New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

What am I Bid for This Pauper?

leave a comment »

From the blog at

What am I Bid for This Pauper?

The 1786 Act to regulate and provide for the support of the poor… required that towns and parishes have Overseers of the Poor. The Overseers would identify all idle and disorderly people, or others who were likely to require public assistance. Their children could be apprenticed out to the age of 21 years in the case of boys, or 18 years in the case of girls, and the paupers themselves would be obliged to take jobs, if any existed. The Overseers might also be authorized to establish poor houses or to put the paupers up in foster homes, the owners of which homes would be compensated. The foster homes were to be chosen on the basis of least cost, but with due regard to the character of the people running them.

This law was rudimentary, but Loyalist New Brunswick was only a couple of years old and everything was rudimentary. Giving children away was objectionable but, overall, the Act seems only to have been antique. The problem was that it remained in effect even into the 1900’s, well beyond those days of rudimentary antique laws. Along the way, the law’s provisions were corrupted and the housing of paupers and the apprenticing of children became a system of selling them off or renting them out to whoever would take them at the lowest price. Overseers sometimes complained that arranging pauper auctions was repugnant to them personally, and reflected badly on the community. They had no choice in the matter, however, since the Overseers were appointed to public service without having volunteered, and could not refuse the duty.

This system gave responsibility for the poor to local towns and parishes, who had to raise their own taxes. Rural areas were therefore less likely than urban areas to have money enough to build poor houses, and everyone was opposed to taxes. Some rural people continued to oppose taxation for poor houses even after it was shown that the systems of contract foster homes and of pauper auctions were actually more expensive. Some of these so-called rural areas were more like suburbs of larger centres. The people of Portland and Lancaster resisted the paying of taxes for the support of the poor, for example.

George Francis Train was an eccentric American industrialist and was instrumental in establishing the Union Pacific Railway and many other businesses. He was also a liberal reformer and a supporter of the vote for women. He had financed a newspaper run by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton, for example. He had even been a candidate for President! He ran afoul of the law on several occasions, was sued, arrested, and threatened with being sent to an insane asylum. Train came to Saint John in 1877 and ran into trouble for criticizing the locals. Then, he showed up in Sussex, where he signed in at the Intercolonial Hotel under his own name, but using his favourite address, ‘Citizen of the World.’ He then took a job at the Sussex Weekly Record where he turned out a one-page article every week criticizing everyone from the rich and powerful to an apparently lazy gravedigger. It was Train who would place a bomb under any complacency which existed regarding the poor law. He did this at the particular expense of King’s County.

Intercolonial Hotel Sussex

The Intercolonial Hotel in Sussex

Where George Francis Train stayed.

Train published his first article about pauper auctions, entitled Is Slavery Abolished? on January 6, 1888. That would have been less than a week following the annual year-end auction in Sussex, and it was a sensation. The Toronto Daily Mail published a commentary on the issue only four days after that, and other newspapers followed suit. The Toronto paper said that “the poor are disposed of after the plan adopted in the Southern States for the sale of slaves. They are knocked down at auction.” They went on to describe the most recent auction. “The number of paupers advertised for sale on that occasion was eleven… There were three orphans of five, seven, and nine years of age; a boy of thirteen; a girl of fifteen; a man of fifty-eight in consumption; a blind woman aged fifty-three; a man aged sixty-seven with one arm; his wife aged sixty; and a man and woman aged seventy-one and eighty-one respectively.”

The purchase of a pauper was actually more of a rental for one year. If a pauper died during that term, then the purchaser would continue to be paid for the rest of the year, and burial costs of $8 would also be covered. “Two expensive paupers, happily for themselves as well as for the community, died last year; so that the cost of keeping them in a state of animation does not now fall upon the people,” according to the Toronto Daily Mail, who got their information from Train’s article.

There was an historical description of this affair, published on March 20, 1965 in the Montreal Gazette. This was a little too recent to quote at length here, but it is clear enough that the information came from public sources, including Train’s article. Most of the paupers were sold on the basis of how much work could be got out of them, and whether they already had clothing and boots. Couples and families were sold separately, or together, to suit the purchaser. The three orphans were siblings and were split up; two to one purchaser and the third to another. The 81-year old man was advertised as not likely to survive the year, which presented an interesting chance of profit. Train went on to note that death might be hastened through under-feeding, over working or housing the victim in an unheated barn or shed. The fifteen year old girl was perhaps intellectually challenged, but wouldn’t be much of a problem otherwise. It was implied in the article that her description was calculated to attract someone willing to bid a low price with a possibility for sex. This was not the only such instance.

These images are disturbing, and I am compelled to point out that there were eleven people auctioned off, and that the number of buyers was therefore tiny compared with the population of King’s. It is also clear that Train painted the picture in bright colours, and that the children, in particular, come off looking like Little Nell of The Old Curiosity Shop or Oliver Twist. It is nonetheless clear that it was a slave auction, plain and simple.

George Francis Train fired his written artillery on the subject, round after round, week after week, and by March of 1888 he was dismissed from his position at the Sussex Weekly Record because his “terrible impeachment of what he calls white n—-r slavery has so outraged town, county, province and Dominion and made things so almighty hot in the Record office….” Local complacency had been demolished. If people hadn’t liked what they saw around them in King’s County then they would probably have kept quiet about it; but this was no longer possible.

Train, being a prominent industrialist, was able to address the Provincial Assembly and to meet with the Lieutenant Governor before finally leaving New Brunswick. He was well received, but that was his last hurrah, and he was gone.

Train’s campaign had raised the conscience of the clergy, and there was no longer a conspiracy of silence among the public. A poor house was needed, but building one was difficult because some people continued to oppose taxation. There were also scandals when paupers escaped their owners and fled, only to drown or to freeze to death in the attempt. A poor house was finally built, however, and the last auction was held in 1898.


Written by johnwood1946

July 23, 2014 at 9:48 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: