Hell on Earth: The American Eugenics Movement and the Fernald Boys Home

As boys, they were confined to the Fernald State School in Waltham, Mass. during the 1940s into the 1970s, often on the basis of a single faulty intelligence test. With no possible way of being released, they were considered “morons” or “imbeciles”… less than human. They were completely at the mercy of the state run institution. Torture and sexual abuse was rampant.

One example was “Red Cherry Day” where all the boys were required to sit in a circle. Then each boy’s name would be called, one by one. The boy who was called would be required to stand up, go to the middle of the circle, pull down his pants, and then be beaten with a switch until his buttocks were “Cherry Red”.

But perhaps the worst part is the human experimentation at the boys home.  In doing research for nutritional study for Quaker Oats, scientists from MIT started serving up oatmeal dosed with high levels of radiation. Those boys that participated in the study were told that they were joining a science club.

Of course the boys thought that they were given special treatment in receiving the oatmeal every day. In fact, if requested they would get to have additional helpings of the oatmeal along with extra milk. But nobody mentioned to the boys that the milk was also dosed with radiation as well.

How could such a horrific condition occur? Doesn’t this sound like something during the concentration camps of Nazi Germany? The link may surprise you.

To understand how such hellish actions towards these innocent children requires some knowledge of a dark secret in America’s past, something not likely to be in any history books:

The American Eugenics Movement.

Nowhere were the principles of eugenics more accepted than America. The first American eugenics law was passed in Indiana in 1907 and by 1936 there were 35 states that had such laws. As a result, large numbers of individuals in America were forcibly sterilized–primarily poor children taken in by state institutions.

As these operations were sometimes conducted covertly, an accurate assessment is probably not possible. The mentally ill and retarded were the most frequent victims of this program but also children and youth were sterilized. These included unwed mothers and boys in reformatories and orphanages, especially if they were judged to be mentally deficient.

The extent of the sterilizations varied widely from state to state, but was most pronounced in states that were largely Protestant because of the opposition of the Catholic Church. There were also large numbers of sterilizations conducted on blacks in the South by the largely white medical establishment. These were known as “Mississippi appendectomies.”

Indiana Committee on Mental Defectives

One of the strongest proponents of Eugenics, Indiana had set up a Committee on Mental Defectives, funded in part by the state Legislature. This Committee acted much like the hereditary courts that the Nazis had established in Germany during the 1930s.

The Committee submitted an annual report to the governor. Information from doctors, hospitals, teachers and various government officials was collected. Surveyors would make home visits and submit assessments of individuals who were suspected to be mentally defective.  “Mental defective”  was defined by the Committee to include the insane, epileptics, and the feeble-minded. These were further classified into one of three categories: idiot, imbecile, and moron.

The Committee claimed on a scientific foundation that mental defects were “transmitted from parent to offspring”, thus entire families might be under suspicion for being mentally defective.

First Fitter Family Medal

Given for a baby “Free of defects” at a Eugenics contest held at a County Fair. Contests like these were held in most states.



State Fair Judging for the Fitter Family “Free from Defects” award. Georgia and Michigan shown.


American Scientific Racism

Stanford president David Starr Jordan originated the notion of “race and blood” in his 1902 racial epistle “Blood of a Nation,” in which the university scholar declared that human qualities and conditions such as talent and poverty were passed through the blood.

In 1904, the Carnegie Institution established a laboratory complex at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island that stockpiled millions of index cards on ordinary Americans, as researchers carefully plotted the removal of families, bloodlines and whole peoples. From Cold Spring Harbor, eugenics advocates agitated in the legislatures of America, as well as the nation’s social service agencies and associations.

The Harriman railroad fortune paid local charities, such as the New York Bureau of Industries and Immigration, to seek out Jewish, Italian and other immigrants in New York and other crowded cities and subject them to deportation, trumped up confinement or forced sterilization.

A book written by American eugenicist, lawyer, and amateur anthropologist Madison Grant in 1916 “The Passing of The Great Race was  influential in encouraging scientific racism and the early American Eugenics.  The book put forward Grant’s theory of “Nordic superiority” and argued for a strong eugenics program in order to save the waning “Nordics” from inundation of other race types. Later, Evolutionary Biologist Stephen Jay Gould would describe the book as  “the most influential tract of American scientific racism ever published.”

Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Involuntary Sterilizations

During the famous 1927 Supreme Court case “Buck v. Bell”,  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared “Three generations of imbeciles is enough,” and ruled that involuntary sterilization of the “feebleminded” — the long-sought goal of eugenicists — was to become the law of the land. In an 8 to 1 decision the Court legitimized Virginia’s law on sterilization which was not repealed until 1974.

But it turns out that the three generations in this case, Carrie Buck, her mother Emma, and  her daughter Vivian weren’t imbeciles. Carrie was an average student and Vivian, taken from her mother and placed in the home of the family whose nephew had fathered her, made the honor role once in her short life.

The Eugenics Sterilization Program

In 1934, as Germany’s sterilizations were accelerating beyond 5,000 per month, the California eugenics leader C. M. Goethe upon returning from Germany ebulliently bragged to a key colleague, “You will be interested to know, that your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in this epoch-making program. Everywhere I sensed that their opinions have been tremendously stimulated by American thought.…I want you, my dear friend, to carry this thought with you for the rest of your life, that you have really jolted into action a great government of 60 million people.”

That same year, ten years, after Virginia passed its sterilization act, Joseph DeJarnette, superintendent of Virginia’s Western State Hospital, observed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “The Germans are beating us at our own game.”

American Funding of Germany’s Eugenics Programs

More than just providing a scientific road map, America actually funded Germany’s eugenic institutions. By 1926, Rockefeller had donated some $410,000 — almost $4 million in 21st-Century money — to hundreds of German researchers. In May 1926, Rockefeller awarded $250,000 to the German Psychiatric Institute of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, later to become the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Psychiatry. Among the leading psychiatrists at the German Psychiatric Institute was Ernst Rüdin, who became director and eventually an architect of Hitler’s systematic medical repression.

In 1927, the Rockefeller Foundation provided funds to construct the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics in Berlin, which came under the directorship of the appropriately named Eugen Fischer.  Adolf Hitler read Fischer’s textbook Principles of Human Heredity and Race Hygiene while in prison at Landsberg and used eugenical notions to support the ideal of a pure “Aryan” society in his manifesto, Mein Kampf.

Another recipient in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute’s eugenic complex of institutions was the Institute for Brain Research. Since 1915, it had operated out of a single room. Everything changed when Rockefeller money arrived in 1929. A grant of $317,000 allowed the Institute to construct a major building and take center stage in German race biology. The Institute received additional grants from the Rockefeller Foundation during the next several years. Leading the Institute once again, was Hitler’s medical henchman Ernst Rüdin. Rüdin’s organization became a prime director and recipient of the murderous experimentation and research conducted on Jews, Gypsies and others.

Leon Whitney, executive secretary of the American Eugenics Society declared of Nazism, “While we were pussy-footing around…the Germans were calling a spade a spade.”

Rockefeller executives never knew of Mengele. With few exceptions, the foundation had ceased all eugenic studies in Nazi-occupied Europe before the war erupted in 1939. But by that time the die had been cast. The talented men Rockefeller and Carnegie financed, the institutions they helped found, and the science it helped create took on a scientific momentum of their own.

After the war, eugenics was declared a crime against humanity–an act of genocide. During the famous Nuremberg Trials of Nazi War Criminals, the lawyers for the Nazis cited the California statutes in their legal defense. Legal precedent of the forced sterilizations were brought up in the Nuremberg courtroom hearings but to no avail. They were found guilty. In spite of the convictions of several Nazi and subsequent hangings, the Eugenics program continued with sterilization programs and forced internment institutions.

Eugenics remains a blot on the history of American science, a pseudo-scientific racist movement that led to the sterilization of perhaps 60,000 people nationwide in the first half of the 20th Century. Support for eugenics came from members of the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences and pillars of “progressive” society ranging from Woodrow Wilson to Alexander Graham Bell.


Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Micheal D Antonio 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.

The State Boys Rebellion retells the true story of Frederick Boyce and his friends who spent their childhoods in the Walter E. Fernald School for the Feeble-minded in Massachusetts, a government program that locked poor or uneducated children into mental institutions from the early 1900s through the 1970s. There, the children were neglected, abused and used for scientific experiments as part of the eugenics movement that tried to separate people considered to be genetically inferior from the rest of society in order to prevent them from reproducing.

In 1957 they staged an uprising at the institution which focused some media attention to their situation. Some of the boys that rioted were criminally charged and thrown into a separate prison, thus escaping the hellish conditions at Fernald.




Related articles and links

Eugenics Archive

“The State Boys’ Rebellion” D’Antonio, Michael.

“Breeding better citizens: A Hidden chapter of American history” Parker, Valerie.

Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell Lombardo, Paul.

DOE Openness: Human Radiation Experiments: Studies at the Fernald State School, Massachusetts

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  1. osori says:

    I’m stunned and sickened, man. Great research and writing, the type of thing that stays with you long after reading it.

    • Krell says:

      Stunned and sickened sums it up, Oso. When I was doing some research on this post it actually made my physically ill and I had to step away from it for a while. Dark dark past of this country that should be required reading in the history books. By the way… do they teach history in school anymore?

    • Bri says:

      It is sickening to see that this kind of thing even happens in this country. Whoever did this kind of thing is just as bad as those that bombed the finishline at the Boston Marathon and the terrorists that caused the September 11, 2001 attacks. If some of these people who were behind this are still alive, they should be placed on a terrorist watchlist and be taken under the Patriot Act and locked up as such.

      It is a sin. Now I am wondering if some of this kind of experimentation was unleashed in a school for the blind which I attended some time ago. I wish my alumni association would investigate my cases of sexual abuse that happened to me at the hands of students, to find out how it even got unleashed. Now, I wonder what my mother really knew when I was going to school. IT JUST MAKES ME SICK. WHAT MAKES ME EVEN SICKER IS ONE OF THE HONORARY MEMBERS OF MY ALUMNI ASSOCIATION WOULD NOT EVEN TRY TO GET MY CASE OF SEXUAL ABUSE COMMITTED BY STUDENTS BACK IN THE 1970’S IN FRONT OF THE BOARD FOR A HEARING AND FOUND OUT HOW IT GOT UNLEASHED IN THE FIRST PLACE. THIS SHOULD HAD BEEN DONE WHERE I WAS VERY ANGRY AT MY MOTHER FOR A LONG TIME FOR SENDING ME THERE.

  2. Morgalla says:

    Excellent wrapup. That prison is an “escape” from the horrors of the boy’s home says it all.

    • Krell says:

      When escaping to better conditions is prison, it’s gotta be horrible. The boys listed in the book later sued the State of Massachusetts, MIT who supplied the radioactive materials and the Quaker Oats company.

      During the Hazel O’ Leary period of coming clean about all of the involuntary radiation experiments, she brought out in the open the Fernald experiments.

      In late 1995, President Clinton apologized to the subjects at Fernald after an advisory committee’s ruled that the tests were “morally troubling.”

      Although the government formally apologized no financial compensation was offered to victims.

      Later the victims of Fernald Boys Home won a lawsuit and were awarded 1.85 million dollars apiece.


  3. osori says:

    The toughest part to read was the little boys having their milk and oatmeal poisoned each morning, and thinking they were being rewarded. Happy to get a little something extra, and the rotten fucking soulless bastards were knowingly and intentionally poisoning helpless children. Children who trusted they were being cared for.

    • Krell says:

      I think that was the item that really sent me over on this, Oso. Those kids were trying anyway to make sense of it all, probably somehow blaming themselves,like kids sometimes do when they do not understand. Searching for any adult that cares.

      Then those fuckers knowingly feeding them that poison. It’s a violation that crosses all boundaries of basic human decency. There is a special place in hell reserved for people such as these, I have to believe that.

      May they rot in hell forever!

  4. Take a moment and consider the gravity of this subject, the implications of what was considered a truth about phyiscal, mental and emotional good health back in that day. At the same time that Eugenics was being considered valid in the 20’s – 30’s, in a tiny town in upstate NY the police would seek out the woman who listened to what ‘voices’ told her concerning a missing child, a murdered farm wife, a missing gun in the county sheriff’s offices…the police got their answers. My grandmother was considered ‘gifted’…. though the pressure of folks needing her to direct them through life urged her to move to a city and seek anonomity … at the same time and right up to today… the term schizophrenic, isolated, inverted…. plenty of psychological assesments that had no business being applied, would be. Old Joe Kennedy was convinced by doctors at the time to labotomize his daughter. It still goes on…. how many who read this comment will pooh pooh with the notion that subtle senses are not the stuff of mental illness? That the little voice within that some of us clarify and listen to … is a form of mental calamity and renders us as lesser then the average mind? Jung’s Red Book makes it clear that he himself accepted and worked with the guides that spoke to him, that only he could see or hear. So, when the ‘psychic’ performs mental tasks that too often are presented as ‘parlor games’ still… well! I give you the devastating tragedies of misunderstanding and abuse in this article. These children were misused by the society that held them and their neglect was the same, in most cases, asthose I am talking about who are shut away under similar auspices.
    Sufferers of mental illness deserve kindness and care. These children and the folks abused by ignorant gov policies deserve more than compensation…. but they only achieve it when they forgive, if they survive. This is a heartbreaking story… imporant and needing telling again and again, so that the writer might make a future difference… in that … Krell, what an awesome job you’ve done here. Thank you for the care, and the kindness. The criminal civil servants who are responsible may have indiividually faded… but their spawn rise up anew all to quickly. The only resolve is to speak out, to push the truth out… to reveal the atrocity.

  5. Dawn Thackeray says:

    My uncle was held in that hell hole, my grandmother was a poor unwed women. MY uncle was a beautifull loving man who could not have children & he loved all children. I’m am discusted & horrified that they suffered in ways they could never speak about. I hope all those so called doctors & nurses & aides, who stood by & allwoed this ROT IN HELL.

  6. Joseph E. Almeida says:

    U-R-wrong, we never got a million each for being fed radiation. it was way less then that.

    • Krell says:

      Joseph, you are absolutely right. I stand corrected. The 1.85 million was not mentioned in the story but in a later comment by me. The link that I gave in the comment mentions 1.85 million given to victims.

      But it depends on how many victims are included in the settlement. I researched further on this subject and it came out to just around 20,000 dollars.

      Seems even more outrageous, not that money could ever compensate someone that went through that hell. Again, thank you for the information.

  7. mcooper says:

    Actually, according to the book “State Boys Rebellion” the doses of radiation in the oatmeal was NOT high, however it was still a reprehensible act. Also, I didn’t get the impression from the book that the Bridgewater State Prison for the Criminally Insane was much better than Fernald.

  8. Lisa says:

    My mother grew up in Wrenthan State and four of her sibling were at Fernald from about 1935 to 1947. One of the siblings died of brain cancer in his 60’s and he would have been at Fernald starting in 1935 to about 1950. Another uncle I was told escaped the school serveral times. My mother was actually spared this sterilization process by my uncle. The school asked him for permission to sterilize my mother, he told them no and threatened them if they touched her. My mothers family had 10 children. You can not tell me that all 10 had mental disablities especially when the 3 I know of lived normal lives and had kids that were perfectly fine. I’m looking for information on the two schools, Wrenthan and Fernald. If anyone has any information that could be helpful in finding the history of this poor family it would be greatly appreciated.

    What I don’t understand is that the experts say the amount of radiation given didn’t affect the kids. I have had thyroid cancer and was told that was caused by radiation; for example an xray to the head area. If thyroid cancer isn’t detected in time it moves to other parts of the body; stomach, lungs, chest and bone. But this radiaiton exposure doesn’t show up for years. Doctors said that I could have had an xray to the head with a large amount of exposure but it wouldn’t show up till i’m 40 some. So how do they know that it didn’t do any harm? Do they know how many of these people developed cancer later in life? Guess I’ll have to do more reading.

    • PENolan says:

      Lisa, my heart goes out to you and your family. I don’t have any information to offer. In fact, I only learned about this whole tragic, detestable episode in our country’s history when I noticed that you’d left this comment. But I do have love and light to share and hope you find a little peace.

  9. Lisa says:

    I agree it was a horrible time in our history. Lets hope we learned from our mistakes.

    Some Good news. I was able to get ahold of Wrentham Development Center and they were very helpful and pleasent. They said they will release the records for my mother with her signature but they could not relase the records for her siblings. They are however willing to share information from the siblings records. I assume probably relatives, dates and such but probably no medical information. It seems that with what the state and governent put these people though they would want to help reunite families that are looking for information. They were very helpful today in that aspect and do seem to want to assist. Lets hope the Fernald is just as helpful.

    My mother told me that before she passes she would like to find the names of her brothers and sisters so that she can mention them in her obit. I thought that was sweet and a step toward healing. It is a long time in coming for her.

    • Dc says:

      I have worked at fernald 30 years. Acts way back were reprehensible? However it was cleaned up in the 70s by judge tauro. Lots of loving caring individuals worked there.

    • henry says:

      see web rad train org , radiation interaction with matter, 67% destroyed in 1mS. Humans have DNA, not matter.
      see radiobiology for the radiologist Giaccia Amato, Stanford 2006 Ed pg 159 or later 7th Ed.
      see auntminnie com for almost all radiation and history of radiation and isotopes/news,
      see mri side effects com, this is horrific today, first radiation as in xrays or CT scans with/without contrast cause evolving fibrosis and radiation damage, the iodine to the kidneys causes damage, then the notorious MRI scans, then the metal contrast, which immediately deposits in the bones and skin, this is going on NOW 2013
      it causes painful joints/muscle pains, gets in the eyes, skin, bones, shortens the tendons, fatigue, and skin sores, dx is by skin biopsy
      see mayomedical laboratories com Search G for gadolinium and see mri side efffects com , occurs with even normal kidney function

      radiation causes meningiomas see Brigham and Womens neuro site, 95% caused by radiation to the head/neck/chest/sinuses, etc. even dental 3D xrays full mouth can cause meningiomas on the spine, back of neck/brain area, pressure. benign, but they know this. radiation causes cataracts, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, diabetes, cleft palate and lip, microencephalopathy and more, see pg 159 in the above book Radiobiology for the Radiologist, amazon
      They’ve known this since the late 1800’s and Marie Sklowdoska Curie and Bequerel worked with xrays. they know it causes Cystic Fibrosis, diabetes, Tay Sachs, Sickle cell and Huntingtons, its a carcinogen. it’s a terrible crime and injustice to dehumanize people, let alone children and even animals. Such great evils need to be extinguished. God help us all. See The Treatment by Martha Stephens 2002 and Full Body Burden by Kristen Iversen 2012- Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats and The Ambushed Grand Jury by Caron Balkany Esq and Wes McKinley
      see Biodistribution of Gadolinium Based contrasts Agents, including Gadolinium Deposition NIH or PMC 2822463, stay away from any injections for Magnets in MRI machines and all radiation exams, none are routine. NONE. not mammograms, dental, chest xrays, none! see ACHRE report for the again repeated 67% damage to DNA in 1mS, see it DNA repair systems and Mitochondrial Diseases, ? treatment is anti oxidants, amazing.

  10. jan says:

    The State Boys Rebellion,
    I sure would like their attorneys names re gadolinium metal injected for MRI magnetic scans and the damage it does to people. see the clinical trials on going re gadolinium and NEWBORNS and infants and children and this one:01544166 private sponsor by the pharmaSUEtical mfgr.Shame on them.you can’t harden bones;you will destroy young growing brains, bones, liver, kidneys,eyes and skin. This is a painful disease. mri side effects and nephrogenic systemic fibrosis ssa gov

    I was glad to read the State Boys REBELLED against those awful abusive adults. I’m so glad to read they retaliated and challenged them beyond the capacity and that parents became involved and the Kennedy’s became involved.Sadly, READ the end of the book, The Treatment by Martha Stephens, 2004 where T Kennedy agreed to keep silent re these experiments. This does not serve mankind or humanity.

    It needs to be challenged and brought forth again and these monster Nazi pharmaceutical companies need to be outted and sued until they are total bankrupt and admit their crimes.