Arbitrary and Opaque: the Legal Path to Designation

The 1911 Defective delinquent law had a tangible impact on thousands of people.

Judges, without conducting fair and transparent trials, designated people as defective delinquents. Those committed as defective delinquents never knew for how long they would be incarcerated. This process relied on the notion that defective delinquency was a medical designation. At the law’s conception, legislators wrote in no structures for re-evaluation of the inmate’s mental status, because defective delinquency was seen as innate and unchanging. Indefinite detention of defective delinquents was viewed as necessary given their life-long threat to surrounding communities.

What was the threat? Were there groups of people who were more likely to be designated as defective delinquents?

This exhibit details the reasons why people were designated and the backgrounds from which they come. A close look at the files of paroled defective delinquents reveals a few patterns. Many were children of immigrants, were orphaned or in foster care, had mental or physical disabilities, or lived at or below the poverty line. These categories of people were overall more likely to be in state care. So, a law which included transferring designees from existing institutions to the State Farm was felt disproportionately by those populations. Additionally, poor people, immigrants, and disabled individuals were seen as threatening to others and their vulnerabilities made them easy targets to be

Two Roads to Incarceration

Any person who committed an offense punishable by institutionalization or incarceration, but was not considered an appropriate fit for other institutions, could be designated as a defective delinquent by a judge. They would then be incarcerated in a department for defective delinquents. Over time, stipulations were added to the law, including a requirement for evaluation by physicians. However, throughout its existence, the essence of the law remained the same: if a person was deemed a threat to society, they could be detained without a criminal proceeding. When facing a defective delinquent designation the defendant did not have a right to a lawyer, the right to a trial before a jury of their peers, or the right to call witnesses on their behalf. Defective delinquency was considered a medical designation and incarceration was a civil commitment. Yet, designees lived in prison-like conditions, at a facility with convicted criminals, indefinitely. Even after they were paroled, designees were at risk of re-incarceration at any time.

Private Citizens

Those who were not previously in state custody were recommended for evaluation as a defective delinquent. Sometimes it was due to being convicted of a crime and sometimes defective delinquents hadn’t been convicted of anything.

People In State Custody

Any person in a residential school, custody of the State Board of Charity, or prison, could be transferred to the State Farm for breaking the rules of their former institution


Designation required a certificate from two physicians declaring the accused mentally defective. A judge would then decide whether the person could become a habitual offender or a menace to the public


Some people transferred from others institutions recieved psychological examinations. Others were simply referred to a judge by administrators of the institution they originated from. The legal requirements for designation were more ambiguous for people coming from state

State Farm

All sentencing of “Defective Delinquents” was indefinite


Release could only happen through parole. Prisoner commissioners and State Farm trustees could decide to parole an inmate. Alternatively, an application for parole could be submitted to a judge by anyone interested in the case. If granted by the judge, the parolee would be released for a year before re-evaluation.


Any paroled inmate could be recalled to the State Farm at any time. If they committed another punishable offense, they would be detained at the State Farm without re-evaluation of mental status

Who & Why: Stories Behind the Label

Catherine Walsh was designated as a defective delinquent and transferred from the Wrentham State School because of her refractory conduct. At the time, she was 20 years old and had been living at the Wrentham State School for an estimated two years.

“used profane language excessively”“was very saucy to officers in charge” “to restore peace and quiet on the ward she was placed in solitary confinement at 3.20pm”

Above is the report made by the Wrentham state school detailing Catherine’s “refractory conduct”

“This young man is evidently ‘simple minded’ as he presents himself to the examiners...He seems to be indifferent as to what disposition is to be made of his case, an additional evidence of mental weakness”

Henry Brabant was born on November 16th, 1909, to two canadian immigrants. In 1935 he was found guilty of committing larceny. Instead of being sentenced to time in prison, a probation officer reccomended that Brabant be designated a defective delinquent and imprisoned at Bridgewater. Two doctors affirmed that he was “defective” citing his “age and moral delinquency” without performing any pyschological evaluations. Prior to his arrest and designation, Brabant had been committed to Worcester State

Above is the medical certificate attached to Brabant’s application for designation.

Not much is known about why Charles Byers was designated a defective delinquent. Byers was incarcerated at Bridgewater for multiple periods of time between 1923 and 1937. At one point he had been arrested for larceny of letters in his apartment building. His parole officer then helped him to get a court date to deal with his arrest. His parole officer wrote that Byers was “having no trouble at all” in

Left: A mugshot of Charles Byers taken in 1923.

Right: A certificate detailing the terms of Byers’ year-long probationary parole

“Byers shows normal signs of intelligence and is not a DD type”

A mugshot picture of Darling. It is unclear whether or not the image was actually taken in 1954

“5/17/27- Drunkenness”

“7/11/33 - Drunkenness”

“9/1/37 - Drunkenness”

Between the years 1924 and 1939, Edward Darling was arrested at least fifty times, overwhelmingly for the charge of Drunkenness. On April 3rd, 1954, Darling was back at the State Farm. Details about his family and the reason for his designation as a defective delinquent are unknown.

A list of charges and arrests as found in his criminal record.

“[Carl Wilson’s] Psycho metrio tests give him a mental age of about 8.5 years with intelligence quotient of 53” - Carl Wilsons Medical certificate“[Carl Wilson] is a low grade moron....he is apparently unable to obey rules and regulations....I do not expect he willl be anything but a serious mence to any community- Carl Wilsons Referral for DD Status

Carl Wilson was an inmate at the Massachusetts Reformatory when he was recommended for designation. He was referred due to rule breaking during his three years at the Reformatory. In February of 1923, Justice Keyes committed Wilson to the State Farm. Prior to designation, two physicians declared him to be mentally defective. His Medical Certificate of Mental Defect lists two pieces for Wilson’s designation. Prior to his designation, Brabant had been committed to Worcester State Hospital for one month.

Above: A mugshot of Carl WilsonRight: Wilson’s Medical Certificate of Mental Defect
Carl Wilson recommendation for defective delinquent status after breaking a rule during his three year stay at the Reformatory.
Above is the case summary found in Baker’s records. The report details the attempted abortion performed by Harvey and his wife.
Harvey Baker is pictured above. While the document is dated November 20, 1952, it is unclear whether or not the image was captured on that date.

Harvey Baker, and his wife were paid 350,000$ to preform an abortion. He and his wife were arrested and they were both found guilty of attempting to commit an abortion. However, only Harvey designated as a defective delinquent. He was imprisoned at the State Farm while his wife served her sentence in a traditional prison.

“Please let me know the possibility of my son’s release ... it is well over three years that he has been.. confined...murderers are released after serving from ten to twelve years... [Wilfred] is accused of taking goods to the value of about 1.50$”

- Joseph Barselow

At the age of 17 Wilfred Barselow was living at the Massachusetts School for Feebleminded Children. By 19, Wilfred was declared a defective delinquent for stealing $1.50 worth of merchandise. Three years into his incarceration at the State Farm, Wilfred’s father Joseph wrote a letter to the superintendent of the State Farm, begging for his son’s release.

Left: a letter written by Wilfred’s father to the superintendent of the State Farm. Right: Wilfred Barselow’s mugshot photo

The Evolving Perception of Defective Delinquency

Public Figures Initially Encouraged Development of the State Farm

How public figures spoke about defective delinquency and whether it merited incarceration, shifted over the course of the law’s lifetime. In 1913 Massachusetts governor Eugene Foss advocated for the segregation of defective delinquents. In 1916, Rev. Robert Walker, chaplain of the Concord Reformatory -a state school like the Fernald School-, claimed that “25 per cent. of the population of our country who was the streets are not normal.” But the fervor for finding and detaining defective delinquents died down over the following decades.

“Fiendish Injustice Done”

By 1932, state officials were said/wrote of a “fiendish injustice done” to the young men at the State Farm. A councilor of a committee tasked with investigating the State Farm claimed that “the mania for mental examination of prisoners has so far over-reached itself that many young men, otherwise completely normal mentally who fall in certain specified psychopathic tests, are adjudged by these alienists to be defective, and are clapped into the state farm without any hope of release.” Public pressure and a court decision led to a major change in 1951. The state codified a defendant’s right to notice of a hearing, a thorough evaluation by two psychiatrists, a re-evaluation after the first year of commitment, and avenues for re-evaluation of mental status past the first year. Despite this shift, many people continued to be designated as defective delinquents and were subsequently incarcerated. However, it was progress towards a more transparent and scientific system.

Whistleblower Calls for Legal Aid

However, two years after that shift, an officer at the State Farm called for legal aid for those accused of being defective delinquents, asserting that “penniless defective delinquents can remain confined for life with those with money can hire a lawyer and get out ‘in 10 minutes.’” 40 years after the law was originally enacted, there was more public awareness that some level of injustice was occurring as a result of pushback from news articles. The fear of defective delinquents began to abate setting the stage for the law to be abolished two decades later. The Evolving Perception of Defective Delinquency