Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Tewksbury Almshouse Inmate Biographies

American and Canadian almshouse records from the 19th century have always been fruitful hunting grounds for information about immigrants from Ireland. I have previously written about Saint John Almshouse in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada and now it is the turn of Tewksbury, located in Middlesex County, Massachusetts. Tewksbury Almshouse first opened in 1854 and quickly saw more admittals than the number it was built for.[1] Those who were admitted came from all over Massachusetts. What is very interesting about this institution is that detailed notes taken from a patient's intake interview have survived. Known as 'inmate biographies,' many of these are lengthy, detailed narratives that cover the person’s full life history, focusing on family relations, work, and health.[2]

The first phase of this digitization project has seen records from 1854 to 1883 come online, however, there are very few records from before 1860. There are currently records for approximate 40,000 individuals that can be viewed online. The final phase of digitization will see records added through the 1890s. There are records from after these years, but they will not be placed online. Some of the original records are at the Museum of Public Health in Tewksbury, while transcriptions of other original records, since destroyed, are available on microfilm at the Massachusetts State Archives. The digitized records come from both of these institutions. 

The records are heavily populated with immigrants from Ireland with the following example showing the genealogical gold they contain: [3]

Mary Stanley, inmate biography, 1873

Reg. No:              41109
Age:                     56
Name:                  Mary Stanley
From:                   Boston June 4 1873
Condition:           Well
Discharged:         June 24 1873
Removed:            Boston
By Whom:           Tupp [?]
For Nos:
56 b[orn] Ire[land] Co. Roscommon Land[ed] Quebec Ca[nada] May 15 1837 per Ship Emerald. Direct to Boston and resided in Boston since.  M[arrie]d Henry Stanley in Boston 1838. N.N. [?] No R[eal?]. Est[ate?] No taxes Laborer died Boston Jan[uary] 1856. Son Thomas Stanley stone mason resides #25 Northampton St. Daug[hter] Mary H[ouse?] w[i]f[e] of Benjamin Washington. #5 Smith's Court off Joy St. P[arents?] Richard and Ann O'Brien d[ied?] Ire[land]. Last lived rear of 383 Harrison Ave with Mrs Dayley. Says [she was] in no other inst[itution]. Officer Prouty [?] of Station 5 knows her. Rheum[atism?] In City Hosp[ital] 2 years ago. No M[oney?]. No Home.

As best that I can tell, the website on which this collection is hosted, University of Massachusetts Lowell Digital Initiatives, does not have a standalone database where you can search this collection. Instead, the search facility searches all digitized collections. However, all names from the Tewksbury Almshouse collection have been indexed.

You can read more about the collection here and access the records here. Browsing the records is also available, beginning here.

My thanks goes to R. Andrew Pierce, a professional genealogist in Boston, for telling me about this digitization project.

[1] Meltsner, Heli. The Poorhouses of Massachusetts: A Cultural and Architectural History. Massachusetts: McFarland, 2012, pp. 32–33.
[2] Fisher, Joseph. 'Tewksbury Almshouse Intake Record Collection at UMass Lowell,' Highlights. Boston Library Consortium (https://blc.org/special-highlights/tewksbury-almshouse-intake-record-collection-umass-lowell): accessed 19 February 2017.
[3] Tewksbury Almshouse, 'Tewksbury Almshouse Intake Record: Stanley, Mary,' No. 41109, 4 June 1873; Digital Initiatives @ UML, University of Massachusetts Lowell Library (http://libhost.uml.edu/items/show/1807): accessed 19 February 2017.


  1. I first viewed records from the facility on the Tewksbury Historyical Society web page while researching Helen Keller's teacher, Anne Sullivan. That took me to the census records, which also have a tale to tell.

  2. Interesting. Because of your blog, I wrote to the Massachusetts Archives inquiring about obtaining the records of an ancestor who died at the Tewksbury State Infirmary in 1910. This was the response:

    "Thank you for your inquiry. Please note that medical and mental health records are restricted by state laws (MGL c. 4, § 7 (26) (a), MGL c. 4, § 7 (26) (c), MGL c.111 § 70, and MGL c.123, § 36), even after the death of the individual. However, a court order making you the temporary administrator of the individual’s estate may be obtained to permit access to information in the case file.

    Patient Case files from 1896-present from Tewksbury are mainted at the Tewksbury State Hospital, so you will need to contact them directly to inquire about access."

    I have tried to plow my way thru the legalese of these statutes but fail to see where I can't have access to the records. The state hospital can destroy the records after 20 years if I read it correctly, but I can't see the records 107 years after my ancestor's death without a court order.

    Any suggestions?

    Margie Beldin
    Richland, Washington

  3. Biographies are my part time interest, I always prefer going for that instead of any other novels or stories. This post has such a historical aspect in it that it attracted me automatically.

  4. There are some Inmate Records are really missing in the previous 1860 but yet you let us shown some of them from there which is really appreciable. Your previous post was also related to this somehow.

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  7. Browsing the records is also available, beginning here http://locatorinmate.com

  8. That took me to the census records, which also have a tale to tell.

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