WE NEED YOUR HELP — Support your hometown newspaper by making a donation.
A Look Back

Sarah Ann Barnum: Champion of the Poor?


"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

¬—United States Constitution, Thirteenth Amendment (1865)

Before the United States was an independent nation, plantation owners depended on African slave labor. Others desiring to come to America often bound themselves into indentured servitude. In this scheme, people with limited means signed a contract through which they agreed to work for a period of years (often up to seven) before obtaining their freedom and a promise of some amount of money, clothing, livestock, and/or goods. The Thirteenth Amendment made both slavery and indentured servitude illegal in the United States, but millions of former slaves and their descendants were kept in slave-like conditions as sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Though widespread in the south, northern states were not immune to the tragedies of these arrangements. One need look no further than East Meadow.

Last week's article explored the role that Mrs. Sarah Ann Barnum played in the development of the East Meadow economy and her involvement in Hempstead Town affairs, specifically philanthropic efforts dealing with the county's destitute population. The political "boss" had the wherewithal to assist others. In 1874, she used her own money to purchase Hog (Barnum) Island, turn it over to the county for the same price, and establish a farm on which poor residents could work in exchange for food and lodging. She served on the Committee on Adult Able Bodied Paupers and the Local Visiting Committee, responsible for oversight of local charities.

The superintendents of jails and workhouses in Kings and Queens Counties seemed to answer to nobody in particular; their jobs and the conditions of the facilities were at the whim of political machines. This was, after all, the Gilded Age — the era of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall in nearby New York City. Keepers at jails and poor-houses were paid based on the number of inmates; corrupt politicians made fortunes transferring the unfortunate to facilities run by their friends. In 1876, Mrs. Barnum, through her committee work, helped uncover abuses at Barnum Island and in other county institutions, including improper financial management and sexual impropriety by male residents and the house's keeper, Charles Wright. Conditions improved, but an 1891 exposé in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle described the situation in Queens County poorhouses as "scandalous and wasteful of public money."

Though Barnum was a champion for the poor, she was accused of using her political influence — and Barnum Island — for personal profit. She created "palatial quarters" there but was known to use laborers on her 2,500-acre East Meadow farm each summer. In 1888, a ten-year-old orphaned boy named Andrew Smith came to live with Joseph Smith of East Meadow. In this arrangement, he was cared for and schooled locally rather than live at Barnum Island. The county paid Mr. Smith $6 per month for providing room and board. Sarah Ann Barnum, familiar with the arrangement, thought the boy useful for her own plantation. When he was eleven years old, Barnum and her attorney created an agreement with county officials that indentured Andrew to her as a worker until his 21st birthday. At that time, young Smith was to be given $50 in cash, two suits, and freedom. Meanwhile, he would be part of the Barnum family. According to newspaper accounts from 1889, the boy was given chores usually done by a grown man. He did not enjoy meals with the family and was not sent to school or church, as promised. Andrew ran away to Joseph Smith's house; the poor-house's superintendent, Mr. Ryder, found him there and a physical struggle ensued. The boy was returned to Barnum for a short time but he ran away again in February 1889, this time to his grandfather, Ira Smith, in nearby Greenwich Point (now Roosevelt). Andrew and his grandfather constantly attempted to evade the overseer of the Barnum farm, one Mr. Cornwell, and the matter made its way into the court system. Mrs. Barnum realized that she could not forcibly keep the boy and asked the judge to decide on a writ of habeas corpus, which forced Ira Smith to appear with Andrew. According to newspaper accounts, Judge Garretson set the boy free. The indenture clearly violated the United States Constitution. The little boy went to live with his grandfather and Mrs. Barnum continued her farming and philanthropic work.

Ironically, in 1899, when the newly formed Nassau County desired to close the poorhouse at Barnum Island, its residents refused to leave. Food and lodging conditions were so good that the "hoboes" (as they were then called) hired a lawyer to fight their eviction. Others came in droves to the farm demanding room and board. The county supervisors had to stand guard on the road to Barnum Island and turn people away by force. Mrs. Barnum's positive legacy was so strong that the 1889 case has become merely a footnote in local history.

© Scott Eckers

Dr. Scott Eckers is the author of East Meadow in Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series. He is Vice President of the East Meadow Board of Education as well as Social Studies Chair for the East Williston School District. Scott is also an entertainer and recording artist.