“Build the wall,” Trump says, for immigrants are “poisoning the blood” of our country. Many Americans agree. A CBS/YouGov poll asked, “Do you agree or disagree with the statement that immigrants entering the U.S. illegally are ‘poisoning the blood’ of the country?” 45% agreed, 55% disagreed. Among Republican registered voters, 72% agreed, and 82% did when the language was attributed to Trump.
We like to think that the eugenics movement is far behind us and a campaign only of Nazis. Not so. Rhetoric about immigrants “poisoning our blood” harks back to America’s extremely popular eugenics movement of the early 1900s. The Nazis based their own sterilization law partly on those passed by a majority of U.S. states, partly on model legislation crafted by American Harry Laughlin. Hitler called “The Passing of the Great Race,” by American Madison Grant, his “Bible.” U.S. immigration restrictions of the time, which prevented many Jews caught in the Nazi scourge from finding refuge in America, were in part an outgrowth of the eugenics movement.
Recently, in horror, I watched the PBS documentary “The Eugenics Crusade.” The film relates that on October 19, 1927, Carrie Buck of Virginia was forcibly sterilized after she was raped and her foster parents had her committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded.
The resulting court case wound to the Supreme Court, where Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes defended sterilization, lest the country be “swamped with incompetence.” He wrote, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”
State governments went on to forcibly sterilize tens of thousands of American women over the next few decades.
Although Colorado never had a strong forced sterilization law, our state was home to a robust eugenics movement. Some legislators tried but failed to pass a sterilization law, and at least one Colorado hospital forcibly sterilized women despite the lack of legal authorization.
Eugenics in Colorado
“Eugenics society formed in Denver,” proclaimed the Rocky Mountain News on January 26, 1913. This new organization, “backed by Denver physicians and the leading exponents of child welfare in all parts of the country,” planned to “make a baby show a feature each year in connection with the National Western Stock and Horse show.” As part of a nationwide contest this would reveal the “perfect baby.”
On January 24, 1915, the Rocky Mountain News announced the winner of that year’s Champion Baby contest, complete with photos. “Of the 244 babies entered, the largest number of babies ever shown in any contest in Denver, William Garland Gentry, 34 months old and weighing thirty-four pounds, was declared the Champion baby, winning the sweepstakes and carrying three ribbons away with him. Young William is a perfect specimen of the 100 per cent baby. He is a sturdy youngster with light hair, blue eves and ruddy red cheeks.”
The Mirror, the “official Colorado state teachers college publication,” reported on December 15, 1927: “The American Eugenics Society, which has for its aim the betterment of racial standards throughout the country, reports that the teaching of the science of eugenics in American colleges has been expanding widely since the introduction of the subject into the curricula about 25 years ago.”
Work called for “eliminating the unfit”
Near Pueblo, “Hubert Work established the Colorado State Insane Asylum,” later renamed the Colorado State Hospital, writes University of Colorado undergrad Michala Whitmore.
The July 1912 American Journal of Insanity published Work’s “president’s annual address at the . . . meeting of the American Medico-Psychological Association.” Here is some of what the Colorado doctor had to say:
“Assuming that the human family, as we know it, has evolved . . . it becomes evident that such evolution must have been impossible unless defectives had been allowed to perish and the stronger perpetuate the species.
“With the refinements of intellectual development came as its crowning glory the ethical sense, prompting us to protect each other, especially the weakling. He is, therefore, no longer allowed to perish but is matured in charity, to perpetuate his defects, incapable of personal control, much less self-support.
“Our high intellectual development has devised means of keeping alive a defective type of humanity which has already impressed itself upon the race, as 4% of our children to-day are feeble-minded with a larger unknown proportion defective to a lesser degree. . . .
“Applied eugenics mean, to-day, that we must advise against the perpetuation of known defects of mind, whether inherited or acquired. . . .
“Much has been said against the marriage of the unfit. Acts have been framed and a few laws have been enacted only to prove futile except so far as such discussions tend to direct the public mind to a matter of national moment—the breeding of the highest type of humanity by eliminating the unfit.”
Zimmerman sterilized women
Dr. Frank Zimmerman pursued Work’s agenda at the institution Work founded, as a November 21, 1999 article by Mike Anton for the Rocky Mountain News relates. In May of 1941, staff at the Colorado State Hospital forcibly removed the fallopian tubes of Lucille Schreiber, then a 17-year-old girl, “a repeat runaway” and a rebellious and “nervous kid with an IQ of 99.” (Anton didn’t use her name but Whitmore, who discusses Anton’s piece, includes it.)
Schreiber told Anton, who interviewed her at age 75, “I try to act like it never happened, but I’m just like a female spayed animal. They got away with murder. They took out my heart and left a stone.”
Anton says Schreiber’s “willingness to step forward in court 41 years ago in a lawsuit she filed against three state hospital administrators . . . provides the only evidence that Colorado ever sterilized women mental patients.”
He continues: “Testimony during the 1958 trial revealed that for more than 30 years, beginning in the 1920s, doctors at Colorado’s primary mental institution robbed dozens of women of their fertility even though the state never had a law allowing it.”
Anton reports that “Frank Zimmerman, the hospital’s superintendent, wrote Attorney General William Boatright in 1928, not long after the legislature voted down a sterilization law,” inquiring about the legality of sterilization. The AG told Zimmerman, “It is my opinion that there is no authority at the present time for performing such operations.” That didn’t stop Zimmerman. When one of Schreiber’s lawyers asked Zimmerman if Colorado had such a law, Zimmerman replied there was “no law forbidding it.”
A jury exonerated Zimmerman and his associates, Anton reports.
Snyder wanted to breed brains
On July 10, 1912, under the headline, “Need Not Sacrifice Love to Breed Super-Man,” the Rocky Mountain News published Alice Rohe’s interview with Zachariah Xenophon Snyder, then the president of the teachers college in Greeley. (Rohe also wrote a glowing full-page review of the book “The Super Race.”)
Here is part of what Snyder told Rohe: “Eugenics will never warrant breaking down the home. What we call the super-race will be the outcome of the natural attraction of fine types to each other. . . .
“Of course, there are eugenics and eugenics. I do not believe in the cold-blooded teachings that say, put out of existence all individuals below normal. That doctrine will never take hold of the human heart. [!]
“After an individual is brought into the world, it is the duty of mankind to make the best of that individual’s life. We have not reached a stage of disinterested race development where we can kill. The sub-normal individuals should be given every chance at betterment, for they were brought into the world not at their own volition. What society should do in the way of eugenics is to prevent defectives of any class from perpetuating their kind.”
Rohe asked, “By raising the standard of the race through the gradual elimination of defectives—the race will be perfected to such a point that offsprings will be superior types?” Snyder replied, “That is my belief.”
Rohe asked, “Do you believe eugenics has solved the problem of breeding mental as well as physical perfection?” Snyder replied, “It is just as easy to breed brains as beef.”
Corwin called for “improving the human stock”
Richard Warren Corwin, namesake of the St. Mary-Corwin Hospital in Pueblo (as well as namesake for a school), was “perhaps the most prominent practitioner of this [eugenics] ideology in Colorado during its heyday,” reports History Colorado.
Here is what Corwin thought about eugenics: “In our schools we find 2 percent of children known to be feeble-minded; in some schools, they average as high as 30 percent—and this does not include the morons, the higher class of defectives: . . . it is well known that the feeble-minded constitute the major portion of criminals, prostitutes, epileptics, drunkards, neurotics, paupers . . . found in and out of prisons . . . .
“If for the next hundred years our schools would discontinue all higher and aesthetic education and devote their energy to improving the human stock; to feeding and breeding; to teaching that acquired traits die with the body, that inherited traits pass to the next generation, and that the laws of heredity are constant and are the same for bug and man . . . and to educating the people to know that environment is important but heredity more important, and eugenics most important, and that thru eugenics is the only hope of improving our race or saving our nation—if this were done, at the end of the century we should find the people not only 100 years older but 100 percent better, stronger, and wiser.”
Love tried to pass sterilization law
Predictably, the eugenicists overlapped with the Ku Klux Klan, also active in Colorado a century ago. Here is what historian Robert Alan Goldberg writes in his book, “Hooded Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado”:
“Individual Klan members in the Denver House delegation framed their own regressive legislation. . . . Representative Charles Bigelow proposed a bill which prohibited epileptics, drug addicts, drunkards, or persons charged with a felony from marrying. Marriages between Orientals and whites would also be barred in Colorado. Klanswoman Minnie C. T. Love introduced legislation which authorized the sterilization of epileptics, the retarded, and the insane if procreation might result in ‘defective or feeble-minded children with criminal tendencies.'”
Some legislators still were trying to pass a sterilization bill as of 1929, when a bill passed the house. Historian Lutz Kaelber points out that “the Catholic circles of Colorado such as the Knights of Columbus” voiced strong opposition to all such bills.
Cockerell called for society’s “restraining hand”
Another University of Colorado undergrad, Ciara O’Neil, learned that Theodore Dru Alison “Theo” Cockerell, who co-founded the university’s Museum of Natural History, also was “a member of the national Eugenics Committee who gave lectures on the topic,” a campus publication relates.
CU reports that Cockerell’s 1920 textbook, Zoology: A Textbook for Colleges and Universities, contained a chapter on eugenics that said the following:
“[T]wo persons having a certain type of feeble-mindedness will certainly have only feeble-minded or mentally defective children. It does not appear very radical or extreme to postulate that no one has the right deliberately to bring feeble-minded offspring into the world. To be sure, those doing this are not capable of judging of their actions; but society is capable, and society may well put forth a restraining hand.”
O’Neil notes that, before college, she never learned about the U.S. eugenics movement in school. O’Neil concludes, “The U.S. history and role that it played in eugenics is important to recognize and understand in order to take proper action to correct our mistakes and prevent history from repeating itself.”
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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