The Missouri Constitution mandated that the county commission of each county had the responsibility for those citizens who were “entitled to relief” because they were unable to work because of age, developmental or physical disability, or widowhood. Most counties maintained a “county home” or “poor farm” where they were provided a home and food. Inmates were expected to work at the home or farm as they were able to help support themselves.
Prior to the 1890s, Pettis County’s poor farm was located twelve miles south of Sedalia on a plot of very poor, unproductive land. Conditions there were grim; the land could not support the farming that would have provided adequate milk, meat, grain, and vegetables for the inmates. The Grand Jury supervised county facilities including the poor farm. According to Grand Jury reports, the farm was frequently mismanaged.
An incident reported on January 27, 1878, raised questions about the poor farm. The Sedalia Democrat recounted “the too common story of brutality in a poor house” and called for an investigation of the incident. In its article, the Democrat made intense appeals to the emotions of its readers, calling the incident a “pitiful case” and a “pathetic story.”
A Democrat reporter was at the County Recorder’s Office the morning of January 26 when a forty-year-old widow, worn and wrinkled so she looked at least ten years older, came into the office carrying her ten-year-old disabled son on her back. She was accompanied by her sixteen-year-old son, whose growth was “stunted” and who needed crutches to support him as he walked. They made a “melancholy group with their pinched faces and gaunt forms” as they crowded next to the stove whose heat could end their shivering.
The woman was named Jane Thomas. The Recorder, curious and sympathetic, indicated the reporter might find her story interesting. Thomas began to tell her story, inciting outrage in the reporter who wrote that if the story were true, it was “disgraceful” to the humanity and civilization of the age in which we live.”
Thomas had been a widow for about eleven years. She was able to “get along” on her own with occasional help, but had been forced to go to the poor farm on several occasions because she could not work because she had to care for her two invalid sons. On her previous stays, she had been “treated kindly.” She had returned to the poor farm this winter, but was so badly treated that she left and walked twelve miles to Sedalia in the cold while carrying her son on her back.
She told the reporter the inmates were supposed to be given food—six biscuits, two cups of coffee, and two slices of meat—each day, but often they did not even receive this meager allotment. Inmates received “kicks and cuffs and blows” regularly. These atrocities had begun when two of the inmates, Alphonso Macon and his new wife Carrie, were placed in charge of the poor farm by Superintendent Anderson.
The reporter called for an immediate investigation of the situation.
Next week’s column continues the story of Jane Thomas and the other inmates, as well as the response from Superintendent Anderson.