Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded

Part 1 : The Abandoned Massachusetts series

In a (very) small town in western Massachusetts lies the remains of a large campus that once functioned as the Belchertown State School for the Feeble Minded. An old asylum with a pretty awful past. 

Belchertown State School: Farm buildings and barns 1948

Established in 1922, Belchertown State School was in operation until a series of lawsuits led to its eventual closing in 1992. Today, most of the buildings remain in ruin, covered in graffiti and subject to arson.

Note: I have made an effort to remove most of the racist graffiti from my photos. The history of this place is bad enough, I don’t feel the need include the ignorance of today’s townie youth.

A short history of the mental hospital in the US

Around the turn of the 20th century, many people with disabilities were cared for at home when possible. This changed in the 1920’s and 1930’s when state governments and bureaucracies developed special divisions to manage these individuals – in Massachusetts this was the role of the Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation.

In addition, expertise on “the infirmed” 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. Doctors at the time would often tell them that this was the only way for their other children to have a normal childhood.

Belchertown frequently accepted infants as young as one month, one clincal pyschologists called this  :

“Criminal” and “ridiculous because there is no reliable way intelligence can be assessed other than if there is some physical deformity, which we should be very cautious of interpreting as mental retardation. But with no reliable way of assessing the intelligence of a one month old child or even a one year old child and to doom that child to a fate worse than death, and to put them in an institution from that age is criminal…The institution does not allow them to get the kind of interaction that they need with adult figures that is extremely important to children, to get the kind of stimulation and independence they need and so they are dying, their minds are dying.”

Robert Agolia – Psychologist Unit Coordinator 1972

Belchertown State School became well known for poor conditions and inhumane treatment of patients. 
The number of patients were more than double the capacity of the facility. The resident to staff ratio was grossly skewed. The “school” held no accreditation, offered no physical, speech or occupational therapy, no vocational training and due to its isolation, had little oversight.

Due to under-staffing residents were left half naked, sometimes in their own excrement, and for those unable to eat, healthy teeth were removed to make force feeding easier. Patients who were severely handicapped were left in bed the entire day, ignored.
There was not enough attendants to set up any kind of toileting program so feces was often found on the walls and floors and patients lived in urine soaked clothes.

Cockroaches were found crawling over immobile residents, when asked about this by reporters one Belchertown official stated :

“If the resident is sitting on the floor for 14 hours a day, with nothing to do, how terrible is it that he welcomes a cockroach crawling on his leg as diversity?”

There were no scheduled activities or therapies and residents almost always regressed, as there was no care taken to bring residents to a functional level. Chemical and physical restraint were often overused.

Ward 2, in the G building, was used to house particularly violent and extremely low functioning adolescent boys. One boy was kept in a fencing mask at all times because he had a tendency to bite off ears, another was kept in a straight jacket all day. The children spent 24 hours a day in the same room together with only a TV for stimulation.

With only 1 staff member for every 30 residents, one attendant said of his time in ward 2:

“All you can do is stand in the background and when you see someone who is abusing someone else or theres messes to clean up… (trails off) while you’re here you just do what you can, you know.”

Phil Terrence – Attendant 1972

Those unable to feed themselves were force fed, patients were forcibly moved so roughly injuries were often caused.   

Author Benjamin Ricci (whose son lived at the school, and who later led a class-action lawsuit protesting the conditions there) referred to the conditions as “horrific,” “medieval,” and “barbaric.”

Photos from inside one the administration buildings 2015
Ground floor of the gym building 2015

It wasn’t until the civil rights movement that awareness of disabled people as individuals with human rights were brought out of the shadows.

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. Community residential programs replaced numerous institutions with little oversight. The new programs focused on working with the families of residents to educate them on the concepts of normalization.

Some of the residents did have physical and developmental disabilities, while others did not, but found themselves at the State School because of flaws in the child protection system.

In 1971 the horrendous conditions at Belchertown were revealed in a Massachusetts newspaper and an unnecessary death of a patient resulted in the first ever lawsuit against a state school. Many lawsuits followed over the next few years.

The institutions was finally closed in 1992.

Two years later, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Since then there have been numerous attempts to demolish and rebuild on the site. Although to this date there is no plan for development on the site.

The mass closure of state mental hospitals in the United States coincided with the advent and popularity of psychiatric medications, the patient rights movement, and the well-intentioned national transition towards community-based mental health care.

To learn more about Belchertown State School and the horrible conditions patients endured, check out the 1972 documentary titled They need love, they get angry, they bleed. A great resource for understanding the state of psychiatric care at the time.

Recently the cemetery was restored and cleaned and now properly memorializes dead patients by name instead of the original number markers.

In July of 2016 two of the most notable building were demolished, the infirmary and auditorium.
Many buildings remain, but will eventually fall due to scheduled demolition.

Photos from the inside of the infirmary building 2015

Due to many arson attempts, police presence has increased and arrests are more common.
On the day we explored, there was an arson incident on the opposite side of the campus and we ran into some police officers responding to the fire on our way to the car.

Cot and mural in one of the residential wards 2015

Most buildings are open and easily accessible.
Many have been burned pretty badly and appear to be unsafe, but for the most part without much effort (and a flashlight or two) you can easily explore.
BEWARE OF ASBESTOS. Most likely some of the open entrance points have been closed.

Further reading on Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded:

Misdiagnosed, Misplaced, and Mistreated

Advocates and former resident call for Belchertown State School memorial

All the 1972 photos taken at the state school can be found in the archive here : Jeff Albertson : photograph collection

The American Mental Asylum: A Remnant of History

List of past and present buildings on the campus:

Administrative Block – two buildings connected by a corridor. Most known for its small white clock tower. Used for administrators only.

Cottages – nine white houses where more capable patients resided. Caretakers are asked in 1972 to vacate to make room for excess patients. All demolished by 2017.

Hospital – held approximately 50 beds for children with disabilities. The building was demolished in 2015 for redevelopment.

Infirmiry – a ward where more-seriously disabled residents resided, which was demolished in 2016.

Auditorium/Gymnasium – one of the most infamous buildings at BSS. Below ground contained a gym. Demolished in 2015 after PCB concerns.

Vocational Block – a building where female patients could partake in activities such as coloring, painting, and knitting. Demolished in 2015.

Industrial Block – a building where male patients could learn carpentry, basketball, and other “male” tasks. Demolished in 2015.

A & K Wards – custodial buildings that housed male and female patients respectively. Demolished in 1977 and 1979.

G Ward – the campus’s newest building. Built in 1964, it was considered inadequate for the facility’s residents due to its large windows and location. Pictured below in 1972 and 2015. One boy reportedly fell from one of the windows. Demolished in 2017.

Custodials – wards that were nicknamed after their “+” shaped layout. The Belchertown campus was littered with these custodials.

Kitchen Block – a building where residents could receive meals. Sewage often spewed out of the drains and onto the kitchen and dining hall floors.

Cannery – where unused food was canned and preserved for future use.

Numerous fallout shelters are located within the forest surrounding the Belchertown State School campus.

Drying Ground – resident laundry was processed here. Like many other state schools, residents often never ended up wearing the same clothes after laundry as it was often lost.

Maintenance – includes a garage, loading dock, and shed for the general upkeep of the facility.

Power Station – generated steam power for the facility until the complex switched to power supplied by a third-party sometime in the 1970s. The building was still used as a warehouse. Pictured below in 2015.

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