The Asylum at Quaise: Nantucket’s Antebellum Poor Farm

Quaise farm at sheep-shearing shows a building first used as part of the Quaise Asylum.Quaise, meaning the “end point” in Algonquian, is anisolated area three miles northeast of Nantucket town. Very little haschanged there since the nineteenth century when an experimental town poor farm and asylum were located there. Yet the silence and barrenness of the area betray the phantom screams of asylum inmates who perished in the flames of an 1844 poorhouse fire. Fifty-nine bedridden, insane, and pauper inmates and their “keeper” slept in the asylum the night of Wednesday, February 21, 1844. Frederick Chase, one of the indigent inmates, was the first to discover the acrid smell of smoke coming from the cook-room on the lower level of the three-story structure at 2:00 a.m. Ten inmates were burned to death. The fire raises a host of questions, chiefly, why were there inmates at Quaise?

The asylum building shown here after being moved to Lower Orange Street where it functioned as Our Island Home, and in 1986 became Landmark House.The asylum at Quaise was the practical manifestation of Nantucket’s reform policy on the poor in the first half of the nineteenth century. It served as a safe harbor or refuge for the intemperate, feeble, unemployed, and insane. It is important to interpret the Quaise Asylum in terms of its historical setting and the influence of local, state, and national trends. The prosperity of the people of Nantucket during that period enabled them to purchase the land and buildings for an asylum. Great emphasis was put on the rural setting, which was believed to be restorative. The removal of the afflicted from the community was seen as part of the cure.One of the earliest indications of the island’s attitude toward the less fortunate came during a smallpox epidemic before the Revolutionary War. The townspeople made provision not only to take care of the sick, but to protect themselves as well. At an October 19, 1763, Town Meeting, the town voted that two houses be built on isolated Coatue Point “for the reception of such Persons as are Infected with Small Pox.” It was also decided “that the Town will suffer Inoculation of Small Pox.” However, as Obed Macy noted in his journal in an April 13, 1822, entry, “Somewhere in 1796 it was concluded that all those who received supplies from the Town must come and reside at the work house [so called]. . . . In 1797 the whole expense for the Department of the Poor was $885.19, an enormous sum.” Prosperity came to Nantucket after the War of 1812, and with leisure time came the opportunity to assemble for reasons of reform. Inspired by leaders such as Dorothea Dix in her efforts to reform education and the treatment of the insane, Americans campaigned for change.However, the chief reason for poor reform was money. An estimated one-half of taxes was going to support the indigent. The misuse of alcohol was the perceived primary cause of poverty, and it was believed that with “heroic effort,” it could be cured. It is also true that during this period insanity was believed curable. A March 7, 1822, article in the Nantucket Inquirer praised the success of the McLean Asylum (near Boston): the success of the “moral treatment” there was “highly gratifying to every one, who is justly sensible of the value of a sound understanding and of the direful sorrows connected with a state of insanity.”On April 13, 1822, at the annual Town Meeting, the idea of a permanent town poorhouse and asylum was shaped into reality. The concept of the poorhouse, isolating a community’s poor instead of providing them with provisions on an individual basis, spread through New England in the 1820s-40s. As reported in the Inquirer, a locale far from the town’s taverns was given as the rationale for the site. The newspaper reported on April 18, 1822, “The Committee to look into the poor department met last Saturday and it was voted that the town would buy the farm now occupied by Daniel Howland…not to exceed $2000.00.” By 1823, the asylum, situated on 273 acres in Quaise, was ready for new inhabitants. The poor, elderly, unemployed, and insane who could not take care of themselves were “sent there” by relatives or applied for permits to live there.The annual Nantucket Town Meeting dictated the direction of the Quaise asylum, choosing three overseers, who were responsible for hiring a keeper. Some of the overseers, such as Capt. Job Coleman, were wealthy whaling captains who also took an interest in town affairs. Coleman’s portrait, which hangs in the Whaling Museum, shows a serious, handsome, contemplative man. Overseers such as Coleman were responsible for visiting the Poor Farm on Saturdays making observations and referring recommendations to the Town Meeting in the form of a report. Poor Farm policy emerged from those reports. For example, on March 8, 1830, Nantucket Town Meeting passed a regulation limiting the number of visitors to the Poor Farm. Perhaps it was the intention of townspeople to take a casual drive out to the farm and look at the unfortunates in their element. Whatever the case may have been, the Meeting “Voted to add to the Duty of Overseers that they shall prohibit all persons from visiting the asylum at Quaise without a permit in writing from one of the Overseers.”What did the town and overseers intend to do for the indigent inmates? Moral reform was the philosophical treatment of the poor and alcoholic. But a physical building would fill the needs of the poor and embody the causes of the “moral poor.” For the elderly and insane, at least, such a poorhouse might be their last home, while orphans would be nurtured at the nearby Polpis school. The asylum would also be a place of rehabilitation for the able-bodied unemployed, who, by means of hard labor, would have the opportunity to improve themselves through the decency the poorhouse provided.Historians have generally used one of two models, confinement or rehabilitation, or a combination of the two, to explain the formation of institutions such as poorhouses and asylums. Two “keepers” journals in the possession of the NHA reflect those institutional philosophies; the two models help us interpret them. The first, kept by an anonymous superintendent from 1826 to 1828, is believed to be the work of William Chase, the man referred to in the third person throughout the journal. This earlier journal displays the hallmark of the confinement model. Escaped inmates brought back to the asylum unwillingly-drunken men and women who “kept a bad house”-were punished by their containment in the House of Correction. The House of Correction, on the grounds of the asylum, was the last resort for Quaise inmates, a place reserved for the most incorrigible inmates. An April 20, 1826, journal entry described the retrieval of two inmates: “William Chase went down after Lucretia Cuff and Jane Freeman found in Guinea Town and brought them up.” Work transgressions were similarly punished: July 20, 1826: “[Overseer] Capt. Myrick . . . brought . . . a pauper girl by the name of Eliza G. Thompson an indented [sic] servant to Robert Folger. She is to be kept here a few Days for a Punishment for Disobedient [sic] of Orders in the afternoon.” The ordeal of Betsey Jones, a chronic alcoholic, best illustrates Chase’s lock-up policies. In early September 1826, she missed the vessel that was to return her to Connecticut “where she belongs” and “she returned to the Asylum in Sailing Trim Ballesed with Ginn.” “September 5: Took Betsey Jones out of Prison & she Refused to work then Put her in again.” Jones remained in the House of Correction for over a year. May 3, 1827: “At night cart returned from town [with] Robert Barker after being absent Six Months this is the third time he has been here.” Thus, morals, temperance, and obedience to the keeper dominated Chase’s tenure.The second journal is that of Alexander Coffin, an ill-fated whaling captain, who as a mariner had seen his ship’s captain killed by a whale and had been captured by cannibals. A Quaker, he exemplified the Quaker tenet of finding “that of God in every man.” He and his wife, Lydia Myrick Coffin, and their two sons settled into the asylum keeper’s quarters at Quaise in 1839. According to a later account, Coffin was “desirous of relinquishing the seaman’s life for that of a farmer.” Not surprisingly, Coffin ran his poor farm as a well-run, but extremely productive, whaleship.William Chase’s journal dealt to a large extent with the “House of Correction”; Alexander Coffin’s, in contrast, is principally concerned with the rehabilitation of inmates through agricultural labor. Nearly every entry begins with a list of vegetables, eggs, and dairy products and how much they sold for in town. He made sure every inmate who could work participated in the healthy, restorative, rural atmosphere. Those who could not work outside in the fields of wheat and rye, or with the livestock, did woodworking in the “House of Industry.” Even the elderly and house-bound were given “oakum,” a flax-like fiber, to pick in their rooms. However miserable their circumstances, it was hoped that some inmates at least might work out their vices. Thus, under his care, the poor farm was a useful and profitable place for the town of Nantucket. Three general assumptions concerning the asylum need to be clarified. The first concerns African Americans; of sixty-five inmates in an 1840 census, five were black. Early Town Meeting minutes reflect that blacks were housed in a separate building on the asylum grounds, so it would seem that a majority of the island’s indigent and disadvantaged blacks remained in Guinea. The second considers the misconception by many that women predominantly peopled the asylum. Throughout the asylum and town censuses, the numbers of men and women in the poorhouse remain fairly equal. Finally, the asylum at Quaise housed very few people actually considered lunatics. An extensive survey conducted by the Massachusetts Committee on Lunacy in 1854 revealed the prevalence of insanity for the state was 23.4 per 10,000; Nantucket was one of the two counties found with a rate of 15, the lowest in the state.The climax of the poorhouse experience, and one that really figured in its demise, was the 1844 fire at the Quaise Asylum. (The Great Fire occurred in Nantucket two years later.) On a bitterly cold night in February 1844, the daughter-in-law of the keeper, now Timothy Baker, awoke to find the three-story structure on fire. She had the presence of mind to seize the bell rope and pull hard. The sound rang out over the deserted area. Although the bell could be heard for miles around, no attempt was made to send the fire engine from town; the roads were nearly impassable. Rescuers from the adjoining farm belonging to Charles A. Burgess made their way through the snowy fields. They brought ladders and formed a bucket brigade using water from the asylum’s cistern. But the rescuers were few in number, and many of the inmates were disoriented and confused. One rescuer, according to the Nantucket Inquirer, “found in the third story an aged man and his wife in bed. He warned them of the imminent danger and the man got out safely, but the woman resolutely refused to move . . . she struggling all the time to prevent the rescue.”Many of the inmates themselves enacted feats of heroism. Notably, Lydia Bowen, one of the ten inmates burned to death that night, “carried her child to a place of safety, and returned to try and save something, but did not herself escape the burning flames.” The Inquirer put its ghoulish report into religious terms: “We saw what remained of the body of Lydia Bowen, burnt to a cinder . . . forcibly admonishing the holder, of the uncertainty of the time and manner, in which he may be called to yield up life.” A ninetieth-anniversary retrospective of February 17, 1934, noted, “It was many a day before those present could forget the scene- the blazing pile with its human occupants, the bitter wind, the snow-covered ground, the unearthly cries of the doomed.”During the next year, rebuilding would take place on the same site at the cost of twelve thousand dollars. It might seem that the experience of the asylum fire, with its component of inaccessibility, eventually changed the minds of the town planners, for in 1854 the asylum building was removed timber by timber to Orange Street, in town, and incorporated into a new building, constructed with a “dungeon” in the cellar and a chapel on the top floor. The cellar proved to have multiple purposes through time. The building was renamed “Our Island Home” in 1905, and from that point on was exclusively a home for the sick and elderly who could no longer care for themselves. With the opening in 1981 of a new, state-of-the-art nursing-home facility, also named Our Island Home, the old Quaise Asylum building was converted to Landmark House, an apartment complex for independent living of low-income elderly and physically challenged residents. One wonders what the pivotal factor was in taking the Poor Farm apart in 1854. The answer may lie in the opening of the Taunton (Massachusetts) Asylum for the Insane that year. The evacuation of the insane to Taunton was one solution for the islanders: the asylum on Orange Street, which concentrated on the elderly and bedridden, was another. Nantucket was returning to a type of “out relief,” or treatment of each individual case of poverty, as early as the 1850s. Town Poor Department Accounts for 1858-60 reveal the names of over a hundred needy Nantucketers receiving aid in the form of wood, coal, and flour.The town sold Quaise Farm to George C. Gardner in 1855 (although evidence suggests some sort of town farm existed on the island as late as 1913). Personifying the era best, perhaps, was the last full-blooded Indian woman on Nantucket, Dorcas Honorable, who died at the Orange Street asylum on January 12, 1855. Born April 12, 1776, she had lived out her life in Nantucket during a period of great social experimentation. The era of the poor farm is over, and in the present day, Nantucketers treat its less fortunate with comprehensive social programs and enlightened attitudes.

Some of the resources consulted for this article include the minutes of Nantucket Town Meetings, records of the Poor Department, the NHA’s collection of Poor Farm/Quaise Asylum papers 1839-41, and the town censuses of 1830, 1837, 1840, and 1850. Byers, Edward, The Nation of Nantucket: Society and Politics in an Early American Commercial Center, 1660-1820.Hunter, John M., “Need and Demand for Mental Health Care: Massachusetts 1854,” Geographical Review, 1987.”Remarks at the Asylum at Quaise” by Alexander Coffin, 1839-1841.Rothman, David J., The Discovery of the Asylum.”The Quaise Farm Horror of 1844: Burning of the Asylum,” Historic Nantucket, 1977.

Alison M. Gavin, the NHA’s 2003 E. Geoffrey and Elizabeth Thayer Verney Fellow, is now a writer/editor for the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C.


The photo of the Quaise farm at sheep-shearing shows a building first used as part of the Quaise Asylum.

The asylum building shown here after being moved to Lower Orange Street where it functioned as Our Island Home, and in 1986 became Landmark House.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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