The Beginning of Care: 1800s-1900s



Early 1800s | 1855-1856 | 1861 | 1886


"Midwestern county poor farms in the mid-nineteenth century grew out of a larger social movement of the day striving to provide more dignified and humane treatment for the poor and insane. Prior to the nineteenth century, the indigent, mentally retarded, and mentally ill had been historically treated more like criminals than persons who could be assisted to achieve a better level in life or to at least live a life with some dignity. Prisons were often used to house both the poor and insane, with monasteries sometimes taking on their care. Treatment of the mentally ill often involved tortuous procedures that evolved through the centuries and culminating by the twentieth century in hydrotherapy tubs, lobotomies, insulin shock, wet sheet packs, electroconvulsive therapy, and other forms of treatment which seemed to produce good results in some patients while frightening, dulling, or driving others into worlds of chronic illness and hopelessness."

Pictured above: Electroconvulsive therapy , wet sheet treatment, and insulin shock therapy.

Click the pictures to find out more about the individual treatments.

"The social reform movement of the nineteenth century extended to the treatment of the poor and the insane, with an emphasis on improving the treatment of 'dependents' and resulted in many social experiments, including the poor house and poor farm."

Before the development of the Poor Farm in Johnson County, citizens were cared for on an individual basis. Local people were "contracted out" to care for a person and the job went to the person willing to do the job for the least amount of money, usually a physician. This system was inconsistent and caregivers did not stay on long before they quit.

Fortunately, there are records of the people who took care of the needy under this system:"One of the first agents was Alexander Abel, who was contracted in July 1841 to care for the paupers of the county...Dr Jesse Bowen succeeded Abel in the job in October 1841, with Dr. Henry Murray awarded the contract in 1842 for the low bid of $6 for the year."

"The concept of the poorhouse grew out of English law dating from the Tudor period. Poorhouses were tax-supported institutions established to care for dependent persons, who could be defined as paupers, the infirm, vagrants, the insane, and orphans. The image of the nineteenth century poorhouse is often confused with that of the Victorian workhouse (another attempt to remedy poverty), which were often places of gross inhumanity, enforced deprivation and unspeakable insensitivity."



Llyanfyllin workhouse. Click pictures to find out more information

In Johnson County, IA the system of individually "leasing" out of the dependent had grown too laborous and inefficient. So in 1855 it was decided to build a county Poor Farm that would care for the fiscally dependent and the mentally needy.


All information courtesy of an article written for interpretation by the Johnson County Historical Society.


For questions or comments, please contact Catherine Stewart