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About The Book

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.


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 name colors and shapes, and to answer questions about stories. One story used for children his age in that time was titled "The Wet Fall." After listening to eight short sentences that told the tale, children were asked to repeat the title. Those who said it right, or said, "A Wet Fall" or "One Wet Fall," or even "A Wet -- something about a fall" received credit. Those who said, "The Wet Falls" or "A Fall" lost points.

Freddie strained to please the adults he met at Wrentham and to get every question right. But since he had never attended school, he was puzzled by much of what he was asked to do. He had rarely seen books and had no experience at all with pencils or crayons. Confronted by strangers who used words he didn't understand, and who asked him to perform task after task, he grew increasingly anxious and more dependent on the state lady. Between sessions, he would go into a hallway, climb onto the bench where she sat, and cling to her for security. This behavior would be noted in his test report as "regressed" and "immature."

Two days after the testing, the experts at the Wrentham State School declared Freddie Boyce "feebleminded of the familial type." In a brief report, they noted that his IQ was 65, and his mental age was two years behind his chronological age.

Back in Dedham, Margaret Forrester, who didn't want to care for school-age children, prepared to get rid of Freddie Boyce. She began telling him, "You're going to have a new mama next year." In the spring of 1947, Freddie watched as his pal Robert was taken away. Convinced that he was next, he became sullen and withdrawn. The progress he had made in talking stopped, and he seemed to forget some of his new words. Every time a social worker came to visit, he cried or tried to hide.

As soon as F. saw visitor his eyes filled with tears and he began to whimper. He sees visitor and thinks that he is to be moved.

Visitor explained to him that she had merely come to see how he was getting along and did not come to move him.

Given his recent diagnosis by the doctors at Wrentham, supervisors at the Division of Child Guardianship concluded that Freddie belonged in a state-run residential school for retarded children. But their application was denied, because the institution was full. With Mrs. Forrester still demanding that Freddie be moved out of her home, he was finally transferred to Mrs. Bond's farm in Merrimac. It was his seventh home in six years.

Tall and thin, with gray hair that she often tied in a bun, sixty-six-year-old Marion Bond could have passed for a woman ten years younger. She wore pretty dresses, and her face was smooth and dignified, but she was so strong that when a drought emptied her well she could carry all she needed from a neighbor's house without any help. Childless, and a widow for fifteen years, Mrs. Bond had maintained her home but let the farm go. Her fourteen acres of fields and orchard were slowly turning wild. The roof of the barn, which was built at the time of the American Revolution, was so leaky that when it rained there was hardly enough dry space for the one milk cow she still kept.

Mrs. Bond survived on the two crops a woman her age could raise without help -- September hay and foster boys. Each year when the hardwood trees turned color, a neighbor came up the road from his dairy farm with a horse-pulled mower to cut the hay. The foster boys watched from the barnyard as the whirring blades threw dust, slivers of grass, and insects into the air. After the hay was stacked, they jumped into the sweet-smelling piles.

If Marion Bond saw the haying operation as the last vestige of real productivity on her farm, the boys saw it as an example of how the place pulsed with life. They had all come from crowded houses and tenement apartments where they had slept with hunger almost every night. In Merrimac they picked the apples, cherries, and plums that still grew on the farm and ate as many as they could.

That Mrs. Bond was generous with good food was enough to make her the best of the six foster mothers who had taken custody of Frederick Boyce in his short life. But like the others, she was not affectionate in her day-to-day contact with the boys. She kept them clean, and healthy, but she did not read to them or tuck them into their beds at night.

She was strict about her privacy, and confined the boys to their rooms, the kitchen, and the enclosed porch where they took meals and played. Strict as she was, the boys meant more to her than the $20 per month she earned taking care of each of them. She gave them ice cream every Sunday and celebrated their birthdays. She told them they were the equals of every child in town, and sent them to church and to school so they could see this was true.

In September 1948, Freddie and the others rode a yellow bus to Merrimac Port School, which overlooked the Merrimac River as it flowed through the center of town. In first grade, Freddie struggled with his lessons, but earned one of the warmest memories of his childhood when a teacher noticed he had forgotten his lunch and shared her sandwich with him.

Marion Bond's boys spent six weeks in their classes before the local school board, which served a middle-class community of farmers and factory workers, voted to remove the state wards from their classes and bar them permanently. The reason they gave was that the boys were not regular town residents and they needed expensive, special instruction, which was not available. Superintendent John C. Paige informed Mrs. Bond and the state that the decision was final, and he recommended the boys be sent to a city with a larger school system that might accommodate them. The state responded by sending a social worker to meet with Paige. He resisted her appeal, and according to Freddie's records, no effort was made to put the boys in another district.

All that fall, while neighbor children sat in classrooms, the boys at the Bond farm busied themselves outdoors. Though they must have been aware of the fact that they were missing something that other children got in school, they found plenty to do around the farm. They dug in mounds of earth and found ancient arrowheads, which made their games of cowboys and Indians feel more exciting. They also explored the old barn and climbed trees. Though they were free to play much of the time, the boys at the Bond farm also did small chores. When the potato crop came in at a neighboring farm, some of them helped pick. They filled bushel baskets, earning a few pennies per hour.

On Halloween, Marion Bond let the boys stay outside extra late. One of them thought it might be fun to light the night with torches. Hay was bound to sticks, and stolen matches were struck. The boys hoisted the torches high and ran through the night until they frightened themselves. One of them dropped his torch and set the dry stubble on the field ablaze. From a distance, as the boys ran about in confusion, they must have looked like pagans dancing around a ritual fire.

When she saw the fire, Marion Bond screamed for the boys to come to the house. She made sure each of them was safe before she called the fire department. One engine responded, and the fire was quickly extinguished, leaving behind a circle of blackened dirt about sixty feet across. After the fire company left, Mrs. Bond lectured the boys on matches and fire, but no one was spanked or otherwise punished. They had already upset themselves enough.

When winter came, Freddie and the others spent more time indoors. A wood-fired, cast-iron stove warmed both the kitchen and the enclosed porch where the boys drew pictures with crayons, played checkers, and pieced together puzzles. It was Freddie's first exposure to these kinds of playthings, and he liked everything about them, including the waxy smell of the crayons and the smooth edges of the puzzle pieces.

The run-in with the barbed-wire fence would have been Freddie's most vivid memory from that winter at Mrs. Bond's house if the state had succeeded in finding him a place in an institution. But because their efforts failed, he awoke in the farmhouse on the morning of March 1, 1949, to a strange silence. Normally, he would have heard the clang of pots and pans, and smelled coffee. He would have felt Mrs. Bond's footsteps before she called him to breakfast. On this morning, however, the house was quiet and cold.

One of the boys knocked on Mrs. Bond's bedroom door and discovered that she was not well. Another called the police, and soon a squad car, an ambulance, and then the cars driven by the social workers filled up the barnyard. Clothes were collected in paper bags, and the boys were seated at the table on the porch. They were told that Mrs. Bond was dead, and then one by one they were taken off in separate cars. Each one of them was crying over losing Mrs. Bond and the home she had made for them.

Seated in the back seat of a state car, Freddie rode about forty minutes to another small town, Bradford, and a house where he shared a room with another boy for seven weeks. There he felt even lonelier because his attachment to Mrs. Bond had made him feel, for the first time, that he belonged to some place and to some person. Losing her filled him with the sense that he would never again feel at home anywhere. He didn't mention these feelings to anyone and was determined that no one would see him cry. But his days were filled with a hollow ache, and at night he sometimes awoke drenched in tears.

On April 26 another social worker came to pack up Freddie's things. She dressed him in clean clothes and told him to put on his leather shoes. She then drove him to a courthouse that was near the golden-domed State House in downtown Boston. Though summoned, Freddie's mother did not appear. If she had, it's unlikely that her seven-year-old son would have recognized her since she had never once visited him since he became a ward of the state at eight months of age.

The hearing began with a representative of the Division of Child Guardianship recommending that Freddie be committed to a state institution. A psychiatrist certified that Freddie was, indeed, suffering from a mild level of retardation, which he termed "feeblemindedness." He said that a state school, which was at last ready to accept him, would be the best place for him. No one actually spoke for Frederick Boyce. This was the era before children received independent, court-appointed legal guardians. A judge signed an order committing Freddie to an indefinite term at a state school.

Although he had heard every word of what happened in the courtroom, Freddie understood little. He didn't know what "feeblemindedness" was, and he couldn't fathom the meaning of a commitment order. All he really understood was that he was completely powerless and that he had no choice but to trust the strangers who surrounded him, talked about him, but never addressed him directly.

Outside the courthouse, the social worker took Freddie's hand and led him on a short walk to the Park Street subway station. Having never seen the subway, he walked carefully down the steps and stood tentatively on the platform. The screech of the metal wheels on the track was deafening, and if the state lady hadn't tugged on his hand, he would have been too frightened to board the car. At North Station, they transferred to a suburban line. Soon after it left the station, it flew out of a tunnel and into the daylight. It crossed the Charles River and headed into Cambridge and points west.

From his seat, Freddie could see only the utility poles that whizzed by outside as the train rushed to the suburbs. He was mesmerized as they passed in a rhythm, looking black against the sky. It was a little after two o'clock when the train slowed for Waverley Station and the social worker took Freddie's hand. She pulled him to his feet, and tugged him toward the door. When the train stopped moving and the door opened, they stepped down and walked across the platform to a taxi. The cab -- another first for Freddie -- pulled away from the curb and turned east on Route 60 and then north on Trapelo Road, traveling past comfortable single-family homes crowded onto small lots. In less than ten minutes the car slowed, and the driver put on the blinker to turn left. When the way was clear, he turned to head up a long narrow lane.

The boy in the back seat sat up straight to look out the window. To the right, he saw an emerald baseball diamond, with dirt base paths and a worn pitcher's mound. Beyond it rolled acres of farmland, furrowed but not yet planted. On the left, a green lawn ran up a hill topped by a cluster of imposing brick buildings.

Planted near the roadway, at the entrance to this little world of green grass, red brick, and brown earth, a white wooden sign with black lettering he could not decipher announced that Freddie had arrived at THE WALTER E. FERNALD SCHOOL FOR THE FEEBLEMINDED. As he passed the sign, the boy turned and looked out the rear window and saw the cars passing on Trapelo Road. They carried other people, perhaps boys like him, to destinations unknown in a world he would come to call simply "the outside."

Copyright © 2004 by Michael D'Antonio

About The Author

Photo by TRD

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 New York Newsday.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (November 1, 2007)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416591221

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Raves and Reviews

"Stunning...a vivid, careful, and ultimately momentous piece of journalism."
-- The Boston Globe

"One of the best books of 2004."
-- The Christian Science Monitor and Chicago Tribune

"D' an exceedingly able storyteller....A gripping story."
-- Chicago Tribune

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