Newly released case files reveal details of Huronia Regional Centre children
ANDREW FRANCIS WALLACE / TORONTO STAR < huronia_marker.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterbox.jpg >
The Huronia Regional Centre cemetery is a non-descript field with a handful of tombstones. Most are in unmarked graves and it was unknown where many were buried – until the Star discovered a map of the graves.
In life, they were both “imbeciles” — developmentally delayed children placed in Orillia’s Hospital for the Feeble-Minded on either side of Christmas 1918.
In death, Maurice Middlestadt and Lena Potts are united by a number: 1751.
The Star set out to determine out who is buried, without a name, in grave 1751 at the centre’s cemetery. Despite an analysis of graveyard maps, a death registry and case files, it is still unclear if Lena Potts, 15, or Maurice Middlestadt, eight, is child 1751.
The two children arrived in the institution a month apart. They died a month and one day apart. Each of their stories, as documented in letters, medical notes and admissions records obtained by the Star, provide a window into how Ontario treated people with developmental disabilities for more than 100 years.
Lionel Middlestadt supported his wife and four kids by working as a printer in 1918 Toronto. His wife, Leah Schwartz, was pregnant with their fifth child.
The Spanish flu, raging around the world that year, changed everything.
Leah, 27, fell ill on Oct. 17, 1918. The whole family had the flu, but she was sicker than the others. Leah, and the child inside her, would not survive more than two weeks. Both were dead by Oct. 28, 1918. Lionel was left alone with four young children, including developmentally delayed Maurice, who was just five years old.
Soon the burden of care required by Maurice, not to mention three other children, became too much for Lionel. The child was unable to feed himself and required round-the-clock care. Lionel began missing work to take care of the youngster. He moved his family in with his brother Morris, who was living on Geneva Ave. in Cabbagetown.
In his search for a place that could take care of Maurice, Lionel would set in motion a chain of events that would end in the 5-year-old’s death behind the institution’s walls.
More than 90 years after his death, two Star reporters uncovered his case file and that of 15-year-old Lena Potts. Thanks to shoddy record keeping and torn folders, it’s impossible to tell which of the two children lies buried in grave 1751. But the rest of their stories remain intact in more than 100 pages of case files.
The files were obtained from the Archives of Ontario through a Freedom of Information Act request. Thousands of other files remain locked in the public archives, shielded by privacy laws. A recent class-action lawsuit over abuses at the Huronia Regional Centre resulted in a $35-million settlement and the promise to disclose 65,000 documents such as police reports, witness testimony and internal incident reports.
The patient case files do not contain such objective information. They detail the experiences of the children at Huronia through the eyes of their doctors and attendants.
Lionel wanted to place Maurice where he could be properly cared for. First he turned to the Home for Incurable Children, a facility once located at 152 Bloor St. E., but was rejected because Maurice had no terminal disease. Lionel telephoned the Protestant Orphans’ Home, but was told the facility only took healthy children, which Maurice was not considered to be at the time.
Door after door closed on Lionel. The Boys’ Home on George St., just south of Gerrard St., turned them away. The Jewish Orphans’ Home finally agreed to take Maurice.
After a week, staff from the home phoned Lionel. They could no longer handle the boy. Lionel turned to the government. Dr. Helen MacMurchy, the “Inspector of the Feeble Minded” at the time, took up his case.
“I am enclosing herewith a statement of a very sad case, which our recent epidemic of Influenza has rendered particularly urgent,” she wrote in a Nov. 15, 1918, letter to the Hospital for the Feeble-Minded.
Dr. MacMurchy clearly had power — Maurice was admitted by Dec. 3 the same year.
On Dec. 6, Lionel bundled Maurice up against the cold, snugged a toque on his head and took him to Orillia; it was the last hope for a desperate father.
An urgent need for help
Lena Potts did not have such concerned parents. When she arrived at the Hospital for the Feeble-Minded at age 12, one month to the day after Maurice, she hadn’t seen them in at least five years.
Ever since she was seven, she lived with her twin sister, Beatrice, and their younger brother, James, as wards of the Children’s Aid Society, cared for by Rev. A.M. Pedley at the children’s home in Woodstock, Ont.
Starting in the summer of 1918, Pedley wrote repeatedly to the superintendent of the hospital in Orillia, requesting the admission of the three Potts children.
In the background forms he filled out, Pedley described Lena as an “imbecile,” and said her condition was due to neglect as well as “feeble minded parents.” Imbecile was used as a medical term, meaning her IQ was between 21 and 50 — slightly smarter than an “idiot” (IQ of 0-20), but not quite as bright as a “moron” (IQ of 51-70).
Her father, James Potts, was an alcoholic (“intemperate” in the language of the day) labourer and their mother, whose name wasn’t even known to the reverend, was described as both “intemperate and immoral.”
Lena was a sickly girl before she arrived in Orillia. She had suffered from severe periodontitis, a disease caused by bacteria in the mouth that cause the gums to swell and the teeth to fall out.
“A portion of her tongue dropped off after an acute attack,” Pedley wrote. “(Though) she is beginning again to clearly enunciate.”
Lena suffered from rashes. “When run down, she breaks out in purple blotches,” Pedley reported. She had tremors causing her limbs to shake involuntarily.
Despite her medical conditions, her intellectual disability and being abandoned by her parents, Lena could read “very well.”
Something must have happened that summer of 1918 to cause Pedley to seek to get the Potts kids out of his care.
His first letter to hospital superintendent J.P. Downey came in May: “I hope you will be able to admit these two children without much delay.”
By September, his tone had become much more urgent: “There is a strong feeling expressed by the community that these children, Lena and Beatrice, should be transferred to your institution without further delay.”
In December, even in the formal language of the time, he had dropped all pretense of politeness. “Are you ready to receive the above children? An urgent need presents itself and we would like to carry out the arrangement made for them and bring them down.”
On the very last day of the year, Lena and Beatrice were accepted. Within a week the girls arrived on the snowy shores of Lake Simcoe with a change of clothes packed in a trunk.
Happy and contented
The letters came every three months.
“Dear sir,” begins one letter. “Would you please inform me as to how my son Maurice Middlestadt is getting along, as he was in a poor condition when I was in the Hospital last Good Friday.”
“. . . We beg to say that Maurice Middlestadt is in fairly good health. He eats and sleeps well and is getting quite fat,” reads a response letter signed simply Superintendent.
It’s unclear from the case files whether or how often Lionel visited Maurice, but the letters don’t mention any visits following one on Good Friday, 1919. They are dated roughly every three months and, along with checking up on Maurice, Lionel paid his rent at the institution. The government was charging $1.50 per week for the child to stay there — far less than the statutory rate of $5 per week.
Each response says the boy is doing well.
A rail-thin boy with a shuffling gait, three-foot-one Maurice Middlestadt officially entered Huronia on Dec. 6, 1918. The case files describe him as an “imbecile,” with an IQ similar to Lena’s.
They wrote he had a “blank appearance,” but was described as “very jovial.” His health seemed good though he was “rather thin” on admittance. He carried with him a toque, overcoat, coat, pairs of pants, shoes and socks, several shirts and a pair of mittens, according to the admission log.
His father sent two pairs of underwear along just days after he arrived. Then he began writing to inquire about Maurice’s condition.
“He is well-nourished and comfortable and appears always to be happy and contented. Otherwise there is no change in his general helpless condition,” reads one Oct. 19, 1920, letter. The response was typical of Maurice’s two years in the institution.
But the tone of the letters takes a turn. On June 25, 1921, a letter is sent warning that Maurice “is not thriving and has recently developed an abscess.”
Another letter comes on July 6, 1921, warning there is no improvement and the outcome is “uncertain.”
Maurice Middlestadt died on Friday, Aug. 5, 1921. He had scars on his chest and side from the abscesses. His official cause of death was listed as tuberculosis.
Word was sent to his father informing him of Maurice’s death and requesting $15 — the cost of burying an 8-year-old boy in a field behind the farm, with an oblong white tombstone bearing a number carved into it.
A death caused by infection
After nurses admitted Lena, noting dutifully that she stood four-foot-two, and weighed 54 and a half pounds, it’s as if she disappeared into the institution.
The only record of her first two years there is a handwritten note, perhaps attached to her bed or her belongings, on which an adult has written: “Lena Potts. Moron low grade (?) Heredity: Pat. and Mat. (mother intemperate and immoral).”
Beneath this curt description is a line labelled “signature.”
In the careful cursive of a child who has just learned to write are the deliberate letters spelling out “Lena Potts.”
Lena was admitted to hospital with a fever, coughing and wheezing and complaining of a sore chest in December 1920. She stayed for one week while she recovered from what appears to be a flu, with nurses feeding her warm milk, hot chocolate and even eggnog, as it was the festive season.
While doctors noted she was “plump” and “well nourished,” they also recorded evidence of her poor oral health.
“She has a very foul breath,” wrote one doctor. “A peculiar, heavy, metallic odour of breath, which permeates whole atmosphere when she is in small room. The gums about margins of teeth are red, swollen and unhealthy in appearance. The teeth are very irregular and (there is) evidence of old inflammatory condition.”
Eight months later, in the hot and heavy days of August, Lena was back in hospital, and things were much worse.
She had a bright rash and was complaining of rheumatism. Her rash got darker and spread to her buttocks. Then she started vomiting regularly.
Soon the rash was bleeding and there was blood found in her stool.
“The vascular irruption has become haemorrhagic and is spreading in extent,” wrote a doctor on Sept. 1.
While her fever broke over the next few days, nurses recorded a weak and irregular pulse. Whenever she wasn’t sleeping, she was delirious for long periods, nurses wrote.
Lena Potts was 15 when she died at 5 a.m. on Sept. 4, 1921. Her autopsy would reveal a swollen spleen and chronic tuberculosis in one lung.
“Body somewhat wasted and covered with eruptions . . . spots had become gangrenous,” recorded the coroner.
Her official cause of death is listed as “Purpura Hemorrhagica.”
Ontario’s current chief pathologist, Dr. Michael Pollanen, reviewed Lena’s autopsy report at the request of the Star. He concluded she likely died of fulminant sepsis — the rapid onset of a whole-body inflammation caused by severe infection.
Because antibiotics hadn’t been discovered, Lena likely suffered from multiple festering infections in her mouth and lungs her whole life. Eventually the infections took over.
Pollanen speculated it could have been a simple meningococcemia, pneumococcemia or streptococcus that led to her death. Even with the aid of modern medicine, people still die of rapid-onset infections today, Pollanen said.
Ten years after Lena’s death, her twin sister, Beatrice, was transferred to the Ontario Hospital in Woodstock. It appears Beatrice died in 1944. She would have been 37 years old.
Neither funeral nor ceremony
Both Maurice and Lena were buried behind the farm, unceremoniously. Former staff of the institution say there were no funerals; people simply disappeared and a new numbered marker popped up.
The faded oblong tombstone labelled 1751 was planted in the ground in 1921. It’s still unclear whether Maurice or Lena lay underneath it.
Their stone was removed in the 1970s and used to make a walkway for one of the nearby group homes. In 1990, a chaplain at Huronia Regional Centre realized the error, but rather than replacing the stones in their original positions, staff assembled them in one big square.
The fate of Lena and Maurice was shared by more than 1,440 others who died in the institution and were buried in numbered graves.
First they were hidden behind the stone walls of the institution — then beneath the ground.
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