Baltimore County Almshouse
A Landmark Preserved by the Historical Society of Baltimore County
The Baltimore County Almshouse officially opened in 1874 as a public home for the county's indigent, elderly, and infirm residents. The Almshouse and its predecessors were the ancestors of today’s nursing homes, mental health hospitals, homeless shelters, and other social services and health care facilities. After Baltimore City and County separated in 1851, the County took over one of two original almshouses that had served Baltimore: Calverton, founded in 1819. The County sold the aging Calverton facility in the 1870s and built a new almshouse farther north. Originally called the Upland Home, the third and final almshouse is now known simply as "the Almshouse."
The project of building the Almshouse began in 1871 when County Commissioners purchased property in the village of Texas, Maryland, from Dr. John Galloway. Galloway also served as one of the Almshouse's early physicians. Builders Codling and Lishear, following designs by local architect James Harrison, used locally quarried limestone to erect the four-story edifice. In 1872, the Sun reported how the main home was "constructed of the best material and in the most substantial manner" and claimed the building would "be a credit to the county." After a total outlay of nearly $60,000, seventy-four "inmates," as residents were known, moved in on January 8, 1874.
Housing for inmates at the Almshouse was rigidly segregated by race and gender. The County built the "Pest House" (short for pestilence), a small structure down the hill from the main home, to quarantine residents with contagious diseases. Far more often, the Pest House served as segregated housing for African American men. In the main building, white men and women lived in the front wing (on separate floors) and African American women lived in the back wing. The Almshouse superintendent reserved the first floor for himself and his family, along with any resident physicians and other privileged employees.
The Almshouse property included a farm of well over 100 acres and able-bodied residents were expected to work as farmhands or within the home in cooking, sewing, laundry or childcare, to help provide for their own upkeep. While the farm was generally described as productive in various reports over the years, the County still spent thousands of dollars annually on items like coal, bread, beef, fertilizer, medicine and salaries. Records from the late nineteenth century show expenditures totaling $7,200 in 1869, $12,520 in 1883 and $11,345 in 1886, for example. Salary expenditures went mainly to the twelve superintendents who oversaw the Almshouse from 1874 to 1958, with varying degrees of success (at least according to accounts in the press, which sometimes carried a whiff of partisan bias). The last two superintendents, who served from 1907 to 1959, were father and son, John P. and William Chilcoat. On balance, the Chilcoats seemed to earn more praise than their predecessors for their care of residents and effective oversight of the farm. William Chilcoat, for instance, was credited with lobbying successfully to secure County funds in 1938 to add more meat and eggs and otherwise upgrade the residents' diet.
The vast majority of inmates are now only knowable through the basic details recorded in the Almshouse ledger books, held in the collections of the Historical Society of Baltimore County. The ledgers recorded residents' age, sex, race, and place of birth. Unsurprisingly, the impoverished Almshouse population included many African Americans and immigrants over the years. A 1946 census of the eighty-nine residents, for example, noted fifteen African Americans and fifteen foreign-born whites, mainly from Germany, Poland, Russia and Ireland. Most of the American-born residents in 1946 came from Maryland, but eighteen were natives of other US states. Some residents registered under partial or false names—a "Daniel Boone" entered on October 1, 1891, and the facility admitted a "Napolean Bonaparte" on June 12, 1899—reflecting the distressed circumstances that sent them to the Almshouse. Some unfortunates came to the Almshouse only in death, to be buried in unmarked graves in the potter’s field on the grounds.
We do know a bit more about some individuals. In 1943, the Towson Jeffersonian profiled Fannie Williams, a 104-year-old African American woman and the oldest occupant of the Almshouse. Williams had lived there for forty-one years, "earning her keep" by helping the superintendent’s wife with cleaning and, after she became wheelchair-bound, mending clothes for other residents. Before entering the Almshouse, Williams had worked as a domestic servant in Baltimore County homes. Other residents occasionally landed in the newspapers under more unfortunate circumstances, like Anthony Rose, an elderly white resident who fell down the Almshouse’s elevator shaft and died in 1909.
In the early decades, the facility had a persistent problem with overcrowding, especially during the cold winter months. From 1874 to 1914, more than 10,000 people passed through the Almshouse’s doors as “inmates,” committed to public care for reasons ranging from disabilities to dementia to diseases like measles and tuberculosis. Over time, however, public and private alternatives emerged for those who did not have families able or willing to house and care for them. The founding of the State Lunacy Commission in the early 1890s marked growing concern over the treatment of the mentally ill and disabled. Those considered "insane," who in an earlier era might have lived in an almshouse, were increasingly placed in "asylums." As retirement communities and nursing homes became more common over the twentieth century, the need for almshouses declined further. In 1958, Baltimore County officials closed the historic facility, citing costs.
Since its closure, the Almshouse has housed the Historical Society of Baltimore County (founded in 1959), and a variety of County government offices and other nonprofits. In 1980, the Almshouse was added to the County Landmarks List. Today, the Historical Society maintains its collections and offices, runs a research center for the public, and holds events in this historic structure. The surrounding community of Cockeysville enjoys the open spaces and greenery of the sprawling former grounds, now County Home Park.