Cascade Observations: Putting light to a face in the dark corner

I’m a list maker. When the school year ends each June, I make my “To do” list, envisioning a productive summer mixture of professional study, deep cleaning, overdue visits with friends, produce preservation and a bit of exploration. As summer wanes and the beginning of school nears, I’ve been reviewing my list of tasks accomplished: took a class at Lewis & Clark College; read a book on biliteracy; dried 25 pounds of cherries; went to lunch with a dear friend; hiked the Zumwalt Prairie; defrosted the chest freezer; and cleaned a dark corner of the basement.

What I never expected to do this summer was uncover a dark family secret that has made me more inquisitive about and ashamed of the relatives who came before me.

The gut-wrenching journey into my family’s past began innocently, when my sister-in-law and I opened a box of memorabilia that has lived in the basement since my mother died in 2009. In the box were lovely old photographs, 19th century diplomas, newspaper clippings, pages of genealogical research, and a folder labeled “Edw. A. Palmer.” Opening the folder became my own Pandora’s box.

Four studio portraits of a child lay on top. Two photos depict a baby, dressed in a lace gown. Two more photos show that same child, now a toddler, with long brown ringlets and dressed in a fancy dress. It’s obvious from the photographs that this child is “not quite right.” The mouth is slack, the eyes stare blankly. I’ve just had my first introduction to Edward Ashbrook Palmer, born in 1888.

Under the photos is a slim stack of correspondence to my grandfather, Joel C.R. Palmer, regarding his brother Edward, a “patient” at the Walter E. Fernald State School (formerly the Massachusetts School for the Feeble Minded). The earliest dated letter is from 1947, when my great uncle was 59. The letters between grandpa Joel and Malcolm J. Farrell, M.D., superintendent of the institution, all pertain to the frequent purchase of clothing for Edward. As Dr. Farrell writes in one letter “Upon receipt of your inquiry of April 20th about the clothing supply for your brother, Edward Palmer, the state of his clothing was investigated. It was found that despite his aged and enfeebled condition he manages to do a surprising amount of damage to his clothing by tearing, twisting and stretching it so that actually the wear which his clothing receives is far in excess of that of any farm hand.”

The only other correspondences found in the folder are between my grandfather and the Massachusetts funeral home where Edward’s 64-year old body was cremated, and the monument company who inscribed Edward’s name into the Palmer family monument in Valhalla, NY.

In my 58 years, this folder was the first I had ever heard of Edward Palmer. I queried my siblings and my cousins about Edward. One cousin had a vague memory of hearing about him, but no one else had ever heard one thing about my grandfather’s brother. In the obituaries of Joel and Edward’s parents, Joel and his sister are listed as surviving relatives. Edward, alive and virtually incarcerated in the Fernald Institution, is never mentioned.

I googled “The Walter E. Fernald State School” and up came several links, including a description of a book called “The State Boys Rebellion” by Michael D’Antonio. I purchased it immediately. Written in 2004, the book is an expose of the decades of abuse suffered by abandoned boys who were deemed “morons” (but were actually of average intelligence) and became inmates of the Fernald institution. While there, they were subjected to verbal, physical and sexual abuse, fed radiation-tainted oatmeal as part of the “Science Club,” and punished by being sent to the other buildings where the “idiots and imbeciles” resided. In these buildings, the boys reported, the men lived in filth, with walls and floors covered with excrement and urine. As tears rolled down my cheeks, I envisioned my great uncle, confused, alone and abandoned in a place that must have been hell on earth.

While Edward languished in the institution, my paternal great grandmother and maternal grandmother were busy researching their genealogies, in hopes of becoming members of the Massachusetts Society of the Colonial Dames and the Daughters of the American Revolution. The eligibility clause printed in my great-grandmother’s (Edward’s mother) 1905 application to the D.A.R. states “Any woman is eligible for membership in the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution who is not less than eighteen years of age, and who is descended from a man or woman who, with unfailing loyalty to the cause of American Independence, served as a sailor, or as a soldier or civil officer in one of the several Colonies or States, or in the United Colonies or States, or as a recognized patriot, or rendered material aid thereto; provided the applicant is personally acceptable to the Society.”

Apparently, my family was proud of its genealogy, but ashamed of having a developmentally disabled child. Their shame must have outweighed any compassion my relatives might have had for Edward. I suspect that, like many of the abandoned boys profiled in D’Antonio’s powerful book, Edward’s parents never came to visit him on visiting days. I wonder if my grandfather felt he had righted any wrongs when he allowed Edward’s remains to be interred in the family monument. Other than the slim folder, it’s my family’s only acknowledgement that he ever existed.

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