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Fire at the Insane Asylum

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In the beginning of Strafford county there were not many poor folks who had to be cared for at the public expense; here and there, now and then, there was one and all such were cared for in private families. As the years went by conditions changed; town paupers began to appear; soon they became so numerous that each town was compelled, by law, to provide a “Poor Farm” and pay a man and his wife to manage it, and take care of all the town paupers. Then ensued a period of hustling by the selectmen of each town to “shunt” the paupers onto other towns of the county whenever possible. But as a general thing the poor on these farms were well cared for, had plenty to eat and drink, perhaps too much cider at times, and plenty of clothing to keep them warm in the winter. This arrangement continued for many years. But all the time the selectmen kept a sharp outlook at the ancestry of each pauper and shoved as many of them as possible onto the county for support.  The result of this procedure was that counties felt obliged to establish county farms where they could properly care for their poor, instead of paying the various towns to do it. In fact the conclusion was reached that the towns charged the county too much for board and lodging. The outcome was that in 1886 the Legislature authorized the counties to purchase farms and fit up houses to properly care for the support of the “county paupers”, instead of paying the towns for doing it.

The commissioners for Strafford county to inaugurate this change in 1866 were Joseph F. Lawrence of Lee, Andrew Rollins of Rollinsford and Uriah Wiggin of Dover. The first two mentioned were brothers-in-law. Mr. Lawrence in later years removed to Chicago, Illinois and became one of the influential men of the city and resided there until his death in 1910. It is estimated that he was a millionaire at the time of his death. Mr. Wiggin died several years ago. Mr. Rollins, at four score and two years, is still active on his big farm in Rollinsford.

These gentlemen, by the authority given them, purchased the John Trickey farm, located on the north side of the Cochecho river, in Dover, but about four miles from the city hall. They took possession May 21, 1866, and employed Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius E. Caswell to live in the large farmhouse, care for the poor and carry on the farm. The farm contained 165 acres, ninety of which were in one field, along the bank of the river, a magnificent tract of land, which has produced enormous crops year after year ever since. Not long after that they purchased the Timothy Snell farm adjoining it on the north. The commissioners in their report said that the cost of boarding each pauper was $1.50 a week. Soon the old farmhouse was displaced by a large brick edifice, for the better accommodation of the poor and for the superintendent and his wife. In 1868 the county farm scheme had come into so much favor that nearly all the towns had sold their farms and were boarding their paupers at the county’s establishment. In the first published report, 1867, they estimated the who property at $43,144.80; the Trickey farm having cost $9,500, Snell farm $6,000, and the new house $16,000. At the last report ending with the year 1912, the total valuation was set at $146,243.33, divided as follows: Farm buildings and fixtures, $83,000; house of correction, $24,000; personal property, $39,243.33; jail lot and buildings, $25, 840.81; courthouse, lot and fixtures, $43,948.57.

Soon after the beginning a small number of paupers were insane, and these were supported at the state asylum in Concord at a cost of $5 a week; so the commissioners decided that such as were incurably insane might be properly cared for in a house the commissioners would fit up, separate from the main establishment. One of the buildings that was on the Snell farm was fitted up for the purpose, and the unfortunate ones were confined in it and cared for by a humane superintendent, equally as well as at the Concord establishment, and at much less expense. As the years went by the number of paupers of this kind increased; the asylum had to be enlarged, but there was never any complaint that it was badly managed, or that the inmates received improper or cruel treatment. All went along well, Mr. and Mrs. Caswell in charge of the main establishment and an efficient assistant under him in charge of the insane asylum.
All moved along smoothly and satisfactorily under Mr. Caswell’s management, who was superintendent from 1867 to 1880, when he died. His successor was William T. Wentworth, who was a good manager and held the office seven years, 1880-1887. Following him Josiah G. Stiles held the office three years, 1887-1890. His successor was Charles E. Demeritt, who was superintendent three years 1890-1893. The present superintendent, Edward A. Willand, came into office April1, 1893, and held the office ten years; the following six years were filled by R. M. Handy; since then Mr. Willand has held the office to date, and his term does not expire until 1914. He is a very efficient and popular manager.

All moved along smoothly until the third year of Superintendent Demeritt’s term. His assistant manager was William P. Driscoll, who had special care of the insane asylum, he and his wife residing in one apartment of that building. For some reason not explained a very bad feeling had arisen between them before the winter of 1893. Demeritt gave up all control of the insane and the management of the asylum to Driscoll. The result of these disagreements was disastrous.

On the night of March 9, 1893, a most calamitous event occurred. The insane asylum was burned to ashes, and forty-one of the forty-four inmates were cremated. It was the most awful sight witnessed in Dover since burning of Major Richard Walderne’s garrison two centuries before when the Indians cremated him and a number of other Dover citizens. Soon after the fire the State Board of Health visited the county farm and made a thorough investigation. The board consisted of the following gentlemen: John B. Smith, E.G. Eastman, James A. Weston, G.P. Cann, John J. Berry and Irving A. Watson. March 8, 1893, they made a report to the General Court. They took evidence of everyone who was cognizant of the facts in the case.

They said that the asylum was a two-story building, with two-story L with attic, first floor occupied by the keeper (Mr. Driscoll) and his family and seventeen inmates, second floor by nineteen inmates, attic by eight inmates. There were fifty-six cells or apartments in all, twenty-one apartments or cells on the first floor, twenty-three on the second and twelve in the attic. The asylum was erected twenty-one years ago, repaired and enlarged wholly of wooden materials, floorings, partitions, sheathings and furnishings to all the cells of pine lumber, flooring and sheathing so dried and shrunken in portions of the building as to enable persons to see each other between the floors and cells: heated throughout by steam from the boiler, pipe hung over head. Its location was seventy feet west from the almshouse, and four miles from Dover (city hall) and about six miles from Somersworth and Rochester. The outdoor enclosure for the use of inmates was surrounded by a wooden fence about ten or twelve feet high; windows to asylum barred by four or more bars; also some of the windows had heavy wire screening on the inside. The building had four doors, one in main building, one in cell, one leading into the outdoor enclosure for women, and one leading into a like enclosure for men. The building was supplied with 200 feet of rubber hose, 100 feet of which was coupled onto pipe leading to tank in attic of almshouse; capacity of tank 20,000 or more gallons, that was always kept well filled by supply from pumping station. Another 100 feet of hose hung on reel near standpipe; also supplied with four water pails on first and four on second floor, which were always kept full of water.

At the time of the fire and for several months previous, the management and control of the asylum was in the hands of the keeper, William P. Driscoll, with the exception that he had nothing to do with the food and clothing of the inmates, the same being supplied from the county almshouse under the direction of Charles E. Demeritt, the superintendent. Mr. Driscoll was assisted at the asylum by his wife, who was matron of the institution. There were no other employees, the entire care of the forty-four inmates devolving upon Mr. and Mrs. Driscoll. Formerly Mr. Demeritt had entire charge of the almshouse and the asylum, but, owing to a personal difficulty which arose between himself and Mr. Driscoll, the county commissioners (Dwight E. Edgerly of Farmington, Frank P. Reeve of Somersworth and Winthrop S. Meserve of Durham) divided the authority by giving Mr. Driscoll full control of the asylum, and thereby relieving Mr. Demeritt of that special duty.

There was a night watchman, Wilbur Chesley, who received his orders solely from Mr. Demeritt, superintendent of the almshouse, and who was required to make six rounds each night, one of the stations, No. 4, being in the asylum of the insane. In making his 10 o’clock round on the night of February 9, he saw upon entering the storm door at the main entrance of the asylum, through the glass of the inside door, a reflection from the fire in the cell of Mary La Fontaine. He entered the asylum as quickly as possible and rushed to the apartment occupied by Mr. Driscoll and family at the further end of the corridor in the L and informed him of the fire. Without waiting to dress, Keeper Driscoll rushed to the cell occupied by Mary La Fontaine and unlocked it, then turned and unlocked the cell of Jim Daly, nearby, telling the watchman to “get some water and open the doors”; but while getting Daly out, Mrs. La Fontaine jumped upon Mr. Driscoll’s back. Mr. Driscoll almost instantly disengaged himself from her, as he states himself, and the watchman also testifies that Driscoll had freed himself from the woman before he (the watchman) had got the front door unlocked. The watchman (Chesley) left the building as soon as possible, and the spring lock effectually closed the door after him and could not be opened from the inside. Driscoll proceeded to unlock other cells and succeeded with those upon the first floor, barely escaping the building in season to save himself and family. By this time, owing to the combustive nature of the building, it was thoroughly on fire so that further efforts to subdue the flames were unavailable. Two of the inmates whose rooms were unlocked by Mr. Driscoll escaped from the burning building, and the one woman was rescued from the second story from outside. The remaining forty-one inmates were cremated.

After giving a summary of the testimony of each witness, the board says:

The board had carefully reviewed all of the evidence presented in this case, and has arrived at the following conclusions:

First. That the fire originated in the room occupied by Mary La Fontaine, and was, probably, ignited with a match in her possession. It was known that matches were furnished those inmates who smoked. She smoked occasionally, therefore it would not be difficult for her to obtain matches herself or from other inmates. That the attendant of the asylum, William P. Driscoll, in a manner inexcusably careless, furnished matches to the aforesaid inmates when called for.

Second. That the fire might have been extinguished immediately after its discovery had the watchman, Mr. Chesley and the keeper, Mr. Driscoll, promptly made the attempt, inasmuch as at the time of its discovery the fire was small, being, according to Mr. Driscoll’s testimony, “no larger than a bushel basket,” and there was a fire hose ready for instant use, within a few feet of the fire, which was not used at all.

Third. That Mr. Chesley, upon his own testimony, is shown to be totally unfit for a watchman, by reason of his defective eyesight, and also not in knowing, after having made the rounds of the institution for several months that there was a fire hose and fire buckets in the asylum.

Fourth. That the superintendent, Mr. Charles E. Demeritt, while having many commendable qualities, was inefficient in his administration of the affairs of the institution in the following particulars: Neglect in not having given specific instructions to his employees (and especially the watchman) as to what should be done in case a fire was discovered; in not disciplining or reprimanding the watchman for failure to perform his required duties, as shown by the register dial of the watchman’s clock; in not having a properly organized and drilled fire squad, consisting of his employees and such inmates as might be available.

Fifth. That the attendant, William P. Driscoll, was guilty of faulty management in not having instructed the watchman regarding the means available for extinguishing fire at the asylum, even though the testimony shows that he had no authority over the watchman.

Sixth. That the county commissioners were negligent in their duties in the following particulars: In not giving explicit instructions as to the management of the institution, both the almshouse and the asylum; in not examining carefully and fully into all the details of the management of both of these departments, and remedying the defects that might have been readily ascertained by them; in not providing fire escapes, which they might have done, to a greater of less extent, without a special appropriation for that purpose; in not furnishing suitable means for promptly liberating inmates from their cells, the testimony showing that several different keys were required to unlock the doors; in dividing the responsibility of the management of the institution on account of personal differences between Mr. Demeritt and Mr. Driscoll, instead of discharging one or both, and employing one competent man to take their places.

Seventh. That prior boards of county commissioners were guilty of official negligence in not recommending to the county delegation such improvements and changes as were necessary to the best interests of the institution, and for not taking action themselves as far as their authority extended under the law.

Eighth. That all previous county delegations have been guilty of allowing to exist, and of maintaining, after having officially warned of its condition in 1883, a building for the use of insane which was totally unfit for the purpose, and at which has existed at all times the terrible danger from fire, which finally destroyed it, with appalling loss of life,

Ninth. In investigating the rumors of intoxication connected with the institution, the board found that Mr. Demeritt had, for a short period, been addicted to the use of chloral; and that, in consequence of the use of that drug, his efficiency was, perhaps, somewhat impaired—but this had no bearing upon the question of the fire; that, so far as Mr. Driscoll was concerned, it appears from his own testimony and that of other, that several times within a year he has been given to the excessive use of intoxicating liquor, and on one occasion, at least, was gone from the institution two and a half or three days, leaving nobody, except his wife, in charge of the asylum during that time. There was no evidence showing that he ever drank at the institution. The evidence further shows that two of the employees of the institution had been seen in a condition of partial intoxication.

The above were the conclusions reached from the investigation by the state board or health. That system for caring for the county insane was the same in all counties, differing only in some minor details. The system was the outgrowth of a forced necessity, the guiding principal of which was to house, clothe and feed the incurably insane at the smallest possible expense to the county. The result of this investigation had the effect on the next Legislature to enact a law abolishing all of these county insane asylums, and the State assumed entire support, control and management of the insane, and the count asylums were abolished.


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The insane have not been kept at the county farm since then, but another class the next thing to the insane, is housed there in large numbers—“drunks” who are sent there from the police courts in Dover, Rochester and Somersworth, to be cared for in the house of correction, which was built there several years ago; formerly they had been sent to jail; but the institution at the farm was established so that during the inmates term of service they could be compelled to do farm work and in that way make some return for the expense  for board and clothing. The superintendent and his assistants have given those who have been entrusted to their care very efficient instruction in farm work, and sent them out to the world sober men, and in much better health than when they began their term of “correction”; but the historian cannot fine record of any permanent reform in their drink habits; the house of correction has failed to “correct” permanently, the bad habits the men contracted which brought then into police court, when the judge could do nought else but send them to the county farm.

From The County Almshouse in The History of Strafford County New Hampshire and Representative Citizens by John Scales, c. 1914.



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