Warehouses are something I see a lot of in my travels, attached to giant vacant industrial shells or beside withered downtown corridors. But, quaint New England towns with well-trimmed lawns devoid of cheesy pink flamingos, let alone crumpled newspapers, this was a strange change.
This was the setting for a different kind of warehouse…
Warehouse for the ‘Feeble-Minded’
“The State School in Belchertown,” a judge that later became central in the facility’s history, Joseph L. Tauro, often said, “is a warehouse for humans.” Describing his visit to the little town’s biggest employer in 1986, explaining how the, “rolling lawns made it look like a prep school, but inside I saw a little girl drinking from a feces-filled commode…”.
Today the rolling lawns are less tended, and the windows and doors are resealed weekly from the local kids breaking in, not trying to escape. A contractor charged with nailing new boards over the broken windows of the State School explained: “They come in here with axes and cameras and smash on through.”
“To see the biggest single bit of their town’s history, or out of a macabre fascination with institutional abuse?” I asked silently, before thinking, “No, neither, probably.” The marijuana leaf and smiling penis graffiti stood out from the brick walls a little more after that.
“Belchertown State School…
…for the Care and Custody of Feeble Minded Persons,” was the full name of the quasi-hospital when it was completed in May of 1922, the third of its kind in Massachusetts. Those whom society then deemed “problemed” were sent to this special place along with a myriad of patients with other diagnoses. It was a receiving dock for those left behind. Adults had mental hospitals, children had state schools, but an asylum is an asylum.
A place where a society tortured those it deemed unfit for itself, ironically and horribly.
Belchertown’s own history provides an interesting metaphor for its treatment policies in the form of its carousel. In 1922 a local dentist gave a hand-carved custom carousel to the school where it was left in the brutal elements and soon rendered inoperable.
Town Within a Town
The first year the school was open more than 400 patients were moved into the 800 acre complex, 200 of which consisted of a school farm. A large flock of poultry along with a number of cattle helped make the school almost self-sufficient from Belchertown proper. Local fire department dispatchers even used the school’s switchboards and the auditorium was used at time as a public movie theater and dance hall. It is also notable that the school was Belchertown’s top employer, especially when the scandal of abuse that later became synonymous with the town. It was not the ‘tragedy of this one of Massachusetts’ State School’, it was Belchertown’s disease.
By the early 1970s the State School cloistered 1,500 patients in 13 dorms, their age ranging from 1 to 88; it was not uncommon for residents to spend their entire lives at the facility. Reports of abuse were leaking out from the grounds and into newspapers, however, tying Belchertown to a growing commotion surrounding nearby Monson State Hospital (which I will feature next year) and allegations of patient abuse.
Tragedy of Belchertown…
…read the title of the Springfield Union article that finally broke the story of the State School open, triggering the chain of events that eventually evacuated these now-overgrown grounds.
There was work to improve the quality of life before the expose, however, most obviously in the Belchertown State School Friends Association. Parents and local leaders organized into the ‘Friends’ to provide basic supplies to the patients that the state would not, such as toothpaste, soap, towels and eventually even hearing tests.
To think that such an organization did not exist before the force of publicity could be seen as a problem in and of itself.
From Constant Moaning, Silence
Judge Tauro’s visits were enough to seal the fate of the facility, though, as his quotes transmitted the disgust, shock and disbelief that contemporary readers better associate with horror movies than documentaries. “I saw 23 blind retarded in one room with one person to supervise… young people’s bodies were filled with welts from bugs and there was no acoustical relief from constant moaning and screaming.”
More quotes like this from the Judge and others pepper the articles that followed “The Tragedy of Belchertown,” and made a national impression that was turned to action as “mainstreaming” began to dominate discussions.
Two polarized options exist for the treatment of the mentally handicapped: institutionalization and mainstreaming, the latter meaning insertion into smaller community-based programs. Belchertown’s story helped push Massachusetts out of the institutionalizing protocols and into mainstreaming, which is what we use today.
In spite of public pressure, Belchertown State School remained open through 1992, after which the grounds were slowly allowed to grow wild, as if inviting nature to beak down our humanness and our follies with its unrefined power.
When I asked people in town what they thought would happen to this place, they said they were happy to see it go. “See it go? Go where?” “It’s gonna get demolished. Soon, I think.”
The city has been saying that since 2008, and it’s still there, probably with the same man reboarding the same windows.