Christmas in Purgatory

Photo essay uncovers 1960s institutions

Remembering Christmas in Purgatory

Society took giant steps in the second half of the 20th century in its attitudes toward people with intellectual disabilities in institutions.

Rejection, isolation and abuse — common just 50 years ago — have given way over the last 50 years in the United States and many other parts of the world to acceptance and integration.

Christmas in Purgatory

Christmas in Purgatory

People with disabilities who would have been warehoused in institutions in the 1950s and 60s now live in their own homes, work at meaningful jobs and contribute in valuable ways to their communities.

It hasn’t always been so, of course. To appreciate how far we’ve come (and we still have miles to go) we have to understand where we’ve been.

A good reference point is Christmas in Purgatory — A Photographic Essay on Mental Retardation by Burton Blatt and Fred Kaplan, published in August 1966.

Blatt, a professor at Syracuse University, and Kaplan, a freelance photographer, toured five institutions for poeple with an intellectual disability in four Eastern states in 1965.

“There is a hell on earth, and in America there is a special inferno,” Blatt wrote in the introduction to the book. “We were visitors there during Christmas, 1965.”

The places they visited shared a common architecture – massive, impenetrable buildings with bars on the windows and locks – many locks – on the doors.

Blatt observed and took mental notes while Kaplan, using a camera hidden in his belt, snapped pictures. Blatt’s report on the filth, neglect, and abuse he observed and Kaplan’s grainy photos shocked the nation and prompted a series of lawsuits that resulted in people with developmental disabilities moving out of institutions and into the community.

“Our ‘Christmas in Purgatory’ brought us to the depths of despair,” Blatt wrote. “We now have a deep sorrow, one that will not abate until the American people are aware of—and do something about—the treatment of the severely mentally retarded in our state institutions. We have again been caused to realize that ‘Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn.’ It is fitting that this book—our purgatory in black and white —was written on the 700th anniversary of the birth of Dante.”

Because institutions continue to exist, it’s worth our time to examine how they once operated. Not very long ago.

Download the book in pdf format.

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