Titicut Follies exposed the sordid and cruel treatment of prisoners in 1966 at Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Bridgewater, Mass.
Corrections officers and social workers appeared on film as callous bullies. Doctors revealed themselves as unable to treat patients properly. Inmates were harassed, mocked, herded like cattle and kept in their cells naked.
In one scene, a doctor force-fed liquid food to a patient. He asked for butter or lard to lubricate a rubber tube that he inserted into the patient’s nostril. Then the doctor let his cigarette ash fall into the liquid.
"The inmates at Bridgewater were treated very badly, by and large," said the film’s director, Frederick Wiseman. "But many of them had committed the most outrageous crimes imaginable."
Others shouldn’t have even been there.
The Filming of Titicut Follies
Frederick Wiseman was a 36-year-old Boston native and Yale-trained lawyer who was tired of teaching at Boston University. He knew Bridgewater State, because he had taken his students there on field trips. He asked for permission to film inside, and the superintendent let him do it for 29 days in the spring of 1966.
Bridgewater State started out as a poorhouse in 1855, then became a workhouse and finally a hospital to evaluate the criminally insane. Within 14 years, five corrections officers were killed during escape attempts.
Wiseman named Titicut Follies after an annual talent show put on by the inmates. (‘Titicut’ is the Indian name for the Taunton River.)
The film opens with a scene from the talent show: Inmates in marching band costumes sing a slightly off-key Strike Up the Band.
Then the film shows the darker side of the hospital.
A patient wearing nothing but shorts screams in his bare cell. A doctor interviews an inmate who raped an 11-year-old girl. Corrections officers order patients to strip naked.
Wiseman interspersed scenes of the patient being force fed with scenes of the patient’s corpse being embalmed. “He was treated better in death than in life,” Wiseman said.
Impact of Titicut Follies
Roger Ebert called the film ‘despairing.’
There is an old man named Jim who is constantly taunted by the guards, whose uniforms are disturbingly similar to a policeman's. While he is being shaved with fast, painful strokes by the barber, the guards needle him: "Why's your room so filthy, Jim? What's that you said, Jim?" They are bullies who have their victim pinned and helpless.
When Jim is returned to his room, it is an absolutely empty cell. And Jim is naked. It appears that the inmates are deprived of clothing much of the time because that is cheaper and makes security easier. It is not explained how naked confinement in a barren cell cures mental illness and indeed this hospital seems to come from the Middle Ages.
(Read Ebert’s whole review of Titicut Follies here.)
Titicut Follies won awards at film festivals in Germany and Italy before it was scheduled to premiere at the New York Film Festival. But the Massachusetts Superior Court banned the film on the grounds that it violated patients’ privacy.
It is the only American film banned for reasons other than obscenity or national security.
The Massachusetts court ordered all copies of Titicut Follies destroyed. Wiseman appealed the decision. In 1969 the court allowed it to be shown to certain people like doctors, lawyers, social workers and teachers. It wasn’t available to the general public until 1991, when another Massachusetts judge concluded that it didn’t violate the inmates’ privacy because they had all died.
On Sept. 4, 1992, PBS aired Titicut Follies.
Dozens of inmates at Bridgewater State Hospital shouldn’t have been there in the first place. When Titicut Follies was filmed, a fruit vendor sentenced to two years for drunkenness had been incarcerated for 28. All he had done was paint stripes on his horse to look like a zebra because he thought it would attract customers to his cart.
The film inspired a study in 1968 that found 30 inmates were committed illegally. Many stayed long after their prison sentences expired because they didn’t have the money or the legal skills to get out. A man named Charles was still at the hospital in 1967 after he was sentenced to two years for breaking and entering in 1910.
There were some improvements in treatment at after Titicut Follies. The population fell from about 900 to about 300. Teaching hospitals were given contracts and better doctors dealt with the patients, but then the contracts expired and the treatment deteriorated.
A corrections officer threw acid in a patient's face and the internal investigation was dropped in 1999. Five years later a bipolar patient was murdered by another patient after the hospital failed to protect him.
Patients were strapped to tables by their hands and legs, a practice that killed one inmate and destroyed another's health. One inmate who had never been convicted of a crime spent 6000 house in isolation.
In 2016, Gov. Charlie Baker ordered the hospital to create a treatment plan for each inmate within 10 days of his arrival, and to require patients on psychiatric medication to see a psychiatrist regularly.
In 2017, Titicut Follies was made into a ballet.
Images: Bridgewater State Hospital By First-Nighthawk - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50184733; Frederick Wiseman, By Charles Haynes from Bangalore, India - frederick wiseman, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54063175.