An Asylum’s Life and Afterlife

Link to powerpoint

Hi everyone. Like Stephen said, I’m Kate O’Connor and I’m a phd candidate in American Culture at University of Michigan. The paper I’m going to present to you today is a relatively new area of research for me that is still in its infancy. So any and all feedback is most welcome.

A brief backstory for context. The institution that I’ll be discussing in this talk, the Wayne County Training School and Home for Feebleminded Children, used to be part of the community where my grandma, my family, and myself have lived for the better part of our lives. I grew up listening to stories about the training school and these stories are what inspired this line of research.

Today, I’m going to start off with a story that I heard while playing pinochle with my nearly 90 year old grandma and her friends. My grandma’s friends had all lived in the area since at least the 1950s and when they learned that my research centered around the infamous local “state home,” they all chimed in with their own stories. One in particular stood out.

“Oh you’re writing about the state home? Well let me tell you about those kids.” My grandmother’s friend . “When I was in high school, sometime in the early 1950s I think, two boys escaped from that place. They ran to my neighborhood and broke into the house next door and murdered the whole family. It was a scandal! The boys were caught and sent back but I don’t know why. They needed to go to a right prison!”

Jean’s words captivated me. My dad grew up just a few blocks away from the training school, before it closed in the 1970s, and I’ve lived less than a mile from the training school grounds since high school. Of course I had heard stories – they were community folklore – but I had never heard this particular story.

Alas, after weeks of extensive research, it became clear that Jean’s story likely existed only in her mind. Human memory is funny like that, but it pushed me to wonder why these stories persisted, and why they took the particular form that theydid. That wonder is what forms the basis of today’s talk and will ultimately be part of the last chapter of my dissertation concentrating on the afterlives of mental institutions, or what happens to such institutions after they close but remain fixtures in the local community.

The main question driving this paper is how the discourse of hauntings and gruesome acts which surround this former training school  rooted in the demonization of youth who were labeled “delinquent” and/or “errant” by those who officials who operated the institutions and others.

As I said before, the “state home” that I’ve been talking about was officially called the Wayne County Training School and Home for Feebleminded children. *Feebleminded was a term used in the 19th and 20th centuries that was applied to someone who was considered to have subnormal intelligence. It was also a label attached to individuals deemed incapable of making good decisions, such as so-called sexual and criminal delinquents, regardless of tested intelligence levels.

This talk will briefly trace the history of the ­training school from its conception in the early 20th century through its final destruction in the late 1990s. What I am most interested in exploring is the complicated web between the training school and the surrounding community, with an emphasis on the community stories still attached to the training grounds. As with many other former institutions, the stories attached to the training school usually include the figurative or literal ghosts of children tied to gruesome and abusive acts. The telling and retelling of these stories help perpetuate the dehumanization of children labeled cognitively impaired or delinquent.

The training school’s history begins decades before anyone had even proposed a training school near Detroit. Its origins begin with the founding of the Lapeer Home for the Feebleminded in the late 19th century, a period of early population boom in Michigan.

A perceived increase in crime, sexual delinquency, and a real increase in migrants and immigrants led in part to the rise of what was called the “menace of the feebleminded.” This was a panic among the middle and upper classes that a newly constructed class of people – the feebleminded – were a grave danger to both the physical and financial health of the population. The demand for an institution to contain these individuals led to the approval of the Lapeer home.

By the time Lapeer opened in 1897, the institution already had a waiting list considerably larger than the number of beds available. As many individuals who entered Lapeer would be there for the rest of their lives, the call for an expanded or new feebleminded home began almost immediately.

Due in large part to the exponential increase in the population of Detroit, the Wayne County government, began to lobby the state for their own training school. By the beginning of the 20th century, city and county officials grew wary of housing young criminal offenders with adults, which often resulted in young people being released on probation as there was nowhere else to house them. In 1907, Detroit set up its first juvenile court. Youths who passed through this court were usually released on probation but those who were deemed incorrigible were sent to reformatory schools if they were deemed to be of otherwise normal intelligence. Like most institutions in Michigan, these schools were overcrowded and refused most students.

After years of lobbying, the state legislature approved the funding for a new training school in Wayne County for feebleminded children, which opened in 1926. Unlike the Lapeer home for the feebleminded, Wayne County only accepted children that were considered “trainable.” Stays were meant to be short-term with the intention of turning delinquent young people into abled workers for the burgeoning industrial economy.

Between 1926 and 1974, tens of thousands of young people passed through the training school. Most stayed from several months to a few years but all were paroled by their early 20s at the latest.

Most often, they were allowed to be released once they were deemed an industrial and productive citizen who was no longer at risk of being a “public charge.” To that end, during one of the darkest periods of the training school, that definition often included involuntarily eugenic sterilization before they were allowed to be released.

Despite the fenced grounds and routine patrols, escapes by children were fairly common. Nearly all of them were brought back within a day or so and few managed to escape permanently. The school being located in a then-rural area meant that most tried to illegal stowaway on trains in order to get back to wherever home was, usually Detroit.

By the late 1940s, with the rise of white flight from Detroit, families began flocking to the suburbs – including Northville and Plymouth, the two communities surrounding the training school.

However, with no decrease in the number of youth escapes, the new communities grew wary of having a training school with “bad kids” in their backyard. Even though the training school closed in the 1970s, older folks in the community still talk about the “state home” kids with a distrust in their voice. Once I bring up the fact that I’m conducting research on the old training school, almost everyone has their own stories to share.

These stories lead me into the second half of this talk, the afterlives of the training school.

On October 18, 1974, the Wayne County Training School for Feebleminded Children officially closed its doors after nearly 50 years of housing and ostensibly training delinquent or wayward youth. The stated purpose of its closure was that it was no longer needed and that children would do better in community homes. As with many former residents of institutions during the deinstitutionalization movement of the mid 20th century, the community homes which were supposed to house these now homeless youths never materialized. Instead, children ended up in foster homes, reform schools, and often juvenile detention and adult prisons.

The actual reason for closure was that taxpayers refused to authorize any increases in spending for the school, deeming it a community hazard and waste of money.

The training school’s history had been filled with abuse, sterilization, and family separation but former residents of the training school also have fond memories of having full bellies and stable housing for the first time in their lives, learning a useful trade, and forming lifelong friendships. These latter stories, of course, fail to inspire the imagination and therefore are generally only shared among former residents and maybe their families. It is the former stories – the abuse, deaths, and borderline inhuman inhabitants – that continue to haunt the public memory.

In the late 1970s, there was a long debate over what would become of the old state home. The state governor and several legislatures lobbied for it to be turned into an adult prison. There was no significant community pushback against this idea, which was ironic considering the youth training school had been decried as a hazard but an adult prison was not. Yet, this did not come to pass as new prisons were already under construction in Wayne County and it was deemed a waste. So, for the rest of the decade, the training school sat empty.

In the 1980s, the Plymouth and Northville Jaycees club partnered with the city, county, and state to turn one of the cottages into a haunted house. Though there were 13 still-remaining cottages where residents of the training school once lived, they chose perhaps the most notorious cottage for their haunted house.

From the late 1930s through the late 1950s, one cottage was referred to as the “punishment cottage.” Ostensibly this is where residents were sent when they were misbehaving and the usual correction measures including privilege denials and temporary group separation did not correct the deviant behavior. Stays in the cottage lasted a minimum of a month and the reports for what happened in the punishment cottage are mixed and unclear.

However, nearly as soon as the punishment cottage opened, reports of gross abuse and neglect flooded both the training school and the local community. Children who were released from the training school tried speaking out about the abuse suffered there and seem to have been routinely ignored.

While these complains were lodged for decades, only one person seems to have been criminally charged in relation to the beatings that occurred in the punishment college. George Fiske, a 22-year-old attendant of the punishment cottage, was fined $50 in 1942 after pleading guilty to one battery charge. He had been accused of routine beatings by dozens of children.

While the stories told by these children fell on unhearing or uncaring ears, the surrounding community was at least passively paying attention. Rather than reacting in horror and demanding that action be taken on behalf of these children, it fostered a type of morbid curiosity. Once the training school closed, that notorious building became infamous as the one most likely to be haunted.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that when the time came to pick a cottage for their haunted house, the Jaycees chose the punishment cottage. Advertisements were barely necessary given the infamy of the both the school and the cottage. The haunted house was an incredible success and was held for another several years even despite protests from many former residents who simply wanted the building demolished to ease the painful memories.

The association of disability with hauntings and other gruesome tales is nothing new. A handful of disability studies scholars including Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Kelly George, and Emily Smith Beitiks have explicitly studied the link between the public imagination, freak and/or haunted imagery, and disability. Where I seek to further push this analysis is in the critical examination of the role of the state in the creation of these hauntings.

For the young people in the training school, there was nothing inherently within them that indicated that they were feebleminded or delinquents. Instead, it was through state intervention – IQ testing, compulsory education, criminal courts, confinement to the training home itself, and so on – that forced these children to become part of the public consciousness that feared “the feebleminded menace” or “the criminally insane.”

Yes, many of the children who were committed to the training school had a history of violence. However, the vast majority were there due to neglect, parental death, petty crime, and sexual delinquency. The state confined these children and under the guise of medical treatments and state reform, proceeded to often cruelly mistreat them.

Reports abound from parents who claimed that the children who were returned to them from the training school were not the same children who were taken from them. Their children who had left their homes as happy, if mischievous, kids were returned young adults who were angry, scared, and just generally sullen creatures. Several young people who had escaped, were in violation of their parole, or were otherwise set to return to the institution decided to end their lives rather than return. In the words of one 15-year-old boy who ended his life with a shotgun in 1952 rather than return to the training school where he had just escaped, “I done it to get out of training school.”

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