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Colonies for ‘Defectives’ Proposed

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Nov 13, 2019

Surf City — As 1913 came to an end, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the law that empowered the state to sterilize criminals and those the government deemed defective. This law had been aimed directly at a group who lived in the area known as the Pine Barrens and had been described in recent reports as outcasts and moral deviants. On Jan. 9, 1914, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the state’s new course of action.

“New Jersey’s plans for the scientific care of mentally defective children are to be tried out without further delay by the establishment of the first colony near Four Mile in the pine belt of Burlington county, according to an announcement made today by the County Committee working with the State Bureau of Charities and Corrections. … State Commissioner Beyers will appoint a committee of managers of the new institution in the near future and erection of the colony will be started at once under direction of Superintendent Johnstone, of the Vineland Training School for Feeble-Minded Children. … Extensive investigations by the bureau show that the class of defectives it is intended to reach never attain a greater mental (age) than the normal child of 9 to 10 years, no matter what the years of their life. They are hence incapable of responsibility or self-direction and easily fall into criminal ways.”

As talks were underway for constructing a colony in the Pines, The Paterson Morning Call reported on Feb. 19, “Governor Fielder, of New Jersey, believes that the moving picture may prove the salvation of the Pineys, forlorn men and women who live in the great pine belt stretching over Ocean, Atlantic and Burlington counties. … ‘Movies’ along with music and lectures ought to be held out to these people as inducements to strive for something better than they get under present conditions. He would make the schools in the district centers for these social reforms.”

His ideas were based on the fact. “Governor Fielder who made a tour of investigation through the Pine belt last year said he would not believe that the Pineys were a worse lot than might be found in other states which have large tracts of undeveloped woodland to which the criminal and the degenerate may flee to cast their lot with a people already sunk in squalor and mental deficiency. He described the conditions as terrible and asserted that the state must exert itself if there are to be remedies. He urged the compulsory education of the children and the attraction of the parents and older children to social centers through music and pictures.”

As lurid stories that bigamy and inbreeding were being practiced by the people living in the Pines filled metropolitan newspapers, a meeting was held in Asbury Park in April. The Asbury Park Press on the 22nd stated, “The belief that we are living in an hysterical age, the heyday of muckrakers who create their own muck and reformers with ill-advised panaceas for human wrongs that in reality are not as bad as they are made to seem, would apparently be borne out by the speakers who addressed the Conference of Charities and Corrections at its closing session yesterday afternoon.”

The New Jersey Legislature had appointed a committee to decide how best to deal with the “mental defectives.” Edmund E. Reed, a member, reported to the Asbury Park meeting.

“The idea twenty or thirty years ago was to build one great big Institution like Morris Plains, like Trenton. We are quite sure that isn’t the best thing to do, because we have learned new and better methods of the treatment of the mental defective. But we cannot tear down these institutions, the State cannot afford to build new ones, and therefore the progress that we ought to make is being held back. One feeling, therefore, is that we should not build new institutions, expect much small ones, and our idea, first of all, is the colony plant. Put them upon rough lands, lands that they can work and land which is made better by their work. They are happier and healthier out in the open air, working almost from dawn to twilight; they are happier, stronger and better. … It will be wiser to build houses that will hold about fifty, and houses that will fall down in twenty or twenty-five years, so that after twenty-five years, if there is a new and better system for the treatment of the insane which has been developed we shall be no longer hampered by buildings that cost a million or two millions of dollars that the State cannot afford to destroy, but buildings we will be glad to tear down and replace with others better adapted to the care of the feeble-minded and the epileptic. … That is about the work of the commission. To recommend to the State at once the erection of these colonies; no colony to hold more than three hundred patients.”

Up to this point, the people in the Pines had been studied by outsiders. The next speaker was one of the best-known female cranberry growers in the nation who, as she spoke, was working on introducing the blueberry to the world. Elizabeth C. White from Whitesbogs addressed the meeting.

“I am a ‘piney’ myself. That I am not generally so classed is simply because of the degree of success my forebears have achieved in their struggle for existence in the Jersey pines. My home is on a farm with fifteen minutes’ walk of the continuous pine belt which stretches from here (Asbury Park) to Cape May, and in many places more than half way across the State. I was born there, as was my mother before me.”

White told how she became involved in the Piney story.

“One hot day the following summer, just as we were sitting down to dinner, one exception knocked at the door, though when I opened it, it was only a little lady who had walked far in the heat. She took dinner with us, and in the talk that followed we learned that her name was Elizabeth Kite, and that she was compiling the family histories of some of the children at Vinelands. She had already done considerable work in our vicinity and my mother and I were able to add to her list of names and characteristics of grandfathers and great grandfathers, sisters, cousins and aunts, for the families she was studying had been our near neighbors for generations.

“Our family followed her work with the keenest interest through the months that followed. Through association with her we became interested in the Vineland work.”

It was Kite’s report that had triggered many of the muckrakers to action. White then remembered how she became involved.

“Prof. Johnstone and Mr. Byers, however, saw what we might do, and one day the latter part of the last August about twenty of us from near Pemberton, who had been much interested in Miss Kite’s work, sat under the trees and listened to their first unfolding of the plan for a Training School Colony for Burlington county, a plan by which we and the other people of the county might co-operate with the State Departments of Charity and Correction, Education, Forestry and Agriculture in starting a colony, the operation of which was to be guided by the parent Training School at Vineland.

“This institution had been largely instrumental in proving that all those crimes which fill our prisons and reform schools were, to a great extent, the result of feeble-mindedness, and it had been signally successful in training the beginnings of useless, injurious members of society into happy, partially or wholly self-supporting individuals.”

White would throw all of her support to the colony in the Pines but reminded the audience of the existing prejudice held by urban America toward rural areas. She said, “I suppose no vital thing was ever done without giving offense to someone, without raising some opposition, and the work for the Colony has been no exception to the rule. … As we collected money for the work the objection most frequently made was ‘Why, Miss Kite is interested in that, isn’t she? Oh, no! I couldn’t give anything to that. Why, she makes out that Burlington county is a dreadful place, and ’tisn’t a bit worse than anywhere else. Why, I had a letter from my friend in New York the other day, and she wanted to know how I ever could live down here with such dreadful people!’”

Work would begin almost immediately on the colony in the Pines. In 1916, White would introduce the blueberry to the world. Today Whitesbog is a historic village not far from the colony she helped to start.

Next Week: A colony in the wilderness.


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