- Historic Sites
Race Cleansing In America
A nationwide gene-purity movement promoted methods that eventually were adopted by the Third Reich. And everyone from John D. Rockefeller to W. E. B. Du Bois supported it.
March 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 1
Dugdale insisted that human behavior was influenced by several factors, environment among them, but it was the portrait of a self-perpetuating clan of reprobates that the public focused on and embraced. He said he found among the 700 Juke descendants 181 prostitutes (“harlotry may become a hereditary characteristic,” he speculated), 42 beggars, 70 felons, and 7 murderers. The Jukes became a staple of eugenic literature, a spur to similar case studies, and a symbol of all those whose poverty and aberrancy were seen as expressions of the ineluctable dictates of biology. A decade after The Jukes appeared, the eminent German biologist August Weismann added to the notion of eugenic predestination his theory of a hereditary “germ plasm,” an embedded legacy that dictated individual physical, mental, and moral traits and was the collective basis of rigidly distinct race differences.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, several forces had joined together to give the eugenics movement new power and prominence, foremost among them the growing concern over the quality and quantity of the country’s newest immigrants. By the 1890s a large—and, to many old-stock Americans, alarming—wave of foreigners was arriving. Between 1898 and 1907, annual immigration more than quintupled, from 225,000 to 1,300,000, and its primary source was no longer Northern Europe but Italians, Slavs, and Jews from southern and eastern Europe.
Along with the alarm over hordes of foreign defectives swarming into America was a growing perception of a fecund stratum of feeble-minded whose numbers, if left unchecked, would fatally weaken the germ plasm of the country’s Anglo-Saxon majority. These feeble-minded were often said to have formidable procreative power: “weak minds in strong, oversexed bodies.”
It wasn’t long before the presumptions of eugenics about the unfit and the growing threat they posed began to find their way into law. With the enthusiastic endorsement of President Theodore Roosevelt, a true believer in the threat posed by “weaker stocks,” Congress voted in 1903 to bar the entry of persons with any history of epilepsy or insanity. Four years later, the restriction was expanded to include imbeciles, the feeble-minded, and those with tuberculosis. Connecticut became the first of several states to forbid marriage by those “epileptic, imbecilic or feeble-minded,” but such laws proved hard to enforce. A far more feasible method of controlling reproduction by those deemed unfit was the development of surgical sterilization.
In 1897 A. J. Ochsner, chief surgeon at St. Mary’s Hospital and Augustana Hospital in Chicago, published a paper entitled “Surgical Treatment of Habitual Criminals” that would have widespread impact. He described performing vasectomies and wrote that with the physical elimination of “all habitual criminals from the possibility of having children,” crime would decrease significantly. A similar treatment “could reasonably be suggested for chronic inebriates, imbeciles, perverts and paupers.”
Other doctors took up the cause of compulsory sterilization. In 1907 Indiana became the first state to authorize its use on criminals, idiots, rapists, and imbeciles housed in state-run institutions and judged by a medical panel to be “unimprovable.” In a few years, 15 states had followed suit. Yet despite this legislative success, implementation was blocked in some states by gubernatorial veto and in others by the state courts. Only in California, where fear of “race-suicide” was fueled by anxieties over Asian immigration, did legislation result in a significant program of eugenic sterilization.
“We have been invaded,” wrote Dr. Haiselden, “our streets are infested with an army of the unfit.”
Beyond sterilization, another Chicago surgeon, Harry Haiselden, provoked a storm of controversy in 1915 by actively publicizing his practice of killing defective newborns by leaving them untreated. He even produced the first pro-eugenics propaganda film, The Black Stork, a silent movie that remained in circulation for the next 30 years. In his campaign for eugenics, Dr. Haiselden left no doubt that the foremost danger lay in what he termed “lives of no value.” He told the mother of a baby he let die that had it lived, it would have been “an imbecile and possibly criminal.” He drew an equally bleak picture of American society at large. “We have been invaded,” he wrote. “Our streets are infested with an Army of the Unfit—a dangerous, vicious army of death and dread....” Shrill as this sounded, Haiselden’s was no voice in the wilderness. HALF WITS PERIL MANY proclaimed a front-page headline of Hearst’s Chicago American in November 1915. Look around, Haiselden admonished at the end of his autobiography, at the “horrid semi-humans drag themselves along all of our streets” and then ask, “What are you going to do about it?”