When it comes to the most haunted abandoned places in Massachusetts, it is hard to top the abandoned campus of the Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded in Belchertown, Massachusetts. The school was established in 1922 and closed down in 1992. During its seven decades of operation many horrific events occurred at the school. Patients at the school were regularly mistreated in a variety of ways from their unsafe and unhygienic living conditions to abusive and uninterested attendants.
The Belchertown State School opened in 1922 as the third “school for the feeble-minded” in Massachusetts. It was deemed necessary to help treat disabled people in the western part of the state, while the Fernald School in Waltham and the Wrentham School were in the east. The need for the Belchertown State School was recognized as early as 1913 because the Trustees of the Fernald School reported a great demand for its school’s services and its inability to serve all requests. Following the request for a new state school, Massachusetts deemed the project necessary. In 1915, the state set aside $50,000 and used that money to purchase 700 acres of land in Belchertown, Massachusetts to start the process of forming a school.
The campus of the Belchertown State School was developed on the dispersed cottage plan design which dominated state schools and hospitals from the late nineteenth century on. The cottage plan replaced the prior, popular Kirkbride Plan. Many of the primary buildings at Belchertown, specifically the brick patient wards and the stuccoed cottages that once housed staff, are built nearly the exact same as those at the Wrentham State School which opened in 1906. Kendall, Taylor, & Company, led by Henry H. Kendall, was the architecture firm that designed many of the buildings for the Belchertown State School.
Opening Day and Original Success
Formal opening ceremonies were held on November 15, 1922 at the school. Dr. George E. McPherson led the school as superintendent. To start the school off with patients, 65 boys were transferred from the Fernald School on opening day. An additional 128 more boys were transferred to the school on November 24, this time coming from the Fernald and Wrentham schools. Several more buildings on the campus were built in the months following the opening of Belchertown. One year after the school had opened, there were 428 patients and the school had the capacity to hold 710 at the time. Three years after opening, in 1925, the patient capacity hit 729.
The Trustees, who managed the Belchertown School, produced Annual Reports and in 1924, they wrote “The gradual development of hand-work for the girls and industrial work for the boys, in cramped and inadequate quarters, is suggestive of future development under more auspicious conditions. The same is true of the school department. The out-of-door activities in digging and grading and the farm work of the able bodied boys, have given wholesome, purposeful occupation, which reacts in cheerfulness and self-respect among the workers.”
Things Going Downhill
The superintendent of the school changed several times over the school’s 70 year history. Dr. George E. McPherson served as the first superintendent from 1923 to 1943. The role was then filled by Dr. Henry A. Tagdell who stayed for 17 years. He was later replaced by Dr. Lawrence P. Bowser. It was during the mid-20th century that the state school started going downhill.
The first report of any issue with the school was flagged in 1945 by the systemwide Governor & Council Report. This report highlighted many positive aspects of the Belchertown State School, but also a few negatives. One issue was patients beds in the dormitory rooms being too close together. This was causing poor ventilation and a fire hazard. Additionally, some of the dorms near the school’s farm were old and wood-framed buildings which were fire-hazards. The final negative noted in the report was the school liked a property infirmary for chronic cases. There was no proper way to deal with such cases in the current setup.
Sadly, the negatives brought up in the 1945 report were never properly addressed. During the 1970s, the state school received mass media attention due to its terrible operations. The first person to report on the poorly run state school was Jeremy Shanks who was a reporter for the Springfield Union. A series of articles produced by the newspaper, titled “The Tragedy of Belchertown,” exposed the subhuman living conditions at the school. This scathing series of articles is what led to Dr. Bowser’s resignation. Three superintendents would follow Bowser as they tried to right the wrongs of the school.
In 1972, the school was once again receiving scrutiny. This time it was from Ben Ricci, a parent of Belchertown patient, Simpson Ricci. Ben began a class-action lawsuit against the school claiming the conditions to be horrific and inhumane. Judge Joseph L. Tauro, who was assigned to the case, was shocked by the claims being made in the case. After reading the case, he decided to visit the school without prior notice in order to see what things were truly like there.
In May of 1973, Judge Tauro went to Belchertown State School unannounced and what he observed was truly shocking. Tauro talked about his findings saying he saw, “clogged plumbing, unattended residents drinking out of commodes, and an overwhelming stench of urine and feces. And there was incessant screaming … a soundtrack of horrible screaming.” (Source) Additionally, he mentioned that there were naked patients sleeping on the floor and they were covered in insect bites.
Needless to say, Judge Tauro ruled with the patients instead of the school. This lawsuit, officially known as Ricci v, Greenblatt, was the first lawsuit against a state school. After a successful suit, more followed in Massachusetts. The direct outcome of Ricci’s lawsuit was the state being forced to spend millions of dollars to upgrade the institutions for the disabled all throughout the state. Additionally, the state was ordered to provide all necessary services to support the plaintiff class throughout the rest of their lives.
Along with the judge’s ruling in 1973, another big event occurred. The state of Massachuhsetts set out to investigate the school after four patients died on the campus. These deaths occurred due to the institution’s neglect and poor safety protocols.
Throughout the rest of the 1970s and early 1980s, several more cases were brought agains Belchertown State School. In 1975, two residents sued the school because they were refused to be allowed to vote. The case was successful. In 1977, a case was brought against a the school on behalf of a 67 year old patient with an IQ of 10 who could not talk or communicate. She was diagnosed with AMM leukemia which was 100% fatal, but there was a 50% chance of partial remission with chemotherapy. The appointed Guardian believed she should be left to die and not receive treatment. This Guardian believed Ms. Saikowitz could not feel pain. This case was known as Superintendent of BELCHERTOWN state school v. Jos. SAIKOWITZ.
The Self Advocacy Movement
In 1969, the Director of the Swedish Parent Association, Dr. Bengt Nirje, presented his paper, “Towards Independence,” at the 11th World Congress of the International Society for Rehabilitation of the Disabled in Dublin, Ireland. The study followed previous advancements in Sweden’s self-advocacy movement, which Nirje had started. At the time, it was considered radical to allow people with developmental impairments to live normally in the community and make their own decisions, but a movement quickly gathered traction.
Self-advocates organized a march in Belchertown at the beginning of the 1980s to protest the continued operation of the controversial state school. One of the very first self-advocacy movements demonstrations was this event. The march traveled from the institution to the town common, where a discussion regarding the institution’s future was to be held. Many of the participants had formerly been patients at the school.
A survey was ordered in 1992, the year the facility was scheduled to close, to find out how current and previous Belchertown inhabitants felt about their living circumstances. Former inhabitants and their family were far more likely to say that they were happy with living in a community instead of at the school. More and more patients had moved back into the community during the previous couple of years. Some of them moved in with other former Belchertown patients in apartments or houses.
Ultimately, the operations at Belchertown ended in 1992. Two years after closing down, the school was listed on the National Register of Historic Places due to its historical significance and great architecture.
Over the years, many state schools in Massachusetts have been shut down and de-development has occurred on their campuses. Many changes have been made to the Belchertown State School in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. In 2001, Belchertown had a town meeting where it was decided that the school property would become an Economic Opportunity Area from 2001-2021. This meant that any economic development plan would give tax incentives to any businesses that were established on the grounds of the old state school.
Today, some of the businesses enjoying the tax incentives can be found, including an embroidery shop and newspaper firm, located in a restored dormitory building. Another economic development was the creation of the Christopher Heights of Belchertown assisted-living facility. There were also a few public facilities established on the property including the Belchertown Police Department, Belchertown Parks and Recreation Department, Belchertown Municipal Skatepark, and the Belchertown Senior Center. Additionally, the Foley Field sports complex was built to provide public baseball diamonds and fields for locals.
REMINDER: Do not attempt to enter any buildings on the campus. If you want to see the center, just admire it from the road. Police and security are always active and trespassers will be prosecuted. Many people have been arrested trying to get into buildings here.
- Year Established: 1922
- Year Abandoned: 1992
- Original Function: Third state school in Massachusetts to serve the “feeble-minded”
- NRHP Number: 94000688
Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded Location
- Address: Carriage Road
- Town: Belchertown
- State: Massachusetts
- GPS: 42.277004, -72.414272
- Parking Notes: Visitors can park at the Lake Wallace Sensory Trail and then walk along the road to see the abandoned buildings. Again, no buildings are open to the public. Visitors should stay on the sidewalk.
- Parking Directions: HERE
- Location Directions: HERE