In 1902 the State Board of Charity delivered its annual report to the Massachusetts legislature. The report was not a positive one. It noted the large number of complaints about the state’s almshouses including overcrowding, dilapidated housing, squalid living conditions and vermin.
The report indicated that the almshouse in Rochester was home to four people, one man and three women. It stated that the almshouse itself was “in very bad condition and beyond possibility of repair”. Rather than spend money to build a new almshouse and continue employing and supporting a keeper for the almshouse, Rochester decided to board out the inmates.
One of those boarded out was 81 year old Jim Perkins. Mr. Perkins had been a lifelong resident of Rochester. He was born February 16, 1821 to John and Salome Sherman Perkins. He was the eldest of eight children and lived at home until at least 1850. Three years later his mother died of tuberculosis.
It may have been around this time that Perkins left Rochester for Hartford, Conn where he learned to work with sharpening tools and became a skilled axeman. When he returned to Rochester he worked as a farm laborer and took jobs chopping wood whenever he had the chance.
Before ending up in the Rochester almshouse, Perkins boarded with Andrew Haskell and his family who lived in Marion “on the road leading to Rochester”. Mr. Haskell noted that Perkins was “a little flighty and seemed to have a hobby for sharp instruments.” At some point Perkins had a collection of axes but sold them off after having “some trouble with a man he worked for” as Haskell explained it.
But Mr. Haskell also described him as a “dandy in his younger days…There was no feller in these three towns that looked any finer when he fixed himself up for a party”. Perkins never married. It was rumored that he was engaged to be married twice but both times his fiancé died leaving him love sick.
Perkins began collecting shaving razors after giving up his axe collection. He kept the razors in a chest at the Haskell’s. One time Perkins became ill at the Haskell’s and he mentioned his razor collection to the doctor treating him. While it is not clear what his illness was the doctor warned Haskell to hide the razors out of fear that Perkins could hurt himself or others with the razors.
When Perkins moved to the almshouse he did not take the chest of razors with him. Instead they remained in a loft in a shed at the Haskell’s. He still kept in contact with his friends at the Haskell household and would spend time sharpening and polishing the razors. Before he would return to the almshouse he often replaced Mr. Haskell’s shaving razor with a fresh one from his trunk. He would clean and sharpen the old razor and “let it rest” in the trunk.
When the almshouse closed Perkins was classified as being senile and became a ward of the state. He was moved to Bridgewater to the State Farm. While at Bridgewater he became sick and passed away on November 6, 1902. The cause of death was listed as dilation of the stomach.
When news of Perkins’ death reached Rochester, the local gossip led to his collection of razors. Rochester selectmen decided to follow up on the gossip and investigate to see if Jim Perkins had left behind personal belongings of any value.
At Andrew Haskell’s home the selectmen discovered that Perkins left behind two old chests. In a large chest they found stored several axe handles and hones, boxes of polish, soap and rags. Other items included two swallow tail coats from the early 1850s, left over no doubt from Perkins’ partying years.
In a smaller chest the selectmen were astonished to find the shaving razors collected by Perkins—all 239 of them. The razors were in perfect condition, shined and polished. Many were newer razors but several others were stamped with the dates 1825 and 1830. Many had ivory or bone handles.
Several of the blades were manufactured by well known manufactures in Sheffield, England such as blades produced by Frederick Reynolds. These blades found were known as Washington razors because of the full length etching of George Washington on the blade with the words “The Champion of Liberty”.
Another Sheffield manufacture blades that were found included John Helffor who was noted to produce blades in the early 19th century with the words “made for the army” stamped on the blade. A blade made by William Graeves described as being from the “before the war period” was inscribed “I am good and will shave well”.
Selectman Alden Roundsville took some of the blades to experts in Boston thinking Rochester could cash in on the find. The experts concluded that they had indeed made a valuable discovery and that Jim Perkins knew his razors.
Rochester put the razors up for sale and Selectman Roundsville offered to give shaving demonstrations for people interested in purchasing razors. When he had no stubble to shave he would pluck hairs from his head to test the razor’s edge. However, his hair was already thinning and Mrs. Roundsville quickly put an end to the demonstrations.
The razors were offered at $1 for new razors and 50 cents for older ones and they became very popular throughout town. The Boston Daily Globe reported that nearly three-fourth of the men in Rochester were bearded but in the dash to get a “Jim Perkins Razor” the town’s men were expected to be beardless before long.
View an interactive map of Jim Perkins’ life here: