had moved to Sedalia earlier that year. They rented a two-room house located in a mixed-race neighborhood on the north side of St. Louis Street near the corner of Lamine Avenue. The house, consisting of a front room where the women slept, and a back room they used as a kitchen and sitting room, held little furniture. The women lived “poorly,” spending little money for their support.

The women had some savings, $100, they kept in an expense envelope in the bottom of a trunk under some clothing. They seldom checked the trunk, believing it to be a safe hiding place for their savings. They hoped, according to the Democrat, to live “comfortably through the winter” by living “economically.”

Nothing about the women or their dwelling suggested they had money stashed or that they would be a target for thieves. However, someone apparently knew of the cache. When the women opened the trunk to retrieve the money needed to pay their rent, they discovered the trunk’s contents has been ransacked; the empty envelope that had held the money was on top of the disarrayed clothing. The women were penniless, “without any means or resources to carry them through the winter.” They were distraught and had no idea who could have robbed them.

The women summoned the police, who secured a search warrant for the home of a family who had formerly lived in a portion of the house. Sheriff Connors executed the warrant but found nothing. The Democrat reported that the sheriff had “some suspicion” as to the perpetrator, but they “had no clue.”

The sheriff feared that the women “would never see their money again.”

In some instances of sudden poverty, the community came together to help the poor. A brief review of later issues of the Democrat does not show any organized efforts to help the women. We can hope, however, that the generous people of the area did provide assistance for them and spared them a trip to the poorhouse.


Contributing Columnist

Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society. 

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