The Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded was established in 1922 in Belchertown, Massachusetts. Located at 30 State Street, the 8500-acre campus comprised of ten major buildings built in a Colonial Revival style by Kendall, Taylor, and Co. The state schools of Massachusetts were different from state hospitals; the latter was for the mentally ill while state schools were institutions for the mentally defective (the name is a misnomer, as they did not generally involve any form of education).

Throughout its first 40 years, Belchertown operated mostly without scrutiny from outside sources. It was later discovered that since its inception the residents - some of whom had lived on the wards their entire lives - were being terribly mistreated and abused by the staff. Doctors at the school had little regard for patients' mental capacity, labeling many as imbeciles or idiots even if they were of quite normal intelligence but lacked the ability to communicate easily. Attendants on the wards were overworked, with dozens of patients in each ward, and as a result their treatment of the residents was nothing short of atrocious. Because there was not enough time for proper toilet care, even residents who were toilet trained were forced to wear diapers at all times. Those who were severely physically handicapped were left in their beds the entire day, without any form of entertainment. Patients who were unable to feed themselves were force-fed by the attendants, and when it was necessary to move a patient they did so roughly. As a result of this gross mistreatment, some patients were prone to screaming at all hours, playing with the contents of their diapers, banging their heads against anything they could reach, or any of a number of other responses.

The reason for this situation was partly due to the prevailing cultural perspective of what was often called mental deficiency. Around the turn of the 20th century, many people with handicaps were simply kept at home when possible. This changed in the 1920s and 1930s because state governments and bureaucracies developed special divisions to manage these individuals - in Massachusetts and elsewhere, this was the role of the Department of Mental Retardation. In addition, expertise on "the infirm" became a specialty in the medical world, which in turn helped shape social policy. And while few parents would want to send their child to live in squalor and suffer abuse, many felt they had no other choice as there was simply nowhere else for a child with severe disabilities to go.

Beginning in the Kennedy administration, and partly due to the civil rights movement started by African-Americans, awareness of disabled people as individuals with human rights increased. In 1966 Massachusetts passed the Mental Health and Retardation Services Act, which mandated a gradual transition from a few institutions around the state to a more community-based system of care facilities. The horrendous conditions at Belchertown were revealed in 1971 in a newspaper article entitled "The Tragedy of Belchertown." Parents sued the school, and when the state Attorney General toured the facility he described it as "a hell hole." This was the first lawsuit against a state school, and others followed in Massachusetts for the next few years. In 1975, Belchertown was sued once again for denying its patients the right to vote (this was one of the first disability-related voting rights cases in the United States), and in 1977 a case was brought against the school on behalf of a 67-year-old severely retarded man with leukemia to determine if he should be allowed to have chemotherapy.

After hobbling along for several more years, Belchertown was finally closed in 1992*; two years later it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. More recent improvements have been the makeover of Foley Field into a baseball diamond for the local Little League team, and restoration of the overgrown cemetery (with numbers marking the grave) to appear cleaner and properly memorialize dead patients by name. In 2001, a town meeting designated the school property as an Economic Opportunity Area for 20 years. This economic development plan provides tax incentives to businesses who establish themselves on the site.

For more information about Belchertown, there is a book entitled Crimes Against Humanity: A Historical Perspective. It was written by Benjamin Ricci, who sent his six-year-old son Bobby to live there not knowing what the conditions were like, and who was involved in the initial 1972 lawsuit. Another book with vivid descriptions of Belchertown is Ruth Sienkiewicz-Mercer's I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes; she was a resident of the school in the 1960s and 1970s.

* - According to Belchertown was closed in 1980. I have no idea how they got this date, as every other source shows it closed in 1992. I have e-mailed the webmaster of that site to ask what the 1980 date signifies.


Ruth Sienkiewicz-Mercer's book refers to a young male nurse named John who worked at Belchertown in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was the one who gently informed her that her grandmother had died. She says she was pleased to learn that he later became a junior senator from Massachusetts. His name, she says, was John Kerry.

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