This (extended!) essay is the result of research I gathered about the treatment of Americans with disabilities during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It’s a harrowing read from that standpoint alone–but when I consider the rise of Trumpism and its attendant barbarity against the sick, the poor, and the foreign, I think the eugenics movement becomes especially instructive. Present day is not the first time we put children in cages. Nor is it the first time that we’ve abandoned them to die at the hands of a monstrosity that we helped create.
In 1934, the Richmond Times Dispatch quoted the superintendent of a Virginia state hospital as saying that eugenically speaking, the Germans are beating us at our own game. I learned this from Edwin Black’s, groundbreaking War against the Weak, which is a book I somewhat wantonly paraphrase throughout the next few pages. I have discovered, however, that once I started looking for this kind of information, I found traces of it in almost any source that discusses disability care from 1860 through World War II. Martin Luther once said that Perfect is the great enemy of Good. And the eugenics movement certainly offers proof. But I’ve also discovered that the pursuit of perfection frequently requires that we deny our own history, where it wages the great harm of burying the illustration of our mistakes. France and Germany prohibit their citizens from rejecting the reality of the Holocaust. Yet Americans have forgotten that they—in part through their treatment of the disabled—are the ones who started it.
To put it briefly, quack science capitalized on global hardship to produce a culture of secrecy and fear that at least tacitly allowed the destruction of over 60,000 Americans. If this sounds like fascism, that’s because it is. As the Industrial Age pushed into its prime, cities on both sides of the Atlantic clogged themselves with the working poor. The British called the impoverished the residuum, which was another word for sewage. They coined the word, slum, which was short for slumber, because the poor were so tired from their labor, that this was the only activity that went on in their neighborhoods. In 1840, in the most squalid areas of Manchester, 1 in every 25 people died each year.
In 1798, the British philosopher, Thomas Malthus published his “Essay on Population,” which established that humans have a tendency to overpopulate, and that unless societies actively worked to prevent such a thing, communities would outgrow their food supply. In 1851, Herbert Spencer’s Social Statistics posited a number of ways to curb such a tendency, but among them was the abolition of charity, [where philanthropic] men advocate an interference which not only stops the purifying process but even increases the vitiation. Spencer also coined the term survival of the fittest, which, in 1859, is an idea that Charles Darwin included in his Origin of the Species. Critics are in a constant flap over to what extent Darwin applied such a theory to human society, but the author, Richard Weikart, makes a pretty good case that because Darwin believed that the survival of the fittest affects all animals, and because Darwin categorically considered humans to be animals, logic would assume that he had us clamoring along with the rest of them. That’s what the social Darwinists decided, at any rate. And by the time The Descent of Man came along in 1871, Darwin himself had ranked the races, and implied that both the lower groups and the disabled folks constituted a breed of evolutionary degenerates. He declared that people ought to refrain from marriage if they are in any marked degree inferior. And with this statement, he joined the movement for selective breeding, which, in 1883, his cousin, Francis Galton began to call eugenics.
In the meantime, American Reconstruction transformed into the Gilded Age. The United States suffered the same urban squalor that plagued Europe, and between 1870 and 1890, 1 percent of the population owned 47 percent of the country’s wealth. Layoffs abounded; strikes punctured the coal, garment and railroad industry; Jim Crow ground the south; and revolution and oppression sparked an unprecedented surge of eastern European immigration. In 1893, the United States endured its greatest depression to date, with somewhere between 18 and 20 percent of the population falling to unemployment. And with so much strife at home, societies reviled the stranger as either a job competitor or simply another mouth to feed. In the middle of the century, disability schools had attempted to incarcerate mentally disabled people only long enough to train them to survive on the outside. But as the market depressed, graduates from these institutions had it worse than even the immigrants—and they faced no choice but to return to where they came from. They joined the students who were never trainable enough to leave in the first place, and the strain reduced the schools to custodial homes. The higher-functioning residents began assisting the asylums’ staff with the lower-functioning members. Superintendents started calling their charges inmates. Educational strategies gave way to medical models of treatment and control. And theories of that kind were rife with the emerging science.
As with the plague mentality in the Middle Ages, industrial society viewed the unfortunate as potential contamination. In 1874, Richard Dugdale published The Jukes, which used a family of paupers to discuss how much poor relief cost the United States. He asserted that poverty was a product of environment, but he died soon after his book became popular, and eugenicists buried his thesis in a clamor that declared that his work proved that poverty was heredity. In 1888, Rev. Oscar McCullouch galvanized the claim with The Tribe of Ishmael, which announced that poor people in Indianapolis descended from a single ancestor. McCullouch, at the time, served as the head of the National Board of Charities.
As soon as concerns with heredity had become vogue, social theorists had given great attention to the notion that ancestral immorality begets a string of generational catastrophe. It could manifest itself in a variety of ways, including poverty, intemperance, sickness, and disability—but in all instances, it had to be stopped. In 1876, the philanthropist, Josephine Shaw Lowell had become New York’s first female commissioner on the State Board of Charities. She made it her business to convince the public that because of their ability to breed, their faulty heredity, and their questionable morality, mentally-disabled women were born criminals. Lowell was the first to equate the disabled with what she called moral leprosy. And it was this idea that, in 1891, convinced the president of the Anthropological Society of Washington to urge the country to quarantine the evil classes as [it] would the plague.
Charles Davenport was a biologist who devoted his life to the project. To my embarrassment, his ancestors were American Puritans—which was a fact he showcased along with his family’s inclusion in William the Conqueror’s Domesday census. Eugenics attracted him by placing Anglo-Nordics at the top of the heap. And in 1902 he enticed his cohorts at the Carnegie Institution to fund the establishment of a lab in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, to study the method of Evolution. Davenport decided that constructing a blood database would be the best way to do such a thing. And in 1903, he moved the American Breeders Association to widen their focus to humans by creating the Eugenics Committee. In 1909, this committee formed the Eugenics Record Office, which began to survey schools, prisons, courthouses, hospitals, and asylums for information regarding the hereditary stock of every citizen they could find. Davenport added urgency to the project by announcing that once the ERO had amassed enough information, it would target and incarcerate all “imbeciles” of reproductive age. Edwin Black makes the point that Davenport never defined what an imbecile was.
In 1910, Mrs. EH Harriman used her railroad fortune to purchase eighty acres of land for the ERO at Cold Springs Harbor. Over the agency’s lifetime, Harriman donations would total over a half million dollars. With money and a plan, Davenport needed a deputy. So in 1910, he hired Harry Laughlin, who was a professor in the Agriculture, Botany and Nature department at the Missouri Normal School. Laughlin took charge of the ERO—and within that same year, he had secured a $21,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Rockefeller money would support the ERO until 1939.
With such elite endorsement, the blood surveys poured in. Within the next few years, Laughlin used their data to show that there existed a Submerged or Lower Tenth of the national population that, for racial or otherwise congenital reasons, was unfit. The ERO left unfitness undefined, but in 1911, it compiled a list of qualifying categories which included: (1)the feebleminded class, (2) the pauper class, (3) the inebriate class, (4) the criminal class, (5) the epileptic class, (6) the insane class, (7) the constitutionally weak, or the asthenic class, (8) those predisposed to specific diseases, or the diathetic class, (9) the deformed class, (10) those with defective sense organs, as the blind and the deaf, or the kakaisthetic class.
The catalogue—and the numbers behind it—at least implicitly received great support from Henry Goddard, who coined the term moron to define the highest-functioning, and allegedly prolific, imbecile. From 1906-1918, Goddard served as the director of research at New Jersey’s Vineland Training School for [Disabled] Girls and Boys. In 1913, Goddard authored The Kallikak Family, which is a hugely influential, but now-defunct study of mental disability and heredity. In that same year, he altered the Binet intelligence test into an economically-and-culturally biased exam that he administered to immigrants at Ellis Island. Perhaps because scientists claimed that certain types of imbeciles resembled apes or swine, Goddard believed that he could identify the “feebleminded” on sight. And with the help of his test, he discovered that 40 percent of immigrants were morons or lower. In that same year he and a Stanford eugenicist, Lewis Terman, transformed this same exam into the Army Alpha Test. The document showed that 47 percent of white, and 89 percent of black Americans were morons. And although the army never acted on these findings, Princeton University eventually converted the test into the first SAT.
Eugenics held the country’s attention—or at least the elite’s attention. And through a combination of bad data, flattery, and fear, it seduced the powerful into opening eugenics departments at: Alama College, Bates College, Brown University, Columbia University, Harvard University, Illinois University at Urbana, New York University, Northwestern University, Princeton University, Purdue University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Chicago, Stanford University and Yale University. By 1924, eugenics programs had spread to hundreds of facilities, including a number of high schools. In 1915, John Harvey Kellogg, brother of the cereal baron, established the Race Betterment Foundation, which received 10,000 visitors in that year alone. The American Museum of Natural History erected eugenics exhibits in 1915–and again in 1932, where the last exhibit attracted 15,000 patrons.
In the era between the wars, “Fitter Family” contests opened at state fairs across the country. And to forge a cooperation between faith and science, the American Eugenic Society hosted a nationwide eugenics sermon competition. In 1913, Theodore Roosevelt said that, Some day, we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty, of the good citizen of the right type, is to leave his or her blood behind them in the world; and that we have no business to perpetuate the citizens of the wrong type. In 1914, John Harvey Kellogg said that, To purify the breeding stock of the race at all costs is the slogan of eugenics. And in 1920, Margaret Sanger declared that, The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.
Woodrow Wilson was a eugenicist; Winston Churchill was a eugenicist; the feminist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman; the progressive governor, Charles Henderson; the sociologists, EA Ross and Frank Giddings; the psychologists, GS Hall and EG Boring; the botanist, Luther Burbank; the inventor, Alexander Graham Bell; the authors, Aldous Huxley, Ezra Pound, and Joseph Conrad; the composers Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler; and the theologians, Richard Rauchenbusch and Washington Gladden were all eugenicists of one kind or another. In fact, one member of the American Association of the Advancement of Science declared that had Jesus been among us, he would have been the president of the First Eugenic Congress.
Indeed there were conventions, where by 1923 at least three occurred on the international scale. Eugenic agendas emerged in a variety of countries including Denmark, Sweden, Britain, Norway, Germany and Canada—all nations who faced the seduction of science asserting their superiority. Harry Laughlin used international ties to convince Congress to set up eugenic consulates in Europe. In 1923, as a member of the federal Committee on Selective Immigration, he personally administered his intelligence tests to citizens of most western and northern European countries. He asked other nations to send him their demographic data, and eighty-seven of them complied. The New York Times published Laughlin’s findings in 1924. And in that same year, Congress passed the Immigration Act, which imposed quotas on the acceptance of lower races. It was legislation of this sort that would deny entry to Jewish refugees during Hitler’s purges. And it was eugenicists’ contact with Germany that eventually carried the most import.
In 1936, the dean of the medical school at the University of Heidelberg awarded Laughlin an honorary degree. In 1934, The Kallikak Family was published in Nazi Germany. And when Hitler was in prison before his rise to power, he read Davenport, he studied the works of Leon Whitney, who was the president of the American Eugenics Society, and he all-out reveled in Madison Grant’s Nordic-supremacist The Passing of the Great Race, which, in a letter to Grant, Hitler embraced as his Bible.
In the meantime, American leaders were almost equally enthralled. When Oliver Wendell Holmes served as chief justice of the Supreme Court, Virginian inmate, Carrie Buck, delivered a child who resulted from a rape. Her defenders took her subsequent sterilization case all the way to Justice Holmes, where during the trial, an ERO representative declared that Carrie’s child also showed backwardness. By eugenic standards, both Carrie and her mother were feebleminded. And with the addition of the child’s diagnosis, Justice Holmes ruled that three generations of imbeciles are enough [where]….the principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. His ruling moved the United States to sterilize 63,000 undesirables by 1963. It’s worth noting, by the way, that almost half of American sterilizations occurred during the years after the post-war Nuremberg trials declared eugenic operations as crimes against humanity.
As with Carrie Buck, many of those who endured sterilization languished in institutions. Asylum living conditions contributed to a mentally-disabled person’s life-expectancy to average around 18.5 years, in 1930. In 1990, by contrast the life expectancy for a mentally-disabled American was 66.2 years. In the late 19th century, a New York institution was reported as using water that was drinkable, but still inadequate to quell a fire. In 1907, a 16-year-old boy at the Illinois Asylum died from burns he received from lying on a radiator for several minutes after having fallen during a seizure. None of the staff treated his wounds. At the same asylum, in the same year, an inmate died from a scalding she suffered in a bath. The institution fired the attending employee. One of the inmate’s cohorts received rat bites on her face, arms, and abdomen. And in the same year, at the same place, a patient died four days after he attempted to castrate himself. All of this information came from an expose that Chicago newspapers conducted after the radiator death. And this prompts me to suspect that the Illinois Asylum was exceptional only in the sense that it received an investigation at all.
Historians acknowledge the somewhat ominous fact that between the Depression and the end of World War II, a minuscule amount of patient records exist from any American asylum. What do abound are descriptions of institutions from the 1950s through the 1970s, when social advocates began to rip the top off such establishments. Here you find the bed-stacked-to-bed holding pens; the group-shower rooms that consisted of a drain and a hose; the feces on the walls and on the inmates and in the cracks of wooden floors; the patients lying in their own vomit; the bedless isolation chambers; and the cribs designed to confine both child and adult members of the head-bashing, tile-eating population who had generally been reduced to such behavior by the very conditions they inhabited. When, in 1956, the Portsmouth State Herald published pictures of New Hampshire’s Laconia State School, readers decried the institution as resembling Nazi Germany. Perhaps some of them were aware of the irony.
The historian, Timothy M. Cook, has found early-century records of state legislations that considered the disabled: a blight on mankind, in Vermont; anti-social beings, in Pennsylvania; a misfortune both to themselves and to the public, in Kansas; a danger to the race, in Wisconsin. And in South Dakota, they were a defect [that] wounds our citizenry a thousand times more than any plague. In 1906, Ohio and Iowa debated whether to make it lawful to euthanize the mentally disabled. In those same years, Harvard president, Charles Eliot Norton, declared that the unfit should receive painless destruction. Civil-rights lawyer, Clarence Darrow, decided it was merciful to chloroform unfit children. And HG Wells wrote that for a multitude of contemptible and silly creatures, fear-driven and helpless and useless, unhappy or hatefully happy in the midst of squalid dishonour, feeble, ugly, inefficient, born of unrestrained lusts, and increasing and multiplying through sheer incontinence and stupidity, the men of the New Republic will have little pity and less benevolence…. They will have an ideal what will make killing worth while.
In 1915, Chicago doctor, Harry Haiselden, denied treatment to a deformed newborn, and let it die. He faced a judicial inquiry—and a media circus—but the judge decided that no law bound Haiselden to act differently. Haiselden admitted to killing other infants—and continued to do so for years after the trial, by either overdosing them with narcotics or allowing them to bleed from an untied umbilical cord. He offered consultations from coast to coast. Charles Davenport supported him in the press. And in 1917, Hollywood released The Black Stork, where Haiselden played himself in a drama that involved his convincing a mother to kill her unfit infant. The movie script called the baby the monster. And the death scene showed a raggish depiction of the baby’s soul floating toward the arms of Christ.
Haiselden called death the great and lasting disinfectant. Friedrich Nietzsche had already declared that one has observed life poorly, if one has not also witnessed the hand that mercifully kills. Davenport said that one may even view with satisfaction the high death rate in an institution for [the] low-grade feebleminded. And joining these men were:
Konrad Lorenz, zoologist: Just as in cancer the best treatment is to eradicate the parasitic growth as quickly as possible, the eugenic defense…is of necessity limited to equally drastic measures.
Henry Goddard, psychologist and author: It would be better for both [the moron] and for society [for him] to have never been born.
Paul Popenoe, co-author of Applied Eugenics: From an historical point of view, the first method which presents itself is execution…. Its value in keeping up the standard of the race should not be underestimated.
Arthur F. Tredgold, author of Textbook on Mental Deficiency: It would be an economical and humane procedure were their existence to be painlessly terminated.
Alfred Jost, German social theorist: [It is the state’s right] to [inflict] deaths [that are] key to the fitness of life.
Helen Keller, writer and activist: A human life is sacred only when it may be of some use to itself and the world. She spoke in defense of Haiselden—and although she believed that physically disabled infants should live, she declared that the mentally challenged should perish. [A mental defective], she said, is almost certain to be a criminal.
I have gotten to the point where if I mention eugenics, my friends leave the room. But this research has given me something else besides the nightmares and the alone time—and that is a faith in democracy. For all the urgings from European and American luminaries, the United States never passed extermination laws. Although the ERO considered liquidation as an end to the unfit, they knew that society wasn’t ready for such measures. Even Laughlin agreed that such a program would occur at too dear a moral price. Much of this hesitation stemmed from the resistance that eugenics had faced ever since its inception. Galton’s followers decried the ERO’s Lower Tenth statistics as careless presentation of data, inaccurate methods of analysis, irresponsible expression of conclusions, and rapid change of opinion. By the end of his life, Galton himself declined to attend eugenic conferences. Psychologists, Edith Spaulding and William Healy, published a 1913 study that asserted how criminal tendencies were not hereditary. In 1919, Walter Fernald discovered that many paroled morons survived well outside of their institutions. And although from its very inception the ERO had demanded that the US Census Bureau surrender its records, the Bureau refused on the grounds of protecting each citizen’s privacy. Inquiries such as the Illinois Asylum expose and the Haiselden investigation show that what they disclosed both shocked and divided the public. And by the 1920s, such dissent moved the American Medico-Psychological Association and the Mental Hygiene Association to de-emphasize eugenics in both their conferences and their journals.
But by this time, the eugenics movement had attracted fans who were not so democratically inclined. World War I had all but ruined Germany. Poverty levels during the war were so high that asylums had no choice but to deny their inmates medicine and food. In 1922, the German, Gerhard Hoffman, used this precedent to submit an economical rejuvenation plan to the Reichstag, which included the killing of the insane, the exhausted, the mentally disabled and the children who were chronically ill or crippled. Germany refused to implement what was still an outrageous agenda. But from his prison cell, Adolph Hitler brimmed with what he learned about controlling undesirables. There is today, he wrote in Mein Kampf, one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception of [immigration] are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German republic, but the [United States], in which an effort is made to consult reason at least partially. By refusing immigrants on principle to elements in poor health, by simply excluding certain races from naturalization, it professes in slow beginnings a view which is peculiar to the People’s State. Hitler would soon have more reason to thank us. The American eugenicists had long sensed that Germany was ripe to take action that the United States would never condone. For the next decade, the Carnegie Institution and the Rockefeller Foundation gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Psychiatry, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research, and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics. These are the bodies that perpetuated the pseudo-data that endorsed racial purity; supported the campaign to destroy life unworthy of life; and authorized the monstrous experiments in Nazi hospitals. Edwin Black asserts that American money went to these institutions even during the 1930s, when American workers starved. And what’s interesting is that the Depression is what convinced many Americans that poverty was not a sign of degeneracy. It was the Depression, of all things, that provided correction enough to begin a slow healing. The other remedy was the Holocaust.
Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. That same year, under international media coverage, the first concentration camp opened in Dachau. In 1934, the American periodical, Eugenical News, wrote that we [should] be the first to thank this one man, Adolph Hitler, and follow him on the way to a biological salvation of humanity. The magazine also endorsed the Nazis’ release of racial trading cards, suggesting only that they use more physical detail. Also in 1934, Californian eugenicist CM Goethe wrote this to his colleague in San Diego: You will be interested to know that your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in this epoch-making program….I want you, my dear friend, to carry this thought with you for the rest of your life, that you have jolted into action a great government of 60 million people. Within months of that writing, Hitler’s deputy, Herman Hess, announced that National Socialism is nothing but applied biology.
In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws required the sterilization of all racially, physically and mentally unfit Germans. This was a full year before Laughlin accepted his honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg. In 1939, Hitler started the T-4 program, which exterminated between fifty and sixty thousand disabled citizens. It was this effort that prompted the invention of the gas chamber.
In 1934, Jewish-American newspapers and the Federal Council of Churches of Christ demanded that the Rockefeller Foundation justify its support for Nazi science. As the thirties wore on, Irving A. Folling and Herbert J. Muller published scientific discoveries that debunked the idea of genetic unfitness. As the Germans started their invasions and proliferated their camps, and as France and England entered the war, the United States became queasy with anything that situated itself with Nazism.
In 1939, the Rockefeller Foundation finally withdrew its support from both foreign and American eugenic programs. Charles Davenport had retired in 1934. And although Harry Laughlin and the Carnegie Institution negotiated about how to continue supporting Cold Spring Harbor, the Carnegies finally walked away in 1940. The ERO closed that same year—and although Laughlin tried to first sell and then donate his records, nobody wanted them.
That is the sorry end of it. In 1943, Harry Laughlin died of epilepsy. It was a condition he guarded for his entire life—as it was one that could have left him burning to death on a radiator. Charles Davenport died in 1944, after contracting pneumonia from spending days in a Long Island shed, boiling the flesh from the skull of a beached whale. The whale had become an obsession of a sort that once condemned another man.
Catastrophe is Greek for overturning. And the Hebrew Prophets acknowledge it as the self-destruction and God-given redemption that grants our history its form. The calamity ends when its obscenity appalls the bulk of its very perpetrators. And here again, a society’s agony over destruction finally moves them to engage in the very prophetic act of revolting against it. This makes sense, I suppose. But what the Prophets don’t say—what I have never found—is the reason why such grace is destined to arrive at the cost of the innocent.
I read once about Danish sailors who, in the days of the galleons, believed that waterspouts were demons. When they spotted one, they would send a man ahead in a dinghy, to use a black-handled knife to slit the demon’s throat. It is our nature that we find evil in destruction. And it is to our honor, perhaps, that we seek even self-destructive means of destroying it.
Do I say that healing depends on the suffering of innocents, because our lot has to become just that depraved before we decide to fix it? Or perhaps I should say that if this is the reason, it doesn’t feel like grace anymore. That is the question I have—that is the one I have sat alone and whetted. I am not a Prophet. But I do know a few of them. And I have read a Muslim passage where on the Day of Judgment, all the slaughtered infants will rise up and ask why.
If it were up to you, would you row out to see? Would you cast yourself along that worn water, with nothing to arm yourself but an edge of human frailty? I don’t know what would happen then. And I don’t know if it would be better for us or worse, if in that moment before catastrophe, a voice came out of the whirlwind.
(Gratitude to Edwin Black’s The War Against the Weak, which provided a great deal of information for this post.)