Christmas Day in the Workhouse

Long, long ago when my kids were little and we watched every Christmas special on television we could find on the three channels we got back then, we watched a drama called “The Gathering.”

It was about a guy dying of cancer who got his ex-wife and their grown children together for his last Christmas. Ed Asner played the dying guy and he recited a poem that he called Christmas in the Workhouse (which he pronounced work’us) and he said it was by Rudyard Kipling.

Well, Rudyard Kipling did not write a poem called Christmas in the Workhouse, or Work’us either.  And there are several versions of such a poem, some of them filthy, I have found.

The closest thing I have found to a real poem about Christmas in the Workhouse is this one, Christmas Day in the Workhouse, by George Robert Sims.

This poem has nothing to do with the Ozarks or with Missouri, but it’s about Christmas, I like poetry that rhymes and  I am the managing editor, so I’m posting this here, hoping you’ll enjoy it.

It’s a kind of a downer poem, but maybe here on Black Friday, the biggest shopping and spending day of the year, it might put the holiday into perspective.


It is Christmas Day in the Workhouse,
And the cold bare walls are bright
With garlands of green and holly,
And the place is a pleasant sight:
For with clean-washed hands and faces,
In a long and hungry line
The paupers sit at the tables
For this is the hour they dine.
And the guardians and their ladies,
Although the wind is east,
Have come in their furs and wrappers,
To watch their charges feast;
To smile and be condescending,
Put pudding on pauper plates,
To be hosts at the workhouse banquet
They’ve paid for – with their rates.

Oh, the paupers are meek and lowly
With their ‘Thank’ee kindly, mum’s’
So long as they fill their stomachs,
What matter it whence it comes?
But one of the old men mutters,
And pushes his plate aside:
‘Great God!’ he cries; ‘but it chokes me!
For this is the day she died.’

The guardians gazed in horror,
The master’s face went white;
‘Did a pauper refuse the pudding?’
Could their ears believe aright?
Then the ladies clutched their husbands,
Thinking the man would die,
Struck by a bolt, or something,
By the outraged One on high.

But the pauper sat for a moment,
Then rose ‘mid a silence grim,
For the others had ceased to chatter
And trembled in every limb.
He looked at the guardians’ ladies,
Then, eyeing their lords, he said,
‘I eat not the food of villains
Whose hands are foul and red:

‘Whose victims cry for vengeance
From their dank, unhallowed graves.’
‘He’s drunk!’ said the workhouse master,
‘Or else he’s mad and raves.’
‘Not drunk or mad,’ cried the pauper,
‘But only a hunted beast,
Who, torn by the hounds and mangled,
Declines the vulture’s feast.

‘Keep your hands off me, curse you!
Hear me right out to the end.
You come here to see how paupers
The season of Christmas spend.
You come here to watch us feeding,
As they watch the captured beast.
Hear why a penniless pauper
Spits on your paltry feast.

‘Do you think I will take your bounty,
And let you smile and think
You’re doing a noble action
With the parish’s meat and drink?
Where’s my wife, you traitors –
The poor old wife you slew?
Yes, by the God above us,
My Nance was killed by you!

‘Last winter my wife lay dying,
Starved in a filthy den;
I had never been to the parish, –
I came to the parish then.
I swallowed my pride in coming,
For, ere the ruin came,
I held up my head as a trader,
And I bore a spotless name.

‘I came to the parish, craving
Break for a starving wife,
Bread for the woman who’d loved me
Through fifty years of life;
And what do you think they told me,
Mocking my awful grief?
That ‘the House’ was open to us,
But they wouldn’t give ‘out relief.’

‘I slunk to the filthy alley –
‘Twas a cold, raw Christmas eve –
And the bakers’ shops were open,
Tempting a man to thieve;
But I clenched my fists together,
Holding my head awry,
So I came to her empty-handed
And mournfully told her why.

‘Then I told her ‘the House’ was open;
She had heard of the ways of that,
For her bloodless cheeks went crimson,
And up in her rags she sat,
Crying, ‘Bide the Christmas here, John,
We’ve never had one apart;
I think I can bear the hunger, –
The other would break my heart.’

‘All through that eve I watched her,
Holding her hand in mine,
Praying the Lord, and weeping,
Till my lips were salt as brine.
I asked her once if she hungered,
And as she answered ‘No,’
The moon shone in at the window
Set in a wreath of snow.

‘Then the room was bathed in glory,
And I saw in my darling’s eyes
The far-away look of wonder
That comes when the spirit flies;
And her lips were parched and parted,
And her reason came and went,
For she raved of our home in Devon,
Where our happiest years were spent.

‘And the accents long forgotten,
Came back to the tongue once more,
For she talked like the country lassie
I woo’d by the Devon shore.
Then she rose to her feet and trembled,
And fell on the rags and moaned,
And, ‘Give me a crust – I’m famished –
For the love of God!’ she groaned.

‘I rushed from the room like a madman,
And flew to the workhouse gate,
Crying, ‘Food for a dying woman!’
And the answer came, ‘Too late.’
They drove me away with curses;
Then I fought with a dog in the street,
And tore from the mongrel’s clutches
A crust he was trying to eat.

‘Back, through the filthy by-lanes!
Back, through the trampled slush!
Up to the crazy garret,
Wrapped in an awful hush.
My heart sank down at the threshold,
And I paused with a sudden thrill,
For there in the silv’ry moonlight
My Nance lay, cold and still.

‘Up to the blackened ceiling
The sunken eyes were cast –
I knew on those lips all bloodless
My name had been the last;
She’d called for her absent husband –
O God! had I but known! –
Had called in vain, and in anguish
Had died in that den – alone.

‘Yes, there, in a land of plenty,
Lay a loving woman dead,
Cruelly starved and murdered
For a loaf of the parish bread.
At yonder gate, last Christmas,
I craved for a human life.
You, who would feast us paupers,
What of my murdered wife!

‘There, get ye gone to your dinners;
Don’t mind me in the least;
Think of the happy paupers
Eating your Christmas feast;
And when you recount their blessings
In your smug parochial way,
Say what you did for me, too,
Only last Christmas Day.’

Here’s a primer on screws, nuts and bolts

Serving as the managing editor of The Ozarks Almanac, also known as, is one of three jobs I hold down, trying to keep food on the table while paying taxes to take care of people who don’t want to work.

I’m also a reporter for the local newspaper, and I work for a big-box home improvement store that has a strict social media policy that prohibits me from naming it.

So I won’t.

I’ll tell a story involving the store, though. See, when I was hired I was assigned to the hardware department to provide customer service. One night a young man who looked like he might have been an engineering student at the local university came up to me and said, “Those packages of screws that say ‘METAL': Does that mean they are made out of metal or you use them in metal?”

I looked at the aisle of screw packages labeled with “METAL,” “WOOD” and “MACHINE.” I wanted so much to have a little fun and joke around and  say, “Well, it means they are made out of metal. And the ones marked ‘machine’ are made by machines and the ones marked ‘wood’ are made out of wood, handcarved every night by little elvish whittlers who live in the back of the store.”

But I figured he was either a student or a transplant and would not understand the Ozarks style of joshing. So I told him the truth, “They are sheet metal screws, sir.” And so he thanked me and went on his way.

Retail is no place for joshing or bantering.

Now, I tell that story, because I want to be helpful. Many, many, many, perhaps most people I dealt with in the hardware department did not know exactly what they were looking for. Many times someone would come in and say “I need a standard screw about yay long,” holding their fingers apart an inch or so.

“Well, sir,” I would say, “what are you going to use it for?”

Most times, the customer would tell me, and that would let me know what type of screw (or bolt) they needed. Others would get angry and say, “What difference does it make? It’s none of your business. Just give me a standard screw about this long.”

I would grab the nearest screw of about that length and hand him the package. “This ought to do your, sir. It’s standard and has the length you specified.” Then he would grumble something and leave.

It might be a “standard” wood screw, and they might really need a “standard” machine screw, but there is no point in trying to explain that to a customer who might take that explanation as a service employee being argumentative with him.  Arguing with a customer is an egregious error, so I avoid the appearance of it. I give them what they ask for, or as close as I can reckon they want and hope that I make them happy.

As a service, let me point you in the direction of some information about nuts, bolts and screws. Just go right here and then click on the various choices: Fasteners information.

Now that you’ve taken a look at the information, perhaps even printed it out for closer and repeated study, you are a consumer with far more awareness. You’ll be able to work with some poor sales associate and can help him understand your hardware needs so he can help you find it and get your project done.

Wild Bill Hickok’s connections to Rolla, Phelps County, Missouri

An avid reader of True West magazine, I follow that publication on Facebook. Last week, the editors posted a picture of Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro.

The photo of the three must have been taken when they were in a Wild West Show in 1873-1874 called “Scouts of the Plains.”

As I am prone to do I “shared” that True West picture with my friends on Facebook. Some of them liked it. I attached a note informing them that I recalled a Phelps County Historical Society newsletter article that told how Hickok and his brother operated a hauling business between Rolla and Springfield. Hickok may even have lived here in Rolla for awhile.

Who knows, he may have driven his wagon near the site of the future World Headquarters of The Ozarks Almanac.

Well, that “sharing” of information provoked some discussion. A friend noted that Wild Bill shot a man in Springfield. Indeed, it was the first recorded Wild West type of shootout, and it happened on July 21, 1865, on the Public Square of Springfield.

Hickok was arrested after the shootout. He was charged with murder, though the charge was lowered to manslaughter. I find it interesting that his attorney was John Smith Phelps, former governor of the State of Missouri, for whom this county is named.

You can read a synopsis with links to other sites here: Wikipedia (everyone uses Wikipedia, right?)

Another good article is on the Missouri History Museum site: Gunslingers of Missouri. It was just posted last week.

A source of information about life in Southern Missouri