Medical Examiner

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.

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.”

Kanner, however, refused to do the same. He demanded that these injustices be stopped. “In our last so-called era of prosperity, housemaids were relatively expensive,” Kanner told the Bar Association of Baltimore City shortly before leaving for Pittsburgh. “Lawyer I and a number of ‘society matrons’ concocted a nightmarish scheme, which was to provide the matrons with cheaper help.” (“Lawyer I,” most likely Harry B. Wolf, had somehow obtained a list of patients given various light chores at Rosewood, seeing them as potential domestic workers.) “Lawyer I, his office associates and three other attorneys who soon joined the sport filed a writ for each girl without her knowledge. The girls, who had resided at the school from 5 to 30 years, had no thought of leaving. There they were well treated, had a permanent home and were not suited for extramural existence. They knew nothing about the writs until the day when, by order of the court, their ‘bodies were had’ for the hearing and they found themselves ‘released to the custody’ of women whom they did not know and who did not know them.”

Imagine if you’d lived 30 sheltered years in a mental institution, then suddenly found yourself scrubbing toilets in some lavish Edwardian estate where a socialite complained that you should be more grateful for what she’d done for you. 

The shocking revelations didn’t end there. Kanner and Kraus tracked down most of the former residents of Rosewood to determine what had become of them since their releases. It wasn’t a pretty picture. The vast majority had indeed gone to reside with those “society matrons” who, under the pretense of providing them with a loving home, had in fact paid Wolf or the other unscrupulous lawyers to obtain a resident of their choosing. Most got more than they bargained for. “Many of the women soon became dissatisfied with their maids and expressed great astonishment that the girls seemed ‘stupid’ and ‘slow,’ ” Kanner told his colleagues in Pittsburgh. “This discovery, however, did not deter them from ordering another girl from Lawyer I when they got rid of the one they had.” One lady had a change of mind about a particular Rosewood girl the moment she left the courtroom, leaving her confused new charge in the parking lot. Another intended her adoptee to be a personal housemaid for just two months, kicking her out when the family left for a European vacation.

Others fell victim to abuse in these high-society homes. “A few of the women so overworked and underfed their imbecile maids,” Kanner reported, “that several of them died within two or three years after their release, mostly of acute pulmonary tuberculosis.” One woman who collected no fewer than 35 Rosewood girls had an especially mean-spirited young daughter who would spit in the maids’ faces and tip over their buckets while they did backbreaking work. Those who complained about her behavior were simply replaced by new girls. Some were sexually abused. “One girl placed in the home of a physician under his wife’s supervision was so poorly supervised,” Kanner told of another deplorable story, “that she went through nine months of an illegitimate pregnancy and gave birth to a child without anyone noticing it; the ‘supervising’ wife of the doctor … found the newborn baby in her cupboard.”

Once they proved poor housekeepers, the women were eventually tossed out on the streets. And here, things got even grimmer—the former Rosewood girls saw “a sad peregrination through the whorehouses and flophouses of the slums,” as a student of Kanner’s would write many years later. For the original 1937 report, social worker Kraus had managed to track down 102 of the 166 habeas corpus cases on record. She found that 11 women (all of whom had been in perfect health when they left Rosewood) had died of illness or neglect; 17 were plagued by infectious diseases such as syphilis, gonorrhea, or tuberculosis; 29 were prostitutes; eight had been reinstitutionalized in mental hospitals; and six were in prison for serious crimes. Overall, Kanner wrote, 89 had “failed miserably and inflicted grave harm and perils on themselves and the communities in which they live.”

Leo Kanner, circa 1955.
Leo Kanner, circa 1955.

Photo courtesy Johns Hopkins University/Creative Commons

After Kanner’s exposé, the nation was abuzz with the outrageous news of how a blueblood Baltimore society had coldheartedly exploited all those vulnerable people. “Record of Misery Traced in Freeing of Moronic Girls,” read a Washington Post headline the next day. Sweeping changes were made to ensure it could never happen again.

But Kanner was a hero for his time, not ours. He was genuinely concerned about the Rosewood girls, yes, but his detailed analysis of these “imbeciles’ ” reproductive behaviors doesn’t seem so benevolent today. One of the primary reasons Kanner was so incensed by the whole affair was that he believed intelligence, or lack thereof, was hereditary. Once these fertile women were set free in the world, he reasoned, their mentally defective offspring became a new strain of civic pestilence. From his perspective, the Rosewood girls’ feebleminded young would burden a nation already struggling to find its economic footing. In fact, by the time of his report, a total of 165 children had already been born to this troubled pool of 102 former Rosewood patients. And of this second generation, Kanner claimed, “108 are incontestably feebleminded.”

A typical case was that of “Edna May H.”

In 1924, a judge released [her] to a woman who wanted a maid. Edna May became a prostitute and, at least on one occasion, had sexual intercourse with her own brother. [She] now has four feebleminded, neglected, malnourished children who are often covered with scabies and live in dirty, vermin-infested quarters.

Based on such an avalanche of woe, Kanner assumed that these women—and the rest of us who are now suffering the social consequences of their unwise releases—would have been better off if they’d have been kept for life at Rosewood and away from the rest of the world. So while it’s clear enough that Wolf was the bad guy in this embarrassing American tale, was Kanner really the good guy?

People should be judged in historical context. Nonetheless, Kanner’s position is but a step or two away from forced sterilization of  “undesirables.” Do the mentally challenged have the right to bear children? Today, most of us would unhesitatingly say “yes.” Yet Kanner thought the reproductive rights of those Rosewood girls were irrelevant due to the impact of their reproduction on society. “Time alone will tell how many more feebleminded, illegitimate, neglected children this group of released Rosewood patients will in the future bestow on a commonwealth that can do nothing but look on and pay the penalty for indiscriminate habeas corpus releases by its courts of justice,” he said. By keeping these poor thick souls safe behind the walls of Rosewood, Kanner concluded, everyone’s interests would have been protected. Out of sight, out of mind.