I see a variation on this sort of comment on the Internet fairly frequently:
“Oh, if only we could ‘turn back the clock’ to the Good Old Days of America, when the ‘sanctity of life’ was a given! Our great grandparents of a hundred years ago would be so shocked if they could see how far we’ve fallen from the way things used to be.”
“The way it used to be.” Yes, that is a concept common to current laments. There are many folks in the 21st century who are so sure that there were some “Golden Days” to which we Americans ought to aspire to return. For some, it is the Happy Days of the 1950s. But of course by then we already had skirts getting shorter, rock-n-roll starting, Playboy magazine, movies getting racier, and more. So for many the ideal would be to go back to the “way it was” in the first decade or two of the twentieth century. (Far enough to get back before the flappers and speakeasies and such—but after electricity and phones and autos and indoor toilets were widely available, at least for the middle class!) Back to the genteel “pre-WWI era” of families like these from that period:
No Roe v Wade, no one like the late “Dr. Death” Kevorkian, no “death panels” hinted for healthcare reform. Yes, indeed. Back when no one questioned whether everyone had a “right to life.”
So why don’t we do a little time traveling and pop in to a city during that time period and look around. Let’s pick Chicago in 1917…
Here we are on the streets of Chicago. As we stroll down the sidewalks, past a mixture of electric trolleys, horses and carriages, and horseless carriages, on the street, we begin noticing some posters pasted up on electric poles and storefronts. We stop and take a closer look.
Hmmm…a “motion picture” is playing continuously from 9 AM to 11 PM at the LaSalle Theater titled The Black Stork. Wonder what it’s about? Let’s stroll on down to the LaSalle, pay our quarter, and settle in our theater seats.
The lights go down, the theater organist starts playing some appropriate accompaniment music, and the show starts. The subtitles explain what we are seeing on the screen and what the actors are talking to each other about.
First we meet Claude, a successful businessman, and his girlfriend, frivolous young socialite Anne (stretched out on a sofa eating bon-bons and reading a magazine), who hopes to soon be Mrs. Claude. Through flashbacks we learn that Claude is tormented by fears regarding his suitability for marriage. For we see Claude’s grandpa (inexplicably wearing a powdered wig and colonial garb…even though Claude’s age in 1915 would indicate his grandpa should have been a young adult in the 1850s…) gleefully “carrying on” with a servant girl back in his heyday. The upshot is that Grandpa obviously contracted syphilis during the encounter. (The disease is not named, but the audiences of the time would have immediately understood the implications.) Three times in the early scenes of the movie, the Ghost of Grandpa Past appears and warns Claude that he may well have contracted the disease “congenitally” (even if he has had no obvious symptoms, evidently) and should never get married because he could father “defective” children.
Meanwhile, in a sub-plot introduced early on, Claude’s business associate Tom proposes to his girlfriend Miriam. Miriam is in love with Tom, but she also has a family secret…her mother was an epileptic. Realizing that she may pass on this congenital defect to any children she would have, Miriam nobly chooses to refuse marriage.
But Claude is not so noble. He proposes to Anne anyway. Enter Dr. Dickey. Knowing of Claude’s family history of syphilis, Dr. D earnestly urges Claude and Anne to give up their marriage plans. In an effort to persuade them, he shows them some of his physically and mentally defective patients.
Fast forward nine months or so. Anne has just given birth to a baby boy, and is now a mom. Dr. D. examines the baby.
Just as he knew would happen, he confirms that the baby was born with birth defects that will guarantee that he will grow up to be mentally and physically handicapped. The newborn also has some health crises which will require Dr. D to perform immediate surgery, or it will soon die.
The attending nurse starts to hand his operating gown to Dr D. He waves it away, declaring, “There are times when saving a life is a greater crime than taking one.”
Members of the “Medical Society” gather around Mom’s bed to debate with Dr. D over his decision, insisting the child ought to be given a chance. Mom could evidently choose to get another doctor to do the required operation.
They all leave, and Mom falls into a troubled sleep—so that the film can introduce a dream sequence. In the dream, Mom has been persuaded by the other surgeons’ arguments to insist on an operation so that her baby can live. Then she sees glimpses of her child’s future as he matures. He is “not like other children”…and because of this is mercilessly taunted by his peers.
As an adult he drowns his despair over his condition in drink, and becomes an alcoholic. He fathers several defective children. His life is so miserable that he eventually takes out his rage by shooting the doctor who performed the operation that saved his life when he was an infant.
Mom wakes up with her mind made up. She accepts the decision to let the little one die…for its own good.
We watch as the baby dies—and a ghostly Jesus appears in the room, in time to receive the infant’s little floating soul, to carry it away to Heaven.
Tying up the sub-plot, we find out that Miriam eventually learns that it was her STEPmother who had epilepsy, not her birth mother (who died in childbirth.) So she is rewarded for her noble willingness to stay a spinster forever. Instead, she free to marry Tom, and they have a healthy bouncing baby boy.
Lights up. Movie over.
Yessir. Here we are back in the Good Old Days.
Just in time to catch the raging nationwide debate about … infanticide.
For, you see, the man playing the role of Dr. D wasn’t a fictional doctor at all. He was Dr. Harry Haiselden, chief of staff of the German-American Hospital in Chicago. He “played himself” in this motion picture, in a fictionalized version of an actual event that occurred just months earlier in Chicago.
If you have been under the illusion that “the sanctity of life” was a non-issue 100 years ago, you may be in for a rude awakening.
Check out the next entry in this series for “the rest of the story.” Click below to read