Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck
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One of America’s great miscarriages of justice, the Supreme Court’s infamous 1927 Buck v. Bell ruling made government sterilization of “undesirable” citizens the law of the land
New York Times bestselling author Adam Cohen tells the story in Imbeciles of one of the darkest moments in the American legal tradition: the Supreme Court’s decision to champion eugenic sterilization for the greater good of the country. In 1927, when the nation was caught up in eugenic fervor, the justices allowed Virginia to sterilize Carrie Buck, a perfectly normal young woman, for being an “imbecile.”
It is a story with many villains, from the superintendent of the Dickensian Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded who chose Carrie for sterilization to the former Missouri agriculture professor and Nazi sympathizer who was the nation’s leading advocate for eugenic sterilization. But the most troubling actors of all were the eight Supreme Court justices who were in the majority – including William Howard Taft, the former president; Louis Brandeis, the legendary progressive; and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., America’s most esteemed justice, who wrote the decision urging the nation to embark on a program of mass eugenic sterilization.
Exposing this tremendous injustice—which led to the sterilization of 70,000 Americans—Imbeciles overturns cherished myths and reappraises heroic figures in its relentless pursuit of the truth. With the precision of a legal brief and the passion of a front-page exposé, Cohen’s Imbeciles is an unquestionable triumph of American legal and social history, an ardent accusation against these acclaimed men and our own optimistic faith in progress.
sterilization, 67–68, 278–80, 300 prejudice against, 127, 128, 280 Central Lunatic Asylum (Central State Hospital for Negroes) (Virginia), 39 Chafee, Zechariah, 245 charity workers: and Carrie Buck’s foster care, 16 and Emma Buck, 20, 182 support for eugenics movement, 73–74 support for sterilization, 67 Child, Lydia Maria, 216 child labor, 21, 64, 69, 260 child-savers, 20, 21, 26 civil rights, 233–35, 236–37, 261–62 Civil War, 213, 218–23, 226 Clapperton, Jane Hume, 47–48 class:
supported the law, and the State Board of Public Welfare “has always favored it.” In the midst of his work to get a eugenic sterilization law enacted, Dr. Priddy married for the first time. In October 1923 the fifty-seven-year-old superintendent wed Mamie Hardy Mitchell of Alexandria, Louisiana. As it turned out, the marriage was destined to be short-lived, and—like a good number of the leading advocates for eugenic sterilization—Dr. Priddy would not have any children of his own. • • • On the
states generally act on laws once they are passed, rather than wait for them to be tested in the courts, perhaps for years. Strode might have given this advice out of an abundance of caution, or he might have wanted to give the law he was hired to draft every chance to fail. Strode gave his bill—formally titled An Act to Provide for the Sexual Sterilization of Inmates of State Institutions in Certain Cases—to the chairman of the Senate Committee on Courts, Marshall Booker, to introduce in
nationalities had higher levels of mental and physical defects than others. Laughlin was increasingly building alliances with leading eugenicists. He became close friends with Madison Grant, the author of The Passing of the Great Race. Grant was an upper-class New York lawyer and writer, whose family had roots in pre–Revolutionary War America. A big-game hunter and an environmental activist, Grant helped to preserve the California redwoods, played a major role in creating the Denali and Glacier
reasons. About sixty were given good homes, and others returned to their families. They were able to earn a living, and in some cases to marry, and none had to return to the colony. Strode asked who was better off: the women who remained at the colony or those who were sterilized and released. Dr. Priddy insisted that the sterilized women were “of course, much better off.” Dr. Priddy said he had kept in touch with some of the inmates he had sterilized and released. He told the story of one boy