Thursday, August 9, 2012

Committed to Poor House

Photograph Courtesy of Library of Congress

Too often medical treatment for mental illness requires a middle man, the judicial or court system. I can still remember the rattling of keys, closing and opening of bars, police officers with guns on hips, and going before the judge when we sought treatment for our then 16 year old daughter. Treating severe mental illness requires placement in a facility. The court is to ensure that the individual's personal liberty is not violated and to protect the public.

In June 1913, a hearing before the Chancery Court was held for cousin Lena Mae Durr to determine if she was insane by six citizens of Hazlehurst, Copiah County, MS. It was determined that she was insane and she was to be placed in one of the State Lunatic Asylums but because no beds were available she was to be placed in the local Poor House.

A poorhouse was a government-ran facility for the support and housing of dependent or needy persons, typically ran by a local government entity.

Here is a description of the place Lena Mae was sent.

COPIAH COUNTY-Dirty one-story buildings in which the sick, insane, epileptic, feeble-minded, and diseased live and sleep' together; three generations of the same family live in one room; everything filthy, vermin on beds and persons; no sanitation, no modern conveniences. But two meals a day served, morning and noon; food insufficient.
From The American Poor-farm and Its Inmates, by Harry C. Evans

Lena Mae had a short stay. She was ordered to the Poor House on the 21 day of June 1913. She died 27 Sept 1913 of pellagra which is a vitamin deficiency disease most commonly caused by a chronic lack of niacin in the diet. A few of the symptoms of pellagra are: insomnia, mental confusion, diarrhea, red skin lesions, and eventually dementia. In affluent societies, a majority of patients with clinical pellagra are poor, homeless, alcohol-dependent, or psychiatric patients who refuse food.

Lena Mae was buried on the Poor Farm.

Lena Mae Durr was my father's 2nd cousin. She was the daughter of Emanuel and Mary Durr.

Conditions of Poor Houses in Mississippi


  1. So her mental illness was a result of pellegra or she got pellegra on top of her mental illness from being in the poor house? Very sad story all around.

  2. If the disease is not treated, you can survive for 4 to 5 years. I think her mental illness is the result of pellagra since she died so quickly after being put in the poor house.

  3. What an incredibly sad story. I wonder how they figured out what was wrong with her after she died--but didn't recognize it while she was living.

    1. The family, who was not involved in her committal, probably didn't take her to a doctor for a diagnosis and it is likely she received the diagnosis after she was committed to the Poor House.

  4. This is such a sad story! I can only imagine the conditions of such a place and what she suffered while there. This is why my parents terrorized me as a child with the word Whitfield. When I hear the name today it still strikes a little hammer of fear in my heart.

  5. That fear is justified. Any facility where they send people who cannot take care of themselves is a sad, sad place since nobody--no matter how much they get paid or how little--can take care of you like you do yourself. But I respect the people who work at Whitfield like no other. My mom died there.

  6. Just as many people today are still dying from being poor and hungry. It is sad what happened to her. IT is sad what happens still. The Appelechean mountain areas are essentially like a 3rd world w/in our own country. Very sad.

  7. Poverty is still with us, it destroys bodies and minds.