St Clair Cemetery, Mt Lebanon, Allegheny Co, PA

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Those Places Thursday: Going Crazy Just to Smoke

Ever heard of the smoker? Today, most visions when the word smoker is uttered include someone with a cigarette hanging out of their mouth.  Typically, this brand of smoker is found lounging around the approved smoking section outside the doors of many buildings.

Read the words from 1931 Pittsburgh and weep for the old men who went "gas crazy" just to catch a smoke in their approved smoking site at the Poor House.

..... I had heard of the "smoker" while I was still in the observation ward of the hospital.  An old Negro had come over from the home for a few days' treatment of a boil on his neck.  He regarded the boil as a not unmixed evil, since it gave him a few days of uninterrupted rest and food considerable better than that he was accustomed to in the home.  He was talking about the old men over at the home.

"Those old fellows oveh theah all crazy," he informed me. "They all gone gas crazy."

"Gas crazy," I demanded, immediately thinking of gas victims of the war.  "Those men were all too old to serve in the army.  They can't be gas crazy."

"Oh, they's gas crazy all right.  They sits theah all day drinkin' in that gas in the smokah till they gits jes as crazy as bedbugs."

Hot and Stifling

He failed to make me understand just what he was talking about but assured me:

"You goin' oveh to the Home, yeh say.  You'll find out about the gas, Jes' wait."

I did.

The first place I made for when I was transferred to the home was the "smoker."  It is a great, barn-like room, filthy dirty with rows of benches.  More than a hundred old men were sitting and standing about the great room.  Here these old pensioners on a great city's bounty can smoke.

At one end of the room is the biggest stove I ever say.  It must be done duty in its time as a giant kitchen range.  That's the only purpose I can conceive anyone might have for building such a monstrosity.  It must be all of 10 feet square with an iron top.  Underneath this top, great gas jets roar.   Flames leap out through big cracks and holes in the shattered top.

The Home - Rockview

It provides heat.  It also fills the great room with stifling fumes of unburned gas until the air is thick and foul.  I could stand it only a few minutes.  But these old men are used to it.  All day long some of them sit there, smoking in silence and hopelessness, breathing in the noisome deadly fumes......

.....Together we walked through the corridors and saw the broken men draped along the pipe, the blind, the halt, and the maimed.  We ate the scanty dinner.  We breathed the fumes of the "smoker" for a moment and then escaped to the keen, wintry air outside with a gasp.

He turned to me, on his face the most devastating despair I have ever seen - and I have seen men go to their death on the gallows - and he said slowly:

"Well - here we will live.  What do you think?"....

What do you think of the smoker written about in 1931 Pittsburgh?  Tis enough to drive one crazy.  At the least, many old pensioners were allegedly crazy after they smoked in the approved smoking site of the City Home at Mayview. 

This entire story, along with 74 other historic articles, can be read on the old Pittsburgh Newspaper Project site.  But beware, reading some of these stories will break your heart.

Ahhh, genealogy.  Another day has passed in to the history books.  I wonder what future generations will think of our stories from today. 

©2013 AS Eldredge

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