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Eugenics Sterilization Becomes NJ Law

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Oct 09, 2019

In the spring of 1911, the New Jersey Legislature passed a bill that was signed into law by Gov. Woodrow Wilson saying, “WHEREAS, Heredity plays a most important part in the transmission of feeble-mindedness, epilepsy, criminal tendencies and other defects …” This law permitted “An act to authorize and provide for the sterilization of feeble-minded (including idiots, imbeciles and morons), epileptics, rapists, certain criminals and other defectives.”

In February 1912, as the first sterilizations were about to begin, the New York Tribune ran a full-page article about Henry H. Goddard, whose work had been a major influence on the legislation.

“In a certain school in a South New Jersey town is a young woman, not unattractive in appearance, the story of whose ancestry when it is published in book form – and it is to be – is likely to create a great deal of interest wherever it is read. … Her training in this school, which, it may be said, is the New Jersey Training School at Vineland, began twelve or thirteen years ago. She was born in an almshouse, the fourth illegitimate child of a feeble-minded mother, who was one of a family of nine and a servant.”

In Goddard’s book he named the girl Deborah and gave her family the fictitious last name Kallikak. His plan was not to present boring statistics for the scientific community, but to bring the issue to the general public.

He opened with “One bright October day, fourteen years ago, there came to the Training School at Vineland, a little eight-year-old girl. She had been born in an almshouse. Her mother had afterwards married, not the father of this child, but the prospective father of another child, and later had divorced him and married another man, who was also the father of some of her children.”

As head of research, Goddard decided to trace Deborah’s roots.

“The Vineland Training School has for two years employed field workers. These are women highly trained, of broad human experience, and interested in social problems. They become acquainted with the condition of the feeble-minded. They study all the grades, note their peculiarities, and acquaint themselves with the methods of testing and recognizing them. They then go out to the homes of the children and there ask that all the facts which are available may be furnished.”

As the data was being gathered, “In the course of the work of tracing various members of the family, one field worker occasionally found herself in the midst of a good family of the same name, which apparently was in no way related to the girl whose ancestry we were investigating. These cases became so frequent that there gradually grew the conviction that ours must be a degenerate offshoot from an older family of better stock.”

Goddard traced the two family branches back to one man.

“When Martin Sr., of the good family, was a boy of fifteen, his father died, leaving him without parental care or oversight. Just before attaining his majority, the young man joined one of the numerous military companies that were formed to protect the country at the beginning of the Revolution. At one of the taverns frequented by the militia he met a feeble-minded girl by whom he became the father of a feeble-minded son. This child was given, by its mother, the name of the father in full, and thus has been handed down to posterity the father’s name and the mother’s mental capacity. This illegitimate boy was Martin Kallikak Jr., the great-great-grandfather of our Deborah, and from him have come four hundred and eighty descendants. One hundred and forty-three of these, we have conclusive proof, were or are feeble-minded, while only forty-six have been found normal. The rest are unknown or doubtful.”

Then, according to Goddard, something happened that showed the importance of his study.

“Martin Sr., on leaving the Revolutionary Army, straightened up and married a respectable girl of good family, and through that union has come another line of descendants of radically different character. All of the legitimate children of Martin Sr. married into the best families in their state, the descendants of colonial governors, signers of the Declaration of Independence, soldiers and even the founders of a great university. There are doctors, lawyers, judges, educators, traders, landholders, in short, respectable citizens, men and women prominent in every phase of social life. There have been no feeble-minded among them; no illegitimate children, no immoral women. There has been no epilepsy, no criminals, no keepers of houses of prostitution.”

Goddard concluded, “We find on the good side of the family prominent people in all walks of life and nearly all of the 496 descendants owners of land or proprietors. On the bad side we find paupers, criminals, prostitutes, drunkards, and examples of all forms of social pest with which modern society is burdened. … Feeble-mindedness is hereditary and transmitted as surely as any other character. … In considering the question of care, segregation through colonization seems in the present state of our knowledge to be the ideal and perfectly satisfactory method. Sterilization may be accepted as a makeshift, as a help to solve this problem because the conditions have become so intolerable. But this must at present be regarded only as a makeshift and temporary, for before it can be extensively practiced, a great deal must be learned about the effects of the operation and about the laws of human inheritance.”

He would go farther.

“Dr. Goddard, of Vineland, said to a representative of The Tribune a few days ago regarding eugenics and what has been learned regarding the transmissible characteristics of the unfit: ‘The ideal of eugenics seems to me to be the building up of a higher race by the elimination of the defectives and the improvement of the stock. In respect to the latter, I think, as we come to know the laws of heredity their application will become general among the intelligent, and the improvement of the race will become self-regulating. Those who are conscious of a strain of undesirable characteristics which are transmissible will then refrain from marriage.”

This he believed would lead to improvement in society.

“I would not say absolutely that if we got rid of feeble-mindedness we would be rid of all criminality, but we would have reduced it enormously. I suppose we shall always have a criminality.”

Goddard ended his book with a recommendation.

“At best sterilization is not likely to be a final solution of this problem. We may, and indeed I believe must, use it as a help, as something that will contribute toward the solution, until we can get segregation thoroughly established. But in using it, we must realize that the first necessity is the careful study of the whole subject, to the end that we may know more both about laws of inheritance and the ultimate effect of the operation.”

While Goddard had traced the heredity of one family, one of his researchers had decided to study an entire geographic location. Elizabeth Kite would study the deviants and criminals of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

Next Week: The Kite Report.


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