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New Governor Addresses Piney Situation

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Oct 23, 2019

Surf City — Beginning in 1912, the people of the New Jersey Pine Barrens were under attack and faced extermination. It didn’t come from an enemy army or disease, but from the modern science of eugenics and the progressive political movement of the day. Two government-funded reports had labeled the residents in the press as incestuous inbreeders who lived a life of crime. Soon, shouts of what will we do with “those people” resounded from the state’s urban centers. It wasn’t long until the politicians answered the call.

The April 23 edition of the Camden Courier reported, “The startling conditions that have been reported as existing in the pines of Burlington county, by Miss Elizabeth Kite, will be investigated by the grand jury summoned at the opening of the term of court of Burlington county yesterday. Action along this line has been caused by the publication of Miss Kite’s report. … Attracted by Miss Kite’s touch upon the alleged unlawful conditions and responding to suggestions made by the public press, Prosecutor Atkinson had Miss Kite summoned to appear before the grand jury.”

On May 13, the Asbury Park Press told readers there had been some action.

“The grand jury also disposed of its investigation into alleged immoral conditions in the pines of Burlington county, as presented in recent reports by Miss Elizabeth S. Kite. There was action in one case, Gardner Hendrickson of Southampton township, being indicted for bigamy. … He thought, he declared, because his wife had married his brother, he had a right to marry another woman.”

The problem was also handed over to the state saying, “The grand jury in its presentment stated that it was the duty of the state to provide that the propagation of deficient classes be stopped by the enforcement of adequate laws made for the purpose.”

By the spring of 1913, Gov. Woodrow Wilson, who signed a bill authorizing forced sterilizations, had left the state to become president, leaving behind his hand-picked choice, James Fiedler, to serve as temporary governor.

On June 26, the Paterson Call announced, “Acting Governor Fielder, moved by the recent report of Miss Kite on immorality in the section of South Jersey known as the ‘pine belt,’ will make a personal tour of inspection tomorrow to study the habits of the people in that section. The executive intends to spend the entire day in the country embraced in the exhaustive report of Miss Kite. … If there is any immorality going on Mr. Fielder wants to see it.”

Today what took place would be called a media circus, as a governor went in search of immorality. The Asbury Park Press of June 28 explained, “Following a strenuous day’s tour of the notorious belt the executive diagnosed the trouble with the inhabitants of the pine lands. Discussing the subject with a staff reporter from The Press he set forth his views in no uncertain words. He laid the blame to a great extent at the door of those who live among the people whose morality is practically null and who have raised no hand to aid them. … (H)e suggested that he would use his influence to bring the grand juries of the counties affected to indict those whose vices are responsible for the mental, moral and physical degeneration of the inhabitants of the belt.”

The governor had other dignitaries traveling with him.

“The Rev. A.W. Bostwick a member of the party who made the tour suggested during the day that the state establish segregation colonies where the mentally defective could be sent and where the immoral could be detained. Even more radical surgical steps toward the obliteration of the deplorable conditions were spoken of but neither appealed to the executive as practical. In the former case the segregation, it was argued might work toward the introduction of more revolting actions and the second would require trial.”

Being a good politician and thinking about re-election, Fielder proposed a gentler remedy.

“He advocated the introduction of properly censored motion pictures, illustrated lectures, and any form of amusement that would serve to interest the people in a cleaner form of living. He said that from his observations he did not think that it was due so much to the fact that they were imbued with a desire toward immorality as it was that they were uneducated, illiterate. They must first be taught what they must not do and then it will be time to show what they must do. … On his trip today he found much that needed immediate remedy.”

The Press concluded, “The need of social workers was strongly apparent to the governor when he entered a little two room house where the front room served, he said, for living room, bed room, kitchen, dining room and hen house. He said that while he was in the front room the chickens were walking over the bed, and the house was in a filthy condition. … In the heart of one of the principle towns in the belt he found a man and woman dwelling together with children, tho, they had never been married. Everyone in town knew it, he said but paid no heed to the effects that might come.”

While the Asbury Park newspaper was generally sympathetic, the New York Sun took a hard line.

“NEW JERSEY should do something quickly about the Pineys, that degenerate race which dwells in the sand and pine barrens in the heart of the State, decided acting Governor James E. Fielder on Friday night after an all-day trip through the wilder parts of Burlington county. Not much longer should these degenerate descendants of a fine stock be allowed to multiply and inbreed to swell the State’s list of public charges, he declared. Segregation will be tried and perhaps sterilization to stop the birth of idiots and criminals and defectives. Social centres are to be established in the little red school-houses. The decent folk of the district are to be pilloried if they do not see that the law is enforced against their worthless neighbors.”

To the Sun, Fiedler didn’t seem as kind.

“I have been shocked at the conditions I found. Evidently these people are a serious menace to the state of New Jersey because they produce so many persons that inevitably become public charges. They have inbred and led lawless and scandalous lives till they have become a race of imbeciles, criminals and defectives.

“The state must segregate them, that is certain. I think it may be necessary to sterilize some of them. They tell me there are as many as 1,500 right here in Burlington county and several thousand in the pine belt of the state.

“For the children we must have social centers in the schools, and these would do something for the grown persons. There must be sharp heed that the children attend school, and it will be possible to educate parents in many cases.”

He concluded his interview with “The low mentality of these people is the great handicap, and it is plainly responsible for the low moral standards among them. Lack of education is another factor, and the universal poverty and the fact that the children all have to go to work at a tender age contribute to keep these people down. … But from what I have seen today I believe that the Pineys largely know their plight. They are now generally sending their children to school. They are no longer indifferent to whether the child can read or write. There is hope for a race that knows where it stands. … But I will act on the situation at once.”

Segregation camps and sterilization or movie theaters and recreation centers – which way would the state of New Jersey go when it came to dealing with “those people” in the pines?

Next Week: the colony.

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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