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.

Entrance to the Rosewood Center in Owings Mills, March 2009.
The Rosewood Center in Owings Mills, Md., pictured in March 2009, was once a clearinghouse for exploitation of the mentally ill.

Photo courtesy SheepNotGoats/Creative Commons

The Rosewood Center (née the Maryland Asylum and Training School for the Feeble Minded, est. 1888) is an abandoned mental hospital on the outskirts of Baltimore. The state closed its doors only in 2009 after a mountain of angry complaints involving understaffing, patient abuse, and neglect. Much of the rotting old bedlam now lies in ruins or is caked in thick soot, the aftermath of a recent suspected arson. But even in this dilapidated state, its imposing presence stirs up a sense of the foreboding.

Like many overwhelmed psychiatric facilities built around the turn of the last century, Rosewood had been dogged by shameful accusations for a long time. The most scandalous—the one that sets Rosewood apart from other asylums—was made by Leo Kanner on May 13, 1937. Before a hushed gathering at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in Pittsburgh, Kanner shared the shocking tale of “the Rosewood girls.” It’s not a story most people know about today, but it’s an important reminder of just how destructive an upper class with an unchecked sense of entitlement can be, and how vital it remains to safeguard the interests of those who can’t do so for themselves. It also forces us to revisit an uncomfortable moment in our nation’s history when the practice of eugenics—human breeding for socially desirable attributes, such as intelligence—was viewed by even the most progressive human rights advocates as humane and ethical.

Kanner, a prominent Austrian-born physician who headed up the child psychiatry unit at Johns Hopkins University, was an advocate for the “feebleminded.” He’s mostly remembered today as the discoverer of autism. (For a while, autism was known as “Kanner syndrome.”) Remarkably, the cluster of symptoms that he was able to piece together from just a small sample of autistic children more than 70 years ago is still routinely used for diagnostic purposes. It was while researching the history of autism for another story, in fact, that I stumbled upon a passing reference to Kanner’s role as the main whistleblower in the Rosewood case.

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It’s cliché, I realize, to describe evil as “banal.” Yet there’s no better word to describe what Kanner discovered. Evil wore tightly laced girdles under fashionable gowns. Scheming in embroidered cloche hats, it sipped tea and fingered jewels while listening to the gossip of the haut monde. It lingered especially, Kanner showed, in the affluent Baltimore suburbs of Catonsville and Forest Park, in huge, wood-paneled homes on tree-lined streets, where its heartbeat could be made out in the incessant ticking of grandfather clocks.

What was the nature of this evil? For more than 20 years, some of Baltimore’s wealthiest and most established families had been helping themselves to the institutionalized patients at Rosewood. They’d been “adopting” these mentally challenged girls and women only to turn them into their own private slaves.

It’s unclear from Kanner’s report just whose brainchild it was to steal these patients away from their cloistered lives at Rosewood, but I suspect a money-hungry wolf was at its center. The notorious Harry B. Wolf, Esq., to be precise. Wolf was a prodigious trial attorney—he racked up an average of 1,000 cases a year, nearly all of them successful—who seems to have had his hands in just about everything else in Baltimore. Real estate deals, hotel investments, even a successful ferry service company operating on the Eastern Shore. By the age of 28, he was already a former U.S. congressman. During the Great Depression, Wolf drove a Rolls Royce and lived in a sunny corner mansion in one of the area’s toniest neighborhoods.

Clues to Wolf’s involvement can be found in old court proceedings, many of which were published in the Baltimore Sun. “In Rosewood 30 Years, Woman Gains Release,” reads one early headline from 1920. “Girl Is Released by Court After 7 Years in a Home,” says another. In these newspaper accounts, Wolf is named as the attorney for long-term Rosewood patients, having personally obtained writs of habeas corpus to gain their freedom. “Attorney Wolf made a vigorous plea to the jury in the girl’s behalf, severely criticizing those responsible for her detention,” according to the account of one courtroom scene. Perhaps the clearest sign of Wolf’s central role in the sad plot is a casual statement in the same article that Wolf had 26 other similar cases lined up for trial.

If it sounds to you like Wolf was the good guy, helping some poor women escape from a lifetime of captivity at Rosewood, you’d have been putty in his hands as one of the jury members. What he was in fact doing was abusing the system for his own profit. The old judicial writ of habeas corpus (Latin for “bring the body here”) guarantees a physical hearing before a judge to weigh the legality of a person’s continued detention. If a patient at Rosewood was determined sane by the (nonexpert) judge after appearing under such a writ, she was released into society—or rather, into a custodial arrangement filed by her lawyer. In 1922 Wolf was disbarred for an obstruction of justice charge in an unrelated murder trial. But other unethical lawyers quickly mastered Wolf’s legal legerdemain, and Rosewood became a booming cottage industry for those in the know. The families of these patients weren’t told about their releases; many, of course, had dumped their unwanted relatives at the facility long before and weren’t likely to care.

Kanner found that an astonishing 166 patients left Rosewood under habeas corpus writs from 1911 to 1933, with nothing at all to indicate the oddly obliging judges’ criteria for their decisions. And when Kanner and a diligent social worker named Mabel Kraus looked into the matter further, they confirmed that these girls, women, and a few boys had not only been legally snatched from Rosewood right under everyone’s noses, but they’d been bought by the rich as unpaid laborers and indentured servants. It was a well-oiled human trafficking operation.

At first, the psychiatrists at Rosewood protested. Yet with the judges—more than likely paid off—being so accommodating to the lawyers’ requests, eventually they gave up, letting the residents leave as soon as some aggressive lawyer merely threatened to get a writ. Thus the scandal almost certainly involved more than the cases on record. Rosewood’s superintendent, Frank Keating, who died a few years prior to Kanner’s 1937 report, may have been the one to tip off Kanner about the whole affair. “In the State of Maryland,” Kanner told the conference audience in Pittsburgh, “Dr. Keating’s was a lone voice in the wilderness. Having no support from the community, he was forced to capitulate.”