Oliver Wendell Holmes, a dark tale of a famous juror

Just as in the case of Roe vs Wade the Supreme Court of the United States only needs a majority to agree to rule on a law. One of the most unfair and cruel laws ruled upon were the Eugenics Laws favored by Margaret Sanger. It was a to preclude as well as to exclude those whom they felt wer unfit to live. These Eugenics Laws were carried to their fullest extent by the Nazis, but have thier grounding here in the United States. A dark chapter indeed which does not seem to be over yet.

“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...Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in Buck v. Bell

Writing for the majority in the Supreme Court's affirmative decision of this landmark case, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. described Charlottesville native Carrie Buck as the “probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted” stating that “her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization.”

Current scholarship shows that Carrie Buck's sterilization relied on a false diagnosis premised on the now discredited science of eugenics. It is likely that Carrie's mother, Emma Buck, was committed to a state institution because she was considered sexually promiscuous, that the same diagnosis was made about Carrie when she became an unwed mother at the age of 17 due to being raped, and that her daughter Vivian was diagnosed as “not quite normal” at the age of six months largely in support of the legal effort to sterilize Carrie.

As soon as Virginia's Eugenical Sterilization Act was passed by the General Assembly in 1924, Virginia Colony officials selected 17 year old Carrie Buck of Charlottesville to test the law's legality. Carrie Buck's foster parents had committed her to the Virginia Colony shortly after she gave birth to an illegitimate child. The family's embarrassment may have been compounded by the fact that Carrie's pregnancy was the result of being raped by a relative of her foster parents. This point was never raised in the subsequent court proceedings. Carrie's mother, Emma Buck, had previously been committed to the asylum.

Officials at the Virginia Colony asserted that Carrie and her mother shared the hereditary traits of feeble mindedness and sexual promiscuity. With Emma and Carrie already institutionalized, if it could be demonstrated that Carrie's daughter, Vivian, was likely to grow up to be an “imbecile” like her mother and grandmother, the case for inheritance of such a quality would be assured. After pushing for passage of a sterilization law in Virginia that would legally sanction procedures already taking place privately at the Virginia Colony, Superintendent Albert Priddy wanted a challenge to the law that would definitively strengthen its validity.

When the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feeble minded, located in Lynchburg, Virginia, opened its doors in 1910, it was the largest asylum in the United States. It was originally intended to be a home for epileptics, the mentally retarded, and the severely disabled. In 1912, Virginia Colony Superintendent Albert Priddy, lobbied the Virginia General Assembly for funds to expand the Colony to provide residential space for those deemed “feebleminded.”

Such a determination was subjective at best, but as asserted by Priddy, was considered an hereditary quality meriting segregation from the rest of society in order to prevent proliferation. The authorizing legislation specifically directed the admission of “women of child-bearing age, from twelve to forty-five years of age” as the first patients.

Soon the Virginia Colony, also known as the Lynchburg Colony and The Colony, became a collecting place for poor, uneducated, white Virginians who were regarded as “unfit” by the state. Once in the Colony, the intelligence of the inmates was assessed. Some attended school at the Colony while others received basic skill training. Some received neither. As the population of the Colony grew, Priddy began to focus on a way to prevent patient reproduction that was more cost effective than long-term segregation from the general population. In 1914, he contributed to a report to the General Assembly entitled Mental Defectives in Virginia, proposing large-scale institutional sterilization for Virginia's feeble minded.

Prior to passage of Virginia's Eugenical Sterilization Act of 1924, sterilization procedures had been taking place at the Virginia Colony, and were justified as “for the relief of physical suffering.” After the law was passed by the General Assembly, immediate targets of sterilization were the allegedly feeble minded women who were committed to the Colony, but hired out in servile positions to work for “normal” families.

In the pseudo-science of the eugenics movement, Albert Priddy found a home for his own sense of moralism and a justification that it was his right and his duty to determine who should and should not be allowed to reproduce. Included in his list were “anti-social morons,” prostitutes, and “non-producing and shiftless persons, living on public and private charity.”

The right of the state to perform the sterilization procedure was first challenged and heard in the Circuit Court of Amherst County. This test case was due in large part to the combined efforts of three men. Albert Priddy was superintendent of the Virginia Colony. Aubrey E. Strode was the man who drafted Virginia's sterilization law. Irving P. Whitehead was the attorney whose weak defense of Carrie Buck almost assured that the law would stand. Whitehead had served on the Board of Directors of the Virginia Colony and Strode had previously acted as legal counsel to the Board. All three men knew one another politically, professionally, and personally for many years prior to the Buck litigation.

Aubrey E. Strode presented more than a dozen witnesses including four “expert” witnesses in the field of eugenics to prove Carrie's “feeble mindedness.” Carrie's court-appointed attorney, Irving P. Whitehead, called no witnesses to challenge the charges made about Carrie's mental health or to question the science behind the eugencial theory espoused by the so-called expert witnesses despite evidence and opportunities to do so. The Amherst County Circuit Court affirmed the validity of the sterilization law as expected, and the case was primed to go before the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals before proceeding to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Mrs. Alice Dobbs, the foster mother of Carrie Buck's daughter Vivian, holds Vivian while flashing a coin past the baby's face, in a test to assess her intelligence. The infant, perhaps distracted by the camera, didn't follow the coin with her eyes and thus was declared an imbecile. A.H. Estabrook, the person who initiated this test of the infant's intelligence and the photographer, took this picture the day before the Buck v. Bell trial in Virginia.

Harry H. Laughlin did not appear at Carrie Buck's initial trial, but instead sent a written deposition containing sworn testimony. Although he had never met any members of the Buck family, he confidently reasserted Priddy's statements that the family were members of “the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.” He focused on Emma Buck's syphilis as evidence of her moral degeneracy and stated that Carrie was an illegitimate baby. One of Carrie's teachers was brought in to testify that she sent flirtatious notes to schoolboys, a fact which was used to support the idea that she had inherited sexual precociousness from her promiscuous mother. Carrie's baby, Vivian, was examined by a nurse who stated that “there is a look about it that is not quite normal.” Arthur Estabrook, a trained field worker from the ERO, testified as an expert witness about assessments he made of Emma, Carrie, and Vivian, determining that at the age of six months, Vivian was “below the average,” and likely as well to be feeble minded.

Albert Priddy died before appeals were heard in the case. Dr. J.H. Bell became superintendent of the Virginia Colony and his name replaced Priddy's as party to the suit in the appeals process.

In November of 1925, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling of the Amherst County Circuit Court. A petition for certiorari was filed, briefs were submitted and on May 2, 1927, the United States Supreme Court upheld Virginia's eugenical sterilization law by a vote of 8 to 1 [274 U.S. 200 (1927)].

In his opinion, Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. relied on an earlier case, [Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1904)], which upheld a Massachusetts law requiring school children to be vaccinated against smallpox in support of the Court's decision. The assertions of the expert witnesses at Carrie Buck's original trial laid the groundwork for Chief Justice Holmes' resounding statement, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

On October 19, 1927, Carrie Buck was the first person in Virginia sterilized under the new law.

The test for imbecility in babies?

Mrs. Alice Dobbs, the foster mother of Carrie Buck's daughter Vivian, holds Vivian while flashing a coin past the baby's face, in a test to assess her intelligence. The infant, perhaps distracted by the camera, didn't follow the coin with her eyes and thus was declared an imbecile. A.H. Estabrook, the person who initiated this test of the infant's intelligence and the photographer, took this picture the day before the Buck v. Bell trial in Virginia.


Source: University of Virgina Health System


Anonymous said...

Qu'est devenue la petite Vivian?
Elise Bonnette

Brantigny said...

Je suis désolé, malheureusement, je ne sais pas. Elle était seulement une génération de l'esclavage et noir. Les élite étaient des sectaires...

Anonymous said...

+Now we just commit abortion and infanticide when unwanted persons or undesirables are conceived. The legalities of murder in world that thinks it is God. Viva Cristo Rey!Margaret

Inspector Clouseau said...

Fascinating history. But also shows how great people of another era could have views in sync with their time, but not tolerable today.

Nice work. I came across your blog while “blog surfing” using the Next Blog button on the blue Nav Bar located at the top of my blogger.com site. I frequently just travel around looking for other blogs which exist on the Internet, and the various, creative ways in which people express themselves. Thanks for sharing.

Brantigny said...

Inspector Clouseau, A great Nome de plum! You have an eclectic list of music. I thought I was the only human who liked Swing out Sister, and Sherlock Holmes at the same time. Thanks for you comments and come back. Richard