A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Mary Peterson probably carried a horrid stench from the sores that invaded her flesh. She suffered in the sweltering June heat of 1738 on Manhattan Island, with little food and no money. People who knew about her condition called it "miserable," "deplorable," "foul," and even "nauseous." Her husband left her. Perhaps he was afraid of catching smallpox; after all, over the past few years, smallpox and the measles had killed 549 people, about one in every 15 men, women, and children. It seems more likely though that Lucas Peterson, a free Negro who earned a living as an indentured servant, simply could not afford to care for his ailing wife. The board of aldermen and vestrymen of New York City met with the deputy mayor to decide her fate. Minutes from that meeting show the men approved Mary Peterson as an "Object of Charity." They ordered her to the infirmary ward of the city's first public almshouse, opened only two years before.
We do not know precisely when or where Mary Peterson died, or much about how she lived. She was almost certainly black, like her husband, although she could have been mulatto or American Indian. Many would say her New York was much crueler than today's metropolis. The city had a public whipper on its payroll. "Criminals" were thieves and robbers, but also people who begged for spare change and women who became pregnant out of wedlock.
In colonial New York, the local economy wasn't driven by Wall Street or tourism or parking tickets, but by selling wheat and trading enslaved West Africans. The city had the nation's second largest percentage of black slaves, topped only by Charleston, South Carolina. With unemployment high, laborers blamed the slaves for pushing them out of work. And the city, in a swirl of rumor and suspicion, hanged four whites and 17 slaves and burned another 13 slaves at the stake on charges of attempting to burn down the city in a revolt. Official city literature now calls the event the "Panic of 1741," because the plot seems clearly to have existed only in the minds of the white accusers.
The New York in which Mary Peterson lived was tiny. It extended from the southern tip of the island to what is now Chambers Street, while the rest of the island was marsh and rolling meadow. Manhattan was narrower than it is today; instead of traveling further north to build, settlers found it more lucrative to build on landfills that expanded the city into the Hudson and East rivers. The quality of life in this small town was horrible by today's standards. Though freshwater springs replenished the large Collect Pond in the area now known as Foley Square, the water was undrinkable because workers from the nearby pottery house and tannery used it for dumping clay and animal waste. Since there was no such thing as bottled water, finding drinking water grew difficult, especially with both rivers serving as sewers. While modern New Yorkers debate the fairness of Mayor Rudy Giuliani's leash laws, the Common Council concerned itself with how to stop people's pigs and sheep from roaming and smelling up the city.
When the almshouse opened in May of 1736, New Yorkers had never seen an institution like it. Smaller, religious-run poorhouses had been in operation since the start of the century, but none like this one. It earned the right to be called New York's "first" almshouse because it was the first one backed by taxpayers' money. The Common Council had recommended John Sebring as the "ablest and best qualifyed" person over four other candidates to run the house. Mayor Paul Richards appointed him Keeper of the House of Correction and Master of the Workhouse and Poorhouse; all three facilities were contained under one roof. Sebring was paid top dollar--30 pounds a year--to keep the multifaceted almshouse functioning in an orderly fashion. His duties also included maintaining precise financial records and keeping a close eye on supply inventory. When the city swore him in, Sebring also agreed before God to "do Justice and shew Humanity to the poor who are not able to labour, & Correct the Incorrigible and such Others as shall be committed to the House of Correction, and keep them to hard labour according to the Law."
The almshouse had rules and made few exceptions. A board of aldermen and vestrymen of New York City decreed that a book and a pen with ink must always be available for surprise inspections by them. None of the poor in the house could ask for money or alcohol from visitors to the house. When away from the home, residents had to wear a badge on their right sleeve with the letters "N.Y." written in red; this effectively let the general public know who was on welfare, and those refusing to wear the badge risked losing their public aid. Lights went out at 9 p.m. in the summer and 7 p.m. during the winter. If someone missed the prayer reading that took place every Wednesday and Friday morning, then they also missed a meal. The menu was the same every week. Sunday's breakfast was always bread and beer. Tuesday's lunch was always the same as Sunday's dinner: beef or mutton with broth and herbs and roots, when in season. Friday's supper remained bread and cheese. The only people fed differently were the sick, who had special dietary needs.
Sebring, his wife, and his nine-year-old child moved into the almshouse, along with 19 destitute individuals. Their names were Edward Ward, a laborer unable to work after knocking his shoulder out of joint; a blind girl named Jane Caswell; Margaret Rhodes, a widow; Rebeckah Joyce and her retarded child; the two eldest boys of Geertie Wood; Susannah Collie and her husband; Margaret Eadon and her children; Margaret Willis and her twins; a Mrs. Targee; and John Gara and his wife. In the beginning, there was plenty of room in the rectangular building, which stretched 65 feet long, 24 feet wide, and was two stories high with a full basement. Sebring and his family lived on the east side of the first floor. A six-bed infirmary took up the second-floor room on the west side (this ward eventually became known as Bellevue, the oldest hospital in the United States). The basement was divided into three sections: the room for hard labor (weaving, spinning wool, and knitting) was on the east, the middle room was used for storage, and the west room was used to incarcerate the unruly. Minutes of the Common Council reveal that fetters, shackles, and a whipping post were in the basement of the almshouse because "all disorderly persons, parents of Bastard Children, Beggars, Servants running away or otherwise misbehaving themselves, Trespassers, Rogues, Vagabonds, [and] poor persons refusing to work" could be corrected by "moderate Whipping."
With the ongoing recession, high unemployment, and epidemics, the almshouse became crowded. Records show that on October 2, 1739, the board of aldermen and vestrymen admitted the city's public whipper, Edward Brewen, and his wife, Mary, into the poorhouse because "they being sickly, Weak and ancient [are] not able to Labour and [are] Object[s] of Charity." Soon attempts to separate the "worthy poor," or those who were indigent for reasons not of their own making, from the "unworthy" (those thought responsible for their plight) became futile. Being poor became synonymous with being wayward.
The almshouse was located in the underdeveloped, northern fringes of the city called the Commons. The land was largely pasture, and events of varying nature occurred there--from African Pentecostal revivals, to bonfires celebrating the English Guy Fawkes Day, to public executions. Almshouse residents lived next to the Gaol, or jailhouse, on the east, and, after 1775, Bridewell prison on the west. The city's inhabitants were in constant fear that the French army or the Indians would attack them from the north. To protect the city, palisades were built in 1745. It was a wall between ten and 14 feet tall made of cedar logs that were about ten inches in diameter and were set into a trench about three feet deep. The wall was placed north of the almshouse, making the orphans, the sick, the elderly, and the uneducated the city's first line of defense.
Perhaps Mary Peterson died shortly after being admitted in the summer of 1738. Maybe she recovered and lived long enough to become friends with the same people who were found buried beneath City Hall Park. Since she was not white, her body was legally obligated to be buried in the African Burial Ground; but what if someone broke the rules for Mary's sake? What if the cemetery at City Hall Park is part of the African Burial Ground, as some have argued is a possibility? Whatever it is, it may be able to offer valuable clues about the nature of the lives of people like Mary Peterson, who might otherwise be passed over and forgotten.
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