Christmas in Purgatory

The reality of life in an institution

Christmas in Purgatory cover

During the Christmas season of 1965, Burton Blatt was a participant in a research project at a Connecticut center for the developmentally disabled when he undertook a bold venture.  He and his friend, photographer Fred Kaplan, gained access to five state institutions for the developmentally disabled in four eastern states.  Unbeknownst to the staff at these institutions, Fred Kaplan carried a miniature spy camera on his belt and secretly snapped pictures as they toured the back wards of the facilities.

Moved to despair over what they had seen and documented, the two men self-published Christmas in Purgatory in 1966.  They printed one thousand copies and distributed them, free of charge, to legislators, university professors, and the fledgling mental health advocacy groups of the time.  It was the first time many Americans had seen the horrors of institutional life and response to the book was so remarkable Christmas in Purgatory was selected for print by Allyn and Bacon publishers later that year.

To protect those affiliated with their project, Burton Blatt and Fred Kaplan never disclosed the names of the institutions they visited so it isn't known whether Pennhurst was among them.  But what is certain is that Pennhurst was not unique.  The conditions depicted in Christmas in Purgatory are common wherever people are housed in institutions.

Below are just a few of the photographs printed in the book.

Christmas in Purgatory