The evil that nations do lives after them, the good is oft interred with the bones of others……
Around the 1920s, eugenics was popular as a movement, among America’s elite. The concept of eugenics was based upon Darwinism, a theory of biological evolution developed by the English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882), that hypothesized that all living organisms arise and develop through natural selection – tiny, inherited variations in physical and psychological attributes that increase an individual’s ability to compete, survive and prevail over others.
The American Society of Eugenics held Darwinism as its guiding principle and its aim was to build a nation that had only one kind of citizens – those who were intellectually brilliant, physically fit and white. (Two decades later the Nazis refined on it some, their goal : to give rise to a super-race).
American eugenicists determined that nature had to be ‘helped along’ by breeding out undesirable personality traits and abnormal physique. Several afflictions, that we now know as not psychological but medical – like autism, epilepsy, homosexuality, dementia, absentmindedness, dyslexia and a host of physical impairments like being blind, deaf and mute or paraplegia – were considered by eugenicists as hereditary, undesirable and racially weakening.
Around this time, all those above mentioned abhorrent traits were gathered together and brought under one umbrella term : feeblemindedness. A questionable medical diagnostic process was instituted, in order to determine who was feeble minded and who wasn’t. Thousands of ordinary white Americans were shepherded into penitentiary-like penal colonies and forcibly sterilized.
Among those wretched multitudes to be swept up, quarantined and sterilized, was an 18-year old girl named Carrie Buck, who had been declared feebleminded and sent to live in the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded, one such penitentiary where epileptics had been held so they would not be able to mix with the general population and procreate, thereby ‘muddying the gene pool’. The same institution had earlier determined Carrie’s mother to have a mental age of 8, ‘given to prostitution and immorality’ and incarcerated her.
The story of Carrie Buck’s life followed an almost predetermined pattern that was quite prevalent those days. Raised in poverty in an abusive household, Carrie was a simpleton trying to make sense of the world she was growing up in. After her mother got incarcerated in the Virginia colony, Carrie was forced to live in a low-income foster home, where she was sexually assaulted repeatedly by not only her foster father and male siblings but also their relatives and even some folks who visited them. One thing led to another and soon Carrie gave birth to an ‘illegitimate’ child, a daughter named Viviane.
1920s morality norms kicked in. Faced with a harsh, unforgiving and fundamentalist society, her adoptive parents railroaded Carrie into the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded, where she fell under the mercy of the superintendent, a dangerously fascist psychopath named Dr Albert Sidney Priddy.
Around the same time that Carrie Buck was shoved into incarceration, mass quarantines and sterilizations were being planned on hundreds of thousands of innocent Americans who had been similarly deemed to be feeble-minded. There was just one little technicality that stood in the way of the eugenicists’ designs – the Constitution.
The state of Virginia Indiana had just enacted a statute authorizing the forced sterilization of ‘intellectually disabled’ folks, in the interests of the furtherance of eugenics. The state legislators, most of whom were rabid eugenicists themselves, had to find out if the law would withstand a legal challenge in the US Supreme Court. They decided to try and bring about a court judgement that would then set a precedent, making it easier to continue the sterilizations with the law on their side.
They needed a guinea pig and they let loose Albert Sidney Priddy.
Priddy was looking for someone to put at the center of this test lawsuit that the Virginia eugenicists wanted to bring and his eyes fell on Carrie Buck when she came in. The 18-year old seemed perfect as a test plaintiff.
Priddy did the ‘examination’ personally and found a lot of things about her that excited the fascist in him. He immediately determined Carrie Buck to be possessing the mental age of 9 and therefore ‘defective and a genetic threat to society’. With a mother who had already been deemed feebleminded, it was perfect. Priddy could show some heredity in feeblemindedness. He hoped could determine Carrie’s baby to be feebleminded too. Then he could show an authentic genetic pattern to feeblemindedness. The fact that she had been pregnant out of wedlock was another strike against her. Promiscuity was already classified under feeblemindedness, the fact that she had been raped, notwithstanding.
The pantomime began. Under the Virginia law, the eugenicists had to have a sterilization hearing at the colony, which they did.
They gave her a lawyer, who really wasn’t going to act on her behalf. He recognized that the lawsuit had to lose. The lawyer had been the chairman of the board of the colony where Carrie had been incarcerated and therefore a part of the eugenics movement.
The game plan was clear. They would have a sham hearing and Carrie Buck would be determined suitable for sterilization. An involuntary sterilization order would go out, the one that would then be challenged by Carrie as the plaintiff, first in the Virginia court system and then in the Supreme Court. Believing that this was in her best interests and unaware that it was all a sham, Carrie Buck would of course participate in the process wholeheartedly.
And that is the way it went. From the start Carrie never had a chance. Her counsel was the same terrible lawyer who really was not on her side. He was actually trying to get her sterilized and did a very good job, writing short briefs that missed some of the most important arguments on her side. His arguments in court actually seemed to argue for her being sterilized.
The case wound its way through the appellate courts and landed in the dockets of the US Supreme Court. Now, if you have had the chance to read up on the history of the Supreme Court of the world’s beacon of democracy, you won’t hold your breath over what happened next.
In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court decided by a vote of 8 to 1 to uphold the state of Virginia’s right to forcibly sterilize a person considered unfit to procreate. The case, known as Buck v. Bell, slammed the door on Carrie Buck, deeming her for the last and final time, a feebleminded person who should not under any circumstances be allowed to have children.
The famed jurist of the time, Oliver Wendell Holmes, whom everyone considered a progressive, wrote the decision upholding forced sterilization. Those days, Holmes was an icon and the very beacon of American justice. A heroic figure, who had been wounded three times in the Civil War, he was revered by Americans as a great thinker and a model for all aspiring lawyers and judges.
Wendell Holmes was actually not a very nice guy. Raised in the midst of great wealth in Boston, it was his father who coined the phrase Boston Brahmin. And that phrase embodied everything that they believed about themselves, having taken the word ‘Brahmin’ from the Indian caste system. He was a member of America’s highest caste, raised to believe that he and his wealthy ‘wellborn’ Boston neighbors were the best people in the country and even the world. His beliefs began to influence his approach to the law, long before the Buck v. Bell case came to the Supreme Court. Holmes had written about eugenics, which he avidly supported and when Buck vs Bell came to his bench, Carrie Buck’s fate was sealed. Oliver Wendell Holmes was just absolutely the worst guy for Carrie Buck to have, to decide her fate.
Wendell Holmes was a man of few words and his written decision was a short five-paragraph one, but in those five paras, he had managed to pack in blatant misinformation and horrid ideas. One sentence stood out, one that has reverberated over the generations – ‘three generations of imbeciles are enough’. By that he meant Carrie Buck’s mother, Carrie Buck and Carrie Buck’s daughter.
American eugenics of the time actually had three very precise categories of mental defects – idiot (the lowest and worst), imbecile (middle) and moron (least harmful). Carrie and her mother were both determined by the colony after ‘extensive testing’ to be morons, but Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his decision, demoted them to imbeciles, which was a lower category. The late Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia (may his soul not rest in peace), would have loved his fellow fascist, Oliver Wendell Homes.
Interesting how these days we just throw around words like imbecile and moron as colorful ways of saying ‘God, that was such a stupid thing to do’, or ‘what an imbecile’, or ‘Damn, I behaved like such a moron the other day’. I had no idea that those words had actually been official categories that were used to punish people – sterilize them or keep them locked up in a colony.
When you think about what you want a Supreme Court to be, there was something very ugly about the verdict. America’s founding fathers had mandated the Supreme Court to be a temple of justice, the final place that people could go to when all the other parts of their society, all the other parts of the government, had failed to treat them right.
All told, as many as 70,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized during the early 20th century. The instinct to demonize people who are different is still prevalent in America today, particularly in the debate over immigration. These instincts tell ordinary white Christian Americans to stop those others from polluting them, by changing the nature of their country.
Post Scriptum :
What happened to Carrie Buck
The forcible sterilization of Carrie Buck went ahead. She was operated on and had a couple weeks of what seemed like rather painful convalescence. And then, because she was no longer a threat to the nation’s gene pool, she was let go.
Carrie had wanted to get back to her foster family, the Dobbs, who were raising her child who would be the only child she would ever be able to have. Throughout the process of the lawsuit and the sterilization, they had assured her that she would be free to go back to live with the Dobbs family after and that the Dobbs family were eagerly waiting to have her back. This has been all been worked out, they had said to her.
Of course, you and I now know it didn’t happen that way. The Dobbs didn’t want to have anything to do with Carrie Buck and essentially threw her out. She gravitated to a sort of halfway house where she passed the rest of her days alone, trying to earn a living as a housekeeper. Toward the end of her life, a roommate in the old-age home which she was forced to move to, said Carrie always had her eye out for the daily newspaper, which she would read page by page, never forgetting to do the crossword puzzles. This was the woman who had been deemed ‘feebleminded’.
Eternally cheerful, never showing even a little bitterness for the way life had treated her, Carrie Buck passed on in 1983 at the age of 76, in Charlottesville, Virginia.
They say that a fellow resident of the old age home found her in bed with the previous day’s Charlottesville Daily Progress clutched tightly in her hand. The page facing up was the crossword page. It was half-filled.
Carrie Buck’s daughter, Viviane, had died much earlier – at the Dobbs’ home in 1932, of undetermined causes.
The 1924 act under which Carrie Buck and more than 70000 others were forcibly sterilized, was finally repealed in 1974.
Related reading & viewing……
War Against the Weak – Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race – Edwin Black (2004)
Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck – Adam Cohen (2016)
The sterilization of Carrie Buck – J.David Smith & K. Ray Nelson (1989)
Against her will – The Carrie Buck Story (1994 TV movie, with Marlee Matlin)