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Eugenics Part I: You Canít Keep a Good Idiot Down

Nineteenth Century eugenics gives 'good breeding' a whole new meaning.

Starting in 1848, friendlier states in the Union began to fund homes for the mentally deficient. From 1848 to 1860, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Ohio, and Kentucky constructed homes. The fiscal road hump of Reconstruction halted expansion of these social services in the South, but in the North they flourished and were quickly filled to capacity. One Dr. Isaac Kerlin of Pennsylvania noted an "idiotic population" of 76,895 in the 1880 census, yet only 2,429 were institutionalized. Clearly, he argued, there existed an abundance of morons. Kerlin ran an institution himself, and of the 295 children who applied for spots, less than half had been listed in the census. He claimed this indicated a large undercounting of the retarded, and, equally troubling, a general population increase of 30 percent in ten years was accompanied by a 200 percent increase in "apparent" idiocy.

Concern about this booming population became manifest, and private monies flowed in. Philanthropist Amy Shaw Lowell constructed a home for "weak minded females" who were "life-long burdens upon the tax-payers". The purpose of this particular home was not rehabilitation or treatment; it was sequestration. Several of the women had already borne illlegitimate children, and protection was conferred upon them, as they were "so simple as to be easily led away by designing men." By the late 1880s the herding of fertile, deficient women into asylums was openly discussed and considered to be a legitimate, workable solution to a perceived public welfare disaster. The idiots were breeding, and they had to be stopped:

One expert urged "we owe it not only to the adult imbecile herself, but to humanity and the world at large to guard in every possible way against the abuse and increase of this class." ...Similar comments suggest that there was unwarranted optimism that by segregating a few thousand simple-minded women, society could stem a significant fraction of the births of defective persons.[1]

Resemblance Never Lies?

In 1859, Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of Species,[2] and, after a little digestion, caused a sensation. The idea of that traits were heritable yet mutable caused much confusion while percolating through the academic consciousness. Francis Galton, British scientist, cousin of Darwin and founder of human genetics,[3] compiled a work [English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture] in which he noted that very accomplished Britishers tended to be blood relatives of other very accomplished Britishers. From this study, Galton decided that being accomplished was something one could pass down through generations, like hair color. It was these intellectual grumblings that ate at Richard Dugdale, amateur sociologist, as he studied prisoner recidivism. Six of his interviewees were related. After years of interviews Dugdale had uncovered a family of some 709 individuals who were fruit of the loins of a Dutch immigrant named Max. Dugdale renamed the family "The Jukes", and followed them "with more or less exactness through five generations." As Philip R. Reilly puts it in his The Surgical Solution

[Dugdale] concluded that the Jukes had an extraordinary propensity for the almshouses, prisons, and brothels of New York.[4]

Dugdale further speculated that "harlotry may become a hereditary characteristic and be perpetuated without any specially favoring environment to call it into activity." He had incorporated a fairly complex analysis into his data that involved environmental factors, upbringing, and the like. Unfortunately, he did not anticipate the visceral response an ignorant populace, brimming with excitement after getting its toes wet with Darwin, would have to a detailed description of five generations of criminals. The Jukes fathered a host of similar studies with less exacting methods and terrible names (The Tribe of Ishmael [1888], The Hill Folk [1912], The Nam Family [1912], and Dwellers in the Vale of Siddem [1919]) that described one deviant backwoods family or another. The Hill Folk made reference to a marriage that produced "at least eleven children, of which seven were definitely feeble-minded." Another study asserted

The rural communities of degenerates usually have this in common: an unusual lack of industry, retardation in school work, and a failure to observe the conventionalities in sex relationships.[5]

Put together, these studies lent a respectable, if biologically unfounded, air to the suspicion that backwards mouth-breathers were about to overtake the country. In the public eye, nurture took a back seat to nature and, as such, became a public health issue.

The Philly Hillbillies

In 1912, The Kallikak Family was published. Martin Kallikak, successful Quaker, sired an illegitimate child with a "dullard" some twenty miles from his hometown of Vineland, Pennsylvania. After running around with the Continental Army during the American Revolution, he settled with an "industrious Quaker maid". The legitimate line produced judges and professors; the other fared poorly. The authors, Henry Robert Goddard and Elizabeth Kite, concluded that not only was academic and societal prowess heritable, but that it could be passed on by the mother.[6] Due to the comparatively small geographical distance between the two families, Goddard and Kite believed that "both lines live[d] out their lives in practically the same region and environment". Together with The Jukes, this work captured the public's imagination. In concert with Dr. Isaac Kerlin's concerns with the disproportional increase of idiocy in the population, The Kallikak Family argued for the hyperfecundity of defective persons: Goddard thought they bred more. Reilly details:

The impressively large cohort of children born to each generation of the Piney Woods line (one Millard Kallikak sired eighteen children by two wives) when compared to the four- and five-child families of the "eminent" Kallikaks showed that the feeble-minded were highly fertile. Written in clear language, embellished with photographs that compared attractive Deborah to her moronic and sinister-looking, noninstitutionalized relatives, and relatively short, The Kallikak Family hit home with the public.

Idiots Are Expensive

A large portion of the public now accepted the thesis that defective people were rampant, and producing more defective people every day. To heighten the perceived crisis, Dugdale was kind enough to produce a table in The Jukes that postulated costs imposed on society by the deviant Juke family. In it, he claimed that the Juke family, in five generations, cost the citizens of New York $1.25 million, by extrapolating his study to include 1,200 family members. He got this number by tabulating costs of prisoner maintenance (140 criminals), arrests, property lost to thievery, and then launched into what may well have been his secret agenda: prostitution. Dugdale assigned a little under a million dollars to the costs reckoned by prostitutes. These sources include years of work lost to incurable disease carried by prostitutes, their patrons, and their patrons's wives; medicine to treat such individuals; years of labor lost by otherwise employable prostitutes (with dollar values assigned to lives shortened by disease); caring for bastard children; court costs involved in bastardy prosecution; and so on. Dugdale's concern over societal ills was evident, but the crux of his work was clear: deviants are here, they are harming us, and our deterrents are no longer effective.

Over a million and a quarter dollars of loss in 75 years, caused by a single family 1,200 strong, without reckoning the cash paid for whiskey, or taking into account the entailment of pauperism and crime of the survivors in succeeding generations, and the incurable disease, idiocy, and insanity growing out of this debauchery, and reaching further than we can calculate. It is getting to be time to ask, do our courts, our laws, our alms-houses and our jails deal with the question presented?[7]

A Texan Has the Answer [As Usual]

In 1849 Gideon Lincecum, a Texas physician who had managed to teach himself the medical arts, decided that castration was an effective alternative to execution. Dr. Lincecum suggested that the "animal", and not the intellectual, aspects of humanity's nature were the cause the crime, and yanking the problem out by the roots would produce a model, industrious citizen. He composed an essay for hundreds of public officials and doctors wherein he described a

Vicious, disobedient, drunken Negro who was in the habit of committing rape on the wenches of his own race, and whom the neighbors had threatened to shoot. After discovering that he had impregnated an idiot white girl, three men went into the field where he was at work and castrated him. Less than two years later I heard his mistress say that he had become a model servant who never slept, until every young and tender thing about the place was fully provided for; lamb, pig, or young chicken -- all received his protecting care.

Dr. Lincecum was mocked by the press, but a few years later the punishment of castration was levied upon a black rapist in central Texas. Reilly notes "this may be the only legal castration in this country's history."

Other physicians argued in favor of castration's alleged therapeutic effects. Dr. Hoyt Pilcher, director of the Asylum for Idiots and Feeble Minded Youths in Kansas, announced that he had castrated nearly 60 adolescents in the 1890s, most of them boys. Dr. Pilcher remarked that the patients were chronic masturbators, and this hobby of theirs doubtlessly abetted their retardation. An incensed public tossed him out of the job, but these castrating physicians had begun to make waves in murky legislative waters.


In 1907, a bill before the Texas House of Representatives provided for the castration of rapists. In an editorial in the Texas Medical Journal, F. E. Daniel opines

The constitutional prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment" can be obviated, it is thought, by showing that castration is to be inflicted... not as a punishment, but as a sanitary or hygienic measure to prevent a repetition of the offense, in the interest of public morals and race integrity, and the propagation of a race of sexual perverts... [it] no doubt will act as a powerful restraint on the evil-inclined, for a negro values those possessions more than life,[8] and experience in Texas has shown that hanging and even burning by a mob does not restrain him. It will be a big step in the advance of civilization if we can get such a law in every state.[9]

The outcome of this line of thinking will be discussed, in gruesome detail, in the next installment of the series.

Further Reading

Do behaviors have a genetic component? Sure. How extensive or important has been debated for over a century. The studies discussed above are neatly disposed of by Stephen J. Gould in his Mismeasure of Man, For a more detailed treatment, look at Arthur Jensen's The G Factor, but it's pretty slow going. For a basic stroll through evolution, try Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene.


  1. Reilly, p.14
  2. If you're too cheap to buy it, you can find the text in its entirety at
  3. Later a possible founding member of one the first high-IQ societies. See
  4. Reilly, p.10
  5. Reilly, p.19
  6. As both families shared a father, such differing traits were presumably not passed on by him.
  7. Reilly, p.15
  8. We can only speculate this means medical journal editors put a lesser value on their own testicles.
  9. Daniel, p.347


  1. Philip R Reilly. The Surgical Solution: A History of Involuntary Sterilization in the United States. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
  2. Jonas Robitscher. Eugenic Sterilization. Charles C Thomas, 1973.
  3. F. E. Daniel. "Editorial". Texas Medical Journal, 22:347. 1907.

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