The Georgetown Poor and Work House

Between 1832 and 1875 one of the earliest institutions of the neighborhood that is now Glover Park stood to the east of what is now Guy Mason Recreation Center.
Although the funds to build a Poor House originated in an entirely charitable bequest, Georgetown’s city fathers saw no impediment to also calling it a Work House, thereby combining charity for the poor with the chastisement of petty criminals.




The Barnes Bequest


Among the monuments lost when the Presbyterian burial ground of Georgetown was converted into a park was one inscribed:






February 11, 1826

in the 96th year

of his age.

 A native of England but left it sixty years before his death: a man of great integrity and benevolence. He bequeathed his property to support the poor widows and orphans, and to aid in establishing and supporting a poorhouse.


“Died Saturday last in Georgetown, John Barnes, Collector of that port, aged about 98 years. He was appointed to that office more than 20 years ago by Mr. Jefferson. Born in England, but resided in US about 70 years, before removing to Georgetown resided in Philadelphia.” (National Intelligencer, February 16, 1826)


The Barnes estate was valued at $13,856, and his executors were given precise instructions for the investment of this sum. Barnes provided for the immediate manumission of his slave Abigail, and for the manumission of eighteen-year-old Eleanor or Nelly when she became 25, and provided each with a modest income––$60 and $40 per annum––for life. At the end of his will Barnes left some mementos for his old friend Thomas Jefferson.

Barnes’ only natural heirs were two teenage great grand daughters in New York. A few years earlier, when their father died, Barnes had invited the girls to live with him in Georgetown; reluctant, perhaps, to forsake the genteel milieu of Harlem, they declined. Since Barnes had also been reliably informed that the girls were about to inherit from another relative a fortune twice as large as his own, Barnes felt free to leave them out of his will, “whereby I am enabled to gratify my desire of devoting the whole of my Estate to charitable purposes”.

After stipulating that two hundred dollars “in wood, meal, and Cloathing” be distributed annually by his executors “amongst the poor and necessitous Widows and Orphans within the Corporation of George Town”, Barnes directed that the bulk of his estate be used to establish a charitable trust for the benefit of the poor of Georgetown; specifically, for the founding of a “Poor House, Hospital or Bettering House”––“it matters not by what name denominated”––which, “if proposed through this honorable and respectable corporation of George Town, I doubt not that it would be ultimately successful, and thereby a good foundation would be laid toward perfecting a useful and meritorious work, worthy of the enlightened, benevolent and opulent inhabitants of the District and its vicinity”.

The great grand daughters in New York contested the charitable provisions of the will, and Georgetown went to court to save what could be saved. Although the court declared the intention of the deceased, to help the needy, “null and void by uncertainty,” i.e. too vague to stand against the clear rights of the heirs, a compromise was reached, and the heirs paid the mayor of Georgetown $3000 in cash and $4000 in stock.

The fund for the poor was no longer as munificent as anticipated, but Georgetown went ahead with the project. Additional funds were appropriated, and eight acres of land were purchased at the northern end of the city.

(Cordelia Jackson, John Barnes, A Forgotten Philanthropist of Georgetown, Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol.7, pp.39-48; Last Will and Testament of John Barnes, Box 8, D.C. Archives; Richard Plummer Jackson, The Chronicles of Georgetown, D.C., from 1751-1878, p.112; Elisha W. Williams to Georgetown Corporation, $1700, Lots 259 and 260, Beatty and Hawkins Addition to Georgetown, and part of Pretty Prospect. (DC Liber WB31 (1830) f.292/195; Georgetown Ordinances, July 26, August 20, 1828)


Laws of the United States, passed in 22nd Congress, An act to extend the limits of Georgetown, in the District of Columbia, to include the part of a tract called Pretty Prospect, recently purchased by the Corporation of Georgetown, a site for their Poor House, beginning at a stone marked number 4, extending 476 poles on the first line of tract called Rock of Dunbarton. (National Intelligencer, August 1, 1832)


In 1831, five years after the death of John Barnes, the cornerstone of the Poorhouse of Georgetown was ceremonially set in place, just east of today’s Guy Mason Recreation Center (3600 Calvert Street, NW). The site on the heights was considered healthful, much preferable to the slums of Georgetown, and the grounds possessed a spring of water admired for its purity – “always colder and better than Potomac water”(Georgetown Courier, July 13, 1872).

The Poorhouse itself – during some periods it was also called the Alms House, or the Asylum – was a narrow, two-story stone building with five or six rooms on each floor. At either end was a wing, one of which housed the Keeper’s family. A stable held one or two draft animals, and a cow. Produce was grown on the premises to supply an average of thirty inmates, and the surplus was sold in the Georgetown market to help defray operating costs. It is reported that inmates were fed fresh beef daily, a benefit, perhaps, of having all of Georgetown’s slaughterhouses nearby. On Sundays there was boiled bacon and vegetables, and Fridays there was salt-fish, in deference to Catholics. Georgetown’s Physician to the Poor, who recommended admission to the poorhouse when he found extreme cases of destitution, made periodic visits.


After 1837 swine, geese, and goats wandering in the streets were directed by ordinance to be taken to the Poor House. In 1855, police were offered a bounty of $1.50 to catch or kill swine going at large and take them to the Poor House, and fined $5 if they saw a swine going at large and failed to kill or remove same.

(Georgetown Ordinances; Mathilde D. Williams, “The Life Story of an Old Market,” District of Columbia Appropriations for 1973: Hearings Before a Subcommittee on Appropriations,House of Representatives, Ninety-Second Congress, 1972, pp.659-663)




(“Roadside Sketches”, Evening Star, August 15, 1891)



The Workhouse

In the view of the city fathers of Georgetown the Barnes bequest had presented an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, and within a year of John Barnes’ death a board of trustees for the “Almhouse and Workhouse” had been appointed. The building that would be built to housed the most destitute citizens of the city would also be a place to commit “vagrant, idle, and disorderly persons” to served limited sentences at manual labor, as was the practice in Washington City. (Georgetown Ordinances, December 30, 1826)


“The whole process of punishing the petty criminal offender and vagrant and protecting the unfortunate Poor of Town, may be connected within one general enclosure and under the same Superintendance.“ (John Goszler, Trustee of the Poor of Georgetown, to the Levy Court of Washington County, January 6, 1832, Barnard Papers, Peabody Room, Georgetown Branch Library; Green,70, 90)


The model for this amalgamation of charity and correction was by this time well-established throughout the eastern states. “From 1725 to 1750 houses of correction, workhouses, and almshouses sprang up in the larger towns. One of the first was the “Poor-House, Work-House, and House of Correction of New York City,” established in 1736.” (Carol L. M. Caton, Homeless in America, 1990, p.5)

And, if anyone in Georgetown wondered how such a combination might turn out, they might simply have visited the Almshouse of Washington City, which had been combining charity and punishment for years. In 1826 Ann Royall described the surly couple who were in charge there, the horrible smell that pervaded, and particularly the plight of the children there, lonely, ill, and unattended. (Anne Newport Royall, Sketches of History, Life, and Manners, in the United States, 1826)

Despite the economy achieved by putting poverty and misdemeanor under one roof, the Georgetown City Council was perennially unhappy about how much the Poor and Workhouse cost to run. They continued to hope that a contractor might find ways to cut costs that had not already occurred to them. (Georgetown Ordinances, December 1, 1832; February 20, 1841)

They also wondered if anything more profitable than tomatoes could be raised on the workhouse farm. Growing broom-corn for making brooms was considered, and in 1838 Georgetown sent a delegate to the National Silk Convention in Baltimore, to learn whether silkworms, cared for and unraveled by otherwise idle hands, could turn the poorhouse into a source of wealth. That nothing came of this initiative is can hardly be surprising: the poorhouse was for people who were unable to work, and the workhouse was for people who were unwilling. Moreover, many of the inmates were there because they had lost their sight, or their minds; at one time nearly half the inmates of the Georgetown poorhouse were blind or mentally ill. (Georgetown Ordinances, July 21-2, 1837, December 4, 1838; 1860 Census)

The first Georgetown census in which the poorhouse appears is that of 1840 (p.171). Under the name of J.M. Barnaclo, the Superintendant, 44 persons are counted: 32 white (including Barnaclo’s family), 12 black, 1 blind, 1 insane, 13 illiterate. Later censuses are more informative, and the variety is striking: a young farmer, an old sailor, an Irish laborer blinded in a gunpowder blast, a teenage black girl, a young white woman with two toddlers, an Irish woman with two sons, a French engineer, an Irish dentist, a middle-aged white cabinetmaker (insane), and a hundred-year-old black man (sane).

An 1845 apprenticeship binds a colored orphan, Aloisus Robert Rhoden, to Matthew McCloud, gentleman, to learn the business of a “good house servant”. His mother is confined in the poorhouse of Georgetown “from habitual intemperance”. (Apprenticeship no. 1927, Dorothy Provine, District of Columbia Indentures of Apprenticeship, 1801-1893, p.238)

September 20, 1851: A soldier who had served in the war in Florida, and gotten sick there, died at Georgetown Poorhouse; Henry Kengla is a witness. (Wesley E. Pippenger, District of Columbia Probate Records, Will Books 1 through 6, 1801-1852, and Estate Files, 1801-1852, p.537)

Phebe Plowman, colored, who was removed from the Poorhouse to the Government Asylum for the Insane, and now Restored, is allowed to return to the Georgetown Poorhouse. (Georgetown Ordinances, November 5, 1859)

“The poorhouse is permitted to sell the horse and the bull that they have, and is authorized to have two mules instead, provided the town can have use of them.” (Georgetown Ordinances, April 2, 1859)


Inmates of the Georgetown Poor and Work House in 1860. (United States census, 2nd ward of Georgetown, page 99)

Inmates of the Georgetown Poor and Work House in 1860. (United States census, 2nd ward of Georgetown, page 99)


Inmates of the Georgetown Poor and Work House in 1860. (United States census, 2nd ward of Georgetown, page 100)

Inmates of the Georgetown Poor and Work House in 1860. (United States census, 2nd ward of Georgetown, page 100)


Inmates of the Georgetown Poor and Work House in 1870. (United States census, Georgetown P.O., page 5/506)

Inmates of the Georgetown Poor and Work House in 1870. (United States census, Georgetown P.O., page 5/506)


Inmates of the Georgetown Poor and Work House in 1870. (United States census, Georgetown P.O., page 6, 506)

Inmates of the Georgetown Poor and Work House in 1870. (United States census, Georgetown P.O., page 6, 506)




Sent to the Farm

Any of the following charges might serve as a ticket to the workhouse: profanity, selling drinks by the glass without a license, carrying concealed weapons, indecent exposure, enticing prostitution, vagrancy, fast driving, injury to tree-boxes, disorderly assembly, being a notorious thief, or depositing the contents of a privy in the city without a permit. Those unable to pay the fine began their sentence the day they were tried, and their names appeared in the Georgetown Courier.

The “Police Matters” column of the Courier reflected the usual pastimes of sailors, canal-boatmen, stevedores, carters, as well as of those once called “the outdoor poor”. Public drunkenness was common, and brawls were frequent. A steady stream of prostitutes passed though the Georgetown court as well: “Annie Clarke, charged for disorderly conduct, was sent to the workhouse.” “Mollie Johnson and Lizzie Stewart, convicted of lewdness, fined, and in default of fine sent to the workhouse.” “Lizzie Stewart, prostitute, sent to the workhouse.” “Fanny Warren, for attempting to entice persons from the paths of virtue, was sent to the workhouse in default of the necessary substitute.” “Mary Holland, an incorrigible old offender, was arrested on the charge of vagrancy; Justice Buckey sent her to the “farm” for thirty days.” The editor of the Courier varied the monotony by finding new ways to say the same thing: “a couple of lodgers were provided for”, “a gaggle of stray geese”, “a femme du pave”.

“John Dunnington, a notorious character”, assumed the name and costume of Emma Davis, but being “deficient in the graceful gliding carriage of a young lady”, caught the eye of a Georgetown policeman, and was hauled in. In default of a five dollar fine for disorderly conduct, Dunnington was ordered to the workhouse “to be chained to the floor”. (Georgetown Courier, September 25, 1869)

In 1870, when a contractor was paid a dollar for each prisoner carried to the workhouse, the facetious estimate of the Courier was that he could make an easy eight dollars a day taking just one person back to the workhouse eight times. “A post rail fence will not hold either male or female prisoners. This house was built only for the paupers of the town, and is not secure enough to hold the reprobates.”  (Georgetown Courier, August 27, 1870)



Last Days of the Poor and Workhouse

In 1871 Georgetown was absorbed in the newly-created Territory of Columbia, but some time elapsed before anyone saw “Territorial” policies carried out at the old Georgetown Poorhouse, which became a branch of the Washington Asylum. In the summer of 1874 the Georgetown Courier reported that a chain gang of vagrants and vagabonds – “2 white and ten colored men” – from the workhouse had been set to work on the streets of Georgetown, pulling up grass. The editor of the  Courier was confident that people would now “think twice about seeking quarters in the workhouse to fatten for the season,” but wondered if “some now who truly hate work, will be forced to steal.” (Georgetown Courier, August 8,15,22, September 19, 26, 1874)

On another occasion the Courier wrote that it was wrong to humiliate the poor by throwing them together with criminals, and went on to propose that if Washington City were willing to take all the criminals of both cities, people on this side of Rock Creek could “devote the poorhouse here on the salubrious heights of Georgetown to its legitimate use for which the property was given, an almshouse; but let it be for the destitute of the whole District, where they can enjoy pure air and water, and some of the comforts of home, and be employed in some light work, without the pain and mortification of being associated with the criminal scum of the two District cities.” (Georgetown Courier, September 19, 1874)

Commissioner Lubey of the Washington Asylum, who was now in charge of both almshouses, also disapproved of the “mingling of all classes, young and old, hardened criminals and those on the threshold of vice, and others whose sole offense is poverty, if such can be called an offense.” But Commissioner Lubey did not take up the Georgetown Courier on its remarkable offer to take paupers in exchange for criminals. (Georgetown Courier, December 12, 1874)

In any case the Courier was now behind the times; there weren’t two District cities any more, and Lubey’s task was to eliminate duplication. In 1875 he closed the Georgetown poorhouse, and turned the dilapidated building over to the Industrial Home School, whose mission was to shelter and educate homeless children. Most of Georgetown’s paupers and vagrants were sent across town to the Washington Asylum, and the Georgetown Poor House began to be forgotten.


South facade of the Industrial Home School in 1898; the whitewashed central wing is the former Poor House of Georgetown. (Report of the Joint Select Committee to Investigate the Charities and Reformatory Institutions in the District of Columbia, 1898, p.122-125)




Notes and Sources


Richard Plummer Jackson, The Chronicles of Georgetown, D.C., from 1751-1878, Washington, 1878

Cordelia Jackson, “John Barnes, A Forgotten Philanthropist of Georgetown“, Journal of the Columbia Historical Society, vol.7

John Barnes, DC Wills, Box 8 (1826)

Barnes’s Heirs v. Barnes’s Executors and the Corporation of Georgetown, Court of Chancery, December 6, 1827. William Cranch, Reports of Cases Civil and Criminal in the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, from 1801 to 1841, Vol.3, p.269.

Lot 276 of Beatty and Hawkins Addition to Georgetown was considered for the poorhouse, but was bought instead by Father Dubuisson, President of Georgetown College, and is now part of Holy Rood Cemetery. (Georgetown Ordinances, October 25, 1827)


1840 Census, Georgetown, District of Columbia, Roll 35, p.171

1850 Census,  Georgetown, District of Columbia,  Roll M432-57, p.236B

1860 Census, Georgetown, Ward 2, District of Columbia, Roll M653-101, p.99

1870 Census, Georgetown, District of Columbia, Roll M593-127, p.506A



Carlton Fletcher

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