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Law Targets ‘Feeble-Minded, Rapists’ and More

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Oct 02, 2019

Surf City — With the coming of the 20th century a new progressive scientific theory called eugenics was sweeping the country and attaining almost cult-like status. Coupled with a political movement of the day urging the government to solve social problems, the idea grew that controlling breeding habits could improve society in general. This idea was popular with the upper classes because it helped justify why they had been given such privilege, but it was also used to explain the less fortunate. In New Jersey that included those who lived outside the polite urban society in an area called the Pine Barrens.

Dr. Henry Goddard, from the New Jersey State Training School at Vineland, was in the process of studying the people of the Pines. In February 1911, it was reported, “That society must eventually conclude to so segregate feeble-minded children as to prevent their reproducing was one of the emphatic declarations made by Dr. H.H. Goddard (who) spoke of ‘the feeble-minded child as a menace to the state, socially and morally.’ He declared feeble mindedness to be hereditary. … Sociological studies show that the ranks of criminals, paupers and prostitutes are continually reinforced from the feeble minded who have been partially trained in our institutions and then turned out into the world to do the best they can.”

While Goddard was giving his opinion, as the month ended in Trenton, Blanchard White from Mount Holly introduced a bill in the state Legislature stating, “Whereas, Heredity plays a most important part in the transmission of feeble-mindedness, epilepsy, criminal tendencies and other defects …”

With this stated as a fact, what would the bill permit?

“An Act to authorize and provide for the sterilization of feeble-minded (including idiots, imbeciles and morons), epileptics, rapists, certain criminals and other defectives.”

The governor would appoint a surgeon and a neurologist “who in conjunction with the commissioner of charities and corrections shall be known as and is hereby created the ‘board of examiners of feeble-minded (including idiots, imbeciles and morons), epileptics, criminals and other defectives,’ whose duty it shall be to examine into the mental and physical condition of the feeble-minded, epileptic, certain criminal and other defective inmates confined in the several reformatories, charitable and penal institutions in the counties and state.”

Not all criminals would face the knife.

“The criminals who shall come within the operation of this law shall be those who have been convicted of the crime of rape, or of such succession of offences against the criminal law as in the opinion of this board of examiners shall be deemed to be sufficient evidence of confirmed criminal tendencies.”

The three-person committee would meet “to take evidence and examine into the mental and physical condition of such inmates confined as aforesaid, and if said board of examiners, in conjunction with the chief physician of the institution, unanimously find that procreation is inadvisable … it shall be lawful to perform such operation for the prevention of procreation … it shall and may be lawful for any surgeon qualified under the laws of this state, under the direction of the chief physician of said institution to perform such operation.”

There was little opposition to the bill; it passed the lower house on March 28 by a vote of 33 to 6 and the upper house on April 18 by 12 to 0. The next day the Passaic Daily Record ran an editorial saying, “Of course, it may be argued that if society has the right to take the lives of criminals it has also the right to stab criminal life in the bud and prevent its propagation, though the step is decidedly different. Some may even hold it desirable to halt the birth of mental defective through such means. And the next step may logically be the return of the Spartan system of snuffing out the lives of defectives. But the whole thing is barbarous, to say the least.”

The editor called on New Jersey progressive Woodrow Wilson to stop the madness.

“We cannot think that Governor Wilson will sign such a bill as this, for the passage of which we do not at all blame the legislators, all of whom are more or less ignorant of the subject. What we wish to make clear is that, granting the proper environment, the per centages of defectives and criminals who could not have off-spring without danger to society is exceedingly small.”

The appeal to Wilson fell on deaf ears. The Camden Morning Post of May 4, 1911, reported, “New Jersey now has a law for the sterilization of the hopelessly defective and criminal classes. Governor Wilson has signed the bill introduced by Assemblyman Blanchard S. White, of Burlington county, and known as the sterilization bill. While the Governor has affixed his signature to the bill, he has not yet appointed the commission, which will be known as the Board of Examiners.”

The new law had strong backing.

“The bill provides that the Commissioner of Charities and Corrections shall be a member of this board. This commissioner is Rev. Dr. George B. Wight, of Trenton, who firmly believes that the steps authorized by the bill are necessary to prevent the increase of imbeciles and idiots. … Mrs. Caroline B. Alexander, of Castle Point, Hoboken, one of the leading women of New Jersey, was the chairman of the committee which suggested the sterilization bill. … This committee thoroughly examined the research work conducted by Dr. Goddard, of the Vineland Training School for Feeble Minded.”

The Post continued, “The committee, Dr. Wight pointed out, was unanimous in believing that a certain class of persons should be unsexed to prevent the perpetuation of needless suffering to future generations. He argued that where even one parent was defective and the other alcoholic in a large majority of cases the children were imbeciles or worse. … Of course, the measure only applies to individuals who constitute a menace to the community, and Dr. Wight said the records showed that such persons when subjected to the operation were often benefited mentally and physically.”

The year ended with the Trenton Times of Dec. 17 saying, “When Governor Wilson recently named the members of the commission authorized by the last Legislature looking to the sterilization of criminals and defectives, a lot of Jersey people woke up with a start. It was their first intimation that this State was on the road to follow the example of Indiana, Iowa and Connecticut in a radical movement for the stamping out of evil tendencies that afflict society. Because of the delicacy of the subject no doubt, there was little discussion upon the bill while it was pending in the Legislature and owing to the evidently sincere motives of the aggressive champions, the National Christian League for the Promotion of Purity, the lawmakers gave it the stamp of their approval.”

As questions began to appear, Dr. Goddard was about to publish his report, which would influence science, politics and those who lived in the Pine Barrens for the next 30 years.

Next Week: The Kallikak family.


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