History – When the ‘state boys’ fought back

History – When the ‘state boys’ fought backSimon Jarrett recalls an event in 1957 which was a significant moment in the history of asylums, a rebellion that would have far-reaching consequences.

Founded in 1848 the Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feebleminded Youth was the first of its kind in the United States. By the mid-20th century it had expanded hugely, housing almost 3,000 children and adults and occupying hundreds of acres of land in the Massachusetts countryside. At this time it became the Fernald School for the Feebleminded, named after one of its distinguished former superintendents.

Whatever ideals it might have had when it was founded, they were long gone by the 1950s. It was now a site of soulless, lifetime incarceration for thousands deemed ‘morons’ in the twisted logic of eugenic thinking. This saw the uneducated offspring of the poor as the alcoholics, criminals, prostitutes and welfare dependants of the future, and locked them away from society to ‘protect the race’. Their passport in was a failed IQ test. There was no passport out.

Sexual abuse

Fernand had also become a site of heart-breaking cruelty and abuse. The young patients were subjected to mindless, painful physical punishments and were forced to sit in silence for hours on end in their wards, for no particular reason. Sexual abuse was rampant. Ironically, at the same time the labour skills of the ‘moron’ population were highly valued in the fields, kitchens, laundries and workshops of the institution. By 1949 the governors decreed that 38 per cent of Fernald’s population must be ‘high-functioning’ morons – they were needed to keep the place going.

Fernald was also a site of scientific research. In the early 1950s a group of boys were tempted by gifts and free porridge to join a ‘science club’ research project into the effect of chemicals on the absorption of calcium in milk. It emerged in the 1990s that the oatmeal in this project, (partly funded by Quaker Oats), had been laced with radioactive calcium. The ‘boys’, by now ageing men, received an official apology on behalf of the US state from President Bill Clinton. Some received compensation.

By 1957 Fernand was dangerously overcrowded and understaffed. The toxic mix of abusive or overwhelmed staff and thousands of angry, undereducated and desperate adolescents reached a tipping point. On 4 November fifteen teenage boys on Ward 22, a destination for known ‘troublemakers’, decided they had had enough. In the afternoon, they started a small fire in a clothes closet. When attendants arrived to investigate they were seized and bundled out of the building.

The rebels then put out the fire and locked the doors, taking control of the building. They took keys from the office and released the boys held in isolation cells. One of the cells was set on fire. They destroyed files. As the sirens of approaching fire tenders and police cars wailed, they smashed a window and trained a firehose through it, ready to repel attackers. Police and attendants tried to storm the building. The firehose was deployed by the boys against them, causing them to flee as the water turned from cold to hot – the hose was connected to the boiler system.

Megaphones were used to plead with the boys to come out, promising fair treatment. “Back off or we’ll burn the fuckin’ place down”, came the reply. State troopers arrived and, with local police, surrounded the building, armed with rifles and pistols (they had in fact been instructed not to use them). The intimidation worked, and at 11.30, eight hours after the rebellion began, the boys filed out.

They were taken by police paddy wagon to the local Bridgwater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Seven returned to Fernald several weeks later, eight were detained indefinitely at Bridgwater. The last of these came out five years later, in 1962.

Inbuilt cruelty

For the boys it was a life-changing event. They had acted with intelligence, organisation, strength, and courage, and shown themselves more than the equal of those employed to ‘look after’ them. They later recalled that they now saw themselves no longer as boys, but as adults, worthy of freedom. Slowly, Fernald, and the other institutions across America began to close, as the futility and inbuilt cruelty of their very existence became clear. The rebels, eventually, moved to their communities. Some prospered, married and held down jobs. Others, unsurprisingly, struggled with freedom. But Fernald was dead and they were alive. The rebels had won.

Material for this article is compiled from Michael  D’Antonio’s  book The state boys rebellion (Simon and Schuster, New York, 2005)