At one time, life was good for Edgar Roberts. A native of New Hampshire, he ran a wholesale confection business with his brother and enjoyed the fruits of his labor with his wife, Agnes (Roberts).
But by 1935, he was widowed and incapacitated by age. His successful life came to an end at the age of 96, in 1939, as an inmate of the Warwick Asylum for the Poor.
The asylum opened its doors in 1870 to support Warwick residents unable to support themselves. A large two-and-a-half story wooden farmhouse, it contained 30 sleeping rooms, a communal dining room, a women’s sitting room, men’s sitting room, a two-bed women’s hospital room, a one-bed men’s hospital room and a library, which was provided annually with the badly worn books from Crompton Free Library.
Despite poor soil, farming was conducted on the many acres surrounding the house and water was made available through the use of a large windmill on the property.
The keeper of the asylum maintained a register in which every inmate’s name and age was entered along with information on who ordered them to the asylum, their former employer, and how long they had been a charge to the town.
Inmates worked alongside paid staff to earn their keep. Besides the outdoor farm work, rooms had to be properly aired each day, beds made, floors swept, and clothing repaired. The sexes were kept separate at all times except for meals.
A bell was rung each morning – at 6 o’clock in the summer and 7:30 in the winter – to rouse everyone out of bed. The names of each able inmate were called and each directed to their assigned job. The bell would ring again 15 minutes before each mealtime. Everyone was to stop working at the first meal bell and wait for the second to assemble in the dining room. Meal times lasted one-half hour, and then another bell would signal everyone to go back to work. At 9 o’clock at night, all lights were to be extinguished except in sick rooms, and everyone was to retire to bed.
There were many rules for inmates to adhere to. They were expected to wear clean clothes to Sunday religious services and conduct themselves properly. Smoking in bed was not allowed, nor any noise that disturbed others. Profane language and indecent behavior would be punishable by solitary confinement of up to two days or a temporary short allowance of food. Abusive language and behavior were forbidden and any improper acts between men and women would result, according to the rulebook, in the perpetrators being “severely punished.”
The use of liquor would cause one to be imprisoned in their room for up to five days. Anyone claiming to be too sick to work would be examined by a doctor and, if believed to be feigning illness, would have their workload increased.
Inmates were not allowed to leave the asylum unless they had procured a permission ticket. Inmates of school age walked to the nearby district school for their education. Town and state reports show that the asylum was always comfortable and clean and that efforts were made to keep the insane comfortable but in their own quarters.
Upon a death, the keeper of the asylum was in charge of the wearing apparel of the deceased, having it cleansed and put in a safe place, and notifying the town council for orders on how to proceed with arrangements. The town council was also presented with reports of any inmate offenses.
Often, there were between 14 and 21 inmates at the asylum at any given time. Some stayed temporarily. Some stayed for life. Betsey Arnold, who was crippled, was an inmate for over 12 years before she died in 1892 at the age of 73. Lucy Baker was there for over 18 years before dying at the age of 76 in 1888. Almira Brayton and her husband, John, both ended up at the asylum in their later years, as did Mary Ann Curry and her husband, Daniel.
Eunice Cutter became an inmate before the age of 31 and remained until she died 45 years later. Mary (Perry) Holloway, diagnosed as being insane, spent over 40 years at the asylum before she died in 1911. Civil War veteran Christopher Mowry ended his days there in 1922, as did George Webb, who once owned his own successful paint shop before poverty fell upon him and he died a town charge in 1933.
Today, about 100 former inmates and town poor repose on the former asylum grounds beneath fieldstones and uninscribed concrete markers.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.