A Look Back at Institutional Life
Over several years before and after Muscatatuck State Developmental Center closed, the Center on Aging and Community at Indiana University audio-recorded interviews with individuals who lived, worked, or had a family member at the institution. Eight of those interviews are being made available by the Indiana Disability History Project in digital audio and print format for the first time. These are wide-ranging conversations from varying viewpoints, on many topics across changing eras.
A longtime North Vernon resident recalls childhood excursions to Muscatatuck for baseball games and picnics in the 1920s. Over 80 years later, an employee describes what it’s like to be placing the last residents into community settings. Knowing that professional and public sentiments were turning against places like Muscatatuck, parent interviewees wished to explain the choices they made in a different era. A mother advised by a doctor to give up her son remembers “feeling like I was burying him.” Then came the visits when he barely noticed her departure. A father explains that the structured institutional environment “provided something we couldn’t provide at home. No matter what we tried, we couldn’t do it.”
Perspectives of interviewees employed at Muscatatuck reflect the kinds of work they did. A nursing director remembers divisions in the 1950s between imported professionals of diverse ethnicities and nationalities living on the grounds, and the direct care staff who were local residents. Jobs were awarded through political patronage until a new, young superintendent challenged the system. The interviewee includes the story of the invented, public scandal that brought the reformer’s administration to an abrupt end. As a direct care worker’s viewpoint was disregarded. "I had very many times I was very angry and very miserable because of the decisions made by those above me." “Some of the things that the administration would decide and some of the things they would do would be laughable.”
A former resident, Leland Verrick, shares that he bathed, diapered, and put to bed other residents who had physical disabilities. He worked in the kitchen and the nursery, he mopped floors. "I had all the jobs." Peonage, or unpaid work at institutions, was not yet outlawed. How many of the residents actually had an intellectual disability? A music therapist who arrived in 1971 wondered. “Sometimes the only way you could tell the difference whether they were a working patient or a staff person was the color of the uniforms."
Leland slept in a dormitory with four rows of beds. When he needed a tooth pulled, they brought in a dentist rather than take him off grounds. He saw residents who had run away or otherwise misbehaved, put in a “quiet room,” solitary confinement. "They had two rooms, like if you get bad they lock you up for it." This punishment, also described in a staff interview, could extend for many weeks.
Here are voices of people who chose to be at Muscatatuck, and people who did not. They describe a self-contained world, of joy and sorrow, pride and shame. As a parent said at the conclusion of his hour-long interview, “I tried to give you the good and the bad.”
Muscatatuck Oral History Audio Interviews
"We had three boys and five girls and they literally thought they owned the place." Ann Bishop came to Muscatatuck in September of 1954. She started as a head nurse, became assistant director of nursing, and then was a module director/mental health administrator. Ann discusses her decades of work, as well as family life on the grounds of the institution.
"We loved him, but he needed things that we couldn’t give him." Sandra Blair's son Brian was seven when he went into Muscatatuck State School in the early 1960s. He was the second of six children and Sandra was also working outside the home. It was a long drive to Butlerville from Terre Haute. "I didn’t get to go as often as I would have wanted to."
"One of the first things that she said was ‘I want a lawyer.’” Patty Cook recounts her experience with a teenager who had severe cerebral palsy and had been given a communication device for the first time. Patty was first hired at Muscatatuck as a music therapist in 1971. Her impression was that many residents did not have an intellectual disability.
"Even before we started to school we used to go to Muscatatuck. My daddy played baseball... we’d have a picnic after the ball game and they played ball to entertain the patients out there." Belma Eberts' memories of Muscatatuck start in the 1920s when was she was four or five years old in North Vernon. Her father was a "railroader."
"I expected to go out of there feet first... I was just like the clients, I had been there my whole life. How could I function on the outside?" Sarah Poole started working as an attendant at Muscatatuck in 1968. She soon moved to the Speech and Hearing department, where she spent most of her 35 years. Sarah describes her experience from the perspective of doing direct care.
"That was about the same time things were really starting to change. I felt like I was actually being part of a system that was on its way up." Cindie Underwood came to Muscatatuck in 1989 as a case manager. Over the years she became an evening shift administrator and a social worker. When Cindie was interviewed in 2004, she had been assigned to the transitions team.
"I had all the jobs." When Leland Verrick was at Muscatatuck State School, later Muscatatuck State Hospital and Training Center, it was not yet illegal for residents to perform the same duties as the hired staff. Leland says he bathed, diapered, and put to bed other clients who had physical disabilities. He worked in the kitchen and the nursery, he mopped floors.
"The very first day of leaving him there, it was just like somebody tore my heart out," recalls Steve Ward. His son Steven entered Muscatatuck State Developmental Center around 1990. Steven was 14 and had had a brain tumor since the age of two, followed by many surgeries. Doctors kept telling the Wards that Steven needed a more structured environment.