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Selling Babies, Trading Wives

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Oct 16, 2019

Until November 1912, 48-year-old Elizabeth Kite was a little-known, European-educated social worker from Philadelphia who was working for the state of New Jersey. On the 25th, the Los Angeles Times along with papers across the country ran “SELL BABIES IN NEW JERSEY. Report Charges People Also Exchange Wives in Mosquito State.

“A report charging people in the Pine section of New Jersey with exchanging wives and selling babies for small sums of money lies on the desk of Gov. Wilson. The report was prepared by Miss Elizabeth Kite, investigator for the State Department of Charities and Corrections.”

The Daily Record, a Long Branch, N.J., paper, investigated.

“Elizabeth Kite ... has been making a study of conditions in New Jersey relating to degeneracy and feeble mindedness as existing in ‘The Pines’ including sections of Burlington, Atlantic and Ocean counties.

“Miss Kite has spent three years among the people of this District, and her report made to the state commissioner of charities ... maintains that the low type of people of ‘The Pines’ think nothing of trading their wives and selling their children. Substantiation of her statements can be had by a number of recent cases which have been investigated. … Wives are traded and children are sold, according to the society, for small sums of money and for liquor.”

Kite’s report, which was published in October 1913, did give an example.

“Only a few years ago a notorious Piney bearing a perverted Huguenot name died in his cabin in the heart of the pines at the age of ninety-eight.

“Four years before his death he was found one day returning to his shack after a prolonged absence. Questioned as to where he had been, he said he had gotten ‘tired o’ the gal he had been livin’ with’ – ‘too giddy’ he said shaking his head, ‘too giddy fer me, so I took her down shore an’ traded her. Did pretty well, too – got this old hoss and this here keg o’rum.’

“Such conditions are common today in the Pines and many another Piney can be found whose ancestry could be traced back to some off-shoot of a rigid, highly respectable, intelligent family which in other branches, has furnished us some of our best citizens.”

Kite, who was a supporter of the new science of eugenics, felt many of the people living in the Pines were the descendants of what she called outcasts from society, deserters from the British Army, criminals and a product of inbreeding, and had become a unique society. She even blamed the French.

“Prince Joseph Bonaparte held his miniature court at Bordentown, many were the revels and hunting parties in the Pines which were indulged in by the members of his suite. All these revelers came back, leaving a train of nameless offspring to complicate still further the mixed social problem of the pines, so that today, in tracing the ancestry of any particular group, one runs up continually against the impossibility of proving exact ancestry.”

Gov. Woodrow Wilson had just been elected president. As a lame duck, he awaited his inauguration and for the most part remained silent. But the newspapers of the day did not. The Trenton Times of Dec. 26, 1912, declared, “Marrying and intermarrying into defective and often imbecile families, the stock has dropped lower in the human scale with each succeeding generation until the State, now finds that it has numbers of small communities scattered through the pines in which practically every inhabitant shows signs of degeneracy. Science, in fact, brands them as a people lost irrevocably to society and civilization. Neither education nor religious influence can aid a people, the scientists say, whose defective adult minds are capable of no greater mental perception than those of children of 9 or 10 years.

“Children of this stock, science says – and this is the most serious phase of the problem from any viewpoint – are doomed by the law of heredity to become a menace to the community and a burden to the State.”

The paper focused on the perceived condition of the children, saying, “It is the pitiable cases of the children of these ‘Pineys’ that opened the eyes of the Department of Charities and Corrections to the need for immediate steps to remedy as far as possible the conditions that now exist. … Often deserted by their parents, frequently living more like wild animals than human beings, sometimes throughout the summer months wearing little or no covering for their bodies, and suffering in winter from lack of proper clothing, the lot of these children is desperate beyond the power of narration. … Efforts made to help them by placing some of these children in good homes in different parts of the state, to be brought up under the intelligent, loving care of foster parents, has shown a pitiable failure of such charitable effort.”

Kite in her report wasn’t so kind.

“The general opinion current regarding the Piney and his class, has been that he is what he is from environment, that surrounded with other conditions and ‘given a chance’ he would come out ‘all right.’ That he is a ‘problem,’ that his presence tends to lower standards of living among the normal people who come in contact with him, is a universally recognized fact, but until recently it has been confidently hoped that through education and the opening up of the Pines, he would eventually become a normal citizen. … But the real Piney has no inclination to labor, submitting to every privation in order to avoid it. Lazy, lustful and cunning, he is a degenerate creature who has learned to provide for himself the bare necessities of life without entering into life’s stimulating struggle. Like the degenerate relative of the crab that ages ago gave up a free roving life and, gluing its head to a rock, built a wall of defence around itself, spending the rest of its life kicking food into its mouth and enjoying the functionings of reproduction, the Piney and all the rest of his type have become barnacles upon our civilization.”

By March 1913, Wilson was in Washington, but the progressive urban newspapers still had their cause. The Philadelphia Record stated, “After spending millions of dollars in corrective measures and worrying a hundred years with the economic problems presented by the criminally degenerate element of the inhabitants of the ‘pine belt,’ including parts of Burlington, Monmouth and Ocean counties, New Jersey is now seeking a method of halting the spread of this defective race.

“‘It is as cruel for the State to permit these children of degenerate parentage to remain at large as it would be to neglect those suffering from some terrible malady,’ says Miss Kite. ‘Many of the children are imbeciles, and the conditions in which they live are often horrifying.’”

To support the claims, the Record presented, “One woman has three husbands, all living, bearing children to each, while her present husband has had two previous wives, also living. According to the remarkable story of another woman, she grew ‘tired of her man,’ and finding no other way to get rid of him, she got the aid of a negro in hanging him to a tree when he was drunk. His death appears on the county records as a suicide.

“In another case, a girl of sixteen married an old man of sixty-eight. The bait the old fellow offered was that when he died, which looked like an early prospect, she would get his pension. What his four or five other wives the department has since discovered would have said about the pension arrangement was not considered.”

To be sure, the urban newspaper had to point out, “Strangely enough, some of the worst examples of this degenerate race are found near the splendid winter resorts springing up in the pines. It is only a step from Browns-Mills-in-the-Pines, where wealth and fashion of Philadelphia and New York winters, into communities of little groups of huts where humanity has touched its lowest level. And the wonderful fertility of this sandy soil, as demonstrated where Italian immigrants have grubbed out the pine stumps and planted truck crops, shows what the ‘Pineys’ could have done.”

The paper quoted Kite as saying, “When the State finds a way of eliminating this degeneracy and is courageous enough to put it into effect, we shall have gone a long way toward settling the criminal problem. … In this investigation we find we are dealing with crime and degeneracy as a heredity disease. The present criminal element among the ‘Pineys’ can scarcely be held personally responsible for their short-comings. … The department is seeking facts and uncovering these unsavory conditions only that it may aid where immediate aid is needed and, in the hope, that it will open a way to stamp out such conditions in the future.”

What did Kite mean by “stamp out”? What did the progressive science of eugenics have in mind for the Jersey Pine Barrens?

Next Week: The governor visits the Pines.


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