200 Plus

Miss Kite’s Influence Widespread

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Oct 30, 2019

Surf City — The people living in the New Jersey Pine Barrens were under attack from the science of eugenics and the Progressive politicians of the day. In June 1913, the Trenton Times reported from a Michigan medical conference.

“Dr. H. Goddard, of New Jersey, recently said regarding this matter: ‘The feeble-minded woman is more dangerous to the community than the feeble-minded man because she is more likely to find a mate than he is – possibly in the light of our present statistics in the neighborhood of three times as likely. … The result of permitting feeble minded women to run at large is shown in a report by Miss Elizabeth Kite, a social worker who investigated a degenerate colony in Burlington County, New Jersey. One feeble minded woman there is known to have 282 descendants. Miss Kite completed her report and the line is going on indefinitely. Out of this number 174 were born out of wedlock and 202 are distinct degenerates. Most of these are of the ‘moron’ type – a type which is below normal in everything except its reproductive instincts.”

Prompted by the reports, the New Jersey governor toured the Pine Barrens and vowed to take action. Shortly afterward an editorial in the Philadelphia Ledger of July 2, 1913, proclaimed, “A near-at-hand and an appalling illustration of the meaning of eugenics and the modern crusade against marriages of the unfit was that which Governor Fielder was given the opportunity to observe in the pine barrens of New Jersey. It is estimated that in Burlington, Ocean, Camden, Atlantic and Cumberland counties there are 3,000 persons living in lawless promiscuity of marital relations. … Darkness and degradation, iniquity and squalor, unchecked immorality and degeneracy are laid to our reproach at our very doors. The governor reached the right conclusion when he said, ‘We must get the state board of charities to work upon this horrible thing without a day’s delay. … These ‘Pineys’ have run to seed, gone to the bad, become epileptic, idiotic, sub-normal, atypical – Why?’… There has been incestuous inter-marriage, not from deliberate vicious intention, but because in sluggishness of brain and infirmity of body no clear distinction between right and wrong.”

Pressure for action from the state continued to grow when renowned Boston social worker and journalist Mary Boyle O’Reilly became involved. She wrote, “Why do the good, civilized folk of America ignore a countryside peopled with adults who are mentally children, strong, self-willed men and women of native stock who are without reason, judgment or self-control? … Miss Elizabeth Kite, state agent for the New Jersey school for feeble minded, put the question with a finality that accused … “You doubt the possibility? Then come with me to the Pines. You will find the district a plague spot of moral contagion – a feeder for our jails, almshouses and hospitals.’”

O’Reilly could not resist the challenge.

“Next morning found us motoring through a lonely tract of 2,000 square miles between the barren coast of New Jersey and the fertile Delaware valley. This area of scrub, cranberry bogs and salt marsh is peopled with families of degenerates. … Of churches there are none, nor any organized moral influence. Schools are few and far between. The dispensers of law are local squires confessedly ignorant of law, but maintaining more or less successfully, according to their own rectitude, a semblance of order.”

Polite, middle-class urban society was shocked to read the stories.

“‘No, I ain’t had no learning’, says Lil, the imbecile mother of ten children. ‘I can count if you give me time, but I ain’t never had nobody to keer fur me, an’ I had to keer fur myself as best I could.’ … ‘I ain’t so stupid as you’d think’ pleads Bertha, a normal-looking woman who cannot draw the outline of a square from a copy on the table. ‘No, I never went to no school’ says Ford, who at 30 has the mind of a child of nine and knows neither the date, the season nor the names of the months. May, his childish ‘wife’ tosses her head. ‘Dear me, that’s nothing: half the world can’t read and write,’ she protests.”

If that wasn’t enough to make newspaper headlines, “Ford’s brother Jim, a graduate of three state prisons, deserted his idiot wife to ‘marry’ the imbecile Clarissa who had three husbands. Later Jim traded Clarissa to Lem Oldman for $1.50 and a quart of crude rum. Later still Jim secured another ‘wife,’ Louisa, by a similar trade with her ‘husband.’ ‘I tell you I wasn’t mad, I wasn’t,’ says poor simple Louisa, whose mind is but eight years old, although she has four living husbands.’”

It wasn’t long before citizens began to respond to the calls of science. The Philadelphia Inquirer of Sept. 5, 1913, reported from Mount Holly.

“Active workers in the cause of practical eugenics are now engaged in organizing Burlington county under a plan of segregating and training the feeble-minded by the colony system, and many people who are familiar with conditions in the pines are interested in the movement. The foundation for this work is based upon Miss Elizabeth S. Kite’s recent disclosures of the lamentable conditions in south Jersey and her bringing to notice the fact that Burlington county has special need to bestir itself. The first meeting in this matter was held at the home of Mrs. Adna Anderson, at Pemberton, and another meeting is to be held tomorrow at the home of Mrs. Esther Strawbridge-Brophy, at Moorestown. At the conclusion of the business session Mrs. Brophy will entertain her guests at dinner. This movement is the first of its kind in New Jersey and it is felt that Burlington county is a good beginning point.”

The next day, the Trenton Times reported the eugenics committee would receive state backing.

“It is planned to establish a colony where these defectives can be given individual attention and an expenditure of $7,500 will be necessary to get the system in working order. … Interested in the movement are Joseph Byers, State Commissioner of Charities and Corrections, and Professor Johnston, superintendent of the Vineland Training School for Feeble-Minded Children. Through their influence the state has agreed to pay the maintenance and running expense of the colony, the agricultural department will give teaching and training in farm matters, the forestry department will loan the land for the colony buildings and the Vineland Training School will contribute teachers.”

On Nov. 28, Camden’s Courier Post reported on the committee’s progress.

“Committees are hustling this week raising an endowment fund of $10,000 for the first buildings needed in the work to colonize the defective children of Burlington county. The campaign is a part of the movement aimed to demonstrate that the nation’s crime problem can be solved by preventative measures. The operating expenses of the colony will be met by the State. … Miss Elizabeth Kite stated, ‘Burlington county is not being held up before the world as a horrible example of moral and mental degeneration. Nor are, the conditions in the ‘pine belt’ worse than those found in the cities, except that they are more concentrated and other circumstances have made it easier to conduct research work there. … The great lesson is that this defective class seems drawn as by a magnet to transgress the laws of nature.’”

In January 1914, less than a year after the first reports of conditions in the Pine Barrens, the Trenton Times announced, “New Jersey’s plans for the scientific care of mentally defective children are to be tried out without further delay by the erection of the first colony near Four Mile, in the pine belt of Burlington County, according to announcement made yesterday by the county committee working with the State Bureau of Charities and Corrections. Generosity of citizens of the county who have contributed over $5,000 and will give $3,000 more during the next few months for the erection of colony buildings on the ground to be donated by the State Forestry Commissioners have made the project possible.”

Science had spoken, and the citizens and government of New Jersey had answered the call to action. There was only one question: Did science get it right?

Next Week: Of courts and colonies.


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