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Belchertown State School: An abandoned developmental center in Belchertown with a horrific history

David Goran

Consisting of about 50 buildings on an 845-acre campus, the Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded was established in 1922 in Belchertown, Massachusetts. The facility was once rated to support over 700 residents, to which was exceeded in the 1920’s.

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After its establishment, the school became the only institution for developmentally disabled children in Western Massachusetts.

The campus contains ten major buildings built in a Colonial Revival style by Kendall, Taylor, and Co. The state schools of Massachusetts were different from state hospitals.

State hospitals were for the mentally ill, while state schools were institutions for the mentally defective (the name is a misnomer, as they did not generally involve any form of education).

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The first year the school was open, more than 400 patients were moved into the 800 acre complex, 200 of which consisted of a school farm. Operating mostly without scrutiny from outside sources, throughout its first 40 years, the conditions were “horrific”, “medieval“, and “barbaric”.

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Serving developmentally disabled children for 70 years, the school became known for inhumane conditions and poor treatment of its patients and became the target of a series of lawsuits.

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By 1945, the school was suffering from being overcrowded and having fire hazards. As time passed, the conditions at Belchertown State Hospital were awful with patients having their teeth removed for easier force feeding, sexual abuse, vermin infestation of wards, not properly being taken to the bathroom and patients sitting in their own excrement, overall neglect and much more.

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The horrendous conditions at Belchertown were revealed in 1971 in a newspaper article entitled “The Tragedy of Belchertown“. Parents sued the school, and when the state Attorney General toured the facility, he described it as “a hell hole”.

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When 1972 came so did the first class action lawsuit against Belchertown and so did the resignation of the superintendent. With these followed more lawsuits and more resignations and books written by patients who suffered depravity at the Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded.

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After decades of reported human rights violations, the facility completely ceased operations in 1992. The school has been abandoned ever since, with some buildings suffering from extreme decay and several buildings beyond repair, but many plans have come to surface on what to do with the buildings and land.

Photos: Matthew Hester/Flickr