Good Death?? Good Birth?? Good Grief!!

This is the third entry in a series. Please be sure to read the introductory post and the second entry before you read this one, in order to understand the context.

Earlier entries in this series chronicled the career of Dr. Harry Haiselden, chief of staff (and chief surgeon and hospital president) at the German-American Hospital in Chicago. Haiselden became a household name (and face) across the nation in 1915 via newspaper articles with screaming headlines…

headline1His choice to dramatically publicize his decision to allow a “defective” newborn to languish and die over a period of days from “denial of care” was hotly debated among Americans. “The man on the street” weighed in with public comments, as did such well-known celebrities as pioneer social worker/sociologist Jane Addams of Hull House and famous attorney Clarence Darrow.

Debate was stirred up even more when Haiselden admitted that he had been making such decisions for years—and claimed that somewhere in Chicago virtually every day, physicians were making decisions to allow other newborns, deemed to be mentally or physically defective,  to die.

Surprisingly, a significant proportion of those publicly commenting…including Helen Keller…expressed approval of Haiselden’s approach to dealing with the “problem of birth defects.”

Not satisfied with the firestorm he created with his newspaper interviews and numerous public speaking engagements where he defended his approach, within the year Haiselden had arranged to play the starring role in a silent film dubbed The Black Stork. (See the first two entries in this series for a detailed description and still shots from this film.) The standard fairy tale told to children about the “source” of babies was often that “The Stork” brought them. Pictures of this event in birth announcements of the early 1900s always showed a white stork doing the job.

white storkThe implication of the title illustration of The Black Stork was that (unwelcome) “defective” babies were delivered by a black stork.

movieposter2The film contained a thinly-fictionalized version of the actual events of the Chicago incident. In this version, Haiselden plays a “wise doctor” advising a couple against marriage because the prospective husband has a family history of a congenital disease (evidently congenital syphilis). The doctor is convinced that any child born to the couple will inevitably have numerous birth defects that will doom it to a life of misery. They marry against his advice, such a child is born, and the doctor plans to deny care to the newborn and allow it to die.

The mother is at first torn by a desire to intervene and demand care for the infant, but a dream “given by God” showing her the miserable future that her child would have convinces her to give her consent to the death. At the end of the sequence, as Dr. Haiselden and his nurse look on, the baby dies and its “soul” floats up to a Christ figure who will take it to heaven.

jesusRather than being just an emotional melodrama intended for entertainment, it was obvious that The Black Stork was a piece of propaganda. Propaganda in favor of a not just tolerating, but promoting Haiselden’s approach and making it a cultural norm.

Haiselden himself died prematurely at age 49 in 1919. But his movie presence lived on. By 1927, the original film had become a “flashback” in the center of a “new” film titled Are You Fit to Marry?posterfit2posterfitfit1927It was obvious that the producers of the “new” film merely wanted an excuse to tell the story that had been the center of The Black Stork. But the fashions and settings of the original film had become quite outdated. To appeal to a new generation of film-goers, they added a new story line in the 1927 film that featured contemporary characters in contemporary clothes…and with contemporary automobiles. The storyline of the new film introduces a young couple planning marriage, with the prospective bride’s father insisting that the groom must undergo tests to prove his “fitness for marriage”—especially his fitness to father healthy children—before permission will be given for the marriage. The suitor is reluctant, until the father re-tells the story line from The Black Stork as events that happened to “an old friend” of his. At the end of the flashback shown by the scenes in the old film, the prospective groom sees the importance of the father’s advice and passes the necessary tests with flying colors, leading to a happy marriage.

This film continued to be shown in theaters and at special venues for many years, even after movies became “talkies.” The last recorded showing was clear into 1942.

But…what sort of venue would be playing such an “ancient” film by that time? Surely whatever “entertainment” value in the original film that would have been accepted by early film audiences clear back in 1917 wouldn’t be able to translate to the audiences of the sophisticated, Roaring Twenties, and the audiences long used to talkies in the 1930s and early 1940s.

The answer to the question lies in the “hidden agenda” in the original film. For, you see, it wasn’t really about what many people thought it was about…making available essentially “mercy killings” for seriously mentally and physically disabled newborn infants so that they would not suffer throughout life. (And so that they would not be an unbearable burden and expense on their families or society.)  The idea of mercy killings had been a popular topic of debate for some time at this point. The term euthanasia—combining Greek terms to indicate “good death”—had been coined in 1869, and had become central to philosophical discussions in numerous countries including America.

 At first examination, a type of euthanasia seemed to be the central point to Haiselden’s campaign. But this was only a single facet of a very complex sociological philosophy that was at the heart of Haiselden’s motives…and the motives of those who used his story clear up into the 1940s to promote their vision of “The Way Things Ought to Be” in an enlightened society.

No, The Black Stork wasn’t really about euthanasia at all. What it was really about can be seen in the poster below:

movieposter3It’s in such tiny print compared to the other wording on the poster, you might miss it. It says…

The eugenic photoplay…


And then there was this poster, which makes it even more clear…

poster grandWhen you have seen “The Black Stork”
you will force the passage of a National Eugenics Law.

This poster makes no pretense of the film being about “preventing suffering of defective babies.” It’s about a much grander plan.

Do not allow the nation to decay—See “The Black Stork.”

It is your duty to see “The Black Stork.”

“The Black Stork” is a plea for humanity to act—Please see it.

Yes, the movie wasn’t about extending alleged “humanitarian pity” to defective babies by “mercifully ending their lives.”

It was about “saving the nation” from “decay.” Via implementing a philosophy known as Eugenics. The movie wasn’t playing at local theaters in the late 1930s and up to 1942, competing with Hollywood films. No, it was being used as a “multi-media” addition to lectures by promoters of Eugenics in talks around the country.

The term “eugenics” was coined by a French author back in 1883 by combining Greek terms implying “good birth.” But no, it wasn’t referring to some early form of “natural childbirth” methods that would be better for mothers and babies. It was referring to crafting a society in which those considered a “superior grade” of people would be encouraged to procreate prolifically, and those viewed as “inferior grades” would be discouraged … or even legally prevented…from procreating. In other words, the real implication wasn’t “good birth” … but “well born.” In other words, good breeding. Just like breeding thoroughbred horses.

And no, this isn’t some fictional world as portrayed by authors such as Aldous Huxley in his novel Brave New World. It was the real world of the United States of America.  Not Nazi Germany. The idea of a “Master Race” wasn’t invented by Adolph Hitler, nor “exported” to the US by Nazi sympathizers. America had its own home-grown version of the idea long before Hitler wrote Mein Kampf.

And this philosophy of Eugenics was not promoted by just some “lunatic fringe” of maverick scientists or politicians. It was a philosophy endorsed and spread by some of the leading scientists, politicians, and educators, and by very influential educational and philanthropic institutions across the country. And it eventually found its way into deep influence at the very center of the US legal system in the first half of the 20th century.

It was just beginning to pick up steam at the time The Black Stork debuted on screens across the land.

From what I can tell, many, if not most, 21st century Americans have never heard much, or anything, about the topic of Eugenics. Even most of those who have, have long assumed it was an esoteric topic that flourished for a couple of decades among a small circle of kooks and crackpots in the early part of the 20th century, but then died out almost completely. That describes my assumption until recently. In the past year I have discovered that this assumption has been totally in error. I have been astonished to discover just how deep the roots of eugenic theory and practice went into American society, and how influential it still is to this day.

And how terrifying.

I invite you to explore with me what I discovered in upcoming entries in this series. Starting with the next entry…

No Room In the Inn

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