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  • Jayne Stearns

They Weren't the Morons, Imbeciles, and Idiots: We Were

At 35 Turkey Hill Road in Belchertown, across from the entrance to the Pride Store that sits at the intersection of that road and Route 202, if you look closely, you'll see a large black cast iron gate set back from the road about 300 feet. It looks like an entrance to a swanky estate hidden amidst the rural setting for which the small town is known.

But it's not.

To the left of that gate is the original hand-painted cemetery sign, and to the right is a large bronze plaque announcing what lies just beyond the gates and down the tree-lined country road: The Warner Pine Grove Memorial Cemetery, the final resting place of over 200 people who were once residents of the Belchertown State School, previously known as the Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded when it opened.

"Just as this cemetery lay hidden, so too were individuals with mental retardation," the plaque reminds.

This was the time in history when the psychiatric IQ classification scale used phrases like ‘Moron’ (50-74), ‘Imbeciles’ (25-49), and ‘Idiots’ (0-24), before being politically correct and sensitive was not yet a thing. And so, not knowing what to do with the 'less than' population, we hid them along with our sins against them.

If language determines thought, as most psychologists proclaim, we've tried to do our best by those whose intellects are less brilliant than our own. After all, over the last 100 years, we've progressed from calling them imbeciles, idiots, and morons to calling them mentally retarded, to them becoming the 'developmentally disabled' of today.

We've tried.

And the agencies that oversee their care in this sometimes uncaring world have also adjusted their names over the years to keep in step with the changing vernacular, transforming themselves from The Department of Mental Retardation to the Department of Developmental Disabilities, or DDS.

So, they've tried, too. But as Shakespeare observed, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

The School

The campus of Belchertown State School was spread over almost 900 acres of land, much of which was heavily wooded. It had 35 buildings, most of them situated on about one-fourth of the acreage, with another ten buildings that made up the farm on the far westerly part of the campus. There was a pond on the property, and a merry-go-round for the residents used for special occasions like the Fourth of July celebrations. Completely self-contained, the residents grew their food, and a powerplant created all the electricity the campus needed. There was a hospital for up to 50 patients; a theater that doubled as a church offering services for both protestants and catholic; cottages where some of the more capable residents lived; a Cannery where foods were canned and preserved for future use; a gymnasium; vocational and industrial 'blocks' where residents could learn skills; and wards, custodial buildings that housed male and female residents.

At its time, it was the best the state had to offer those whose intellectual functioning denied them placements at neighboring schools. It provided some hope of giving people with intellectual disabilities a happy and enriched existence.

Within a year after its opening, 424 residents lived there. Within three years, 710 residents called it home. At that time, the school was nearing its 729-resident capacity but would soon house more than 900 residents. It became a storehouse for the unwanted: children in foster care who had no placement, orphans, foreign children who couldn't speak English, and the physically disabled.

Because of overcrowding and staff shortages, reports of abuse became rampant. Things like witnessing a little girl drinking from a feces-filled commode, staff putting bars of soap in pillowcases and using them to beat residents without showing signs of physical abuse, "maggots wriggling inside or crawling out of the infected ears of several helpless, profoundly retarded persons while they lay in their crib-beds," became commonplace until in 1972, Dr. Benjamin Ricci, the father of Belchertown patient Robert Simpson Ricci, filed a class-action lawsuit against the school, claiming that its young residents were living in horrific conditions.

Coincidentally, around the same time, four residents died, and there was an investigation into those deaths as well. You can see the results of that investigation here. The abuse allegations, the findings, and the deaths ultimately led to the school's closure. Still, it took 20 years and a reorganization of the federal and state social service delivery system for it to happen.

The school finally closed its doors in 1992.

A Haunting Legacy

Today, the old buildings that once housed our developmentally disabled and more, after over 100 years, are finally being torn down. Not many remain on the property. But that little cemetery on Turkey Hill Road, a mile away from the old campus, remains a reminder of man's inhumanity to man and the brave souls who endured there.

Albert Warner, who spearheaded a project to restore the cemetery, was a former resident at the Belchertown State School, and one of the 'feeble-minded.'

The last recorded burial there was in 1977, and like other state schools, numbered cement blocks instead of headstones dotted the field. After the school's closure, the cemetery became neglected, overgrown, and dilapidated, some calling it a 'mud hole' until Warner organized a restoration project. It was then, in 1987, that a monument was erected recording all the names of those interred.

In 1994, the state agreed to conduct more refurbishing at the site. Granite headstones replaced numbered cement markers, and each grave was finally given a name, DOB, and date of death. The cemetery was then renamed the Warner Pine Grove Memorial Cemetery in honor of his dedication.

Why do we need to know this? Well, there are some things, like the Holocaust, 9/11, and the birth of one's first child, that should never be forgotten either because they're so horrific, we don't ever want to see the same horror repeated, or they're so beautiful it can never possibly be repeated with the same magnificence. Belchertown State School is, unfortunately, one of the former.

They weren't the morons, imbeciles, and idiots. We were.

And so, may we never forget.

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