Scandal in Old Baltimore: Wealthy Families “Adopted” Asylum Inmates and Turned Them Into Slaves

Health and medicine explained.
March 17 2014 11:55 PM

A Forgotten Scandal in Baltimore’s High Society

Crooked lawyers sprang inmates from an asylum to make them slaves.

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Kanner, however, refused to do the same. He demanded that these injustices be stopped. “In our last so-called era of prosperity, housemaids were relatively expensive,” Kanner told the Bar Association of Baltimore City shortly before leaving for Pittsburgh. “Lawyer I and a number of ‘society matrons’ concocted a nightmarish scheme, which was to provide the matrons with cheaper help.” (“Lawyer I,” most likely Harry B. Wolf, had somehow obtained a list of patients given various light chores at Rosewood, seeing them as potential domestic workers.) “Lawyer I, his office associates and three other attorneys who soon joined the sport filed a writ for each girl without her knowledge. The girls, who had resided at the school from 5 to 30 years, had no thought of leaving. There they were well treated, had a permanent home and were not suited for extramural existence. They knew nothing about the writs until the day when, by order of the court, their ‘bodies were had’ for the hearing and they found themselves ‘released to the custody’ of women whom they did not know and who did not know them.”

Imagine if you’d lived 30 sheltered years in a mental institution, then suddenly found yourself scrubbing toilets in some lavish Edwardian estate where a socialite complained that you should be more grateful for what she’d done for you. 

The shocking revelations didn’t end there. Kanner and Kraus tracked down most of the former residents of Rosewood to determine what had become of them since their releases. It wasn’t a pretty picture. The vast majority had indeed gone to reside with those “society matrons” who, under the pretense of providing them with a loving home, had in fact paid Wolf or the other unscrupulous lawyers to obtain a resident of their choosing. Most got more than they bargained for. “Many of the women soon became dissatisfied with their maids and expressed great astonishment that the girls seemed ‘stupid’ and ‘slow,’ ” Kanner told his colleagues in Pittsburgh. “This discovery, however, did not deter them from ordering another girl from Lawyer I when they got rid of the one they had.” One lady had a change of mind about a particular Rosewood girl the moment she left the courtroom, leaving her confused new charge in the parking lot. Another intended her adoptee to be a personal housemaid for just two months, kicking her out when the family left for a European vacation.

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Others fell victim to abuse in these high-society homes. “A few of the women so overworked and underfed their imbecile maids,” Kanner reported, “that several of them died within two or three years after their release, mostly of acute pulmonary tuberculosis.” One woman who collected no fewer than 35 Rosewood girls had an especially mean-spirited young daughter who would spit in the maids’ faces and tip over their buckets while they did backbreaking work. Those who complained about her behavior were simply replaced by new girls. Some were sexually abused. “One girl placed in the home of a physician under his wife’s supervision was so poorly supervised,” Kanner told of another deplorable story, “that she went through nine months of an illegitimate pregnancy and gave birth to a child without anyone noticing it; the ‘supervising’ wife of the doctor … found the newborn baby in her cupboard.”

Once they proved poor housekeepers, the women were eventually tossed out on the streets. And here, things got even grimmer—the former Rosewood girls saw “a sad peregrination through the whorehouses and flophouses of the slums,” as a student of Kanner’s would write many years later. For the original 1937 report, social worker Kraus had managed to track down 102 of the 166 habeas corpus cases on record. She found that 11 women (all of whom had been in perfect health when they left Rosewood) had died of illness or neglect; 17 were plagued by infectious diseases such as syphilis, gonorrhea, or tuberculosis; 29 were prostitutes; eight had been reinstitutionalized in mental hospitals; and six were in prison for serious crimes. Overall, Kanner wrote, 89 had “failed miserably and inflicted grave harm and perils on themselves and the communities in which they live.”

Leo Kanner, circa 1955.
Leo Kanner, circa 1955.

Photo courtesy Johns Hopkins University/Creative Commons

After Kanner’s exposé, the nation was abuzz with the outrageous news of how a blueblood Baltimore society had coldheartedly exploited all those vulnerable people. “Record of Misery Traced in Freeing of Moronic Girls,” read a Washington Post headline the next day. Sweeping changes were made to ensure it could never happen again.

But Kanner was a hero for his time, not ours. He was genuinely concerned about the Rosewood girls, yes, but his detailed analysis of these “imbeciles’ ” reproductive behaviors doesn’t seem so benevolent today. One of the primary reasons Kanner was so incensed by the whole affair was that he believed intelligence, or lack thereof, was hereditary. Once these fertile women were set free in the world, he reasoned, their mentally defective offspring became a new strain of civic pestilence. From his perspective, the Rosewood girls’ feebleminded young would burden a nation already struggling to find its economic footing. In fact, by the time of his report, a total of 165 children had already been born to this troubled pool of 102 former Rosewood patients. And of this second generation, Kanner claimed, “108 are incontestably feebleminded.”

A typical case was that of “Edna May H.”

In 1924, a judge released [her] to a woman who wanted a maid. Edna May became a prostitute and, at least on one occasion, had sexual intercourse with her own brother. [She] now has four feebleminded, neglected, malnourished children who are often covered with scabies and live in dirty, vermin-infested quarters.

Based on such an avalanche of woe, Kanner assumed that these women—and the rest of us who are now suffering the social consequences of their unwise releases—would have been better off if they’d have been kept for life at Rosewood and away from the rest of the world. So while it’s clear enough that Wolf was the bad guy in this embarrassing American tale, was Kanner really the good guy?

People should be judged in historical context. Nonetheless, Kanner’s position is but a step or two away from forced sterilization of  “undesirables.” Do the mentally challenged have the right to bear children? Today, most of us would unhesitatingly say “yes.” Yet Kanner thought the reproductive rights of those Rosewood girls were irrelevant due to the impact of their reproduction on society. “Time alone will tell how many more feebleminded, illegitimate, neglected children this group of released Rosewood patients will in the future bestow on a commonwealth that can do nothing but look on and pay the penalty for indiscriminate habeas corpus releases by its courts of justice,” he said. By keeping these poor thick souls safe behind the walls of Rosewood, Kanner concluded, everyone’s interests would have been protected. Out of sight, out of mind.

Jesse Bering is the author of Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us. Read his columns here and follow him at jessebering.com, @JesseBering, or on Facebook.

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