Poorhouse to the Rescue

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Poorhouse to the Rescue

(the names in this article have been changed)

The records were not quite clear. 
The 1955 death certificate for Theresa Hartzell listed her maiden name as Green. Theresa's marriage record 
to George Hartzell in Hillton, Washington County, Illinois, in 1894 listed her as Theresa Dyer, with her father's 
name as Joseph Jones and her mother's name as Diana Dyer. Her death certificate listed her birthplace as 
Irvington, Washington County, Illinois, in 1870. Her marriage record and death certificate “agreed” on the 
birthplace and did not contradict on the age. 

However, I was confused. Perhaps there was a soap opera hiding in the records. 

Locating Theresa in the 1880 census was my next research task. Theresa was listed in the 1880 census 
as the adopted daughter of William Green. This explained the Green surname on Theresa's death certificate, 
but did not explain what had happened to her parents. 

The only Joseph Jones in the county's 1880 census was living in the town listed as Theresa's birthplace. A 
wife, Sarah, and several children were also listed. A Theresa Dyer (or a Theresa Jones) was not located in 
the 1880 census. 

At this point, court records were checked for potential references to Joseph Jones and Diana Dyer. This 
turned out to be a wise research move. There was an 1870s court case in which Joseph Jones and Diana 
Dyer were defendants. Joseph Jones was brought up on charges of adultery and Diana Dyer was brought 
up on charges of fornication. The difference was important. Joseph was married and Diana wasn't. I was 
absolutely desperate to get into the packet of court papers to view potential testimony, and perhaps to find 
mention of any children resulting from this relationship. 

I was sadly disappointed. 

The packet of court papers could not be found. It was not for lack of trying. I was fortunate that the court 
clerk led me down to the basement, gave me a quick overview, and turned me loose in the old records. I 
looked and looked to no avail. In fact, I could find no packet of court papers pre-1870. They were apparently 
gone, lost, or destroyed. Disheartened, I returned upstairs and located all references to the case in the 
dockets and court order books. The case was only mentioned three times, and the references indicated 
that Joseph served three months in jail while Diana served ten days. No mention of any children resulting 
from the relationship. I saved my use of colorful language for the car trip home--the courthouse staff had 
been especially nice and I did not want to leave them with a bad impression of genealogists. 

I then learned that the register of the county poor farm was available on microfilm through the Family History 
Library. This time I was not disappointed. The entire Jones family was admitted in February of 1875. Sarah 
Jones was listed with children aged 8, 5, 3, and 1 directly under her name in the register (names omitted 
here). Diana Dyer was listed next, with children surnamed Jones aged 7, 5 (Theresa), 3(?), and 2 directly 
under her name. It seemed improbable that all the children were Sarah's given the ages and the fact that 
Theresa had listed Diana Dyer as her mother on her marriage license. To top off the situation, Diana was 
listed as being pregnant when admitted to the poor farm. A Charles Jones-aged “infant” was “admitted” to 
the poor farm in May of 1875. However, the proof of parentage is not absolute, and nothing in the almshouse 
record says blatantly that Joseph is the father of all the Jones children being admitted. 

A remarks column indicates when the person left. Sarah left on her own accord a month after her admission, 
taking some of her children a few months later. Diana Dyer died at the poor farm in November of 1875; all of 
her children were taken in by strangers, including Theresa, who is listed as being taken in by a Mr. Green. 
Some things really tied in. 

Other records, especially census records and vital records, should be used to completely analyze this family. 
The difficulty in this case is that every individual was born before statewide registration of vital records. 

But the key breakthrough in this case was the county poor farm register. The names (and a few places) have 
been changed in this example. And the fact that the wife and the girlfriend were sisters added an additional 
twist to the story. The probate file of the father of the sisters was extremely helpful, since he died after both 
Sarah and Diana. Thus, it is always wise to completely research the family you are studying. 

Finding Records for Your Locality
Finding your whole family in the county poor farm is not the norm. However, you might find that one of your 
ancestors ended up at a county poor farm if he or she was no longer self-sufficient or able to rely on family 
members for care. Records of the county poor farm or almshouse may provide additional insight into your 
ancestor's life and may provide details not contained in other records. The Family History Library has 
microfilmed some of these records, and they are included in its online card catalog
(http://www.familysearch.org). The best searching procedure is to enter the name of the county and state 
when searching the catalog by place. Then you can scan the subject headings for the county of interest. 

County poor farm records may be physically located in the county courthouse or in local archives. They may 
be in the possession of descendants of the last administrator of the facility. In some cases, the county “poor 
farm” became the county nursing home, and that facility may have the records. Check the Family History 
Library catalog first. If that does not produce results, post a query to the appropriate county genealogy 
mailing list or contact the local historical or genealogical society. Chances are someone on the local 
mailing list or at a local society knows something about the records. 

Life sometimes dealt our ancestors hard blows. If some of yours ended up at the poor farm, you can at least 
be glad you found them. Some of us can't find them anywhere. 

Good luck!

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