This entry is a part of a series.
To clearly understand the material below in context,
you may wish to begin at the beginning with
the introduction to the series.
The massive waves of immigration to American shores, particularly of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, in the last two decades of the 19th century and first two decades of the 20th met resistance from many quarters in US society. For many protestors, their concerns were over matters such as a glut on the already over-crowded labor market, introduction of criminal elements or social agitators, and so on. (As shown in this 1903 editorial cartoon.)
For the eugenics movement in America, the concern was what they believed to be a much greater threat—the riff-raff had dangerous “blood,” blood that could defile the purity of the Nordic race that was predominant in the founding of the USA.
The previous entry in this series chronicled the influence of Madison Grant and the American eugenics movement in the adoption of the hard-nosed Johnson-Reed Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which almost totally ended the immigration into the US of those groups of Europeans considered “undesirable” by the eugenicists.
In Madison Grant’s mind, however, the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 was not the end of the story. To the contrary, it was only the opening battle of the campaign to save the Nordics. For having repelled the invasion of foreigners, the nation now needed to concentrate on purifying the population within its borders. Grant understood that Congress and the American people were exhausted from the battle over the Johnson-Reed Act, but he told Robert DeC. Ward: “Personally, I always believe that the best way to hold ground once gained is to renew the attack and try to take more ground.”
There were, after all, still millions of racially inferior people in the country, including a sizable group of Negroes who had been ominously migrating to the North ever since the war. And even within the Nordic community, there were a large number of degenerate individuals whose germ plasm had to be removed from the breeding stock. As Harvard anthropologist E. A. Hooton put it: the country still needed to do some “biological housecleaning.” It was time, therefore, to implement the fullfledged eugenics program outlined in The Passing of the Great Race, which called for banning miscegenation and sterilizing the defectives. [Using the terms of wildlife management, a field Grant had pioneered…] The refuge had been secured; it was time to cull the herd. [from: Spiro, Jonathan. Defending the Master Race. University Press of New England, 2009. Kindle Edition. This book is the source of much of the information about Madison Grant in this blog series. I will just use the name of the author, Spiro, in subsequent citations in this entry.]
Display promoting Eugenics at a state fair in the 1920s. Note the clincher catch-phrase… “Some people are born to be a burden on the rest.” (You can click on the photo to see an enlarged version and read the rest of the signs.)
The first plan of action involved establishing the legal acceptability of forced sterilization. Early efforts would emphasize sterilization of institutionalized severely physically or mentally handicapped or insane people, and incarcerated criminals. Since the society was bearing a financial burden of supporting these classes of people, who showed no promise of ever making worthwhile “contributions to society,” little resistance was offered to these plans.
Then the eugenics program would subtly work its way forward to sterilize weak and inefficient people, the chronically poor, the immoral (unwed mothers, suspected prostitutes, alcoholics—not RICH alcoholics, of course, nor rich promiscuous men who solicited prostitutes…), those with milder handicaps, RELATIVES of anyone with mental, moral, or physical deficiencies (since these were ALL viewed as “inherited” properties…and the relatives of a deaf person or moron were all suspected of being carriers of defective recessive genes that would doom future generations to outbreaks of the deficiencies)—and eventually down to whole inferior “races.”
Right after the institutionalized and incarcerated, one of the main targets for sterilization were the borderline “feebleminded.” There was no specific definition of feebleminded, mind you. It was a catch-all term used both by the public and by doctors and the legal system to indicate someone with “lower than average intelligence.” The bugaboo was deciding just HOW much lower than average you had to be, to be a target for sterilization.
Mental health “experts” (perhaps a misnomer, since the field of psychology was so new that “expert” was a relative term) came up with “scientific” categories to describe the level of mental disabilities. Those with what would in modern times be designated an “IQ” of 25 or less were labeled “idiots.” Those with 26-50 were “imbeciles.”
In 1910, eugenicist and pioneer American psychologist Henry H Goddard coined the term “moron” to indicate the next level up from imbeciles, those with an IQ of 51-70, equal to a mental age, as adults, of 8 to 12 years old. Goddard fancied himself a leader in the field of abnormal psychology. In his 1919 book Psychology of the Normal and Subnormal, he famously wrote, “Democracy, then, means that the people rule by selecting the wisest, most intelligent and most human to tell them what to do to be happy.”
Goddard’s psychological “expertise” was linked tightly to his convictions about eugenics. Although intelligence testing was in its infancy, eugenicists such as Goddard didn’t let this slow them down. Besides, many of them felt that they were perfectly qualified to just look at someone standing in a crowd of immigrants at Ellis Island and judge who was “a moron.” And they had the (rudimentarily crude, early) tests that would confirm their suspicions. Morons were considered by eugenicists as one of the greatest threats to the survival of the pure, perfect Nordic race. As Henry H Goddard said in 1912,
“The idiot is not our greatest problem. He is indeed loathsome. … Nevertheless, he lives his life and is done. He does not continue the race with a line of children like himself. … It is the moron type that makes for us our great problem.”
Why was this type in particular a “great problem”? The reality is that at the time, even though “morons” might have been looked down on by some, many people on the lower edge of “normal intelligence” were fully capable of caring for themselves, holding a job, raising children, and functioning in society. Since they were “mingled in with” the “regular” population, and some of the young women in this class were undeniably appealing to “regular” men (who might not even “notice” any intellectual issues when their minds were on…other things…) such young women were a constant source of “inferior” blood making its way into the bloodlines of Nordics.
In 1913, he [Goddard] sent female assistants to Ellis Island to recognize the “feeble-minded” by sight (women were more intuitive at this, he thought) and administer his [intelligence] tests. Immigration officers had performed cursory physical and mental health screenings for years, but Goddard’s methods revealed an astounding result: 40 percent of the Jews, Italians and Hungarians tested qualified as “morons.” He noted in his report, “Doubtless the thought in every reader’s mind is the same as in ours, that it is impossible that half of such a group of immigrants could be feeble-minded, but we know that it is never wise to discard a scientific result because of apparent absurdity.” [NPR]
And of course eventually all these mentally inferior…and culturally abhorrent, and physically repugnant (at least to Nordics like Madison Grant and Henry Goddard) people could easily worm their way in a generation or two into “mixing” with Nordics.
An interesting sidelight…unlike many hardcore eugenicists, Goddard later recanted a lot of his dogmatism.
Despite being widespread in his day, Goddard’s research findings were eventually challenged and disproved. He admitted some of his best known works were faulty. A book he wrote in 1928 concludes with two major reversals: “feeble-mindedness (the moron) is not incurable” and “the feeble-minded do not generally need to be segregated in institutions.” [Much less be sterilized…] “As for myself,” he wrote, “I fear I have gone over to the enemy.”
But back to the question of sterilization, which was the first weapon in the arsenal necessary to beat back the threats to the purity of the true Nordic American bloodline.
Indeed, wrote Grant, it was the eugenicists’ “fundamental” duty to deprive “the unfit of the opportunity of leaving behind posterity of their own debased type.” Ellsworth Huntington was even more direct: “In the old system, famine, disease and cruelty killed off the morons and their offspring. That was for the good of the race. In our own day, sterilization makes it possible… to do what the old system did in the way of preventing the weaker elements from passing on their weakness to future generations.” [Spiro]
So just how many people were they hoping to sterilize?
The American Eugenics Society distributed a number of publications in the 1920s emphasizing that sterilization was the most economical and efficient method of reforming society. Paul Popenoe of the AES estimated that ten million Americans ought to be sterilized, a figure that matched rather nicely Madison Grant’s call in The Passing of the Great Race for the sterilization of the Submerged Tenth.
Harry H. Laughlin agreed that 10 percent of the population were worthless “culls” who belonged to “degenerate human stocks” and should be sterilized for the overall good. “Cutting off the lower levels of the human breeding stock,” wrote Laughlin, was really a matter of “conservation.” And once the lower tenth was eliminated, Laughlin hoped that the lowest tenth that then remained would be eliminated, and then another 10 percent, and so on, until a race of supermen remained. “Continuous decimal elimination,” he stated, “should become a part of the eugenics creed of civilized people.” [Spiro]
Here’s Harry (his pic always reminds me of Dwight Eisenhower!):
Harry was Secretary of the Eugenics Record Office’s “Committee to Study and to Report on the Best Practical Means of Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the American population.” As a result of the studies and reports of that committee, Harry drafted a model law that states could enact, giving state authorities the right to forcibly (if necessary) sterilize those in the “socially inadequate classes.”
The Committee on Legislation of the AES [American Eugenics Society] worked closely with state legislators to enact laws based on Laughlin’s model sterilization law. Many states began passing such measures that, in general, obliged the authorities to sterilize the inmates of prisons, hospitals, and mental institutions who belonged to one of Laughlin’s ten dysgenic categories. [Spiro]
The law encompassed the “feebleminded, insane, criminalistic, epileptic, inebriate, diseased, blind, deaf; deformed; and dependent” – including “orphans, ne’er-do-wells, tramps, the homeless and paupers.” [Eugenics Archive]
This work went slowly for a while, as the legal waters were pretty muddy regarding imposing such a permanent “solution” on individuals—many “guilty” of nothing other than being temporarily down on their luck, or poor…or an orphan—against their will…or without their knowledge or permission. But in 1924, the same year that the Reed-Johnson Immigration Act barred the door to most “eugenically undesirable immigrants,” a celebrated legal case was started that solved this problem and led to the successful implementation of the second line of defense for the Nordics—sterilization all across the land.
That year Virginia passed a Eugenical Sterilization Act based on Laughlin’s Model Law. It was adopted as part of a cost-saving strategy to relieve the tax burden in a state where public facilities for the “insane” and “feebleminded” had experienced rapid growth. The law was also written to protect physicians who performed sterilizing operations from malpractice lawsuits. Virginia’s law asserted that “heredity plays an important part in the transmission of insanity, idiocy, imbecility, epilepsy and crime…” It focused on “defective persons” whose reproduction represented “a menace to society.”
Carrie Buck, a seventeen-year-old girl from Charlottesville, Virginia, was picked as the first person to be sterilized.
Officials at the Virginia Colony said that Carrie and her mother shared the hereditary traits of “feeblemindedness” and sexually promiscuity. To those who believed that such traits were genetically transmitted, Carrie fit the law’s description as a “probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring.” A legal challenge was arranged on Carrie’s behalf to test the constitutional validity of the law.
At her trial, several witnesses offered evidence of Carrie’s inherited “defects” and those of her mother Emma. Colony Superintendent Dr. Albert Priddy testified that Emma Buck had “a record of immorality, prostitution, untruthfulness and syphilis.” His opinion of the Buck family more generally was: “These people belong to the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.” Although Harry Laughlin never met Carrie, he sent a written deposition echoing Priddy’s conclusions about Carrie’s “feeblemind-edness” and “moral delinquency.”
Sociologist Arthur Estabrook, of the Eugenics Record Office, traveled to Virginia to testify against Carrie. He and a Red Cross nurse examined Carrie’s baby Vivian and concluded that she was “below average” and “not quite normal.” Relying on these comments, the judge concluded that Carrie should be sterilized to prevent the birth of other “defective” children.
The decision was appealed to United States Supreme Court. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., himself a student of eugenics, wrote the formal opinion for the Court in the case of Buck v. Bell (1927). His opinion repeated the “facts” in Carrie’s case, concluding that a “deficient” mother, daughter, and granddaughter justified the need for sterilization. The decision includes the now infamous words: “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Recent scholarship has shown that Carrie Buck’s sterilization was based on a false “diagnosis” and her defense lawyer conspired with the lawyer for the Virginia Colony to guarantee that the sterilization law would be upheld in court. Carrie’s illegitimate child was not the result of promiscuity; she had been raped by a relative of her foster parents. School records also prove that Vivian was not “feebleminded.” Her 1st grade report card showed that Vivian was a solid “B” student, received an “A” in deportment, and had been on the honor roll. [Eugenics Archive]
But hindsight from the 21st century changed nothing in 1927. Sterilization laws swept the country now that the Supreme Court had confirmed their legality.
Judge Harry Olson of the AES [American Eugenic Society] similarly exulted: “The road is now open for [the] much wider application” of sterilization to prevent “racial degeneracy.” [Spiro]
“The more unfit rendered sterile, the more rapid will be the development of a race of supermen in America,” said Dr. Claude C. Pierce, acting surgeon general of the United States. “The supreme court’s decision is a step toward a super-race although it is but a feeble step.”
By 1931 30 states (out of the 48 at the time) along with Puerto Rico had sterilization laws in place. By the time he died in 1937, Madison Grant had the satisfaction of knowing that his efforts had contributed greatly to the growing list of tens of thousands of people who had been sterilized as a result of these laws.
And the ripple effect made its way all across the Atlantic!
Foreign scientists were also impressed by the U.S. sterilization program, and a number of European countries, especially those where social democratic parties had incorporated eugenics into their programs of social reform, passed sterilization laws based on Laughlin’s model law. In 1928, one year after Buck v. Bell, the first European sterilization law was passed in the Swiss Canton de Vaud. This was followed by Denmark (1929), Germany (1933), Sweden (1934), Norway (1934), Finland (1935), Danzig (1935), Estonia (1936), and Iceland (1938). By the mid–1930s, Leon F. Whitney of the AES observed with great satisfaction that “sterilization and race betterment are indeed becoming compelling ideas among all enlightened nations today.” [Spiro]
OK…by 1927, Grant and his eugenicist compadres had been able to use the US and American state governments to begin implementing Phase One and Phase Two of the Eugenic Solution to the endangered status of the Nordics in America. Phase One had stopped the flow of immigration with an iron-clad federal law, and Phase Two had gotten a jump start at “cutting off bad blood lines” by success in enacting state sterilization laws throughout much of the country.
But that still left the massive problem of miscegenation…the pollution of Nordic blood with “germ plasm” of the “lower races” through interracial breeding, particularly with that of the large US “Negro” population. Not to worry. The eugenicists were on top of that situation too, influencing governments and the (white) Man on the Street to accept eugenic solutions to this threat. More about that in the next entry in this series.