July 29, 2011

Poor Farm

On occasion, the town of New London needed a coffin. The expense was duly reported in its financial statements.

First published in 1848, the town's annual reports provide a glimpse into the lives of its neediest inhabitants. These included the able-bodied working on its 100-acre Poor Farm, the physically ill boarding with the lowest bidders, and the mentally ill sequestered at Concord's Asylum for the Insane. There were also transfer payments to and from other towns, as paupers shuffled about the region, not always of their own volition, but still the financial responsibility of their native towns.

The March 1853 annual report says that Marcus Sargent built a coffin for the body of Lizzie Kempton sometime during the fiscal year. (The handwritten Selectmen's records say it was for "Mrs. Lizzie Kempton.") Sargent charged $3.50. The same report shows that Ruel Durgee had paid $60 for Lizzie's room and board at the Poor Farm. Both the coffin and the payment are unusual, suggesting that neither Lizzie Kempton nor Ruel Durgee (probably "Durkee") were New London residents. There were no Kemptons or Durkees among New London's 19th-century families, and Lizzie's name did not appear among the 14 town residents who died that year.

From his account books, we learn that Isaac Messer (1785-1861) of New London traded calf and sheep skins to Ruel Durkee of Croydon's East Village. Like his father, Durkee (1805-1885) was a tanner but later became a merchant and influential politician. In Croydon Flat there was another tanner and boot-maker named Silas Kempton, but with no clear relation to Lizzie. And we find another tenuous connection on the iWhipple.org genealogy site: Ruel Durkee's mother, Polly Whipple Durkee, was the cousin (once removed) of Dr. Solomon Whipple, the physician caring for those housed at New London's Poor Farm.

So, was Lizzie Kempton sick, widowed, and destitute? Did the Poor Farm function as a regional hospital? And could "Ruel Durgee" be the Ruel Durkee, model for the Jethro Bass character in Winston Churchill's popular 1906 novel, Coniston? All this seems likely but unproven. We'll keep looking for clues to this mystery. Coincidently, in that same year of 1853, according to the town clerk's records, a few residents petitioned to sell the Poor Farm. The motion was quickly tabled at the town meeting and never revived.

Here at the Archives, we are digitizing our town's annual reports to make their search and retrieval a simple task, enabling researchers to make previously unnoticed connections. In the meantime, you might want to learn more about Durkee by meeting the fictional version in Churchill's Coniston, or in what purports to be a more authentic biography, Ruel Durkee: Master of Men by George Waldo Brown (1910).

Note: The town's first Poor Farm (or, properly, the Town Farm) was located on today's Shaker Street, near the Wilmot town line. It was later transferred to a farm County Road.