If this story were fiction, it would be a Gothic horror novel.
The true story of the Tewksbury almshouse paints a grisly picture of the facility in the 1870’s and early 1880’s. The almshouse, run by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, was indeed a place of horror.
Hearings were held before the Committee on Charitable Institutions in 1883, with Gov. Benjamin Butler leading the charge. Butler, a Lowell attorney, was a Union major general in the Civil War. He then served as provisional mayor of New Orleans and then served in Congress for several years. He was elected governor of Massachusetts in 1882, serving for the year of 1883.
The atrocities revealed in the hearings included deliberate neglect, starvation, the sale of corpses, grave robbing, killing of infants by over-medication, housing inmates under horrid conditions, tanning of human skin, and theft of inmates’ clothing and possessions and of large quantities of bulk supplies. These horrors had been going on for many years.
In his inaugural address, Gov. Butler charged that there was gross extravagance and mismanagement at the almshouse. He then vetoed an appropriation bill, charging that 70 percent of the appropriation was used for salaries. He said that 150 to 250 bodies of babies were sold to medical institutions every year.
Newspaper clippings from the Lowell Weekly Sun of 1883 have been posted on a web site by the Tewksbury Historical Commission. The clippings report on the testimony given at the hearings in the spring of 1883 and provide the information cited in this story. The personnel mentioned were Capt. Thomas Marsh, his wife, Dr. Nellie Marsh, their son, Thomas J. Marsh, Jr. and the medical director, Dr. Lathrop. Other persons were involved, but were not mentioned in the reports as being punished or removed.
Dr. John Dixwell of Boston was the first witness. He testified that he had graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1873, and that during his three years there, he saw and knew of several hundred bodies of infants, each year, brought to the medical school for dissection. The students obtained the bodies from a Mr. Andrews, who fixed the price at three to five dollars. Dr. Dixwell said that Andrews told him the bodies came from the Tewksbury almshouse. He said that some of those dissected showed that they had died of starvation.
Charles Dudley, a night watchman, testified that Capt. Marsh, the superintendent, twice instructed him, “Aside from a building being on fire, don’t notice too much.” The watchman said he was told he might get fees if he would join the work done there at night. He also saw boxes carted off to the railroad station, filled with sheets, bedding, carpets, etc. Dudley said that the family of Mrs. Marsh’s daughter visited the almshouse frequently, and always took off boxes of such articles. He also said he had seen Thomas Marsh, Jr. carrying off bodies in an express wagon to the depot, at night, in a stealthy manner. When he spoke to Capt. Marsh, he was told to keep still about the loading of bodies. “We have got to have some pay for our trouble taking care of these critters,” Marsh was alleged to have said.
The grave robbing was carried out by men led by Joseph Howard, known as “French Joe,” who by day was in charge of the baggage room.
The watchman said there were some 20 children in one of the wards who used to cry at night, and they told him it was because they were hungry. The state of food for the inmates and insane was always very poor. He spoke about this to Capt. Marsh, who replied that he guessed they got enough. Dudley told him he thought they didn’t, and he had taken the liberty several times to bring in pieces of bread. Capt. Marsh told him he didn’t want him to do that any more.
Dudley told of a night nurse showing him a bottle, which the day nurse had left, containing a morphine mixture. She would give it to the children and it would keep them quiet. She said she didn’t care if it killed them, as that was none of her business. All of the babies born there or brought in during Dudley’s first year there died, except one. He said he knew there were 73, as his wife had to count them.
In many instances, persons were sent to the almshouse would arrive with a trunk of clothing. The clothing would be stolen and the inmate would be left with filthy rags and little else.
Jennie Pope was a housekeeper at the almshouse from May 8, 1876 to August 10, 1877. She had sewed for Dr. Marsh. She testified that she had seen Dr. Marsh bring things from the baggage room, including silk dresses. And she had seen Dr. Marsh’s granddaughter in a dress that looked like one from the baggage room.
She also said she had seen some of the paupers making rugs from the dresses, but had never seen the rugs being used in the building.
She also said that there was always as much as a week’s notice of an official visit, and that everything was put in shape. Other testimony brought out that one inmate was given decent clothing and fed well, and was shown off to visitors.
Frank Barker and his wife were in charge of the insane ward at the almshouse from 1876 to 1879. He testified that patients would be left for days without food, were unattended by a physician when sick, and some had holes eaten in their heads by vermin, which crawled about on their beds. The patients, about 70 in all, were bathed with no change of water, though many of them had running sores.
Barker said that Dr. Lathrop and the Marshes had their attention called to these matters, but showed cruel indifference.
Mrs. Eva Bowen said she was sent to Tewksbury in 1875 after the birth of her illegitimate son. She believed that Dr. Nellie Marsh had killed her son with morphine. She never knew Dr. Marsh to give her child any medication other than morphine, cod liver oil and whiskey.
An audit of the books compared purchases of 1862 and 1882. The 1882 inmate population, 892, was about 20 less than the 1862 population of 912. The almshouse staff had risen from 22 in 1862 to 53 in 1882. The purchases of supplies had greatly increased. The following statistics list the 1862 figure first, then the 1882 figure. Beef, 52,566 lbs. - 88,528 lbs.; Fish 21.982 lbs. - 33,117 lbs.; Butter 3127 lbs. - 18,400 lbs. Coal 477 tons - 2192 tons. The extra coal represented a difference of $22,000.
In spite of the greatly increased food supplies purchased, however, inmates were starved, and the food they were given was old and rotten.
Gov. Butler charged that many of the supplies were diverted to a boarding house in Exeter, NH, run by Capt. Marsh’s granddaughter.
The state Board of Health, Lunacy and Charity removed Thomas J. Marsh, Dr. Nellie Marsh and Thomas J. Marsh, Jr. from their positions at the almshouse. Dr. Lathrop was allowed to resign from his position as medical director.
Tewksbury Hospital today is nothing like the almshouse of 130 years ago. To this day, though, at least one old building on the Tewksbury campus bears deep scratch marks left on the woodwork by the inmates.
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