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The Girls and Boys of Belchertown

The Girls and Boys of Belchertown: A Social History of the Belchertown State School for the FeebleMinded

Robert Hornick
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    The Girls and Boys of Belchertown
    Book Description:

    During much of the twentieth century, people labeled “feebleminded,” “mentally deficient,” and “mentally retarded” were often confined in large, publicly funded, residential institutions located on the edges of small towns and villages some distance from major population centers. At the peak of their development in the late 1960s, these institutions—frequently called “schools” or “homes”—housed 190,000 men, women, and children in the United States. The Girls and Boys of Belchertown offers the first detailed history of an American public institution for intellectually disabled persons. Robert Hornick recounts the story of the Belchertown State School in Belchertown, Massachusetts, from its beginnings in the 1920s to its closure in the 1990s following a scandalous exposé and unprecedented court case that put the institution under direct supervision of a federal judge. He draws on personal interviews, private letters, and other unpublished sources as well as local newspapers, long outofprint materials, and government reports to recreate what it was like to live and work at the school. More broadly, he gauges the impact of changing social attitudes toward intellectual disability and examines the relationship that developed over time between the school and the town where it was located. What emerges is a candid and complex portrait of the Belchertown State School that neither vilifies those in charge nor excuses the injustices perpetrated on its residents, but makes clear that despite the courtordered reforms of its final decades, the institution needed to be closed.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-208-0
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. A Note on Terminology
    (pp. xiii-xv)
  5. [Map]
    (pp. xvi-xvi)
  6. CHAPTER 1 Beginnings
    (pp. 1-9)

    Word came on the wire too late in the day for that week’sBelchertown Sentinelto report it; the edition of February 18, 1916, had already gone to press. But someone rang the school bell—and most of the town’s two thousand residents guessed why. Dozens took to the streets in celebration. A procession formed to greet the hero of the hour, D. D. Hazen, back from Boston on the evening train. The happy crowd waved flaming torches and cheered. A makeshift band of bass drum and cymbals dinned. Whether Hazen was hoisted onto shoulders and carried through the streets...

  7. CHAPTER 2 “Idiots for Life”—The Language of State Care
    (pp. 10-22)

    From the beginning, the state institution at Belchertown was called a “school.” This was not mere euphemism. Although by 1922 quarantine had replaced education as the principal motivation for state care, the possibility of teaching the feeble-minded, which had inspired nineteenth-century reformers, was still a motivating factor.

    State schooling for feeble-minded persons in the United States began in Massachusetts in 1848 with an appropriation to Samuel Gridley Howe of $2,500 per annum for three years “for the purpose of training and teaching ten idiotic children, to be selected … from those at public charge, or from the families of indigent...

  8. CHAPTER 3 The Officer and the Dentist
    (pp. 23-47)

    The Belchertown State School was designed according to the “cottage plan”—the dominant structural and operational model of the day for such facilities.¹ Earlier institutions had utilized a single large, centralized structure for housing residents and staff and doing training. In the cottage plan, prevalent since the late nineteenth century, numerous smaller buildings (dormitories, employee cottages, schoolhouse, kitchen, hospital, industrial building, farm, and so forth) were neatly arranged in a campuslike setting of trees and gardens. The plan facilitated differentiation of the resident population by gender, level of ability, and medical condition. So-called higher functioning residents could be segregated from,...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Working at the State School
    (pp. 48-68)

    For seventy years, Belchertown State School was the largest employer in town. As we’ve seen, one of the Board of Trade’s principal objectives in 1916 in lobbying for the new state school was to create jobs, and within months of its opening in November 1922, the school employed 125 people—30 percent of them residents of Belchertown itself.¹ (Most of the rest came from nearby towns and villages.) This number grew steadily over the years, to approximately two hundred in 1930 and three hundred in 1940. In 1989, when Mary McCarthy, the commissioner of the state’s Department of Mental Retardation,...

  10. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  11. CHAPTER 5 Family and Friends
    (pp. 69-83)

    Benjamin Ricci and his wife, Virginia, were expecting their first child. It was May 1947 and Ben, who had finished high school in 1941 and served his country honorably in World War II, was now a freshman at Springfield College in western Massachusetts. Like most expectant parents, he and Ginnie were full of hope and expectations for their future life and the life of their soon-to-be-born child. Robert Simpson Ricci was born May 12. “We soon settled into our small, Springfield College trailer home with our new baby,” Ricci later wrote. “In a scene strikingly similar to those on thousands...

  12. CHAPTER 6 The Tragedy of Belchertown
    (pp. 84-103)

    The front page of theSpringfield Unionon March 15, 1970, was packed with grim news. One article reported the misfiring of rockets by a U.S. helicopter into American troops north of Saigon, killing three and wounding nineteen. But it was another front-page story, published above the masthead with the banner headline “The Tragedy of Belchertown,” that would rock residents of Belchertown to their core, changing life there—and at the state school—forever. The first of a six-part series by a staff writer, James Shanks, “The Tragedy of Belchertown” sensationally exposed what were said to be “conditions so bad...

  13. CHAPTER 7 Endings
    (pp. 104-127)

    The idea of suing the state’s mental health bureaucracy to obtain redress for the appalling conditions at Belchertown State School was Ben Ricci’s. It isn’t clear when the idea first took form in his mind—whether before or after his sabbatical to do research in Norway during the first half of 1971. Perhaps he had read about the lawsuit filed in October 1970 on behalf of residents of the Partlow State School and Hospital in Tuscaloosa and other state-run mental health facilities in Alabama.¹ He may well have thought about a lawsuit, and started to gather photographic and other evidence...

  14. CHAPTER 8 Ghosts and Graveyards
    (pp. 128-144)

    An eerie quiet settled over the former Belchertown State School. Boarded-up buildings stood abandoned. Thick weeds, brush, and small trees sprouted in the fertile soil, overgrowing pathways and lawns. Disrepair and decay spread. The occasional trespasser reported odd things happening: sharp fluctuations of temperature, an intense odor of flowers where none grew, lights flickering in the tunnels though the power was off, mirrors vibrating, running footsteps, random cries and moans. Some called it a haunted place.¹

    What could—or should—be done with the former state school? As we saw in chapter 7, as far back as 1979 the town,...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 145-186)
  16. Index
    (pp. 187-194)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 195-198)