The Ladd School was Rhode Island's only custodial institution for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Over the course of its 86-year history, more than 5,000 men, women and children lived and died there.
School for the Feeble-Minded
The Rhode Island School for the Feeble-Minded was settled in 1908 on a farm in the town of Exeter by Dr. Joseph Henry Ladd; protege of the internationally famed eugenicist Dr. Walter Fernald, who had established the nation's first colony for the feeble-minded in Massachusetts several years earlier.
In the beginning, just eight young men from the state almshouse occupied the Exeter farm alongside Dr. Ladd, his wife, infant daughter, and two attendants, where, legend tells, they all lived under the same roof;
"They all ate the same food from a common kettle, and the young doctor, who then was still a dedicated man, tried to bring a little light into the dark lives of his charges branded by the outside world as outcasts. In the winter, when the place was snowbound and it was difficult to get supplies through, the food often had to be portioned out very sparingly. On bitter cold nights the wind howled through the old building and the wood stove failed to keep it warm. It was a lonely, isolated place, with the nearest community of any size 10 miles away. In those days it seemed like the end of the world."
Greenberg, S. (1948, Feb 29) The Providence Sunday Journal
The Exeter School
In its formative years, the Rhode Island School for the Feeble-Minded was practically indistinguishable from a country farm; but its development was steadfast and soon it took on a familiar shape, like that of similar institutions in neighboring New England states.
By the labor of its earliest residents, in 1909 the farm was expanded, and in 1911 an industrial school building was erected. In 1913 the institution began accepting female admissions, and in 1916, its name was changed to The Exeter School. In only ten years' time, the reservation had grown to the size of a small village, comprised of a colony of wooden cottages for the men and boys at one end, and a dormitory for the girls, a nurses home and the school building on the other, while a powerplant situated between them provided electricity and steam heat to the new buildings. Already overcrowded, by the end of the decade more than 300 people lived at the burgeoning institution.
The Exeter School begins to resemble a reformatory rather than a farm or school for special education. Prohibition-era laws and the rise of the Eugneics movement compel the state to place greater emphasis on the permanent custodial care of people with disabilities, while also enforcing the commitment of petty criminals, juvenile delinquents, and sexually promiscuous women. Residents are classified by three clinical categories - idiots, imbeciles, and morons - and are regarded as "inmates." Dr. Ladd becomes a vocal advocate for the sexual sterilization of the feeble-minded, and the institution is roundly regarded as a "dumping ground", as its population surges, nearing 600; almost twice its physical capacity.
Through the Great Depression the Exeter School continues to gradually expand; but its growth is easily outpaced by annual admissions. For nearly 900 residents, there is only one doctor, nurse, and social worker. At times, there are no teachers. Though the school building is repurposed as a dormitory to make room for women and children, space is so limited that some residents are made to sleep on the floor. In spite of the addition of an infirmary to its campus in 1935, diseases such as tuberculosis, influenza and hepatitis run rampant, resulting in more deaths than during any other decade of the institution's history.
At the dawning of the second World War, the Exeter School's number of personnel reaches an all-time low, necessitating the employment of patients as attendants. Now severely overcrowded for more than 20 years, the instituton houses over 1,300 men, women and children. Denied as much as half of its requested budget for years on end, in 1947 Dr. Ladd discharges nearly a third of The Exeter School's population, and is furthermore instrumental in the passage of a new state "Defective Delinquent" law permitting the School to transfer some of its inmates to the state prison, reformatory, and insane asylum. Despite these efforts, more than 1,000 people still reside at the School.
The Dr. Joseph H. Ladd School
On October 18, 1955, police arrived at the Exeter School to find the body of a 9-year-old boy who had suffocated to death after being restrained inside a laundry sack in a dormitory shower room. It was but one in a string of accidental deaths in recent years that had plunged the institution into a tailspin of scandal, resulting in Dr. Ladd's sudden resignation in 1956.
The establishment of a new administration was immediate, and the appointment of Dr. Ladd's successor, Dr. John G. Smith, prompted sweeping reform of the institution, renewing efforts toward providing special education and housing for people with profound intellectual and developmental disabilities.
In 1958, as though to distance it from past events, by an act of the General Assembly the Exeter School was officially renamed the Dr. Joseph H. School.
The most ambitious building plans ever conceived of at the Ladd School come to pass with the construction of a modern school building, a state-of-the-art hospital, and a cluster of group-home style cottages. Though still understaffed, significant increases in funding are provided by state and federal grants, and the School's personnel nearly doubles over the previous decade. The expansion of its clinical psychology and social services departments, as well as its teaching and medical staff, provide new services for residents, while changes in the defective delinquent law practically exonerate The Ladd School from admitting criminal cases. Annual admissions decrease, and the population stabilizes at just over 1,000 residents.
The Dr. Joseph H. Ladd Center
Amid a climate of political friction, union disputes and growing employee unrest, in September of 1977 the details of an independent study conducted at the Ladd School were leaked to the press by social activists. Citing unsanitary and life-threatening conditions at the institution's dental clinic, the report stoked widespread public outrage, precipitating further investigations revealing a years-long record of ongoing medical malpractice at the School resulting in numerous, preventable deaths.
Though having repudiated several calls for his resignation by beurocratic adversaries in recent years, the scandal proved more than Superintendent Dr. Smith could bear. When a class-action lawsuit was filed in 1978 by the Rhode Island Association of Retarded Citizens (RIARC) charging the state with a litany of human rights violations, Dr. Smith was summarily fired by executive order of the Governor.
That year, for a third and final time, the Ladd School was renamed the Dr. Joseph H. Ladd Center.
At the direction of the Ladd Center's new executive director, Mr. George Gunther, the institution once more undergoes sweeping reform. The formation of grass-roots advocacy groups and the establishment of some of the earliest privately run group homes place the state at the forefront of a nation wide deinstitutonalization movement. Under court order to diminish its population, several buildings are closed, and hundreds of Ladd Center residents are moved into community settings. In 1986, Governor Edward DiPrete announces a plan to close the Ladd Center, and Rhode Island becomes the first state in the union to officially proclaim the abolition of state-run institutional care of people with developmental disabilities. By the end of the decade, about 300 residents remain.
The Ladd School
On March 25, 1994, the last of five men boarded a bus at the Ladd Center; and as it drove off, so ended an era. The institution was finally closed. Over the course of its 86-year history, it had been home - in a manner of speaking - to more than 5,000 souls.
"There was no ceremony for Ladd's last hours - no speeches, no champagne, only a quiet, emotional gathering of some two dozen people who battled for decades to build a better life for those who could not do it themselves.
'The beast is dead,' said Dr. Robert L. Carl, Jr., the state official responsible as anyone for slaying it. 'Nazi Germany killed these people.... Rhode Island made a commitment to treat them with dignity and respect.'"
Miller, G. Wayne (1994, Mar 26), The Providence Journal Bulletin, p.1
Today, thousands of Rhode Islanders with intellectual and developmental disabilities - some of them former Ladd Center residents - live and receive services in the community, whether in group homes, or in other independent or shared living arrangements. Through the ongoing efforts of a generation of community leaders and self advocates who helped to pioneer reform in the 1970s, since the institution's closure community support for people with disabilities has continued to grow and evolve in modern times.
But generations are passing, and evidence abounds that the memory of the Ladd School is fading.
Deserted over 20 years ago, the Dr. Joseph H. Ladd Center, better known as The Ladd School, has all but vanished from the landcape, as it has from public discourse. Rumored to be haunted, in the 21st century its vacant buildings were the object of local folklore. A conspicuous ruin in the countryside, it became a popular destination for ubran explorers, photographers and vandals. Proposals for redeveloping the grounds were rejected by city planners for years, until 2012 when the last of its remaining buildings, some nearly a century old, were finally demolished, leaving hardly a trace of their existence.
Until only recently, little was even known of the Ladd School's history.
Now but for a lone and neglected memorial obscured mostly from view at the site of the original farmhouse, visitors to the Ladd School's grounds in Exeter will find nothing of the turmoil, the suffering or struggle of those who once lived at the institution. Vast, empty lots, criss-crossed by disintegrating roads, are all that remain, and even they are fast being overtaken by nature; a sign itself, perhaps, of society's progress and triumph over the institution's past.
"In all public asylums as well as in prisons and hospitals ... the only method of securing health, good order, and good manners, is ... execution of the natural law of bodily labour...."A Treatise on Insanity (1806)
"Here is a subnormal boy who has lacked civilizing experience. If I give him this experience, he will become normal."Lieberman, L. M. (1982). Itard: The Great Problem Solver. Journal Of Learning Disabilities
"Not one idiot in a thousand has been entirely refractory to treatment ... to conform to social and moral law ... and to working like the third of a man...."(1889) Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biograph
"The humanity and justice of our rulers will prompt them to take immediate measures for the formation of a school or schools for the instruction and training of idiots."(1848) Report Made to the Legislature of Massachusetts Upon Idiocy
"Colonization seems ... to be the ideal and perfectly satisfactory method."Goddard, Henry H. (1913) The Kallikak Family
"Feeble-mindedness is the mother of crime, pauperism and degeneracy. It is certain that the feebleminded and their progeny constitute one of the great social and economic burdens of modern times."(1919) National Committee for Mental Hygeine Vol.3, p.180
"For it is a matter of fact that the removal or isolation of these helpless subjects in an institution ... returns one or more self-supporting persons, bread-winners, to the general public. "(1907) Report ... On a State School for Feeble-Minded Children
"You don't need teachers; what you need is an asphyxiation chamber."DeSilva, B.(1974, May 19) The Providence Journal, p.A1
"Modern society circumvents nature's law of the survival of the fittest, but we mustn't go too far in allowing not only the survival but also the multiplication of the unfit."Greenberg, S. (1948, Feb 29) Dr. Ladd. The Providence Journal, p.19
"Patient is a little dwarf who works about at the Colony and cares for the low grades .... He has had no serious illness in the past year. However, he has grown old."(1947, June), Medical Notes for R.D.
"Society must proect itself against nameless children and our School gave the protection."Jason Carpenter (2014), Exeter Girls, vol.1, p.139
"I considered it necessary for [the patient] to get another whipping, and if ever she needed a whipping, she needed one last night."Jason Carpenter (Unpublished), Exeter Girls, vol.2
"Do you see where the patients have kicked out the plaster here? It's no wonder. I'd like to kick it myself."Terry Goldstein & Beryl Segal (Nov, 1973), RI Jewish Historical Notes
"The Ladd School is currently a poor operation. There is virtually no leadership -- in the full meaning of that word."Peter Perl (1978, Feb 5), The Providence Journal
"The Exeter hospital is the home of the eternally doomed...."Report to The General Assembly (1955)
"Oh my God. It's horrible, absolutely horrible."(1977, November 16), The Providence Journal, p.A1
"Don't you ever come down here and ask for my resignation, only come down and fire me. I will never resign."(1978, October 16), The Providence Journal, p.A1
"We're catching up for 50 years of neglect and that just doesn't happen overnight."(1974, July 25), The Bridgeport Post, p.6
"Mass admissions are harmful both to the individual ... and to the institution and violate human rights."(1946, June 30), Report to the Dept. of Social Welfare
"[The Exeter School hospital] is not a real hospital.... The school's staff of only two physicians is wholly inadequate for an institution the size of Exeter."(1957, April 19), The Providence Journal, p.6
Politics and medicine don't mix.(1977, Oct 5), The Providence Journal, p.A20
"Institutions like Ladd should no
Perl, P. (1979, Feb 5) The Providence Journal
"It's a disgrace for people to live here."(1977, Oct 9) The Providence Journal, p.C1
"I can't say it's illegal incerceration, but in our opinion it's incarceration."(1977, Oct 23), The Providence Journal, p.A1
"It is with great pride that I announce my decision to close the Dr. Ladd Center."Fitzpatrick, Colleen (1986, July 31), The Providence Journal Bulletin, p.A3
"The beast is dead."Miller, G. Wayne (1994, Mar 26) The Providence Journal Bulletin, p.1