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The Girls and Boys of Belchertown

A Social History of the Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded

Robert N. Hornick

Publication Year: 2012

During much of the twentieth century, people labeled “feeble-minded,” “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 He draws on personal interviews, private letters, and other unpublished sources as well as local newspapers, long out-of-print materials, and government reports to re-create what it was like to live and work at the school.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 court-ordered reforms of its final decades, the institution needed to be closed.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

There were no signposts, only memories. It was a Saturday or Sunday afternoon in late spring. I was attending an Amherst College reunion with my wife and young son. We had a couple of free hours. On a whim, I decided we would try to find what was left of Belchertown State School, ...

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A Note on Terminology

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pp. xiii-xiv

Throughout history, there has been a tendency to describe people by their disabilities. Some have decried this tendency because it masks the essential humanity of those so described, making it easier for the rest of us to ignore them and to dismiss them as less than fully human—or worse. ...

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1. Beginnings

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pp. 1-9

Word came on the wire too late in the day for that week’s Belchertown Sentinel to 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. ...

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2. “Idiots for Life”—The Language of State Care

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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 nineteenthcentury reformers, was still a motivating factor. ...

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3. The Officer and the Dentist

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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. ...

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4. Working at the State School

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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 ...

Image Plates

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5. Family and Friends

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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 ...

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6. The Tragedy of Belchertown

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pp. 84-103

The front page of the Springfield Union on 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,” ...

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7. Endings

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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. ...

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8. Ghosts and Graveyards

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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, ...


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pp. 145-186


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pp. 187-193

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613762080
E-ISBN-10: 1613762089
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558499430
Print-ISBN-10: 1558499431

Page Count: 224
Illustrations: 17 illus.
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Belchertown State School -- History -- 20th century.
  • Children with mental disabilities -- Education -- Massachusetts -- History -- 20th century.
  • People with mental disabilities -- Institutional care -- Massachusetts -- History -- 20th century.
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