Almshouse ledgers collection

Collection REC0008 - RG 050. Human Resources Administration


The records of the Almshouse Ledger Collection represent the activities of the institutions under the purview of various city departments on Blackwell’s Island. Records in this collection date from 1758 to 1952, with the bulk of the records falling between 1832 and 1925. This collection represents a comprehensive, yet incomplete collection of materials produced by each department overseeing the Almshouses and their related entities. These records document the social service, cultural, medical and corrections history of New York City.


83 cubic feet (418 volumes)



Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Patrons are required to use digital or microfilm copies for those volumes for which they are available. Advance notice is required for using original material. Please contact us to arrange access.

Series VI and VII of the collection contain subseries that are restricted. See individual series access notes for volume restrictions.

Physical Location

Materials are stored onsite at 31 Chambers St., Shelves 19495-19794.

Alternate Forms Available

Portions of this collection have been digitized and/or microfilmed. Digitized volumes are available to view through our online gallery. Microfilm is available on-site or via interlibrary loan.

Dimensions of Volumes

The volumes range in size from approximately 14”x9”x1" (height by depth by thickness) to 20”x20”x1” or 16”x17”x2” or 15”x11”x3”. Many are about 14”x11”x2”.

Processing Information

This collection was processed in 1963 by unknown persons. In 2016, project archivist Nathalie Belkin arranged and described the materials and encoded the finding aid in EAD.
Records in this collection range in years from 1758 to 1952, with the bulk of material dating from 1832 onwards, when the City established The Almshouse Department. Prior to 1832, the Almshouse fell under the purview of the Overseers of the Poor, House of Correction, Workhouse and Poorhouse, followed by the Commissioners of the Almshouse and Bridewell. The ledgers contain information pertaining to several inter-related institutions, known at various times as the Almshouse, Poorhouse, Penitentiary, Workhouse, Incurable Hospital, the City Home and the City Hospital. The materials alternate between specific institutions, a department or neither.

The records in this collection include account books, census records, letter books of outgoing correspondence from the Wardens, workhouse and hospital registers, hospital supplies and inventories as well as personal property records pertaining to inmates at the various institutions. The strength of the collection lies with its admissions, census, discharge, deaths and illnesses ledgers. A number of records pertain to children in the Almshouse and other institutions on Blackwell’s Island, particularly nursing infants. The hospitals and their various wings are also well represented in the volumes.

The ledger-style admissions, discharges and deaths and census books record the names of people who were confined (voluntarily or otherwise) in the almshouses, asylums, hospitals, workhouse or penitentiary that made up the numerous facilities on Blackwell’s Island. Many volumes contain detailed information regarding age, gender, disease, date of admission, discharge and/or death. While overwhelmingly male dominated, women, and children to a lesser extent, are well-represented in these books during the years 1822-1860. With few opportunities for employment outside the home, a widow or unmarried woman without family support was often forced to turn to the city for help. Many women brought their children with them, or had their babies in the institution. Women who were unable to nurse their own children were assigned a wet nurse who was paid by the department overseeing the institution. Many mother-child pairs are noted in the children’s registers. Religion, nativity and color of an inmate became a more commonplace piece of information recorded in many volumes from the 1820s going forward.

The collection also contains nine Bond ledgers. During the 19th century, under various New York City Charters, ship captains or vessel owners of ships arriving in New York had to put up a bond acknowledging, as best they could, that no passenger they were transporting would become a charge of the City and agree to pay all expenses and charges for those passengers for two years. However, many of the passengers did end up on Blackwell’s Island in one of its facilities. Consequently, these Bond ledgers contain valuable information about the adult and child inmates of the Almshouses and their related entities, including name, age, nativity, child parentage (if known), when they arrived in New York and their port of origin.

Hospital transfer ledgers denote types of illnesses patients suffered from or succumbed to with details on the patients themselves. In some cases, there are notes about doctor visits with the patient. The hospital ledgers allow for deeper understanding of why a patient was admitted and what types of illnesses were most prevalent. Many of the hospital ledgers include a country of origin for the patient. The collection also includes a large number of Stock Books and Requisition, Distribution and Inventory volumes. These shed light on the types of food, beverages and supplies needed to run such overcrowded and busy facilities, as well as the needs of the staff of the institutions.

The collection is in volume form with each volume numbered. The numbers are not chronological. Volumes that were received by the New York City Municipal Archives with numbers already attached to them were retained. For those volumes without a number, one was assigned and these numbers all start with a zero (0).

The volumes range in size from approximately 14”x9”x1" (height by depth by thickness) to 20”x20”x1” or 16”x17”x2” or 15”x11”x3”. Many are about 14”x11”x2”. 122 volumes have been digitized and there are 47 rolls of microfilm. The entire collection contains 418 volumes and covers 194 years of New York City History.
New York City’s Almshouse history dates back to the colonial era when poverty and regular outbreaks of measles and smallpox overtook its streets. Greater care and responsibility of the city’s poor and sick, along with their dependents, was needed. In 1736, the city took over as official caregivers to these populations and absorbed the workhouses of New York into its activities. Prior to this time, the church had taken care of New York City’s poor and destitute. The first Almshouse was opened on the Commons of the City in 1736 and fell under the care and control of the Overseers of the Poor, House of Correction, Workhouse and Poorhouse, headed by two men appointed by the Office of the Mayor. Broadly referred to as Almshouses, these establishments included workhouses, soldiers’ barracks, hospitals, penitentiaries and asylums. A second authorized Almshouse was built in 1795. This second institution, Bridewell, was built next to the first as a prison on which today is the site of City Hall Park, to be used as a jail for convicted criminals and debtors. These institutions, known collectively as Almshouse and Bridewell housed and fed the poor, destitute, criminal, elderly, infirm, sick and mentally ill men, women and children of the City.

The Almshouse and Bridewell Commissioners were appointed to supervise the two houses by New York City Mayor, James Duane in 1784. As the city grew and its affairs became greater and more complex, the commissioners provided general relief to the poor living on the streets and in its slums. The first superintendent for the two facilities was John Sebring. It was his duty to put people to work if they were able. He was also to take in and oversee disorderly people, orphans, runaway servants, the homeless, sick and anyone else found to be in need. If those that could work refused to do so, they were subject to severe punishment. In 1832, five commissioners were appointed to the Common Council of New York. It was these men who established The Almshouse Department and had the power to appoint all the officers, agents and employees of the Almshouse. This period was another time of great change for New York City. It was experiencing rapid population expansion due to large scale immigration from Ireland and other parts of Europe. Many arrived destitute and immediately fell under the care and control of The Almshouse Department. To that end, in 1845, The Almshouse Department was reorganized. Gone were the five commissioners and only one took the lead as its head. The Almshouse Department now included jurisdiction over the Almshouse, a nursery, hospitals, the homeless, a penitentiary, and the New York City Lunatic Asylum, most of which were housed on Blackwell’s Island. Its jurisdiction also covered the city jails and prisons. A Board of Governors was appointed in 1849 to head The Almshouse Department. It was through this board that another facility was established on Blackwell’s Island, a workhouse, and many of New York’s destitute were moved there.

By 1860, The Almshouse Department was abolished and the Department of Public Charities and Correction took its place. This department had four commissioners who reported to the Board of Supervisors of New York County and to the State Legislature. Financial support for the department came in large part from the County. The commissioners oversaw approximately 7000 inmates who resided in the various cramped institutions. However, more change was to come. In 1895, with severe overcrowding, inadequate funding, terrible living conditions and an ever-rising death rate reported from Blackwell’s Island, the Department of Public Charities and Correction was divided into two separate bodies: the Department of Public Charities and the Department of Correction. Blackwell’s Island Almshouse, workhouse and the island’s hospitals fell under the jurisdiction of the Department of Public Charities. Nevertheless, the penitentiary was still active on the island until 1936, but run by the Department of Correction. At this time, criminal inmates from the New York City Lunatic Asylum were moved to Ward’s Island, which in turn transferred its patients to the asylum. The asylum (and its hospital wing) was renamed Metropolitan Hospital.

The Department of Public Charities became the Department of Public Welfare in 1920. In 1935, during that department’s tenure, convicted criminals from the Almshouse and its related institutions were moved to the newly opened Riker’s Island prison facility. In 1938, under a new charter for New York City, the name of the department which oversaw the Almshouse changed yet again. Now named the Department of Welfare, it was under this department that the Almshouse entities - approximately 6 hospitals, two almshouses, a workhouse and a poorhouse - remained until 1967. The Almshouses and hospitals remained working institutions on Blackwell’s Island through the twentieth century. Various city entities took over the governance of the Almshouses, from which three arms of government still linked to the now defunct Almshouses remain: Human Resources Administration, Department of Homeless Services and Administration of Children’s Services.

Through the years of the Almshouse and its related entities, Blackwell’s Island name also changed. It became Welfare Island in 1921, a name chosen to reflect the large number of institutions it held. Institutions included the Almshouse, Charity Hospital, Metropolitan Hospital, City Home, the City Hospital, Welfare Hospital, Central and Neurological Hospital, The Children’s Clearing Bureau and the Incurable Hospital. In 1968 residential development began on the island, thus ending the era of the Almshouse. To reflect the changing times, in 1973 Welfare Island was given its present name, Roosevelt Island. One hospital from the Almshouse era continues to function on the island, NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation/Coler, formed by the merging of Bird S. Coler Hospital and Goldwater Memorial Hospitals (formerly Welfare Hospital). Other remnants from the Almshouse era remain on the island and are now landmarked, including the Strecker Memorial Laboratory (1892, part of City Hospital), the Smallpox Hospital (1850) and the Blackwell’s Island Lighthouse (1872). The central octagon of the old asylum is now part of a residential building.

Almshouse Administrative Oversight Timeline

Overseers of the Poor, House of Correction, Workhouse and Poorhouse
Commissioners of the Almshouse and Bridewell
The Almshouse Department
Department of Public Charities and Correction
Department of Public Charities
Department of Public Welfare
Department of Welfare


  1. Baugher, Sherene. "Visible Charity: The Archaeology, Material Culture, and Landscape Design of New York City's Municipal Almshouse Complex." International Journal of Historical Archaeology 5, no. 5 (June 2001): 175-202.
  2. Carlisle, Robert J. An Account of Bellevue Hospital, with a Catalogue of the Medical and Surgical Staff from 1736 to 1894. New York: Society of the Alumni of Bellevue Hospital, 1893.
  3. Gilfoyle, Timothy J. A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
  4. New York City Department of Health. "The New York City Department of Health and Hygiene History." centennial.pdf.
  5. Phelps Stokes, I. N. "The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909." Columbia University Libraries Electronic Book. 2006. Accessed February 17, 2016.
  6. Rankin, Rebecca B. "Department of Public Welfare in the City of New York." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 105, no. 1 (January 1923): 151-55.
  7. Smith, Thelma E. Guide to the Municipal Government of the City of New York. 10th ed. New York: Meilen Press, 1973.
The Almshouse Ledger Collection is arranged chronologically into seven series based upon each department overseeing the Almshouse and its related entities.
Within these series, an archivist arranged the materials into subseries by subject and then chronologically within these groupings. An earlier inventory suggests that the collection was arranged on an institutional basis. However, with many volumes misidentified, researchers should assume that very little of the material retains its integrity to any earlier arrangement. Volume numbers within the collection have not been changed by the archivist and they retain their original assigned number. Where noted that a volume overlaps with a prior series, the volume will reside within the series it originates. If a volume was not numbered a new one was assigned in keeping with the collection numbers.
Guide to the Almshouse ledgers collection
Nathalie Belkin
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Processing, preservation and cataloging of this collection was made possible by a generous grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) in 2015.