From Small Pox to Poverty — Salem's Public Health History

A point of land on Salem Neck has had a number of uses dating back to the beginnings of Salem.

The above photos show a section of Salem Neck that was called Roaches Point.

Salem Neck was originally held as common land by the Colony of Salem and was used as pasturage and for the curing of fish. From the earliest days of Salem, and portions of the neck were the center of fishing. In 1679 so many fishermen were located on Winter Island that the first tavern was licensed here.

In 1639, the land then known as Pignal Point on the eastern shore of Collins Cove was granted to Thomas Pickton. Over the next several years this area was also referred to as Pigden and Pigdon point. In 1718 this four-acre lot was transferred by Daniel and Hannah Darling to their son William Rotch, a whaler of Cape Cod. With his ownership it was known as Rotch's Point. He in turn sold the land then called Roaches Point and Pidgeon Cove to Benjamin Ives in 1723. In 1739 Ives was able to exchange this land with the town for land adjacent to his farm on the lower end of the Neck.

In 1747 Salem set aside 50 pounds for building a pest house on Roaches Point. At the time there were few inhabitants in the area making this an ideal place for treating and separating people with communicable diseases, most especially, small pox. It was here and at another pest house located in Salem's Great Pasture, (now South Salem) that the first inoculation treatments were performed. At Roaches Point there was a small enclosed graveyard for smallpox victims near the wharf.

In order to be inoculated people would live at the pest house and be given the virus in small doses. While making them sick the virus was usually not as severe and resulted in an immunity to smallpox. This treatment was often a hard sell but Salem and Massachusetts leaders strongly encouraged it throughout the 18th century.

In 1799 the Pest house at Roaches Point was discontinued in favor of  a new hospital built at Hospital Point overlooking Beverly harbor, (now the ). Over the years many hundreds went through this treatment until new vaccinations were developed that did away with 'inoculations.' The Pest House after 1799 was used to house some indigent people.

Salem's Puritan settlers recognized the importance of caring for one another especially during times of trouble. With a strong religious perspective the early community voted to assist people who fell on hard times whether though injury or circumstance. This responsiveness took the form of funds either generated by the town or through the church, which to all intents, was intertwined with government.  

As Salem grew in both a permanent population as well as a transient one with the growth in maritime commerce, civic leaders recognized the need for an Alms House to deal with people who were destitute. Before 1660 Salem's Almshouse was on the corner of Broad and Summer Streets. The Alms house was later moved to a corner of where it was through most of the 18th century. When the Common was laid out plans were made to build a new brick Alms House on Roaches Point. Salem's Town Meeting voted to build the Alms House and a committee was authorized to enclose acreage for a garden and farm for the work house.

This was built in 1816 from plans of Charles Bulfinch, the noted Boston architect who also designed the Mass. State House and the Capitol Building in Washington. D.C.

This Alms House (Work House), with a farm surrounding it, reflected the thoughts of the day. According to scholars, the prevailing view espoused by civic and religious leaders was that there were two types of poor: the virtuous and the vicious. The virtuous poor were those who had fallen on hard times through circumstances and no fault of their own. The vicious poor had brought this on themselves through lives of indolence, intemperance and immorality.

These definitions also effected the treatment of the poor. The virtuous poor could be handled through outdoor relief where food and fuel could be provided at home by government or charities. The vicious poor, however deserved to get indoor relief where they were placed at the Alms House where there was stringent discipline and hard work to train them in industry. They should not be "taken care of," lest they continue in their bad habits. Placement in the Alms House was not seen as a pleasant placement in public housing; rather it was more of a sentence to make the person realize the error of his ways.

Life at the Alms House was strict with curfews, many rules, and the requirement to work the adjacent farm. Salem's Overseers of the Poor Committee staffed the Alms house with a Master to ensure good discipline and hopefully profit from the farm produce sold.

After its opening, Salem passed an ordinance that all aid recipients must enter the Alms House. The five story brick almshouse could house 100 residents.

Over the next several years Salem learned that this system was not working well. During the winter months the Alms house would fill up with residents. When the weather changed, the residents would leave for seasonal jobs just when they were needed for farm labor, forcing the city to hire farm help. The number of large families living in the Alms House further burdened the town, who found themselves paying much more than they anticipated.

By 1826, at the Overseer's request, Salem had returned to "outdoor" aid and no longer placed all aid recipients in the Alms House. The population at the Alms House continued to grow to 146 by 1883.

In 1884 a large building adjoining the Alms House, designed by W. D. Dennis, was built as an insane asylum and hospital for contagious diseases. Over the years this hospital was known as the Contagious Hospital, the Pest House and the Insane Hospital.

The Alms House, after many years of use, was torn down in 1954, leaving the hospital standing for several decades longer. The Alms House area was leveled and lawns were put down 1957. 

The City Farm that provided produce and generated income for the City's Overseers of the Poor ceased operations in the late 1940s. By that time, farm produce and pork production, which had averaged a few thousand dollars a year, had dropped to less than $50. Older residents may recall the Farm and the animals kept there. An older cousin fondly recalled going for walks and visiting the pigs there in the 1930s.

The Chronic Disease & Rehabilitation Hospital with 44 beds continued to operate here for many years. In 1970, the building was condemned by the State Department of Public Health. It was allowed to continue operations until the Shaughnessy-Kaplan Chronic Disease & Rehabilitation Hospital was built on Jefferson Avenue in 1974.

From that time, the building fell into disrepair. For many years, it and the grounds became a favorite spot for kids who would sneak onto the grounds to play. In conversations with residents who played in the area as children, I was told this was a favorite spot to explore the caves that dotted the area, as well as the overgrown hills where you could envision finding buried treasure.

In the early 1980s the city sold the property. The Collins Cove Condominium development was built here after the hospital that stood for a hundred years was removed and the hills graded in 1986-1987.

chester suchecki May 20, 2012 at 03:31 PM
jerome you make no mention of the jetty and the old amunition bunker that was torn down for the condos. the former cemetery grounds are under the condo buildings and there used to be a very populat beach behind the hospital that local residents went to from the 50s to early 80s before the condos were built. the people who lived in the surrounding neighborhood know which one i am talking about.
Jerome Curley May 20, 2012 at 06:42 PM
Chester, Thanks for the comment. I'm intrigued about an amunition bunker since I haven't come across any mention apart from the ammo bunkers on Winter Island. Do you have a source for that? Thanks again.
chester suchecki May 20, 2012 at 09:47 PM
i used to play in it. it was an amunition storage bunker for fort lee from what i hear. given the dates of the hospitatl it could have been used for a root cellar or morgue but it was built with granite and also may have been a crypt. i have no idea. it was the cite of numerous parties over the years.
Mark Coughlin July 01, 2012 at 10:31 PM
Chet is correct. There was a man-made cave-like Bunker at the water's edge. It was of stone arch construction with an earthen cover. It was cut into the hillside, with a square opening in the top covered by an iron plate that appeared to be a former chimney hole. The front facade faced Collins Cove and had iron pintles leaded into the granite for an iron door that was missing. I heard many rumors of its purpose as a child and one was ammo bunker. Another was that it was a crematorium/body storage facility for the poorhouse. It had an opening in the back that had been bricked up that was rumored to have been a tunnel into the basement of the Bullfinch building. There also was several rows of graves to the East of the cave/bunker. The headstones were slate leaded into granite bases. By the eighties the slates were all snapped off by vandals but many were still intact in the 1960's. Just prior to the construction of the Condos, I told this story to both the developer and to city officials but it fell on deaf ears. First they denied that there were gravesites and later they said I was wrong and the graves were further West from the area I identified. I was proved correct when the excavator started pulling up bones but by then it was too late.


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »