Rendered Unfit: “Defective” Children in the Erie County Poorhouse

  • Jennifer L. MullerEmail author
Part of the Bioarchaeology and Social Theory book series (BST)


The Buffalo Plains Erie County Poorhouse (1851–1926) attempted to provide indoor relief for the destitute among the expanding populous of Western New York State. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, charitable organizations began to question the benefits of this institutionalization on poor and destitute children. Among the concerns warranting reformation were the corruption of children’s bodies and souls, the lack of adequate education, and the fear of hereditary pauperism. The Children’s Law of 1875 dictated that children between the ages of three and 16 years would be removed from poorhouses across New York State. However, children labeled as unteachable idiots, defectives, or otherwise deformed and/or diseased were rendered “unfit” for societal or familial care and could remain inside of the poorhouse. The skeletal remains of 66 children were excavated from a portion of the Erie County Poorhouse cemetery. Analysis of the skeletons reveals that the majority of these children were infants. Eight children between the ages of two and 16 were present among the cemetery remains. The passage of the Children’s Law, coupled with the already common practice of separating healthy infants from their parents and removing them from the poorhouse, complicates bioarchaeological analysis. This chapter focuses on the utility of archival documents in contextualizing historical views on childhood and disability in order to facilitate future interpretations of the mortuary context, demographics, and pathologies of children from the Erie County Poorhouse. Discussion includes Michel Foucault’s concept of biopower , which hypothesized that power manages the right to life and survival of particular bodies within its purview.


Disability history Impairment Bioarchaeology Poorhouse Disabled children Biopower Children’s law 



I wish to extend my gratitude to Joyce Sirianni and Doug Perrelli for the invitation to participate in the Erie County Poorhouse Project. I also thank Jennifer Liber Raines for sharing historical information regarding the Erie County Poorhouse children. In addition to the 2015 AAPA symposium, various aspects of this chapter were also previously presented at the 2015 American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting at the symposium Strange bodies, familiar divides: embodiments of otherness and the 2014 Society for American Archaeology symposium The Embodied Politics of Inequality and Pain: Case Studies from Bioarchaeology. I am especially indebted to Russell Shuttleworth for his suggestion regarding the application of Foucault’s biopower to this research, and Rosemary Joyce for her comments on an earlier presentation of this work. I thank Jennifer Byrnes and the two anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyIthaca CollegeIthacaUSA

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