A Brief History of…Home of the Friendless
In 1855, Ellen Gelling found herself far from home, penniless, and alone. A few years earlier, Ellen’s husband, her daughter Christina, and Christina’s husband had journeyed from their home on the Isle of Man seeking a new life in America. Ellen stayed behind with Christina’s grown daughter. When Ellen came over, she found that her husband and son-in-law had both died of fever. Christina, strained by the loss of her husband and father and saddened by her separation from her daughter and mother, broke under the emotional weight of her situation and was committed to the County Insane Asylum. Ellen’s granddaughter was able to secure a job in St. Louis, but it was not enough to support herself and her widowed grandmother. With no means of support and no skill to make a living on her own, the elderly Mrs. Gelling had little choice but to ask for assistance. With the help of a kind benefactor, Mrs. Gelling was recommended to the Home of the Friendless.
Ellen Gelling’s situation was not uncommon in the mid-19th century. Women could often find themselves alone in the world with no family or financial support. Long before the advent of Social Security or state assistance, women like Mrs. Gelling had few alternatives but to turn to charities or rely on the kindness of strangers. One such institution was the Home of the Friendless. Established by Charlotte Charless in 1853, the home was created as a place where women over 50 could find refuge and the companionship of others who shared their fate.
The Home of the Friendless, also known as the Charless Home, continued as an independent entity until 2006 when it was purchased by the Bethesda Health Group. It continued operations until this year when Bethesda opened a new assisted-living facility in south St. Louis. The original Charless Foundation, which originally operated the Home and continued to function after the Bethesda purchase, donated the original records of the institution to the Missouri History Museum. These records are a wonderful source of information on the lives of the women who inhabited the home from 1853 to the near present.
We’ve learned that at the Home of the Friendless, women found a clean and welcoming place to live. In return they were expected to follow a strict set of rules which were established at the time of the institution’s creation. Inmates, as they were called, were required to sweep and clean their rooms each morning; no alcohol was permitted on the premises; each was expected to contribute her time toward the good of the home either by knitting, sewing, or some other skill; and it was expected that inmates attend a religious service each morning.
While women of all nationalities and religions were accepted, rule breakers were not tolerated. The inmates were expected to respect the authority of the home’s matron, who kept a record of each inmate, including detailed biographical information and comments on her present situation. The records show that most women lived quiet lives and died peacefully at the Home, but there were a few who did not get along and were asked to leave. If the woman could prove that she had learned her lesson and could follow the rules, she would be readmitted. One such woman had done just that in 1859. Two years later, however, the matron had had enough and once again the woman was asked to leave. The matron commented in the register, “Dismissed for lying, tale bearing, and violence of temper. We hope never to be so blind and foolish as to receive her again.”
The records of the Charless Home are full of rich stories and important historical information. We are grateful to the Charless Foundation for donating these wonderful documents that will surely be of great interest to historians, genealogists, and other scholars. From 1853 to 2012, the Charless Home took in hundreds of women who sought care and comfort. Many of them may have been friendless when they arrived on the doorstep but they were received as friends and lived their lives among those who cared.
—Chris Gordon, Director of Library and Collections