Defective Delinquency in the United States

Between 1911 and 1971 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts – and dozens of states like it – passed a series of laws that empowered officials to indefinitely imprison people with intellectual disabilities who they believed were “likely to commit crimes.” In the early 20th century experts on disability argued that many people with cognitive disabilities were potentially dangerous. In order to protect society before they committed any crimes, such people needed to be removed from the general population or from the institutions in which they’d been living. These people were labeled “defective delinquents.” In Massachusetts, most of those designated as defective delinquents were sent to the Bridgewater State Prison, also known as the State Farm. This exhibit tells the story of the defective delinquency laws, how they came to be, how they were implemented, and for the first time, tells the story of some of the individual people who were locked away under their provisions.

Who are we?

We are eighteen students, sophomores, juniors, and seniors at Gann Academy, a Jewish High School in Waltham Massachusetts.

Our campus neighbors the grounds of the former Fernald School, the site of what was once a world-wide leading institution for people with intellectual and other disabilities. For the past several years we - and schoolmates that preceded us - have committed ourselves to telling the story of the Fernald School and, especially, the people who lived there. We consider it our sacred obligation to amplify the voices of those who have been silenced and to tell the stories of those who have been made to disappear. Many of those designated as defective delinquents were taken from the Fernald School and indefinitely detained at the State Farm in Bridgewater. We dedicate our museum to them.

Language Matters

As a class, we have developed a set of beliefs surrounding language and its use. Before viewing this exhibit, we ask that you read through our list of beliefs, in order to understand the way we approached this topic. While you may not agree with everything we have to say, we ask that you respect our ideas, and consider them in conjunction with your own.

Language is powerful.

  • The language we use has an immense impact on how we perceive and are perceived by the world around us.

  • Language has the ability to bring people together and tear people apart.

  • Our words reflect our own morals, views, and opinions as well as the ability to uphold or reject those of society.

  • People should be educated on the thoughtful and appropriate use of language, especially harmful language.

There is nothing wrong with being disabled or having a disability. That being said, this language must be included in this exhibit in order to acknowledge its use in the historical context. We can’t pretend this language was never used, but we can make sure it is never used again.

The language used in the time of the Bridgewater State Farm is offensive and problematic because it implies negative things about disability.

In order to do this and emphasize the historical significance, we

as a class have come up with guidelines around language. These guidelines

are laid out in the pamphlet we have provided and we ask that you look over

them before exploring our exhibit.

Disability Language

Today, there are many types of disability language used, both good and bad. Any form of euphemistic language is harmful and we will not be using it in this exhibit. This includes terms such as “differently abled” and “special abilities”. Among the other types are person first language and identity first language, both of which will be used throughout this exhibit. Both these types of language are accepted in the disability community which is why we will use them interchangeably. We ask that you respect people’s preference regarding the type of language used when referring to them.

Person First Language

Person first language acknowledges a person’s humanity before their disability. It emphasizes the idea that a person’s disability does not define them. It is important to maintain an environment of dignity, respect, and hope.

A girl with autism

A man with a disability

A boy who has dyslexia


Identity First Language

Advocates for identity first language feel that disability is intertwined with who they are. It is impossible to separate disability from person, because the disability affects how they move through the world.

An autistic girl

A disabled man

A dyslexic boy

How does this image make you feel?

Why the term “Defective?”

This artifact is from the Report of the Commission in which Walter E. Fernald and others created before the Defective Delinquent Law was passed. The Summary of Recommendations uses the word defective as a noun describing humans as defectives. The Defective Delinquent Law would be enforced to decrease the number of defectives with these recommendations. Similarly, the goal of the Eugenics movement was to eliminate undesirable genetic traits in humans through selective breeding. These undesirable traits were also known as “defects” (and those who carried them, “defective”).

Hereditary Chart