Not long ago, a story in the University at Buffalo student newspaper caught our attention: during construction work on a portion of campus, workers came across some human bones. And then a few more bones… and then even more. In all, the UB archeologists and anthropologists uncovered 380 bodies, and estimate that something like 2000 may remain beneath the soil. It turns out that this part of the campus once housed the Erie County Poorhouse, also called the Erie County Almshouse. These bodies belonged to inmates of the poorhouse, who had died while living in this institution for impoverished members of the Buffalo area. This got us thinking: what were poorhouses like? What options existed for a person who was down on his or her luck in the past? Join Averill, Sarah, and Marissa as they discuss the history of poor relief in the United States and Great Britain in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

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“Please sir, I want some more!” | From The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby & The Adventures of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, London : Chapman and Hall, [1875?]

Show Notes and Further Reading 

Alice Harper’s story came from Minutes of the Overseers of the Poor of the City of Philadelphia, June 30, 1768, Philadelphia City Archives.

An Introduction to South Campus

Bones Found in UB South Campus Excavations Reveal History of the Land

Begin the Development of University Heights, Get a Street Named After You

Daily Occurence Dockets, taken from the following volumes: March 29, 1794 – September 28, 1795 and September 1790 to March 1792, Philadelphia City Archives

Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist1839.

Erie County Almshouse & County Hospital

History of South Campus, University at Buffalo

Historical Background: Poor Law and Charity, London Lives 1690-1800

Katz, Michael. In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

On UB campus, stories from old almshouse are pieced together from the bones left behind, The Buffalo News 

Over the Hill to the Poorhouse

Polanski, Roman, et al. Oliver Twist. Culver City, Calif: Sony Pictures Entertainment, 2005.

The Poor DeadArt Voice

Wagner, David. Poor Relief and the Almshouse

Wagner, David. The Poorhouse: America’s Forgotten Institution. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005.

Jewett, Sarah Orne. “The Flight of Betsey Lane.

Erie County, NY Poorhouse History


Feature Image: “Erie County Almshouse.” | Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library / New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Music: “Heart and Mind,” by Kai Engel | Free Music Archive.


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