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Municipal Government in 1879

Statement of the Majority of the Board of Selectmen

Government report

By: William Westphal, Thomas J. Blake, and A. L. Sissok

Date: January 16, 1880

Source: Westphal, William, Thomas J. Blake, and A. L. Sissok. "Statment of a Majority of the Board of Selectmen for the Year 1879." Available at: Trinity College, Hartford Studies Project, 〈http://caribou.cc.trincoll.edu/depts_hartstud/1879%20Selectmen.pdf〉 (accessed February 1, 2006).

About the Author: The Board of Selectmen was elected by the town meeting in Hartford, Connecticut. Among other things, the Board was responsible for the administration of the almshouse.

INTRODUCTION

European immigration and rapid industrialization following the Civil War were key drivers for the many social changes that occurred in Hartford, Connecticut, during the 1800s. The potato famine brought many Irish to Hartford, and, by 1870, approximately twenty-five percent of the population had been born overseas, with many more residents who were first-generation Americans. The large population increase provided much of the labor to build factories, roads, railways, and other infrastructure needed to transform the city into a large industrial center. However, the rapid population growth and urbanization also brought poverty, crime, and other problems, such as prostitution and public drunkenness, to Hartford. The residents of Hartford expected the city's elected officials, who were more experienced in rural issues, to find solutions to many of these problems. The city did have a budget for providing social services to help poorer residents, and the local almshouse, which was administered by the Board of Selectmen, provided shelter to those who could not afford housing.

Traditionally, local residents of communities in Connecticut, and throughout New England, gathered annually to vote on budgets, policy changes, and other pressing issues during official Town Meetings, while the day-to-day functioning of these towns were the responsibility of individual citizens. However, as towns grew and became more complex, it was necessary for communities to have more control over the intricacies of daily operations, to ensure that trade, services, and other operations functioned smoothly. For this task, many towns elected a Board of Selectmen (usually three to nine members) that was responsible for monitoring many of the town's municipal needs and making decisions necessary to maintain civil order. The Board of Selectmen organized the official Town Meetings, kept citizens aware of important issues, and addressed citizens' concerns regarding town business and activities. The Boards were often expected to address civil disturbances when they arose.

As the economy shifted from agricultural to industrial, the residents of Hartford utilized the manpower provided with the arrival of European immigrants and other outsiders to develop an infrastructure of large industrial factories to replace smaller shops. However, families that had arrived in Connecticut several generations previously were concerned about religious and cultural differences, as well as the poverty of the immigrants. In addition, people were moving in large numbers into Hartford from rural areas of Connecticut. Improving the educational infrastructure, and dealing with crime and mental illness challenged elected officials. Child labor, dangerous working conditions, and the demand for equal rights by women and African-Americans, added to the issues of crime and poverty that reformers were pressing the Board of Selectmen and other elected officials to address.

PRIMARY SOURCE

To the Voters of the Town of Hartford:

We, the undersigned, of the Board of Selectmen of the Town of Hartford for the year 1879, in view of the purposes for which this meeting is called, deem it proper to bring to the attention of our fellow-citizens certain facts concerning the management of the Alms House during the superintendency of George Goyt, which came to our knowledge in the course of our administration of the affairs of the town.

Our duties as selectmen, and the legally constituted overseers of the poor, necessarily brought us into intimate relations with the affairs of the Alms House, with its management, and with Mr. Goyt.

It is apparent that in the management of so large an institution there are a multitude of transactions, large and small, affording many opportunities for improper and improvident conduct, not to speak of corrupt practice and favoritism in business dealings, to the detriment of the town.

The range of the Superintendent's duties is wide. Of course, in our positions, we could not be cognizant of all these matters. We could not know all that the Superintendent was doing. But many facts came to our knowledge which it is but right that the people of the town should know, and without knowing which they can not act intelligently in the matter now under discussion.

Mr. Goyt assumed the duties of the superintendency on or about the 28th day of January, 1879. He employed for his assistant Mr. Hyde, who was under the pay of the town.

For the period of five months, beginning about June 28, they kept upon the farm, and upon fodder either raised thereon, or bought by the town, a trotting horse. This horse was not used for the purposes of the town, but for the pleasure of Mr. Hyde. This horse was regularly trained as a trotter, exercised upon the road, and at Charter Oak Park, and was entered and trotted in races at Providence, Brooklyn, Meriden and Hartford. All this was at the expense of the town, and was under the immediate charge of Mr. Hyde, who accompanied the horse in these trotting tours. At the same time Mr. Hyde was drawing pay from the town for his services.

Again: Mr. Goyt presented to the Selectmen, for payment, bills for oats, meal, claimed to have been consumed on the farm, which could not be accounted for, and which were largely in excess of amounts actually required and used. Upon being called upon for explanation, he was utterly unable to give any.

Mr. Goyt also paid for meal, from 5 to 10 cents per hundred above the market rates, and persisted in so doing, even after responsible parties repeatedly offered and asked to supply the same at the lower and ruling rates.

During the year, it became necessary to purchase wood. One of the Board of Selectmen went and looked at some, and the same was offered to him for a certain price per cord. Mr. Goyt subsequently went and purchased the same wood—ninety-five cords—and paid therefor 50 cents per cord more, although he knew full well that it could be purchased for a lower price.

In the management of the farm, Mr. Goyt has bought cattle and stock, which were placed there and fed for beef, and then sold for much less than their original cost, and much less than their actual value. This he has done without consultation with any of the Board, and upon his own motion.

He has shown no disposition to obtain advice, or inform himself of the wishes of the Board in the matter, although he well knew that at least one of the Board was in a position to give him both advice and aid.

Such are some of the facts which came to our personal knowledge. How many other similar instances there are we know not. It would be strange if more than a small proportion were, known to us. However that may be, the facts within our knowledge have convinced us that Mr. Goyt is not sufficiently capable, reliable and efficient, and not a proper man for the position held.

                                   WILLIAM WESTPHAL.
                                        THOS. J. BLAKE.
                                         A. L. SISSOK.

Dated at Hartford the 16th day of January, 1880.

SIGNIFICANCE

To address the issue of poverty, the government worked to increase the number of people who could live in almshouses, while the jobless were placed in institutions to receive better training. The state government charged the Selectmen in each town with addressing the problems of the poor and providing them with resources. State law required that people receiving full assistance from towns be located in the town's almshouse. Almshouses, which still exist in modern times, provided an affordable residence for poor people. The state of Connecticut also required that the almshouses be administered by the Selectmen of a town. During the 1880s and 1890s, however, there was some concern that people were taking advantage of the Hartford almshouse. Research showed that Hartford was spending $2.07 per poor person, while the rest of the state spent $1.22 per poor person. In addition, some citizens were concerned that immigrant votes were being bought with the aid that public officials provided them (the largest number of people receiving aid came from the immigrant communities).

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, additional laws were enacted to address prostitution, saloon operations, and labor problems. An anti-vice raid was launched by the mayor of Hartford in 1911, which shutdown popular locations known for being places of prostitution. Free lunches in saloons, which were traditionally provided at the price of a drink, became illegal in 1913. These laws were considered by some residents to instill social values, but also aimed to clean up some of the activities that were associated with poverty in Hartford.

Boards of Selectmen continue to exist in the present day. Depending on the location, they are often responsible for hiring employees, determining certain municipal fees, overseeing appointed committees, and creating regulations. Frequently, city managers also are members of the Board of Selectmen. However, in some cities, such as in Hartford, the Board of Selectmen has been replaced by a modern City Council.

FURTHER RESOURCES

Books

Elson, Henry William. "Colonial Government." Chap. 10 in History of the United States of America. New York: MacMillan, 1904. Available at: 〈http://www.usgennet.org/usa/topic/colonial/book/chap10_5.html〉 (accessed February 1, 2006).

U.S. Dept. of Commerce and Labor, Bureau of the Census. "Paupers in Almshouses 1904." Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1906. Available at: 〈http://www.poorhousestory.com/LegalSummaryCover.htm〉 (accessed February 1, 2006).

Web sites

Connecticut's Heritage Gateway. "An Orderly and Descent Government." 〈http://www.ctheritage.org/aodg/index.html〉 (accessed February 1, 2006).

The Reader's Companion to American History. "New England Colonies." 〈http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/rcah/html/ah_064300_newenglandco.htm〉 (accessed February 1, 2006).

Trinity College. Trinity Center for Neighborhoods. "The Saloons of Hartford's East Side 1870–1910." 〈http://www.trincoll.edu/depts/tcn/Research_Reports/60.htm〉 (accessed February 1, 2006).

Municipal Government in 1879

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