Jessie Kirkland’s Story: Compassion for the Poor

One of the “finds” in our archive was a three-page single spaced letter, written by Ina Currie (secretary at The Advent) and dated February 22, 1929. In response to an inquiry from a former parishioner, Ina tells the story of Jessie Kirkland during her declining years.

Jessie was a mean old lady. She was kicked out of several establishments due to her sharp tongue and refusal to follow rules. She was poor, and she was proud.

For several years before her death in 1931, Rev. Dunlop and others tried to find housing and appropriate care for Jessie. This letter gives us a glimpse into both the options available for the poor and elderly in the 1920’s. But it also gives us a rare picture of The Advent’s compassionate care of a difficult neighbor.

All quotes are from the letter. The numbers indicate successive places Jessie lived during her last years.

 

1. Home for the Elderly: Two Sisters, Then One
For over 20 years, Jessie resided at the Widows Home (north-east corner of McMillan and Ashland). Her sister Jane also lived there until her death in 1917. The Widows Home and Asylum for Aged and Indigent Females had been founded in 1850. Until the 1950’s institutions such as this were the common way to provide food and shelter for poor, elderly people without family.

Jessie and Jane were able to enter the Home because of the generosity of unknown benefactors connected to The Advent, who gave $600 for the entrance fees for both women and another $400 invested for them to have some pin money.

 “I have learned since that she and her sister were put in the Home by a wealthy old couple who did not know them at all, through Judge Conner & his wife … [T]his old couple gave one thousand dollars (the Kirkland sisters had absolutely nothing except what the sister earned by sewing) …”

While at the Home, Jessie and Jane had visitors from The Advent, including regular pastoral calls from Rev. Dunlop.

 

 
2. Longview Asylum: Insane or “Independent”?
After her sister’s death, Jessie appears to have deteriorated in civility and sense.

“I personally [Ina Currie] came to the conclusion that though she was not a raving lunatic or even a candidate for a Hospital for the mentally ill she was not thoroughly normal because of an exaggerated ego that was positively offensive and what she called her ‘independence.’ … She would do exactly as she pleased, break every rule, and use her sharp tongue in such a way that she could no longer be tolerated and the Doctor at the Home … declared her insane.”

Jessie was sent to Longview Asylum (we do not know what year that was, but probably around 1926). Underfunded and understaffed, this public asylum nevertheless tried to provide safe and sanitary housing, meals, and up-to-date medical care for the residents.

Rev. Dunlop and some others at The Advent disagreed with this placement. To them, an insane asylum was NOT an appropriate place for Jessie – difficult though she was. So Dunlop removed her from Longview after 11 weeks. Adventers must have realized that in taking her out of state care, they became responsible for her well-being. Jessie had no family, no friends to take her in. Only the church would support her, and the church did.

 

3. Boarding Houses and Couch Hopping: Homelessness in the 1920’s
Boarding homes were a common feature of Cincinnati generally and Walnut Hills in particular prior to WW2. Rev. Dunlop and others at The Advent spent time and energy finding places that Jessie could live. Probably the money for board came from The Rector’s Discretionary Fund and other donations. We can only imagine the frustration, anxiety and fears as Jessie would be moved into one boarding home and get herself kicked out.

“[The Widows Home] would not under any consideration or for any amount of money take her back – nor will any of the numerous places where she has lived since (and without I think exception been asked to leave) take her back. I said numerous places and they have been numerous, too numerous for me to possibly remember, some just for a night or two, some a week or two – everywhere she was asked to find another place as soon as possible. This usually made her so angry that she would walk out on the street and spend a night with someone she knew … then walk the streets all next day seeking a room.”

One home on Kemper Lane (we don’t know the address) was owned by two teachers. They took in Jessie and offered to provide meals for her so that she would not have to go out in the cold. Jessie made herself so disagreeable that the housekeeper/cook quit! Jessie was left in the house alone all day. She became frightened and ill. When she called, Adventers got her to the hospital.

 

 4. General Hospital: Not a Home for the Aged
Jessie was taken to General Hospital. The hospital had been part of University of Cincinnati since the 1850’s. Rebuilt in 1915, it had “state of the art” facilities. Auxiliary institutions such as the morgue were also located nearby.

But General was still a place where people could get lost. Rev. Dunlop sent a letter to a Dr. Morris at the Hospital, asking that Jessie be examined with care and given special consideration. The medical findings pointed to another cycle of homelessness.

“When Mr. Dunlop consulted the authorities at the Hospital as to her case they told him that her heart action was good and that she was well except for the infirmities of old age and that since the Hospital was not an ‘Old People’s Home or Home for the Aged Poor’ and since she does not need medical attention they cannot keep her.”

In this new crisis, Dunlop again enlisted support from the congregation to find a place for Jessie to live. Her illness had left her so infirm that she could not stand by herself.

 

5. Another Boarding House: A Place of Rest?

Where to next? Rev. Dunlop finagled another boarding house to accept Jessie.

“Then a happy thought came to try one of the places who months ago had been willing to take [Jessie]. It is a place on Mt. Auburn where a woman has a house (double) full of old people boarders – she loves the work – she owns the house and she has consented to take Miss Kirkland – though Mr. Dunlop will have to secure an ambulance and have her carried to the second floor. She promised to give her the needed attention – though I am afraid Mr. Dunlop has led her in his enthusiasm to think that when Miss Jessie is fed up and gets her strength back that she will be able to look after herself.”

This was in February 1929 – the date of the letter. We do not know if Jessie ever walked on her own again. We do know that when she died in 1931, Rev. Dunlop conducted the funeral.

 

 

Funds: Generosity Repaid with Spite

Where did Jessie get money to pay for the boarding homes, meals, clothes, etc. since leaving the Widows Home? Most came from the Rector’s Discretionary Fund. But others contributed. Dr. and Mrs. Woodward (he was attending physician at the Home) provided money, meals and sometimes a place to stay for the night. Mrs. Overman, chair of the Social Service Committee of the Women’s Auxiliary, responded to appeals for money and help with finding a place. Mr. Bingaman at The Advent gave $4 a month and sometimes $5. Perhaps the recipient of this long letter contributed some money, as she was asked to do.

Jessie was not grateful.

“One day when she felt very bitter against Mr. & Mrs. Dunlop – she made this speech to me in a most emphatic way – ‘I am thankful to no one – to no one Miss Ina – it is not Mr. Dunlop’s money, or your money, or the Church’s money – it is God’s money.’”

 

CONCLUSION

So much of our church’s archives consist of documents about finances, programs and events. Reading in the archives, we might think that The Advent existed to support a Rector and take care of the building and make sure pledges were paid.

And then we find this long letter about Jessie Kirkland, an embittered old lady who alienated almost everyone around her. The Advent, led by Rev. Dunlop, responded with love. The church supported this crabby woman through her expulsion from her home of 20 years, her homelessness, her last illnesses. They found her food to eat, places to sleep, doctors to care for her. They visited her when she was lonely and sick. And, on July 16, 1931, they buried her.

Stained Glass windows in our sanctuary depicting Matt. 25.

Matthew 25:40 does not say that the “least of these” are kind, deserving or grateful people – only that they need care. And in this letter from the secretary of our church to a concerned parishioner, we have a glimpse of The Advent standing with the sheep.