It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an abandoned asylum or institution must be truly haunted.
In the state of Rhode Island, there are a few especially well known haunted areas. The first is the grave of Mercy Brown, who was once believed to be a vampire, though that story is a tragedy best told another time. The second site, which is incidentally located in the same, largely rural town of Exeter, is the place where the Ladd School was once run. In operation for more than 70 years, this institution was named for Dr. Joseph Ladd, a physician. Dr. Ladd lived onsite and oversaw the operation of the facilities (which were later named in his honor) for much of his life. Initially, this facility began as the Rhode Island School for the Feeble-Minded; a small operation, there were only a dozen or so residents. Yet, in time, the Ladd School become a massive operation, with up to 1,000 people ranging from the very young to the very old living on the campus. Still, 30 years on in the early 1940s, there would only be one doctor. As with other asylums, hospitals, retreats, and training centers, Ladd ballooned in size yet not in support staff.
So, why was this place created? As with other prominent doctors and many other professionals of his day, Dr. Ladd was a proponent of Eugenics. This context is incredibly important, and it was rightfully at the very forefront of a lecture I heard tonight at my local library. The talk was given by local journalist Kelly Sullivan Pezza, who is writing a book on the institution. As Sullivan Pezza stressed, Ladd was invested in not only creating a separate, segregated space for those with cognitive and physical disabilities. He wanted to create an environment where such persons would not be given an opportunity to have offspring. Sullivan Pezza painted a deeply disturbing picture of Ladd. She did not sanitize his efforts as those of a misguided bureaucrat, or dismiss his thinking as simply “of his time.” Rather, she described in great detail how Ladd would track down former residents who he believed should not reproduce. She made real for us his incredibly disproportionate sense of social power and responsibility by telling true stories about how he sought to manage families’ lives, including those who did not even live at Ladd. With great care, she revealed the extent to which his compulsive need to control those he deemed inferior largely created a map for his life’s course. It is obviously unfortunate that given his own social status, Dr. Ladd was able to change the trajectory of so many other lives, too.
Whatever promising beginnings there might have been, for even a moment at the early Ladd school, would have been impossible to locate, even a decade on. The “school” system at Ladd offered next to nothing by way of instruction for many years; those who were there to “learn” became known as inmates. Young women who transgressed in some way might be sent there by concerned parents; paper trails show anxious families then writing with the hopes that the young woman be released, only to find that sterilization was made part of the young lady’s “parole.” Those with cognitive difficulties often regressed due to inattention. The sanitation was abysmal. Those who have read reports or seen documentary work from the 1970s on the push for de-institutionalization will not be surprised by how Ladd, as an institution, devolved over time. The conditions had been inhumane for decades by the 1970s, but a shift in the broader culture had to occur before places like this would be shut down. In addition to (I imagine) a growing flood of anxious outsiders pressing for change, specific advocacy groups began speaking out against the confinement of people at Ladd. A prominent Rhode Islander quoted by Sullivan Pezza seemed to speak for many when he asked, in the 1970s, “Where has everybody been?” I found myself wondering this, too. Who knew about the deplorable conditions? Who was profiting from the steady stream of state money that kept Ladd afloat?
I was pained by both the severity and the recentness of this history. Yet I was grateful it was being told, and being spoken aloud to a packed room. It is convenient and far too easy to consider Eugenics a fringe movement that ended with the fall of Nazi Germany. As with so many topics, we need local history, and local historians, to take these complex movements and bring them closer to home. We need to have these kinds of conversations about how a concept such as Eugenics–the idea that humanity could be bettered through selective breeding–was carried out not simply by distant historical figures, but by real people who lived, worked, and often, raised families in plain view. To the question “Where has everybody been?” we could say: right here, right where we still are.
Sullivan Pezza concluded her talk with an image of gravestones that remain at Ladd. Many are in poor shape; the names were often carved by “inmates.” I can’t imagine they are easy to access today, for those who wish to pay their respects (as opposed to breaking in on a lark). Compared to the rest of Ladd, however, it is important that they remain. For more than two decades, Ladd has been gradually disappearing from the landscape. Many buildings of this once large complex have been and are still being demolished. In time, fewer and fewer people will probably remember hearing stories about how the abuses of Ladd were exposed; we can only guess how much longer former residents will be around to speak about them.
Sullivan Pezza told us about the looters — the people who came into the site, taking toe tags and medical records. These people, some of whom regard themselves as thrill seekers or ghost hunters, have been stealing the list bits and pieces of the lives that were already stolen. Within Rhode Island and the larger “hunting” community, many fixate on which ghosts might linger at Ladd. They ponder how these spirits might frighten us if we dare intrude and take a peek at their former world. Here’s what I am haunted and struck by–the number she left us with: 4,533. This is how many residents came to Ladd from 1908 until it was formally closed, until the last resident left in 1994. An early goal of the institution had been to remove these people “from circulation” — from being integrated into society. The room was absolutely rapt as she reminded us that the Ladd school had indeed removed these people, for a time, from the rest of society. The silence that envelops Ladd today is a troubling continuation of the silences that kept the “feeble-minded,” a term so loosely and ill defined that it could encompass nearly anyone, apart, alienated–and away.
Something that is haunting is partially defined as “difficult to ignore or forget.” Yet many of the people at Ladd have been rather easy for mainstream society to forget. We often regard Eugenics as little more than a relic of early 20th century society. Then, we simultaneously seek out complicated machinery to try to communicate with “spirits” on sites of great historic suffering. If we are to be haunted at all, it should be because of a clear vision of this history. We need not step or trespass into their hallowed ground to recognize a difficult past.