The Ladd School Exeter, Rhode Island There are things that go bump in the night and things that push men to the edge of sanity. There are buildings that seem to exist for no reason other than to perpetuate man’s cruelty against his fellow man, and the souls that reside within cry out against what was done to them in life. Some people look at those who are different and find them ugly and undesirable and want nothing more than to put them someplace where they won’t be seen. Out of sight, out of mind. When such a place becomes a dumping ground, the pain left behind will scar the earth and leave its mark on the brick and mortar that once housed the human refuse.
The Ladd School of Rhode Island is, sadly, all too common a story. From its well-meaning beginnings to the nightmare that it became, Exeter’s home for the mentally handicapped deteriorated from a place of healing and shelter and became purgatory on earth. It is little wonder that those who died there are unable to rest and those who remember the Ladd School shudder at the mention of its name.
In 1907 the State of Rhode Island purchased a 475-acre farm with visions of opening up a special school. Named the Rhode Island School for the Feeble Minded, it opened its doors with only eight patients two years later. By 1915 the population had grown to 123 patients with a waiting list of more than 300, hinting at problems that were to come. By 1923 there were more than 365 inmates, and the school was grossly overcrowded. In addition, funds were inadequate to allow for simple necessities such as dental care, a morgue, or recreational facilities. The school was lambasted in the Providence Journal for being a firetrap and having no functioning hospital or chapel. It was also revealed that, while a cursory physical exam was performed on admittance, there were no psychological exams given; and most of the care the patients received was simply custodial in nature. They were cleaned and fed but little else.
New buildings were added, but they failed to keep up with the ever-increasing number of patients being admitted. By 1950 there were nearly 900 patients crammed together in the poor living conditions. Added to overpopulation, it was later revealed, was the fact that there was only one real doctor working at the Ladd School, and that was Dr. Joseph H. Ladd himself. The other staff members possessed little or no medical training.
Dr. Ladd, despondent over the conditions that were swallowing his institution, retired, washing his hands of the situation; and in 1956 Dr. John G. Smith took over control of the school. It would only be two years into his reign that the foundation of the school began to crumble. A probe was launched, investigating allegations of widespread abuse and neglect at the school, and the results were horrifying. Patients slept on cots packed head to foot in rows with less than nine inches between them. Those who were unruly were routinely beaten, and many of the rooms had neither toilets nor sinks. Rats infested the living and dining areas, and patients’ medical conditions were not being addressed.
One female inmate turned up pregnant twice, either by other mentally handicapped inmates or by hospital staff. A boy of only nine years old was found stuffed in a laundry sack and left in a shower stall where he asphyxiated, and an elderly inmate was killed when another patient pushed him down a flight of stairs. Patients were overdosed and died because their medication was either improperly prescribed or given incompetently by a person with no medical training. Skin disease and boils were prevalent among the inmates, and many of them showed so many signs of neglect that they lay at death’s door. Doctors who saw released patients were astounded and enraged at the lack of dignity afforded the patients of what was now called The Ladd School. One inspector commented on finding bloody sponges and towels on the dentistry room floor and that he could find no means of sterilization save for a bar of soap he picked up from under a chair.
In 1983 the State of Rhode Island, along with the administrators of The Ladd School, was brought up on a class-action lawsuit, resulting in the termination of Smith. A new administrator, Dr. George W. Gunther, took office and did his best to systematically set things right. It was a project close to his heart as his own daughter was a patient at The Ladd School, and he wanted to make sure she was taken care of. He began by removing patients, placing them in better facilities, and then demolishing the rundown buildings in which they were living. It was, however, too little, too late. In 1986 the Governor of Rhode Island announced that the facility was to be closed. It took a few years to move out all the inmates, but finally, in March of 1993 the last five inmates were lead to a van and transferred, closing the doors on the manmade hell forever.
Due to the sheer number of patients and nature of the atrocities committed within the buildings of The Ladd School, it is impossible to determine the number or identities of the restless souls that wander its halls. What is certain, however, is that they haven’t left yet, nor are they likely to. There are several buildings in the vast complex that are haunted, some more than others.
The therapeutic pool building is home to several strange phenomena, including shuffling footsteps that can be heard but with no source. Cold spots can be felt throughout the building, and often voices are heard. The structure known as the Howe Building is host to other whisperers as well. There are also doors that, though not possessing a locking mechanism, are nonetheless locked. There have also been reports of strange noises – animalistic growling to be exact – coming from the patients’ rooms. Closer investigation, however, proves the rooms to be completely devoid of life.
It is the Fogarty Building that captures most imaginations, however. This cylindrical structure houses phantom footsteps, but not those of any inmate. One can tell by the clicking of the heels and brisk pace that they belong to one of the hospital administrators. Also, the voices heard in other buildings are also experienced here, but in this building the voices are those of children.
The original colony buildings have been demolished, as have several other of the main buildings. Eight of the main buildings, including the iconic Fogarty Building, still stand, though for how long is anyone’s guess. Proposals have floated around for several years about what to do with the land and the reminder of the horrors that is the school.
Several of the smaller outlying buildings are in use by other organizations, but the central campus still sits abandoned. Proposals to have the buildings razed and replaced with everything from a fire academy to a golf course have been fielded. There is also a society fighting for its preservation.
There appears to be no "best time" for visiting The Ladd School, other than to say "soon." Its days appear to be numbered as developers cannot wait to get their hands on the buildings, and Rhode Island cannot seem to wait to put the whole sordid affair behind it. Whatever goes up on the grounds of The Ladd School, one must hope they don’t mind a few uninvited guests.
See you in two weeks!
Original artwork by Bill "Splat" Johnson