The Girls and Boys of Belchertown
A Social History of the Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded
Traces the history of an institution for the intellectually disabled from its founding to its highly publicized closure
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 He draws on personal interviews, private letters, and other unpublished sources as well as local newspapers, long out-of-print materials, and government reports to re-create what it was like to live and work at the school.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.
"[Hornick] skillfully connects the demise of this particular institution to the attitudes and beliefs that informed broader 19th- and 20th-century U.S. public policies on the education and control of people who were variously labeled imbeciles, morons, and mentally retarded.. . . By unearthing obscure archival records and conducting interviews with now elderly Belchertown State School former residents and attendants, Hornick has made a substantive contribution to the field now called intellectual and developmental disabilities. He animates the historical facts with details that match my childhood memories: Elvis Presley's voice incongruously blaring from the loudspeakers of a carousel on the school's grounds, the intimidating granite steps of the administration building, the one-month waiting period before family could visit a newly admitted resident. . . . Belchertown State School is now closed, but its existence continues to affect the lives of countless individuals. Hornick's excellent and engaging history provides a welcomed context for the wide-reaching personal and policy impacts of the school."—Sharon Flanagan-Hyde, sister of former Belchertown State School resident
"Hornick is interested in telling the story of Belchertown State School from all perspectives, and he includes the experiences of direct-care workers, managers, state officials, town residents, patients themselves and parents. . . . The author also gauges the impact of changing social attitudes toward people with disabilities. Hornick notes that his book--including subtitle--uses terms that are considered offensive today but which were socially acceptable during much of the period his narrative covers."—The Hampshire Gazette