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Perils of Science in the Pines

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Sep 25, 2019

Surf City — Today we’re told to have faith in science, that it deals with facts and that citizens and governments should base their decisions on what scientists have said. There was a time when science turned its attention to the New Jersey Pine Barrens; the results would have lasting effects on South Jersey and its people.

To outsiders, the Pine Barrens have always been a strange, foreboding place. In 1746, the  Rev. Thomas Thompson visited them.

“From Manasquan, for twenty miles further on in the country, is all one pine forest. I traveled through this desert four times to a place called Barnegat, and thence to Manahawkin … and preached at places where no foot of minister had ever come. In this section I had my views of heathenism just as thoroughly as I have ever since beheld it. The inhabitants are thinly scattered in regions of solid wood. Some are decent people, who had lived in better places, but those who were born and bred here have neither religion nor manners, and do not know so much as a letter in a book.”

With the coming of the American Revolution, the Pine Barrens became a place of Loyalist activity and a refuge for deserters from both sides. Henry Carlton Beck would later describe the residents, saying, “These are the descendants of first settlers, bog ore miners, lumber cutters, glassmakers, sailors and soldiers of Washington’s time, Hessians who preferred to go amok in the woods to returning home, slaves, who sought strange ways to celebrate their new found liberty. The more intelligent set up hotels along the few trails of the barren, fire-swept country, journeying to town for marriage or more formal business. The rest bothered with laws and ceremonies only when it was convenient.”

A missionary, G. T. Boutiller, visited the area in 1866.

“The people who inhabit this region are the original, who have long resided here (among) new comers who are rapidly establishing towns and villages here and throughout it. The former, commonly called ‘Pinies,’ are a sparse population living and obtaining a livelihood by making charcoal, gathering cranberries and huckleberries for the markets. They are sadly ignorant, and superstitious, and degraded.”

As America became more urban in the Victorian age, the public’s opinion of the Pinelands residents began to change. In an Atlantic Monthly article, W.F. Mayer described them thus: “Completely besotted and brutish in their ignorance, they are incapable of obtaining an honest living, and have supported themselves, from a time which may be called immemorial, by practicing petty larceny on an organized plan. The Pine Rat steals wood, steals game, steals cranberries, steals anything in fact, that his hand can be laid upon; and woe to the property of the man who dares attempt to restrain him.”

His conclusion was “We shall not suffer his company much longer in this world – poor, neglected, pitiable, darkened. … He must move on; for civilization, like a stern, prosaic policeman, will have no idlers in the past. There must be no vagrants, not even in the forest. … We must have farms here, and happy homesteads, and orchards … instead of silent aisles and avenues of mournful pine-trees, sheltering such forlorn miscreations as our poor cranberry stealing friends! There is no room for a gypsy in all our wide America! The (Pine) Rat must follow the Indian – must fade like breath from a windowpane in winter.”

It’s at this time that modern science became involved. Wikipedia explains, “Eugenics is a set of beliefs and practices that aim to improve the genetic quality of a human population by excluding (through a variety of morally criticized means) certain genetic groups judged to be inferior, and promoting other genetic groups judged to be superior. The definition of eugenics had been a matter of debate since the term was coined by Francis Galton in 1883. ... (T)he contemporary history of eugenics began in the early 20th century, when a popular eugenics movement emerged in the United Kingdom, and then spread to many countries, including the United States, Canada, and most European countries. In this period, eugenic ideas were espoused across the political spectrum. Consequently, many countries adopted eugenic policies, intended to improve the quality of their populations’ genetic stock. Such programs included both positive measures, such as encouraging individuals deemed particularly ‘fit’ to reproduce, and negative measures, such as marriage prohibitions and forced sterilization of people deemed unfit for reproduction. Those deemed ‘unfit to reproduce’ often included people with mental or physical disabilities, people who scored in the low ranges on different IQ tests, criminals and ‘deviants,’ and members of disfavored minority groups.”

One of eugenics’ staunch supporters was Harvard-educated Henry H. Goddard, who in 1903 became head of research at New Jersey’s Vineland Training School. He published an article in 1912 stating, “The writer examined eight women in one of the best county almshouses to be founded. All had given birth to feeble-minded children within six weeks of each other. The superintendent said that of 105 children born there within a period of five years, 102 were feeble-minded.

“Our government expends hundreds of thousands of dollars examining immigrants to see that none who are feeble minded are admitted, but here’s a group already in our country who are breeding a race of feeble-minded people more dangerous than may barred by the immigration.”

Goddard went further.

“Our studies at Vineland have shown that 65 percent of feeble-minded people are children of feeble-minded people. There is at Vineland a feeble -minded boy who has as parents a normal father and a feeble-minded mother. As a result of this marriage we have seven feeble-minded children, four others that died at Infancy and there were two miscarriages. If we trace back as far as the grand-parents, this is the fourth child of this strain that is in our institution. The condition is strongly hereditary. If feeble-minded people are allowed to become parents, they will bring into the world another group like themselves.”

What did Goddard propose?

“What then is to be done? The state should establish stations where these cases may all be carefully and critically studied so that the courts and other authorities may be able to act intelligently upon the facts. After these cases have been discovered they must be removed from the environment in which it has been proved they are incapable of living normal lives, in accordance with the conventions of society. They must be colonized in groups where they may be perfectly happy and some what useful.”

Goddard was a man of science. The progressive movement of the time answered his call. The Trenton Times of Dec. 26, 1912, announced, “MOUNT HOLLY, After spending millions of dollars in corrective measures and worrying a hundred years with the economic problems presented by the criminally degenerate element of inhabitants of the ‘pine belt’ including parts of Burlington, Monmouth and Ocean Counties, the State is now seeking a method of halting the spread of this defective race.”

The New Jersey Pine Barrens were no longer isolated. They and their Piney residents would now be a topic of discussion and government action.

Next Week: The studies.


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