Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Charities and Corrections: Life at the State Institutions Exhibit

Historically significant things belong in the public eye. "If you have a [signed] painting of George Washington hanging over your mantle at home, what good is that?" says Ken Carlson, reference archivist at the Rhode Island State Archives in Providence.

Such is the spirit behind Mr. Carlson's latest curated exhibit, “Charities and Corrections: Life at the State Institutions”; a fascinating foray into the history of Rhode Island's public hospitals and institutions: the State Infirmary, the Oaklawn School for Girls, the Sockanosset School for Boys, the State Prison, and the Asylum for the Insane, among others.

On the corner of Westminster Street, behind the brightly decorated facade of the Victorian-era State Archives building - originally an art gallery over a century ago - a menagerie of rarely-glimpsed artifacts lie in state just beyond a plate glass window looking out upon the modern bustle of the busy city sidewalk.

In one among several large display cases, colorful maps of the Sockanosset and Oaklawn schools frame a detailed, hand-drawn sketch of the girls' school cemetery; an inmate's admission card and portrait lie atop, aside and slightly askew. In another, a hand-sewn Raggedy Ann doll rests rank-in-file alongside a collection of stitchings, woodwork, and crafts; the handiwork of patients from the tuberculosis sanitorium at Wallum Lake.

“[We were] ‘picture poor’,” said Mr. Carlson, motioning toward a wall of photographs as he told a familiar story of how only years prior they were saved, literally from the scrap heap, by a former state worker who rescued the antique glass plate negatives from a dumpster during the renovation of a state building, before donating them to the Archives.

In fact many of the items on display were collected by donation, including a trove of documents belonging to the State Prison. Deemed a fire hazard by officials in the wake of a blaze caused by an inmate uprising in the 1990s, the correctional institution's leather-bound, 1800s ledger, and the century-old handwritten letters of a murderer describing his escape plan, are among many of the things now on public display because of the circumspection of those who saw value in their conservation.

Thoughtfully arranged and carefully preserved, the “Charities and Corrections” exhibit is a collection as spellbinding for the scholar as it is for the casual observer; a veritable treasure chest of never-seen-before relics from a history too often left to the shadows of our society’s past. Thanks to people like Mr. Carlson and the donors who made this work possible, it will not be a history soon forgotten.

“Charities and Corrections: Life at the State Institutions” will be on display through March 31, weekdays 8:30 to 4:30, at the Rhode Island State Archives; 337 Westminster Street, Providence. The exhibit is free and open to the public.

Though a visit to the State Archives would be well worth your while, a small selection of photographs from the exhibit may also be viewed online at

Monday, February 8, 2016

A Chat with Dr. Ladd

A quaint tale told from Dr. Ladd's perspective - hardly more than a curiosity, but a fitting one for this week's weather, and a good place to take up again our egregiously delinquent blogging routine.

This comes from the Ladd School's newsletter, "The Exeter News," January, 1956 issue:

A Chat With The Superintendent

"Looking for news from the administration for this month's issue of the paper, your reporter found Dr. Ladd in a reminiscent mood. 'Well, I had thought of giving you something about snow,' he said, and began telling of the storms which used to beset the School in the early days of its existence.

Once a very dependable patient by the name of Guy, who was sent on an errand in such a storm, stopped at the office (when then was in Dr. Ladd's home) to pick up the mail. Dr. Ladd says that he had an intuition that something might go wrong, so he started after him to see that he didn't lose his way. Evidently it was so bad that it was impossible to look ahead to see where one was going for more than a few seconds at a time. It happened, therefore, that Guy had left the road and circled around to crisscross it several times. The Doctor caught up to him just as he was crossing it again - heading in the wrong direction.

He said, "Hi Guy -- having any trouble?"

Guy answered in his very slow, deliberate monotone, "Yes ... I don't where I am ... can't find the road."

Dr. Ladd put him on the right track and started back himself. By glancing up every so often he could see the lights at his house and head himself in the right direction. As he came to a small hill, however, he found that his view of the lights was shut out, but he kept going in what he thought was the right direction. After a while, he stopped to get his bearings and saw the lights way off to his left. He couldn't understand how he had gotten turned around this much but struck out for the lights once more.

When he finally reached the spot where the light was coming from, he discovered that from the bottom of the hill he had started after the wrong set of lights, and had ended up over by the Colony instead of at his home at the other end of the reservation. He remarked that it had been foolish of him to set his course by the lights in the first place, and that he finally made it home safely by taking note of the direction that the wind was coming from, and since he know that this was storm from the North, taking his bearings accordingly."

Monday, October 26, 2015

Cemetery Tripping in Massachusetts and Rhode Island

Situated in the Old Administration Building of the historic Tewksbury Hospital - a 19th century almshouse and sanitarium - the Public Health Museum is a non-profit educational and cultural center featuring a variety of exhibits and programs ranging in topics from disease epidemics to the American eugenics movement.

Earlier this October, the Museum conducted the season's last historical walking tour of the Tewksbury Hospital Campus - an event which, though we endeavored to attend on multiple occasions, slipped by us this year.

But that didn't stop us from visiting the Tewksbury Hospital cemetery on our own accord this week. Consisting of over 10,000 graves of the hospitals' destitute deceased dating as far back as the 1850s, this burial ground is divided into two separate woodland plots a fair distance from one another. With the sun setting fast on the day of our visit, we opted only to see the East Street plot nearest the hospital grounds, called "The Pines."

The Pines Cemetery is as decrepit as it is sprawling, and is perhaps larger than any other potter's field we've seen in Massachusetts. A little off the beaten path, there among a tangled grove of mature trees and just barely visible above the detritus of the forest floor, rusting iron stakes jut out of the earth as far as the eye can see. With each step deeper into the woods, the low-lying, numbered markers seem to endlessly appear underfoot; some sunken so deep they stand barely inches above the ground, others standing nearly knee-high, misplaced from their original foundation and replanted in the ground. Walk deeper still, and you might find a hand-carved wooden crucifix, or a mysterious headstone bearing the only names to appear in the entirety of the graveyard. The somberness and antiquity of the atmosphere is practically palpable.

Visiting cemeteries like The Pines at Tewksbury Hospital never fails to be a fascinating and eye-opening experience; one which can be had even closer to home at Rhode Island's own state cemeteries for the almshouse, the insane asylum, and the Ladd School. But these are not the only "paupers cemeteries" in the state. The Warwick Poor Farm's graveyard remains a fairly prominent feature of the Town Park, and recent research by the Ladd School Historical Society even suggests that some of the Ladd School's earliest residents in Exeter were buried by the state in other cemeteries as far away as the town of Cranston - our next stop this Halloween weekend.

Halloween means different things to different people; and to some people, it's believed to be the day during which the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest. This year the holiday falls on a Saturday, providing the perfect opportunity for all adventurous spirits to explore historic cemeteries in their community, for an educational and cultural experience like no other. And if you're one of those adventurous spirits, maybe we'll see you out there.