Charleston Poorhouse and Hospital

1770–1856

Envisioned as an advance in the humane treatment of the sick and uplift of the deserving poor, the Charleston Poorhouse and Hospital was intended to serve as an infirmary for the physically and mentally ill and to provide shelter, food, and reform for the needy.

In 1768 the Commons House of Assembly authorized the construction of a “Poor House and Hospital” in Charleston to care for the city’s growing population of paupers. Situated on a four-acre lot on Mazyck Street near the Ashley River, the three-story brick structure began admitting the sick and destitute around 1770. The new facility replaced an older poorhouse built in the 1730s, which became the city workhouse. Following the incorporation of Charleston in 1783, the new Poorhouse and Hospital was placed under the control of the city’s commissioners of the poor.

Envisioned as an advance in the humane treatment of the sick and uplift of the deserving poor, the Charleston Poorhouse and Hospital was intended to serve as an infirmary for the physically and mentally ill and to provide shelter, food, and reform for the needy. At times the poorhouse also operated as a lockup for sailors and vagrants from Charleston’s streets and docks, blurring the already vague distinctions between the institution’s multifaceted role as hospital, workhouse, almshouse, and jail. Despite its well-intentioned mission, by the middle of the antebellum period the Charleston Poorhouse and Hospital had devolved into a wretched dumping ground and haven of last resort for the city’s victims of poverty, alcoholism, and disease. “Unearthly whoopings and hallooings” emanated at all hours from cells housing “lunatics,” while remaining wards, cells, and sickbeds contained a transient population of drunks, vagrants, widows, orphans, and diseased in various stages of recovery or demise. Between 1830 and 1848 some 7,320 men, women, and children (almost all white) resorted to the care of the Poorhouse and Hospital. In 1856, dismayed by the dreadful reputation of the Poorhouse and Hospital, city commissioners moved the poorhouse to an abandoned factory on Columbus Street, renaming it the Alms House. Medical care for the sick and insane poor was contracted to the trustees of the newly built Roper Hospital, whose physicians were granted use of the poorhouse’s hospital wards. The remainder of the building was renovated to serve as a house of correction.

Bellows, Barbara L. Benevolence among Slaveholders: Assisting the Poor in Charleston, 1670–1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.

Klebaner, Benjamin Joseph. “Public Poor Relief in Charleston, 1800–1860.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 55 (October 1954): 210–20.

McCandless, Peter. Moonlight, Magnolias, and Madness: Insanity in South Carolina from the Colonial Period to the Progressive Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Charleston Poorhouse and Hospital
  • Coverage 1770–1856
  • Author
  • Keywords humane treatment, Alms House, dreadful reputation, last resort
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date December 10, 2022
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 20, 2022
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