by: Maureen Wlodarczyk
In my last column, I wrote about Simon “King” Kelly, a fixture in Weehawken politics in the second half of the 1800s, and a person known for his charity, some of that evidenced by his visits to the Snake Hill Almshouse dressed as Santa Claus and bearing gifts for the young poorhouse inmates. That discovery was more than enough to rekindle my interest in the Snake Hill “community,” a societal island of lost and mostly forgotten souls comprised of the mentally ill, desperately poor, tuberculosis and smallpox patients and incarcerated criminals, and I got to wondering about the decades of Christmases spent there by thousands of Hudson County citizens.
In the 1870s, the Snake Hill complex in Secaucus included the Almshouse, Penitentiary and “Lunatic Asylum.” Newspapers from those years reported politicians arranging for Christmas turkey and chicken dinners at Snake Hill accompanied by live music and even some dancing. The children of the Almshouse were treated to candy, fruit and cake and, according to the press, the convict population was permitted recreational time in the prison corridors, prompting some to break into song.
By 1890, a Quarantine Hospital was also in operation at Snake Hill. Christmas activities included visits by Catholic priests and Protestant ministers who led religious services and the singing of carols. Dr. George W. King, the medical superintendent at the Asylum oversaw entertainment for the patients in that institution. One of the wardens, a former member of a Civil War Zouave unit, led a military drilling presentation for the entertainment of the residents. The Freeholders of Hudson County provided toys and candy for the children of the Almshouse and the people of Hudson County were asked to donate toys, nuts, fruit or children’s books to assist in the effort to bring some Christmas joy to those unfortunate youngsters.
In 1899, as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, it was reported that poultry dinners would be served to the Penitentiary inmates “for the first time in years.” Among those inmates were convicted murderers James K. Brown and Edward Clifford, facing execution and perhaps contemplating what could be their last Christmas meal. Before and after eating, prisoners performed a vaudeville show for their own entertainment. At the Almshouse, a charitable committee provided dolls for the little girls and toys for the boys and a priest, Reverend O’Connor, arrived with fruit, candy, bread and a ham that was carved and served on sandwiches.
It was not until 1908 that the Almshouse at Snake Hill had its first Christmas tree, provided by the newly-appointed Almshouse Warden James McKee at his own expense when the County did not appropriate funds for that purpose. The Warden also purchased miniature lights and ornaments to decorate the very large tree. The tree was brought into the recreation room and was decorated by McKee, his wife and several other staff members, all without the knowledge or notice of the inmates of the Almshouse, creating the desired happy surprise when they came into the room to discover it. The following Christmas, in 1909, Warden McKee outdid himself with a tree measuring 14 feet tall and reportedly decorated with 100 “miniature electric bulbs in the shapes of flowers and fruits.” The Warden also arranged for a concert including Almshouse inmates who displayed their vocal talents and musical instrument skills and a Christmas dinner of roast chicken and pumpkin pie made with pumpkins grown at the farm at Snake Hill.
For these patients and inmates, a single day of charitable kindness and a special meal couldn’t erase the other 364 days of distress, deprivation, physical and mental suffering or the knowledge that it was unlikely they would ever be able to leave Snake Hill and resume their independent lives. Still, it provided some brief respite and a sense that the world had not completely forgotten them.
Maureen Wlodarczyk is a fourth-generation-born Jersey City girl and the author of three books about life in Jersey City in the 1800s and early 1900s: Past-Forward: A Three-Decade and Three-Thousand-Mile Journey Home, Young & Wicked: The Death of a Wayward Girl and Canary in a Cage: The Smith-Bennett Murder Case. For info: www.past-forward.com.