Sterilizing the Feebleminded

By Richard DrooyanMarch 31, 2016

Sterilizing the Feebleminded

Imbeciles by Adam Cohen. 0

IMBECILES, BY ADAM COHEN, harkens back to an earlier era of strong anti-immigrant sentiment and deep-seated racism when the institutions of law, medicine, and government combined to single out the “feebleminded,” “epileptics,” and others “genetically unworthy” for sterilization, using Virginia’s eugenic sterilization law for the “prevention of this growing blight” on the state’s population. This well-written narrative of legal history demonstrates what happens when the powerful and elite in society fail to protect the powerless and poor, and instead shower them with insults based upon pseudoscientific opinions and deprive them of their most basic rights to procreate and to receive due process under the law.

The title of Imbeciles is taken from what Cohen aptly describes as “one of the most notorious statements to appear in a Supreme Court opinion” authored by none other than Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., in Buck v. Bell. In upholding Virginia’s eugenic sterilization law of 1924, and the state’s authority to sterilize a purportedly “feebleminded” institutionalized young woman “to prevent our being swamped with incompetence,” Justice Holmes opined, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Although focused on the single case of Carrie Buck, Imbeciles provides historical context for the eugenics movement going back to the period following the end of the Civil War, the backdrop of social Darwinism, the anti-immigrant hysteria that swept the country in the early 1920s, the embedded racism in Virginia and elsewhere in the country at that time, and the racial theories that eventually culminated in the Nazi exclusion and extermination policies beginning in the early 1930s. Although the eugenics movement focused on the purportedly “feebleminded” and “epileptics,” just below the surface was a strong anti-immigrant and racial bias. As Cohen points out, the exhibits at the Second International Eugenics Congress in 1921 included such eugenics subjects as “the relation between natural hereditary qualities and national greatness” and the “differences between white and Negro fetuses.”

Imbeciles combines an investigative journalist’s instinct for the misuse of power, a lawyer’s analytic abilities, and a historian’s eye for detail to tell this compelling and emotional story. It is built around Cohen’s portraits of the key players in the drama that culminated in a miscarriage of justice: the sterilization of Carrie Buck under the authority of the state of Virginia.

Dr. Albert Priddy was the superintendent of the Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded who, after several attempts, successfully lobbied the Virginia legislature to enact a eugenic sterilization law. He was also responsible for selecting Carrie Buck, who had been declared “feebleminded” and sent to the Colony by her foster family after she became pregnant, to be the first person involuntarily sterilized under the law and to “challenge” it in the Virginia courts. In Priddy’s eyes, Carrie was a particularly suitable candidate for sterilization because her mother Emma was also a “feebleminded” inmate at the Colony and her daughter, although only eight months old at the time, was purportedly already showing developmental deficiencies and functioning at the level of a six-month-old — hence the basis for Holmes’s concluding “cruel insult” in Buck v. Bell.

Dr. Harry Laughlin was the director of the Eugenics Record Office and the author of Eugenical Sterilization in the United States. He served as an expert witness in Buck v. Bell to explain why Carrie was “mentally deficient” and “an appropriate subject for sterilization.” An expert in the pseudoscience of “eugenics,” Laughlin was a strong proponent of immigration restrictions to keep “genetically inferior” immigrants out of the United States, and of mass eugenic sterilization to protect the hereditary elites from the 15 million “degenerates” already in the country.

Aubrey Strode was the lawyer retained by Priddy to draft the eugenic sterilization legislation and to represent him as the original Colony defendant in the lawsuit — with his handpicked plaintiff Carrie Buck — to test the constitutionality of the law in the courts. Although apparently not a strong believer in eugenics, Strode was nonetheless an accomplished attorney who represented his client’s interests to the best of his considerable abilities, without regard to the interests of Carrie Buck or the unfairness of proceedings in the Amherst County Circuit Court, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, and eventually the United States Supreme Court.

Carrie Buck was represented in the proceedings by attorney Irving Whitehead, who was a member of the Colony Board of Directors that selected Priddy as its superintendent, a former chairman of the Colony’s board, and a boyhood friend of Strode. In addition, he was paid by the Colony to represent Carrie. Whitehead failed to call witnesses or experts on Carrie’s behalf, failed to offer her own testimony to demonstrate that she was not “feebleminded,” and failed to even explain to her the nature of the proceedings to have her sterilized. In addition, he often brought out evidence from the Colony’s own witnesses that was more favorable to the Colony than the evidence Strode had elicited, and he strategized with Strode to set up the prosecution of Carrie’s “test case” for review by the Virginia Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. Although Cohen perhaps overstates the extent to which Whitehead could have elicited testimony favorable to her in the Virginia courts at that time, Whitehead’s representation was nevertheless, as Cohen observes, “an extraordinary case of malfeasance,” and Strode simply took advantage of it.

The two most compelling portraits in Cohen’s narrative are of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Carrie Buck. The portrait of Holmes, the scion of a prominent Boston Brahmin family, a thrice-wounded Civil War veteran, and the widely admired Supreme Court Justice famous for his “free speech” dissents, is brutal. Cohen notes Holmes’s disdain for the facts, his long-standing interest in protecting the bloodlines of the elites, his belief in the law as a tool for the more powerful to exercise its power over the less powerful, and his apparent pleasure in upholding Virginia’s eugenic sterilization law and depriving Carrie Buck of her ability to have children.

Holmes’s judicial sympathies with society’s “winners,” and his belief that those in power had the right to exercise that power in their own self-interests led to dissents from Supreme Court decisions overturning progressive legislation — legislation that would, for example, limit the number of hours that bakers in New York could be forced to work. Cohen argues that this reflected his views regarding the exercise of power by the elected legislative majority rather than any belief in the soundness of the legislation itself or sympathy for the workers who were subjected to abusive working conditions.

Holmes expressed a belief in eugenics in his speeches and writings years before Carrie Buck’s case came before the Supreme Court. Included in Holmes’s statements quoted by Cohen are that civilization would survive, “perhaps with smaller numbers, but perhaps also bred to greatness and splendor by science”; that the way to achieve “wholesale social regeneration” was “only by taking in hand life and trying to build a race”; and that legislation should aim “to improve the quality rather than the increase the quantity of the population.” Thus, it is perhaps not surprising that Holmes would declare that Virginia’s eugenic sterilization law was necessary “to prevent our being swamped with incompetence,” although the “pleasure” he told others that he felt in upholding the law, and the insults he directed at Carrie, are hard to stomach. Equally hard to fathom is why seven other justices, including Chief Justice William Howard Taft and Justice Louis Brandeis, signed off on the insults.

Juxtaposed with Justice Holmes is the story of Carrie Buck, whose life could not have been more different. Born to a father who abandoned her and a mother who was institutionalized at the Colony as “feebleminded,” she was raised by foster parents who withdrew her from school when she reached the sixth grade so that she could become a full-time domestic servant for them and their neighbors. After she became pregnant at the age of 17 as a result of a rape by her foster mother’s nephew, her foster parents petitioned the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court in Charlottesville, Virginia, to have her declared “feebleminded” and “epileptic,” and committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. The petition was heard by a Commission on Feeblemindedness at a time when, Cohen writes, the nation was “in the midst of a panic over feeblemindedness” that paid particular attention to “young women, who were deemed both a moral and a demographic threat.” Carrie did not have the right to an attorney or even an adult guardian ad litem who could help establish, as Cohen persuasively demonstrates, that she was neither “feebleminded” nor “epileptic.”

After Carrie was committed to the Colony, Priddy identified her as an ideal candidate for sterilization under Virginia’s eugenics sterilization law that he had worked so hard to get passed by the Virginia legislature. As Cohen makes clear, the trial in the Amherst County Circuit Court was appallingly one-sided and a mockery of due process. Carrie had no chance of prevailing.

After Justice Holmes’s insulting opinion, and after Carrie was sterilized by Priddy, she was eventually discharged from the Colony in 1929, and she went on to marry and live what Cohen describes as a “quiet domestic life” until she died 54 years later in 1983. Cohen identifies “three main themes” that characterized Carrie’s life in the years after she was discharged from the Colony: “hard work,” “deep devotion to family,” and “a quiet intelligence.” And he quotes statements she made to reporters toward the end of her life about having wanted to have “a couple of children” and about the sadness and anger she felt toward those who “done me wrong.” The quiet, simple humanity of the victim of these proceedings, contrasted with the callousness of the esteemed Boston Brahmin, gives Cohen’s narrative its emotional impact.

Cohen’s conclusion points out that Buck v. Bell has never been overruled by the Supreme Court, and it was cited by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in a case from Missouri as recently as 2001 for the proposition that “involuntary sterilization is not always unconstitutional.” Although legal eugenic sterilization came to an end in the United States by the time of Carrie’s death in 1983, Cohen asks whether the “pendulum” will some day “swing back in favor of eugenic sterilization.” He points out that California coerced female prisoners to undergo salpingectomies until 2010 and that Nashville prosecutors were making sterilization part of plea bargains as recently as last year. He also notes that advances in DNA editing “raise an array of eugenics issues.” Although Cohen’s concerns about the future of eugenics are not unimportant, the critically important issue raised by the story of Carrie Buck and Buck v. Bell is, as he states in his introduction, that of “power, and how those who have it use against those who do not.”

Throughout the history of the case, those with the power — whether the legislators who enacted the eugenic sterilization law, the doctors who ran the state’s mental health institutions, the lawyers who conducted the “mock” trial of Carrie’s case against the sterilization law, or the judges and justices who upheld the law and allowed Carrie to be sterilized under the authority of the state of Virginia — failed to consider or protect her interests because her hereditary stock was not deemed worthy of protection. Holmes expressed the view that because the state could, in times of great peril, “call on the best citizens for their lives,” “[i]t would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices.” As Cohen points out, Holmes’s analysis “arguably offer[ed] the court’s imprimatur to anything from suppressing free speech to torture.” In an age when a leading candidate for the presidency hurls insults at “losers,” supports “torture” of our enemies, calls immigrants “rapists,” and advocates the withdrawal of First Amendment protections for journalists who criticize him, Imbeciles serves as a cautionary tale about what may happen when those who have, or obtain, power use the institutions of government and the law to advance their own interests at the expense of those who are poor, disadvantaged, or of different “hereditary” stock.


Richard Drooyan focuses his practice on civil litigation, white collar criminal defense, and securities enforcement matters. He has extensive trial experience both at the government and in private practice, having tried more than 40 criminal and civil jury trials. Mr. Drooyan has also taught trial advocacy at the USC Gould School of Law and advanced criminal procedure at Loyola Law School.

LARB Contributor

Richard Drooyan focuses his practice on civil litigation, white collar criminal defense, and securities enforcement matters. He has extensive trial experience both at the government and in private practice, having tried more than 40 criminal and civil jury trials. Mr. Drooyan has also taught trial advocacy at the USC Gould School of Law and advanced criminal procedure at Loyola Law School, and he has participated in numerous panels on internal investigations, corporate compliance programs, environmental enforcement, and federal criminal practice.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!