The Ladd School


The Ladd School

The Neglected Stepchild of State Institutions

Over a hundred years ago, the Ladd School was a feeble-minded school.

Though originally conceived as an asylum for children with disabilities, by mid-century the Ladd School had transformed into something more complicated to define; a cross between a hospital, detention center, and boarding school whose residents were called inmates and whose inmates were called "feeble-minded."

In those days, feeble-mindedness was a medical diagnosis and legal term of art that was open to some interpretation and generally equivalent to "mental retardation," or developmental disability as it's commonly called today.

And though many people admitted to the institution were people with developmental or intellectual disabilities, others were mentally ill, physically disabled, elderly, sick, homeless, or otherwise considered a detriment to society. Some were immigrants, criminals, orphans, and even unwed mothers.

Some, in fact, had no disability at all.


Hoxsie House
The original school

The Rhode Island School for the Feeble-Minded

1908 — 1916

In the beginning, the Rhode Island School for the Feeble-Minded was little more than a remote farm colony where children and young adults with disabilities were sent to live, to work, and to be educated so that they might return to the community as contributing members of society. Exclusively a boys' school at its outset, the first female inmates arrived in 1913.

The Exeter School

1917 — 1957

As a sociopolitical movement called eugenics took root in America, criminality and heredity became increasingly common causes and reasons for the involuntary commitment of men and women to the institution. During the Prohibition and Depression eras it was't unusual for women to be indefinitely committed to the Exeter School, under warrant for their arrest, for crimes such as prostitution, illegitimate pregnancy, adultery, and other sexually-related misdemeanors.

Mann Building
The first female dormitory (1913)
The Ladd School
(1908 ~ 1953)
Howe Building
Male dormitory (1933)
Evergreen Building
Female dormitory (1953)
Dr. Joseph H. Ladd

The Dr. Joseph H. Ladd School

1958 — 1977

Influenced by notable changes in state laws and regulations, the institution opened its first dormitories made explicitly for people with profound developmental disabilities in 1953. Following the construction of a modern school building and state-of-the-art hospital in 1958 and 1962, the Ladd School began to resemble the place it is most often recognized as today.

Education & Recreation Building

The Dr. Joseph H. Ladd Center

1978 — 1994

Once peaking at over a thousand residents, the institution's population dwindled in the 1970s in tandem with the emergence of a new generation of social advocates and skilled caregivers. Further supported by federal funding and enlightened by advances in psychological and medical sciences, the Ladd Center came into its own while being held to higher standards than at any other time in its history.

Dr. John G. Smith
Second Superintendent
Fogarty Building

The End of An Era

Plagued by scandal, the institution's second administration ended in turmoil amidst substantiated allegations of abuse, neglect, and medical malpractice, giving rise to new, community-based living arrangements for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Finally, as part of the settlement in a class-action lawsuit filed against the state on behalf of Ladd Center residents, under the direction of its third administration, the institution was closed in 1994.

The Ladd Center
Howe Building
Exeter School Cemetery
89 Graves
Video: WJAR Flashback | Nov 30, 2018

An Urban Legend

1994 — Present

By the end of the 20th century, the abandoned Ladd Center had fallen to ruin. Under a cloud of disgrace, the institution at last became many things in its demise; a homeless shelter, a movie set, a ghost town, the object of local legend, and a travel destination for photographers, paranormal investigators, and vandals. Finally, in 2014, nearly all of its derelict buildings were demolished. Today, little more than a crumbling memorial park remains as a reminder that it ever existed at all.

Misfits for as Long as They Lived.

At last, the words of those who conspired against them betray the reasons why they were called Exeter Girls.


More to See

Collections | Historical

Over 2,000 collected materials

Exhibits | Rare & Unique

Rare and unique items on display

Books | Non-Fiction

True stories from the Ladd School
Exeter Girls: Letters From a Feeble-Minded School on
Exeter Girls: Letters From a Feeble-Minded School on

Frequently Asked Questions

Is the Ladd School still standing?
Most of its buildings have been demolished. There were two or three left that are being repurposed; one is a substance abuse center.
Did the Ladd School experiment on kids?
No, this is a common misconception based on the notion that the Ladd School started out in 1908 as an "experiment," meaning that it was a new kind of institution never established before in Rhode Island.
Was the Ladd School haunted?
Some people believe it was. Maybe only they know for sure.