The American Idiot Schools: Disability and Segregation in the Nineteenth Century

Kathryn Irving Yale University 2013-2014 Dissertation Research Fellow

Over the course of the nineteenth century, ideas and practices around disability changed dramatically. My project charts these developments by focusing on intellectual disability—“idiocy”—particularly in children. A transatlantic revolution in the theory of “mental deficiency” in the first half of the nineteenth century paved the way for the establishment of “idiot schools” in the United States, beginning in Massachusetts in 1848. While initially designed as rehabilitative residential schools, these institutions were transformed into sprawling, isolated, custodial, eugenic asylums by the end of the nineteenth century. This project seeks to explain the emergence of eugenics, by examining the interaction of ideas, practices, and local conditions, at the American idiot schools. Access to archives from the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science was crucial for the bulk of this project. The opening of the first state idiot school in Boston in 1848 coincided with the establishment of a private institution in Western Massachusetts. The archival records for this private school are now housed at the College of Physicians in Philadelphia. While I had visited this collection in the past, during my PACHS tenure I was able to spend much more time with the documents. Moreover, now that my project is more advanced, I found that my attention was drawn by materials that I had glossed over in earlier visits. For example, the school’s meticulous account books give me unparalleled insight into the daily workings of the school, its business model, how tuition fees were determined for different pupils, what items parents chose to send their children, staff salaries and tenures, and the role of the school in the local economy. The first part of my project traces the development and spread of new ideas about idiocy over the first part of the nineteenth century, principally in France, Germany, the UK, and the US. Accordingly, it was extremely useful to have access to the many treatises, monographs, and pamphlets on this subject that are now held by several Philadelphia archives, including the Library Company of Philadelphia, the College of Physicians, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the American Philosophical Society. Since I am trying to chart the development of a canon of works—or the emergence of consensus among experts—it was particularly helpful to see multiple copies of the same documents, which were often inscribed or annotated by their owners. Finally, experienced archivists were able to direct me to indices and secondary literature that also illuminate the circulation of ideas in my time-period (for example, the bibliography of the Surgeon-General’s Library). Because I am also interested in the spread of institutions and practices, the Annual Reports from the various American idiot schools—in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Kentucky, in particular—are an important source. Typically, these reports illuminate the ideologies of their superintendents, the practices and finances of the schools, and the community of experts that was emerging around the new category of the “improvable idiot.” But researchers must generally consult several archives to reconstruct these schools: few archives hold complete runs of the nineteenth-century reports, even for a single state; and it is worth reading large numbers of reports, both to gain a sense of chronology, and because the actual content of individual reports is unpredictable. For example, occasional reports contain such historical “gems” as letters from parents, or samples of student work. These insights are especially valuable to researchers now, since access to many idiot school collections is restricted by concerns over medical privacy. (The Annual Reports are considered public documents, so not subject to HIPAA). By visiting four archives that each held a number of reports, the PACHS fellowship allowed me to assemble an impressive catalogue of reports from across the US, spanning the second half of the nineteenth century. One of the major benefits of a consortium like PACHS is the opportunity to consult a large number of archivists, librarians, and specialists. Although on-line catalogues are an effective way of narrowing down archive choice—and of locating specific collections, such as the Massachusetts private school, or state annual reports—most archives continue to hold much more than is currently catalogued on-line. There are several further advantages in consulting archivists in person: they can help to identify useful search terms, which can be difficult historically, particularly in a field like medical or psychiatric history. I found that “intellectual disability” (the currently preferred term) did not turn up many sources; many documents catalogued in the twentieth century were tagged under “mental retardation,” and still others used contemporary terms like “feeble-mindedness” or “idiocy” or their variants. Archivists also helped me to identify sources that were not electronically catalogued, or not catalogued principally as “idiot” documents, but were still very useful—for example, particular items that were held in more generic collections of nineteenth-century pamphlets. Finally, archivists made wonderfully creative suggestions about links in my project that I hadn’t yet considered. For example, staff at the Library Company of Philadelphia helped me to identify some very early photographs of “idiot” children in a publication from one of the superintendents; they then helped me to understand the process of photography and printmaking, and how this particular studio photographer fit into the social and artistic landscape of mid-century Philadelphia. Finally, the PACHS fellowship was a wonderful opportunity to meet other researchers and graduate students. PACHS is particularly well-suited to this, because of the number and range of researchers that it sponsors each year. I am especially excited by the commitment of PACHS to build an on-going community of scholars, through its regular symposia and working-groups. By allowing me to conduct such intensive archival research at the Library Company of Philadelphia, the College of Physicians, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the American Philosophical Society, PACHS has enabled the dissertation project that I had planned. More exciting has been the unexpected ways in which my PACHS research is pushing me into new directions, in what I believe will be an even better exploration of the history of intellectual disability in American children.