As inspiration for my novel, My Soul to Keep, the idea of Eugenics in America fascinated me. Unfortunately, my inspiration came from real-life, heart-wrenching history. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the idea of eugenics spread like autumn leaves in the wind. It wasn’t just in America. Nor was it just in Nazi Germany. Eugenics became an academic discipline at many colleges and universities. They classified social behaviors as inheritable diseases. Shiftlessness, epilepsy, bipolar disorder, learning disabilities, color blindness, were among disorders they hoped to eliminate from the human population.
While Indiana was the first place to pass a compulsory sterilization law, they weren’t the last. More and more states created laws to sterilize degenerate or unfit men and women and children. They believed that by limiting the reproduction of those “types” of people, society would stronger, purer. By the 1930s, only eleven states had no sterilization laws.
London hosted the first of three International Eugenics Conferences in 1912. And then New York hosted the second and third conferences in 1921 and 1932. In the 1920s and 30s, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, and Sweden developed laws to sterilize certain mental patients.
A Who’s Who
Professionals (charity leaders, sociologists, physicians, prison reform leaders) promoted the theory that people were born degenerate. They weren’t the only ones. A Who’s Who list of supporters includes Alexander Graham Bell, Vernon Kellogg, Luther Burbank, Hellen Keller, George Bernard Shaw, among many others.
Theodore Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth President of the United States, wrote a letter to the leading eugenicist in 1913. In his letter to Charles B. Davenport, President Roosevelt said, “I agree with you if you mean, as I suppose you do, that society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind.”
Margaret Sanger opened her first birth control clinic in 1916. She founded the Birth Control League and its magazine, The Birth Control Review. The magazine promoted Sanger’s idea, “More children from the fit, less from the unfit.”
In 1924, President Coolidge signed the Johnson-Reed Act into law. A law that completely excluded dysgenic immigrants from Italy or European Jews. He defended the act by saying, “America must remain American.”
Movies also reinforced the ideas of eugenics. In 1917, The Black Stork Comes Out, portrayed a couple counseled by a eugenist. He said that their children would be unsuitable for society and severely dysfunctional. By the end of the movie, the couple produces a child who dies shortly after birth due to birth defects. The 1932 movie, A Bill of Divorcement, advises a young woman to never marry or have children because of a family history of mental illness.
In 1927, the US Supreme Court upheld the law for sterilization in the case of Buck versus Bell. It declared sterilization of people considered genetically unfit was constitutional. The Nazis later used this in their defense at the Nuremberg Trials.
WHO ARE DEGENERATES
The problem with sterilizing degenerates was that the term was loosely defined. There were four different categories: physiological (masturbation, certain occupations, alcoholism), moral (innate criminality), mental (feebleminded or insane), and economic (the poor.)
For twenty-nine years the Eugenics Records office collected hundreds of thousands of pedigrees. Scholars and professionals performed studies and evaluations. Criteria were not well defined. Some of the traits studied and rated were politeness vs bluntness, obedience vs disobedience, elocution, and drawing. They relied on interviews and medical histories. There was some intelligence testing as well. Robert Yerkes developed an intelligence test administered to army recruits. It was probably more a test of American pop culture.
When interviews weren’t possible data like eye color was obtained from school principals or friends. Some family members were categorized in absentia.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
In 1935, Alabama repealed its sexual sterilization law. The Alabama Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional. This was because a victim would not have the right to appeal against the sterilization. By 1945 historians began portraying US eugenics as distinct and distant from Nazi eugenics.
Then, in 1952 the Immigration and Naturalization Act excluded immigrants who appeared to be intellectually inferior or unlawful from coming to America.
Finally, in 1974, Indiana repealed all the sexual sterilization laws in the state of Indiana.
Sweden still performed sterilizations of undesirables as late as 1974. So did the state of Virginia.
Virginia became the first state, in 2002, to issue a formal apology for its forcibly sterilizing thousands of people in the state.
In 2003, North Carolina official repealed its eugenics legislation.
Between 1899-1907, 176 men at the Indiana Reformatory had vasectomies. The reason for these sterilizations was “solely for the purpose of relief from the habit of masturbation.” (The Unfit, A History of a Bad Idea by Elof Axel Carlson.) By the time of the repeal, a total of about 2500 sterilizations took place in Indiana.
By 1940, to our national shame, there were a total of 35,000 involuntary sterilizations done in state institutions across the country.
The stories of people deemed “unfit” are horrendous. Some of their stories are online. Google eugenics or involuntary sterilization. Initially, there was no understanding of the influence of environmental and nutritional factors on social behaviors. Genetics was even less understood. Our knowledge of genetics today is still in its infancy. Our records of the abuses done in the name of eugenics are likely incomplete. The posts on this blog cannot convey the ignorance and suffering involved. Educate yourself.
A Bad Wind
Eugenics was an idea that spread like autumn leaves in the wind. It still floats in a bad wind from time to time. We need periodic reminders of our history through articles of fact like this week’s and last week’s post but we also need to explore it in fictional worlds. As I’ve said, eugenics was part of the inspiration for my novel, My Soul to Keep. In the novel (and in the novels to come), the eugenics movement is part of what goes wrong. We must remember the terrible costs that have been paid in the name of eugenics. How else will we remember to not go there again?
This is both chilling and fascinating. Thank you for pulling together a part of our history we dare not forget!
That was exactly my reaction to learning about this part of our history. Fascinated and chilled. To the core. And my history lessons had included an acknowledgment of American eugenics (clean, separate from Nazi eugenics, but a mention). Thanks for your comment, Jan!
Interesting how many of the behaviors considered “degenerate” are not genetically determined. Just goes to show how little they knew about genetics then – and how little we still know. I’m looking forward to your book!
Yes, it is interesting. It makes you wonder if we are labeling disorders correctly today, doesn’t it? Thank you so, Jennette!