In 1903, 58 children living in almshouses throughout New Hampshire were admitted to an asylum. They were considered a danger to society and sentenced to a life of isolation and total segregation. This was during a time when certain individuals and entire families were stigmatised as “feebleminded”. Over the course of the next ninety years, this institution served to segregate the children and adults who were rejected by family, friends and the community. (Intro to the documentary)
Trigger warning for a photograph I included, of ‘patients’ in execrable conditions. I haven’t written much about the horrors endured at the school, but there is a link to further history and info right at the bottom. Actually, if you’re not in good shape today, please don’t read this.
It started out as the New Hampshire School for the Feebleminded, and was later renamed the Laconia State School. This 2009 documentary shocked me rigid and perhaps callously, not primarily because of the appalling abuses, but for the 88 year timeline. It’s a complex and detailed analysis, unlike many other such documentaries, which tend to simply recount the horrors, then imply a sort of Renaissance of healthcare and thought, followed by the closure of the institution, causing patients to find themselves, shocked and bewildered and back in what is always termed ‘the real world’, when it could be far more accurately defined as freedom.
The crew, along with an ex patient called Rheal (in the early lives of such places, they were officially known as inmates), went to Laconia, where rather good looking buildings in great condition still stood. Rheal turned to give the camera a smile on his way through the door, his eyes dark and searching, the way that Picasso’s were. Surroundings and their conditions inform people’s moods; the crew moved past cheerful murals of animals, voices were strong, interested. The camera shifted to peeling paintwork and the narration grew increasingly somber. Peeling paintwork decades after the start of its neglect is to be expected though.
Entering the ward he lived in, Rheal began to point out changes (walls built, some rooms created) in confident, almost cheerful tones. Then his jaw set and bitterness bled slowly and sadly into the air. Alternating live footage with photographs of the ward in its previous incarnation was a shocking thing to see – rows and rows and rows of beds, barely any space between them. There were no curtains on the windows, there was no privacy, not individuality, no soul. They lived there, ate there and their only recreation area was a small corner of the ward. Conditions were exacerbated by the fact that the place had quickly changed from children only, to adults as well, and in some cases wards were mixed by both age and gender. Less than ideal, to put it mildly. The institution was soon overcrowded and there was a waiting list. Not all of the patients were there with “retardation” issues; hailed as a safe and appealing solution, children were admitted for other reasons.
The footage also cuts to interviews with patients in 2009:
Samantha: “I didn’t know why I was being put away.”
Carol: “My mother didn’t love me and she said she didn’t care.”
Bernie’s mother was old and said she couldn’t take care of him.
Caroline was one of 14 children, 3 were put into the asylum, because there were too many to feed and care for.
A staff member said that parents never stayed long on Sundays, the one day a week when visitors were permitted. It’s easy to look back from the 21st century, wondering how on earth families could consign their children to such an awful fate, but things, naturally, were very, very different. Paupers didn’t have the knowledge, facilities or finances to take care of those children, and Laconia was recommended with conviction by professionals and other respected (or intimidating) figures of authority as a safe, constructive environment. Families grieved those losses, those decisions were rarely made lightly.
The population fluctuated between 100 patients, escalating to 900 and dwindling to 100 again during Laconia’s 88 year lifespan. The patients came from almshouses, where despite the existence of a sense of civic responsibility, poverty was seen as a character flaw and conditions were made unpleasant, to ‘discourage laziness’. The ‘school for the feebleminded’ existed for two related reasons. Patients wouldn’t infect society, by being segregated from it; it was also intended to decrease their birth rate. Eugenics was perfectly acceptable back then and in official use. Public information described things like, “bad heredity, insane, feebleminded, criminals and other defectives”, that “some people are born to be a burden on the rest,” and declaimed, “If all marriages were Eugenics, we could breed out most of this unfitness in three generations”. Categorised as an ‘inferior race,’ euthanasia was recommended. That didn’t happen, but what did was almost as horrific; a sterilisation law was passed, because “the world does not need the moron. It needs no defective or diseased people. But can get on much better without them.”
It is interesting to note that the marriage and sterilization laws passed in the United States were the models upon which Hitler fashioned the German laws of race purification. Source
On admission, parents were often told to forget about their children and the only chance of leaving the school, was to sign agreement to sterilisation, which was perfectly legal. In 1929, a law was passed making consent by the patient and family etc unnecessary. The practice of sterilisation was continued all the way to 1958. More immediate and obvious abuses were things like patients in wheelchairs being pushed down flights of stairs and being tied up to be fed by members of staff. They were denied anaesthetic, one doctor justified it by saying, “No brain, no pain”. Patients’ hair was frequently shaved on only one side of their heads so that they’d be recognised if they ran away.
Laconia was one of the first to form and it was the first to reform. Improvement and consideration of patients’ rights and wellbeing began in 1952, but declined again when the director responsible was removed. 20 yrs later however, a civil action forced an upgrade, which began in 1975. In 1978 there was a civil action demanding the school’s closure. From that point on, things improved and patients were gradually sent home, but years later, patients were understandably and justifiably angry.
“When I was there I couldn’t see the real world, the world on the outside.”
“I just don’t wanna remember those things.”
“I was cheated out of 12 years of education, they said that I couldn’t learn.”
Staff interviewed in the documentary had negative things to say about it too, also explaining why and how they didn’t have a problem with it back then.
“You have to realise that at the time, we were a state of the art institution, we were the best in the country and we didn’t know any better. “
” We did the best we could do, but we had no training. We realised later on that we were doing it wrong.”
“Society made the institution, they carried out socially acceptable tasks.”
Ultimately, staff as well as patients were seen and treated as victims. (One wonders why soldiers are not granted the same consideration.)
The media and politicians began to describe the place as worse than the state prison. The 1978 civil action saw the intake reduced, but closing it was an option, not an instruction. Numbers decreased gradually as patients were sent home, but although many of them received a warm welcome, their families tended not to know how to deal with their disabled and institutionalised relatives. Communities certainly had no desire to accept them, petitions called for refusal of group homes, for example.
By 1990, there were less than 100 patients and in 1991, staff celebrated its termination. One staff member voiced his opinion by writing on their calendar, “the end thank God.”
Honouring Laconia State School’s Dead “So many were buried here because they didn’t have a family, they were lost people, forgotten, ostracized by society, devalued by society.”
New Hampshire Eugenics “The total number of people sterilized under New Hampshire’s sterilization law was 679, of whom 152 were male and 527 (i.e., close to 90%) were female. About 37% of those sterilized were considered mentally ill, and 56% “mentally deficient,” while the remaining 17% belonged to neither category. Given the language of New Hampshire’s 1929 sterilization law, this targeted group likely included epileptics.”
Our Challenging Lives at Laconia State School (the only copy online is from a grammar forum; strong trigger warnings of abuse and violence in this one, it’s upsetting.)
The History of Laconia State School