Alice’s Story, Part 2: The Exeter School

Exeter School, Superintendent's House and Administration. Rhode Island School for the Feeble-Minded in Exeter. Report. Providence: 1910.
Exeter School, Superintendent’s House and Administration. Rhode Island School for the Feeble-Minded in Exeter. Report. Providence: 1910.

In Part 1 of Alice’s story, I wrote about my great-aunt Alice Tillotson, who was a teenager when she was dropped off at the Oaklawn School for Girls around 1902.  After she turned 21, she was transferred to the State Alms House.  In 1913, she was admitted to the Rhode Island School for the Feeble-Minded in Exeter, Rhode Island.  It was there that she spent the rest of her life.

The Rhode Island School for the Feeble-Minded opened in 1908 in a remote area of the state, three miles from any form of public transportation. It was established to educate and train “mental defectives,” but the fact that it was so isolated served a eugenic purpose. What better way to keep the intellectually disabled from reproducing than to separate them from society?

At first, Rhode Island School for the Feeble-Minded served only boys. In 1913, when the school finally opened its dormitories to females, they transferred 26 girls (including my great-aunt Alice) from the State Alms House. By the end of 1913, there were 50 boys and 67 girls in residence. The bulk of the inmates of the school were between 10 to 25 years of age. Alice was 26.1

Dr. Joseph H. Ladd was the director of the school from 1908 until 1955. In a report to the Rhode Island legislature in 1910, he laid out his philosophy about the disabled children and adults in his charge. He believed in giving them occupational training, but expressed doubt that any employer outside the institution would be willing to give them the kind of supervision they would need. Dr. Ladd also believed that people of low intellectual capacity were prone to immoral behavior, an opinion he used to further justify their segregation from the general society.  As evidence, he cited the now-discredited study of the Jukes family which had been used to show the inheritable nature of both intellectual disability and immorality.2

In 1916, Dr. Ladd changed the name of the institution to The Exeter School because of the public objections to the term “feeble-minded.”3 (In 1958, three years after he retired, it was renamed the Ladd School.)

The Exeter School, Slocum, Rhode Island. Howard, R. I.: R. I. S. P. Printing Department, ca. 1924.
The Exeter School, Slocum, Rhode Island. Howard, R. I.: R. I. S. P. Printing Department, ca. 1924.

A brochure4 for the school printed about 1924 described the school and its policies. Boys were pictured reading from books while a teacher looks on. The classroom looks clean, and has a piano, a blackboard, and windows. The girls are pictured in an industrial classroom, learning how to make baskets or weave cloth. There are at least three looms available to the girls, and dozens of completed baskets are on display on the shelves in the back of the room. The text of the brochure describes the educational philosophy of Exeter School, which belies Dr. Ladd’s doubts about his students’ capacity for re-entering the community:

“The object of the educational department is to receive, care for and teach such mentally defective persons as are capable of being taught, but who for one reason or another can not be trained to advantage in the public schools, or who are unable to adapt themselves to the environment in which they are found.  …each child receives such manual and industrial training as he is capable of absorbing. … The aim of all this teaching and training is so to develop these children that they may be able to return to the community and become useful or at least inoffensive members of society.”

Girls in Industrial Room, Exeter School. Rhode Island, Exeter School, Slocum. The Exeter School, Slocum, Rhode Island. Howard, R. I.: R. I. S. P. Printing Department, ca. 1924.
Girls in Industrial Room, Exeter School. Rhode Island, Exeter School, Slocum. The Exeter School, Slocum, Rhode Island. Howard, R. I.: R. I. S. P. Printing Department, ca. 1924.

The school also claimed to provide many opportunities for recreation: “…moving pictures, dances, little plays and concerts with home talent, outdoor sports of various kinds, and in the summer frequent picnics in the woods and at the beach.” The brochure for Exeter School painted a lovely picture of an institution devoted to the betterment of the intellectually deficient. The reality was much different.

In 1928, the Rhode Island state legislature created a special commission to investigate the State Public Welfare Commission and the institutions that it controlled. The special commission’s findings were published in the Providence Journal. Conditions at Exeter School were described in an article on December 30, 1928.5

"Exeter School Described as Mere 'Dumping Ground,'" Providence Journal, December 30, 1928, pg. 6.
“Exeter School Described as Mere ‘Dumping Ground,'” Providence Journal, December 30, 1928, pg. 6.

The report was a depressing account of overcrowding, insufficient staffing, few educational or recreational opportunities, and nearly non-existent medical or dental care. Dormitories were overcrowded with beds, with the occasional chair or bench. In the boys’ cottages, there was a single attendant (who also had to take care of the boiler room) to watch over 125 inmates. The situation was not much better in the female wards.

The special commission noted that the lack of proper help made it hard to train or supervise the “students” of Exeter School. In fact, out of the 430 inmates, only 80 of them attended school. The only teacher at Exeter gave instruction to 40 students in the morning and 40 in the afternoon. Due to overcrowding and lack of supervision, recreational activities were also curtailed. The authors of the report noted that “one can easily understand the tedium they must suffer, and the oppressiveness such an environment must breed.”

The dormitories were unsafe in many ways, from the antiquated buildings that weren’t fire-proof to the fact that there was no infirmary. Patients with contagious diseases were kept in their beds in the dormitories, no doubt spreading disease.

The report summed up conditions at the school in this manner:

“An impartial survey of the history and present condition of this institution has convinced the members of this commission that at no time during the twenty-one years of its existence, has it approximated the purpose for which it was established. It was established for the purpose of providing special training for the feeble minded; it has been from the beginning and is at the present time a custodial institution providing little else than food and shelter for its inmates at smallest possible cost.”

This is where Alice Tillotson spent the last twenty years of her life.  I was saddened to realize how she must have suffered, both physically and psychologically, by being warehoused in such an awful place.

In 1933, Alice died of lobar pneumonia.  The contributing causes of her death were imbecility (from birth) and obesity.  On the death certificate, only her father’s name was listed:  Frank Tillotson.  The staff at the Exeter School knew she was originally from Coventry, Rhode Island.  However, when they contacted the town clerk, he was unable to tell them where her father was.  Because no next of kin could be located, Alice was buried on the grounds of the school.

When I realized the lonely life and death of my great-aunt, I felt an urge to pay my respects to her in some way.  In 2012, the year I became a genealogist, I took a trip to Connecticut and Rhode Island, to visit the places where my family’s story took place — the delicatessen in Stonington, the shed in Danielson, and the cemeteries where my ancestors were buried.  Among the places I visited was Alice’s resting place in Exeter, Rhode Island.

Next: Alice’s Story, Part 3: Final Resting Place

  1. Rhode Island School for the Feeble-Minded in Exeter. Report. Providence: 1913. pg. 9.
  2. Rhode Island School for the Feeble-Minded in Exeter. Report. Providence: 1910.
  3. Rhode Island School for the Feeble-Minded in Exeter. Report. Providence: 1916.
  4. Rhode Island, Exeter School, Slocum. The Exeter School, Slocum, Rhode Island. Howard, R. I.: R. I. S. P. Printing Department, ca. 1924.
  5. “Exeter School Described as Mere ‘Dumping Ground,'” Providence Journal, December 30, 1928. pg. 6.

7 thoughts on “Alice’s Story, Part 2: The Exeter School”

  1. This is fascinating and heartbreaking. What a journey this must have been for you. I look forward to Part 3.

  2. Enjoying your blog immensely….also have great uncle that was committed to a school for the feeble-minded. And also taken on then journey of discovering the stories of relatives long gone; to keep their story, struggles and triumphs alive. I’m the cousin of Tracy Meehleib of the LOC.

  3. what a sad tale. It’s nice that you are providing your great-aunt some shred of dignity, even if it only comes years after her death. Paying your respects and documenting her circumstances must be a moving experience. Good work Julie!

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