Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Youth

picture-of-idiotic-youth-houseMassachusetts School for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Children, South Boston (moved to Waltham in 1887) — Massachusetts State Reform School, Westbrorough (later “Lyman School for Boys”)

Okay, why can’t I quit laughing about this having it’s name changed to School for Boys? It’s my own male bashing reflex no doubt.

When we’re doing research we just stumble on the weirdest things and one of them is the use of language. How it’s changed.

Surely whoever created the Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Youth, the first such educational institute in the nation, was absolutely ground breaking. A forward thinker, a mover and shaker, a compassionate advocate for. . .idiotic and feeble-minded youth.

Here’s how they rated their children by IQ:

50-69 = Moronjane-eyre1
20-49 = Imbecile
Below 20 = Idiot

There’s some speculation that the majority of those children were just orphans and needed a place to stay. Some say they weren’t treated very nicely. Others say it was a huge improvement in their lives. Probably the truth depended on the place.

Here’s another one that earned a headline. 1836 Three Massachusetts counties establish facilities for “idiots and lunatics furiously mad”

This is in a website I found that boasts: Development of public responsibility for persons with disabilities in Massachusetts

The first sentence sounds awful-furiously mad! The second sounds nice doesn’t it? I suspect it was more nice than awful. It was probably ground breaking to try and care for crazy people. We look at words like idiot and imbecile and think it’s so heartless. But this is in a day when a family might deal with a handicapped child by keeping them hidden away in some attic for their whole lives. Puts me in mind of Jane Eyre, huh? And maybe The Secret Garden?

hastings-regional-centerThe State Asylum for the Incurably Insane in Hastings Nebraska (pictured above) had a cemetary with graves bearing a number rather than a name, so deep was the shame of having a mentally ill family member. Years of lawsuits were required to get the identities of those buried there and only last May did the Nebraska Supreme Court finally rule that medical privacy laws didn’t cover death records.

From 1909 to 1959 there were approximately 751 patients buried there. A second listing abstracted from the medical ledger books between 1889 and 1918 for 399 patients was also provided.


Handicapped family member lived and died and were buried there and the families asked for complete confidentiality.

We hear a thing like this and feel distaste for people ashamed of their mentally ill family members. But it was a different time. It was a time that led people to do things like Joseph Kennedy giving his handicapped daughter a lobotomy. Turning a young woman who was fairly functional into a badly disabled woman who lived her life behind closed doors. Her very existence was shrouded in secrecy for most of her life until her sister Eunice Shriver found the courage to admit she had a handicapped sister. It was part of why she founded the Special Olympics.

Were all these places decent to their charges? It all probably came down to who was in charge. Were they kind or cruel?


How about this one? 1846 Two committees, headed by Samuel Gridley Howe, are appointed to investigate the need for facilities for “idiots” and juvenile offenders—


My question? Are those two things the same? Idiots and juvenile offenders? I thought we only invented Teenagers in the 20th Century. . at which time we declared ALL juveniles idiots.


1829 – The New England Asylum for the Blind opens in Massachusetts, becoming the first school in the U.S. for children with visual disabilities.

Asylum? Not what we think when we hear the word asylum, huh? Offensive, like just because you’re blind you’re crazy. But that’s modern thinking. Remember this was first. This was forward thinking, progressive, gentle and kind hearted people trying to do the right thing.

It’s one of those things that jumped out at me when I was doing research and it was a reminder to me.

We do history a disservice when we judge the past through modern eyes without really understanding how things were back then.

We spend too much time disrespecting the past. Instead we should try to understanding it. And maybe, on occasion, laugh at it. 


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Mary Connealy


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Author of Romantic Comedy...with Cowboys including the bestselling Kincaid Brides Series

33 thoughts on “Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Youth”

  1. Interesting post! It’s funny how words and their meanings change with the time. How “asylum” has such a bad connotation, when really the word can also mean “a place where one is safe and secure; refuge”. That was likely the original intent.

  2. I read the most interesting thing about Benjamin Franklin. He helped declare black people 3/5 human. Have you ever heard that?

    It just sounds terrible, racist, evil. The truth is, he deliberately did that for reasons of compassion. He tried with everything he had to include freeing slaves in the original constitution. In the end he couldn’t get it done because some states refused to join the United States with that language in there. As soon as the constitution was radified he turned his attention to freeing slaves state by state.

    The reason he pushed to have slaves declared 3/5 human was because of voting. The House of Representatives was chosen by population. States that embraced slavery refused to outlaw it AND they wanted all slaves counted in their population, because it gave them MORE representation and of course those slaves wouldn’t be able to vote. Talk about having it both ways!

    Ben Franklin convinced everyone to count them as 3/5 human to reduce the number of representatives from slave states because that gave him a better chance at freeing those slaves because slave states weren’t so heavily represented.

    So the people who wanted slaves counted as fully human were pro-slavery and the ones who wanted 3/5 human were anti-slavery. Completely backwards of how it sounds.

  3. Great insight, Mary. And I loved your explanation of Ben Franklin’s agenda with the slaves, too. You are so right about how we tend to try to read history through modern lenses. Those terms – idiot, imbecile, and moron were simply descriptive terms back then. It is the same with the label mentally retarded. All retarded means is slow. it is describing the person’s mental abilities. But when school children and adults, too, start using those terms to deride others (i.e., “You retard!”), the term became derrogatory. Language changes like that all the time. It would be like someone getting all bent out of shape because Bing Crosby sang about being gay. In his time all that meant was that he was happy.

  4. You would not believe the weird stuff I found out about elephants while pursuing a research topic.

    I may use it in a blog, so fascinating and weird. But really….not about cowboys…..

  5. And Karen, you’re right about those words being turned into bad stuff because they’re abused. But any new words get abused, too. I can’t believe the sarcastic jokes I hear about people being ‘special’.

    Until that word is almost bullying.

    And gay is a terrific example. Because I hear it used as an insult. “That is so gay.”

    So it means almost the exact opposite of it’s true meaning and it doesn’t mean it’s more modern meaning either.

    How about ‘friend’. I’m going to ‘friend’ you on Facebook. Or Unfriend you. That word’s getting twisted too.
    I wonder what’s next?

  6. Mary, what an interesting blog. I knew families hid their mentally challenged children behind a veil of secrecy but didn’t know how far it extended. I’m getting all kinds of thoughts for plots for stories. I loved reading those old historicals that featured that kind of abuse. But I haven’t read any recent ones. It’s sad about the Kennedys and their daughter. Sad that she spent her entire life locked up. I’m sure she was a source of embarrassment to them. Thank goodness society is more open and the veil of shame has been lifted. Glad families can no longer throw one of their children in a place like that if they’re unruly. Thank goodness for laws.

  7. I read one place…sorry, talk about your unsourced quotes…that Rosemary Kennedy really wasn’t that handicapped(pre-lobotomy).

    She functioned pretty well, but Papa Joe was so used to these high-achieving children that she was a huge embarrassment to him, which is why he did the lobotomy.

    I also heard some things about her being interested in sex in ways Joe found embarrassing. (like that isn’t true of all his SONS!) But I think being uninhibited is sometimes part of being handicapped.

  8. Uh-hem, Mary, I never come across the bizarre stuff you do. You must be LOOKING for weird stuff. So much for your excuses that you just happened to see these things. Where are you doing your research, Ripley’s Believe it or Not?

    The photo of the home is as hideous as the name. ::shudder:::

  9. I don’t find my blog posts on Ripley’s Believe it or Not…but you know…that’s a great idea. Thanks Cheryl. 🙂

    I’d better do the weird elephant post. It’ll burn within me like an unquenchable fire until I do.

  10. Hi Mary, Fascinating blog! My husband and I used to go to McLean Bible Church in northern Virignia. They have an extraordinary outreach to disabled children called “Jill’s House.” When it’s complete, Jill’s House will provide overnight respite care, a place where kids can get haircuts, see the dentist and do all sorts of things that are hard to do with certain challenges. We’ve come a long way from hiding the disabled from public view.

    So true, though, what you said about putting things in historical context. The meaning of a word changes over time. I like to think people did the best they could with what limited knowledge they had.

    P.S. Had to laugh at the School for the Feeble-minded being changed to the School for Boys : ) My sons are grown, but those teenage years were something else!

  11. Hi Mary, what a fantastic blog. I recall reading that papa Joe lobotomizing Rosemary was the one thing Rose couldn’t forgive (even with all the womanizing, insider trading, bootleg liquor etc.) Whew.

    I remember as a little girl saying I was mad at something, meaning angry, and getting teased that I said I was insane.

    Words can be so cruel. And so lame. I am already tired of “the new normal” and “I can’t wrap my head about that” or “absent” being used in place of without. Oh well, what do I know. 🙂

    Thanks for this great information, Mary.

  12. I read somewhere that Joe did it without telling anyone. They only found out about it after the fact. Probably because he knew his wife wouldn’t allow it.

    The expression I can’t stand is, “At the end of the day…”

    Not that it’s bad, it’s just so OVER USED.

  13. Wonderful blog, Mary! Both the historical perspective and the importance of language and the changes in meanings over the years.

    I had a great-aunt whose career was teaching handicapped kids. This was in the early twentieth century. I think Auntie was born in about 1885. She once told my mother, who was also a teacher, in response to a question about her methods, “We just do whatever we are interested in. We might be making Christmas trees at Easter.”

    What I remember most about her is that when we went to her house, she always had something interested to show us.


  14. Very interesting, Mary. And some of it about my home town…Uh, Hastings not Mass. And yes, I do believe I had ancestors there for one reason or another. Ingleside (is that how to spell it?) became as close to a little town west of Hastings as any little town. The city used to have the fireworks there on the 4th.

    You really hit a serious nail on the head. We should not look at history through our eyes now. That’s why folks want to ban books like Huckleberry Finn or Uncle Tom’s Cabin. That was then (and may or may not have been accurate portrayals) and we should remember history as it was–not how we’d like it to have been.

    I think I need to follow you around on the research trail. Looking forward to the elephant.

  15. And with a story like Huck Finn, a truly serious treatment of a black man as someone with strength and honor. To now look back and call that racist is just to glaringly misunderstand how rare it was to treat a black man that way in life or in literature. So what we look back on with contempt was really groundbreaking and a huge step forward.

  16. Hi Mary – Yes, you do come across some weird and interesting stuff! This is really an eye-opener to say the least. And oh, you do have to do a blog on elephants! Now you got all of us curious!

  17. Which goes to show that it isn’t really the word itself but how we tend to associate it with what we want – usually not for the good lol. George Carlin always comes to mind with his routine of saying all the “nasty” words he can think of!

  18. Mary, I knew from the title before I scrolled down to see your name that you had written this blog. You made me laugh on an evening when I really needed one. Keep on researching and sharing. I love it.

  19. There is an interesting children’s book that just came out this year by Gloria Whelan. The Locked Garden is the story of a girl whose dad is a doctor working at the institution. It does a good job of showing Victorian attitudes, the change in the way patients were treated and viewed, and the impact on a person’s behavior their treatment has.
    Very good post. Love the name of the school. Can you imagine trying to get away with naming it that today. The tidbit about Ben Franklin was interesting. You really do have to be careful how you judge a person’s actions. You don’t always know all the logic and purpose behind them.
    I’m curious about the elephant post. It isn’t about hanging one is it? That is the claim to fame (shame?) of the small town where I work.
    I look forward to your next post.

  20. Patricia, the hanging elephant was one of the things I found.

    Very disturbing.

    that’s your hometown? It’s claim to fame?

    Kinda makes my cozy mystery, Nosy in Nebraska, set in fictional Melnick Nebraska, the home of the World’s Largest Fieldmouse, seem reasonable doesn’t it? 🙂
    I didn’t use the elephant hanging town as inspiration though. I used Algona Iowa, the home of the World’s Largest cheeto.

  21. I can’t help but laugh because when I was researching a blind school for my book that will be out next summer, I ran across the same type of wording. They didn’t take blind students if they were feeble minded or unteachable.

  22. Yes, Connie, Mary’s blogs are distinctive, aren’t they?

    Mary, I dare you to do a compilation at the end of the year — goats in trees outside the lunatic assylum where they hold a gun show each year…

  23. The hanging of the elephant in Erwin, TN really was a sad affair. No, it is not my home town. I’m from upstate NY originally. I now work at the library in Erwin which is located in the old train station.

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