The State Boys Rebellion

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9780743245135: The State Boys Rebellion

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist tells the amazing story of how a group of imprisoned boys won their freedom, found justice, and survived one of the darkest and least-known episodes of American history.
In the early twentieth century, United States health officials used IQ tests to single out "feebleminded" children and force them into institutions where they were denied education, sterilized, drugged, and abused. Under programs that ran into the 1970s, more than 250,000 children were separated from their families, although many of them were merely unwanted orphans, truants, or delinquents.
The State Boys Rebellion conveys the shocking truth about America's eugenic era through the experiences of a group of boys held at the Fernald State School in Massachusetts starting in the late 1940s. In the tradition of Erin Brockovich, it recounts the boys' dramatic struggle to demand their rights and secure their freedom. It also covers their horrifying discovery many years later that they had been fed radioactive oatmeal in Cold War experiments -- and the subsequent legal battle that ultimately won them a multimillion-dollar settlement.
Meticulously researched through school archives, previously sealed papers, and interviews with the surviving State Boys, this deft exposé is a powerful reminder of the terrifying consequences of unchecked power as well as an inspiring testament to the strength of the human spirit.

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About the Author:

Michael D'Antonio is the author of many acclaimed books, including Atomic Harvest, Fall from Grace, Tin Cup Dreams, Mosquito, and The State Boys Rebellion. His work has also appeared in Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Discover, and many other publications. Among his many awards is the Pulitzer Prize, which he shared with a team of reporters for Newsday.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

The snow stopped at about three o'clock in the afternoon. Four boys, aged six and seven, pulled on coats, boots, hats, and woolen mittens and scuffled out to the barn, where a wooden toboggan was propped against a wall. They grabbed the sled and headed for the coasting hill, which was a quarter-mile away, through a leaf-bare apple orchard and a stand of pine trees. The cold froze their breath, and the snow muffled the sound of their voices as they argued over who would get the first ride.

When they got to the hill, Freddie, Gordon, Wally, and Foxy stopped for a moment and looked down the slope toward Hoyt's dairy farm. (Freddie, the smallest and youngest of the boys, was frightened by the steep incline, but he didn't show his fear to the others.) In the distance, where the slope ran out, the property line was marked by a stream called Silver Brook, and by twisted strands of rusted barbed wire strung on three-foot-high posts.

On the first few runs, the toboggan barely made it through the fluffy powder to the bottom. But as they kept at it, sliding down the same path and trudging up beside it, the boys made a track of packed snow. The toboggan flew faster with each trip down. It also ran a few feet farther, toward the stream.

As dusk fell, the boys' cheeks turned red, and they panted as they climbed the hill. Pea-sized clumps of snow hung from their soggy mittens and collected on their socks. Their toes and their ears were numb, but under wool caps their hair was soaked with sweat. They had orders to be home by dark, so there was time for just one more ride. Gordon and Wally climbed onto the toboggan behind Freddie, who had already tucked himself under the sled's curved wooden front. Foxy gave them a big push.

With the air growing colder by the second, the track was turning to ice. As the toboggan hurtled forward, Wally and Gordon realized that it was not going to stop before they got to Silver Brook. They tumbled out and yelled for Freddie to jump. Freddie didn't respond. When he finally stirred, it was to lean to the side, steering the sled away from the brook and into the barbed-wire fence.

Freddie's face was so numb from the cold that he didn't feel any pain when the rusted barb caught his right cheek. But he did feel a pull, like the tug a fish must feel from a hook and line. When his flesh tore, the wire snapped free. The toboggan skidded to a stop. Freddie rolled out and then sat up. He looked down to see red drops on the snow. The other boys, who had run down the hill, pulled him to his feet and began to walk him back up the slope.

When they reached the barn, the warm blood finally thawed Freddie's face and the nerve cells in his cheek began to scream. He cried and the boys shouted for help. Inside the house, sixty-seven-year-old Marion Bond heard them and went to the door. She brought the boys inside, put a hot, wet cloth to Freddie's cheek, and told him to hold it there, firmly, while she telephoned for a doctor. By the time she returned, Freddie was still in pain, but he was more concerned about what Mrs. Bond was going to say and do. She sat down on a chair and hugged him hard, trapping the wet cloth between his face and her breast. He noticed she was warm and smelled like soap. When she let him go, she continued to press the bandage against his cheek, to stop the bleeding. The room smelled like wet wool and sweaty boys.

Freddie didn't cry when the doctor arrived and tugged the blood-encrusted cloth away from his wound. He stood bravely as his skin was stitched closed, and he even stayed calm for a tetanus shot. Freddie had always had the ability to retreat into his mind, shutting out whatever physical or emotional pain was at hand. This skill allowed him to feel good about the attention he was receiving. He would forever remember the doctor's visit and his run-in with the barbed wire as a positive experience. The warm cloth, Mrs. Bond's embrace, and even the doctor's needle felt like love.

Frederick Boyce had followed a loveless path to the Bond farm on Hadley Road in rural Merrimac, Massachusetts. He had been born in Boston on January 12, 1941, to a mother who had just turned twenty-one. A short, skinny, dark-haired woman with little education, Mina Boyce had drifted through life, transferring her dependency from one unreliable man to another. When Freddie arrived, she already had one child, a two-year-old named Joseph, who state records noted was "illegitimate." She had a problem with alcohol, and she was a widow. Her husband, a steamfitter from rural Maine, had committed suicide before her second child's birth.

Mina had held on to her sons until August of 1941, when neighbors called police because the children had been left alone in her apartment in Boston. Social workers from the state's Department of Public Welfare came with the police, who broke open the locked door. The officials took custody of the children, placing them with separate foster families who were overseen by the department's Division of Child Guardianship. Frederick, who would never see Joseph again, landed in a foster home in the small town of South Easton, about thirty miles south of Boston. There, under the care of Mrs. Kathleen Brophy, he survived bouts of grippe and scarlet fever. He learned to walk and talk, but speech came slowly. He could say just a handful of words. Small and thin for his age, Freddie had dark skin, brown eyes, and thick curly hair that was turning from light to dark brown.

The house in South Easton was filled with kids. Some, like Freddie, were wards of the state. Others were Mrs. Brophy's biological children. She kept control with harsh discipline and threats. Like most children, Freddie learned the power of saying no at age two. He tried it out a few times with Mrs. Brophy, and she warned him against it. He became much more cooperative when he saw her snatch up a very young child who had wet his pants and dunk him, feet-first, in a flushing toilet. The punishment was designed to teach the children about the importance of potty training and obedience. Freddie got the message.

As an adult, Fred Boyce would recall that in the Brophy home the state wards ate separately from the family. Their diet was heavy on spaghetti, potatoes, and cereal, and light on meat, milk, and eggs. Freddie never got enough, except once. It happened on a night when other boys had sneaked into the kitchen and stolen food. When they were caught, Freddie was awakened, brought to the kitchen, and required to eat a large meal while the others looked on. Confused and frightened, he gobbled the food quickly and then threw up.

In the two years that he lived with Kathleen Brophy, Freddie grew into an active toddler, but he was especially shy. Though he didn't understand why he received less attention than Mrs. Brophy's biological children, he surely felt the difference. He seemed afraid to talk to adults, and other children had trouble understanding him. He breathed heavily, and at night he snored like an old man. These problems improved when he had his tonsils removed. A few months later, he made his first visit to a barber, where his soft, brown curls were cut off. The next time a social worker visited him, she noted that "he has lost his babyish look."

State records show no reason, but Freddie was moved to another home, this one in the town of Hingham, in October of 1944. Two days after Christmas, when a social worker came to that house, Freddie ran to hide, afraid he was to be uprooted again. He was right. The "state lady," as he called her, packed his clothes into paper sacks and brought him, resisting all the way, out of the house to a car. She put him in the back seat, along with his things, and drove away. In an hour, he was at yet another foster home -- his third -- in the town of Dedham. A few days after his arrival, he turned four years old.

The new foster mother, Margaret Forrester, worried about Freddie's speech problems. Though he seemed aware of everything that was said, he spoke in a strange, tight-mouthed way that was often unintelligible. Among the few words he said clearly were "cat" and "mama" and "barber." (Evidently, that first haircut had made a big impression on him.) For the first time, a social worker recorded a note that suggested that this skinny dark-haired boy with penetrating eyes was not being well served by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. She wrote:

Foster mother: Frederick was in bad shape when she got him. He was thin. Child would sit for hours without moving, and she discovered that he had some sores on his head.

Freddie stayed nearly three years in this place, making his first true friend -- a boy named Robert -- and showing his foster mother that he was bright, even advanced for his age. He cleared the table after meals, dusted Mrs. Forrester's living room when she asked him to, and helped to watch after the younger children. He understood complex instructions and was a peacemaker with the other boys when things got rowdy. Still, his garbled speech troubled adults. A social worker reported:

Foster mother persuaded F. to sing a song. He did this by barely opening his mouth.

Based on caseworker recommendations, the state sent Fred to a physician who found him capable of talking, but reluctant to engage in extended conversations, and he predicted the boy would "grow out of it" without any special help. Otherwise, the doctor found that Freddie was a normal boy.

The social workers assigned to his case did not accept the doctor's evaluation of Freddie Boyce. Still troubled by his speech, they were determined to discover the cause of his problem. In July of 1946, a state lady took him to an institution for the retarded in Wrentham for testing. (Located in the town by the same name, the Wrentham State School was about five miles northeast of the Massachusetts border with Rhode Island and a half-hour's drive from Mrs. Forrester's home in Dedham.)

For the intelligence test, he was required to repeat five-digit numbers, to define words such as "timid" and "tame," to na...

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