Saturday, July 16, 2011

Dark History of Mackworth Island

Rocky shoreline
Mackworth Island
Yesterday, I started out writing a nice chatty piece about how I spent a pleasant Maine day strolling around Mackworth Island in Falmouth. But as I was poking around on the internet, searching out minor details on its history, I found instead stories that tied the bucolic location to a history of despair and abuse.

Neglecting to acknowledge that information now seems an insult to the children, now grown, that suffered there. 

The Governor Baxter School for the Deaf is located on the Mackworth Island, and includes buildings and land donated by former governor of Maine, Percival Baxter, an innocuous fact that shows up in all the literature.

What is less common knowledge now is that for some twenty or more years, starting in the 1950s, abuse ran rampant through that school. On that picaresque, and isolated island, children were victimized.

In 1981, a state investigation led to the resignation of Principal Robert Kelly, School Superintendent Joseph Youngs, and Dean of Students Jan Repass. Allegations of physical and sexual abuse were substantiated by the report, but no one was charged. While Youngs died in 1990, Kelly continued to draw a pension.

In 2001, Governor Angus King officially apologized on behalf of the state for the abuse at the school, and the state's colossal screw-up in failing to investigate earlier even when teachers had submitted concerns on suspected abuse. The Baxter Compensation Authority was established to compensate former students for their suffering. The statute of limitations applied for the students willing to testify and so no one ever faced criminal charges. 

Maybe you're saying, oh well, a state institution, everyone is always claiming abuse, how bad could it have been?  Dust the sand off your ostrich neck and read this article, written in 2004 by the Rick Wormwood, the brother of a Governor Baxter School student. He, along with other former students and family members, returned to the island when a decaying house, scene of some particularly heinous incidents, was burned down by the fire department: Why I Hate Mackworth Island by Rick Wormwood

The Boston Globe covered the event as well, here:

No one likes to talk about childhood abuse, sexual or physical.  It's easier to pretend it's something that happens to a tiny handful of people, but the flat out truth is, that's crap. Damaged people often push the limits of what they think they can get away with for for as long as possible for whatever pathological reasons they may have (often, and most sadly, a legacy of their own abuse, as also happened on Mackworth Island). In most cases, abusers keep on until they are confronted and find help, are imprisoned, or die. 

Because such chat is not polite dinner conversation, because so often people refuse to believe ("he's a pillar of the community!") or refuse to take any action ("not my problem") or both, suffering continues. 

My childhood was free from that kind of horror, but I have spoken with enough people not similarly blessed to know how lucky I am. As the sister of a disabled brother who spent time at special schools in the care of others, I hope that all was as it seemed, and the stellar care my family and I witnessed him receiving from incredibly kind and patient people was the entirety of his experience.  His schools remain incident free with good reputations.

But every day, there are more stories of nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals and other facilities being investigated. Years ago, the fancy boarding school I attended in New Hampshire drew scandal to its high-powered ranks when a drama teacher was arrested for possession of child pornography, but more recent allegations are easy to find. Consider the title of this GAO report from 2007: Residential Treatment Programs: Concerns on Abuse and Death in Certain Programs for Troubled Youth

Vulnerable populations of people, children, the elderly, those without sufficient voice, those that can be bullied and manipulated, continue to be prey to the damaged and ruthless among us. That makes me angrier than I can say.

That rage is neither surprising, revelatory, or unusual by any means. But the vividness of it speaks to more hopeful human characteristics, those of human compassion and the desire to protect the disadvantaged rather than (as is so popular now in the age of suck-it-up) cull weakness from the herd. 

What gives me hope is that the truth does now, much more so than in the past, rise up to the surface. Through state investigations or through families or through the courage of survivors, when the leaden curtain of secrecy is lifted, there is the potential for change. Change means more safety for more children and the adults they will become. Change means the opportunity for acknowledgement, honesty, and healing. 


Below, the original piece I wrote with some scenic photos:

Faithful Furry Friends and Fairy Houses on Mackworth Island

Stone pier
Mackworth Island, just a few minutes south of Portland, sports some fabulous views on the 1.25 mile trail around the island. A causeway connects the island to Falmouth.  Trail parking is limited, so I was shooed away from the gatehouse on my first attempt to visit as the lot was full.  Next time, my luck improved.  
Beach with view of islands in the distance

Mackworth Island is home to the Baxter School for the Deaf. Percival Baxter, former Governor of Maine, donated his summer house to the school in the late 1940s.

The present-day island contain a few strange stops, including a pet cemetery. Baxter buried his beloved Irish Setters and one horse there.  

Grave markers in the pet cemetery
Plaque with list of Irish Setters

Many children (or many fairies) have also built little houses out of twigs and shells in an area designated as the Mackworth Island Community Village.  The sign reminds visitors that "You may build houses small and hidden for the fairies, but please do not use living or artificial materials." 

Fairy houses

One of the fairies sent me a snake, which almost scared the toenails off of me before I snapped its picture.



  1. I had a very similar experience of discovering the dark history of such a beautiful place, one that I also just blogged about.

    1. I am writing a blog now about how this school affected both of my parents lives and mine. My parents attended from k-12 from 1955 on until 12th grade.

  2. What happened on Mackworth Island should NEVER be forgotten or minimized.

    - Susan (Nordmann) Ramirez, former teacher who reported abuse to the State in 1976

  3. I just came upon this article and it brought back horrific memories of my three years teaching there at the time of the abuse. Susan Nordmann Ramirez was an incredibly couragous woman. The deaf community owe her a deep debt of gratitude, as do I. I hope you see this Susan! Thank you for all you did!

    Denise Laferriere Perry, teacher at Baxter from 1974-1977

  4. I worked there at the same time. This place was corrupt & sick.

    -- Tim Shorrock, worked in the dorms, 1976-1977
    Washington DC

  5. I have been to this place last me and the isolated setting of the school instantly gave me bad vibes and thought not a right place deaf kids .. they could be harmed in many ways with no options to escape.

  6. I visit this school for work purposes often and I cannot help but to think about the horrible things that went on here and it always makes me so sad when I’m here. I’m sitting in my vehicle as I write this, after having just come out of the school and I find myself thinking of the children and the fear they must have felt here and it is just so sad and sick! I used to walk the island often with my mom and sister growing up and so this place holds memories for me. I often take my own kids here. It’s a beautiful place filled with dark secrets

  7. I was one of the attorney general’s special investigators that investigated that case . It was absolutely disgusting what went on there!