Life of Hannah tells story of the poor

Curator researches ‘girl without a face’ to illustrate Ozaukee County’s poorhouse system in Port Exploreum’s ‘Not a World Apart: How We Lived’ exhibit

STANDING NEXT TO a replica of a cabin built to house Hannah Smith, a young woman who spent her entire life in the Ozaukee County poorhouse system after being born profoundly disabled, were (from left) Sarah Smith, curator of the Port Exploreum’s latest exhibit, Exploreum Event Coordinator Amy Clark and Port Historical Society Executive Director Wayne Chrusciel. The Exploreum’s latest exhibit, “Not a World Apart: How We Lived,” tells the story of eight people who spent part of their lives in the county’s poorhouse system during the 1800s. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

It was the story of Hannah that first caught the attention of Sarah Smith.

“Hannah lit a fire under all of us,” said Smith, curator of “Not a World Apart: How We Lived,” the new exhibit at the Port Exploreum. “She was described as a girl without a face. We had to find out more about her.”

To do that, Smith said, she became determined to learn more about Ozaukee County’s poorhouse system, which provided housing for indigent people from 1858 to 1890. 

That’s because Hannah Smith, who was born in 1858 in Saukville, was one of the many county residents who spent at least a portion of their lives in the system. On average, 12 people lived in the poorhouse each year, and many spent five to 10 years there before they died or were able to accumulate enough money to leave.

Hannah, who was born without eyes, a nose or upper jaw, spent her entire life in Ozaukee County’s poorhouse system. 

She was surrendered by her parents almost immediately after her birth, Smith said, and because she was an infant, the county initially contracted with a family for her care. However, by 1865 Hannah was placed in the county poorhouse.

Because Ozaukee County didn’t have a poorhouse per se, instead taking bids for an annual contract with individuals to provide housing for its poor, Hannah, like others in the system, moved frequently, Smith said.

“This is someone who was blind and is constantly moving,” Smith said. “Imagine what that had to be like for her.”

Hannah spent much of her life with the Dengel family in Saukville, who took good care of the girl, Smith said, noting they built her a cabin of her own, complete with a bed and stove to keep her warm.

“We know they tried to make her comfortable. I think they were trying to keep her safe,” Smith said, noting the poorhouses provided homes for not just the indigent but also the mentally ill and physically handicapped — even the elderly who didn’t have other family to care for them.

In 1881, there was no contract for poorhouse services, Smith said, and Hannah died a short while later, at age 24.

Hannah’s story, and those of seven other county residents, are told in the exhibit. It’s not a typical exhibit for the Exploreum, which many people think of as a maritime museum, acknowledged Wayne Chrusciel, executive director of the Port Washington Historical Society, which operates the facility.

“It is a departure from what we’ve done in the past,” he said. “But we’re telling the stories of eight people that really give you a glimpse into what the average person went through in the late 1800s.”

Smith said the eight people whose lives are chronicled reveal a side of Ozaukee County that isn’t widely known, adding it’s part of the Exploreum’s mission to publicize those tales.

“We’re the Port Washington Historical Society, not the Port Washington Maritime Society. We want to do things that are meaningful and relevant,” she said. 

“These people were as much a part of the community as anyone else, they just didn’t leave a footprint. I’m not going to ignore them. We’re telling history here, a history that hasn’t been told before.”

Smith became intrigued by the county’s poorhouse system after she discovered a map of Union Cemetery that showed a potter’s field, where indigent people were buried. So far, she said, she and her interns, led by Beth Merrick Scheel, have identified more than 250 people buried there.

But the stories of the people in the exhibit — people who were representative of average people in the poorhouse — don’t just tell about how people lived in poverty, Smith said.

“It wasn’t always chronic financial instability that led people to the poorhouse,” she said. 

For example, she said, the exhibit tells the story of Charlie Sheer, who worked as a commercial fisherman for Smith Bros. but  slipped and fell from the deck of the fishing tug Hope and died, leaving his wife Lizzie and their children with no income.

“Lizzie had bills to pay. It was probably a decision between do I bury him or do I humble myself,” Smith said.

Then there was Dennis McCarthy, a farmer who moved from family member to family member until mental illness forced him into the poorhouse, and Bridget Flynn, who liked to be called Betty and lived to be more than 100. Her husband and daughter preceded her in death, and she had little savings.

“She had no family, and there were no care facilities,” Smith said. “That (the poorhouse) is where she had to go.”

Hugh Tomlin was one of five children, whose mother died and father disappeared. The children were parsed out to various relatives, and Hugh ended up with his grandfather who later died. He was indentured to a tavernkeeper, adopted by a Sheboygan County family and later ran away. Hugh worked as a driver for the Milwaukee Road railroad until he got sick in the middle of winter and died at 14.

Olive Fox was a dressmaker who Smith said was unfairly sent to an insane asylum after her father petitioned the courts.

Fox was confined for years, then finally wrote to Judge Leopold Eghart to petition for her release. A reproduction of the letter is part of the exhibit.

“I claim I am not insane, and also claim my right to full liberty of citizenship as a self-supporting and responsible person,” it states. “I am sewing for Manitowoc County Insane Asylum and paying my expenses in full and more.”

Fox was released from the asylum and re-entered society, taking up her profession once again.

“We love Olive,” Smith said. “We’re big fans.”

Like other Exploreum exhibits, this one is filled with information and display cases of artifacts that define the various lives — fishing items for Sheer and sewing paraphernalia for Fox, for example — but it’s also being told orally. Each area of the exhibit contains a Q code that viewers can scan with their smartphone to bring up a recording that talks about the person’s life. People who don’t have smartphones may borrow a device at the desk to hear the tales.

“We thought it was the most effective way to tell the stories,” Smith said. “It makes it real for people.”


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