A Horrifying Experiment
Ironically, eugenics movement brought out humanity's worst traits
In Edwin Black's 2003 book War Against the Weak, he detailed the consequences of the American eugenics movement. Eugenics, a term first coined by Sir Francis Galton in the 1880s, formed as a belief system applying the concept of selective breeding used in plants and animals to realign human reproduction. The purpose was to increase "desirable" heritable traits in humans and eliminate those which are deemed "undesirable."
If that gives one pause, it should. Separating people by desirable and undesirable traits is, at its core, unscientific — not to mention easily influenced by ideologies, systems of power, and discriminatory beliefs, as seen with the Nazis in Germany, who escalated eugenic practices to unimaginably horrific levels. Yet, for nearly half of a century (and arguably longer), this pseudoscience infiltrated the United States, promoted by disingenuous eugenicists who twisted science to fit their philosophical pseudo-scientific worldviews.
"To perpetuate this campaign, widespread academic fraud combined with almost unlimited corporate philanthropy to establish biological rationales for persecution," Black wrote, adding that eugenicists employed "a hazy amalgam of guesswork, gossip, falsified information and polysyllabic academic arrogance" to justify their ideas.
The Erie Daily News first reported on the blossoming eugenics movement in 1906. The article chronicled Willet M. Hays, the "earnest" and "energetic" Assistant Secretary of Agriculture and founder of the American Breeders' Association. He was, in his own words, interested in breeding everything. With his experience breeding animals, Hays felt that he could "improve the human race by the careful selection of parents for future Americans."
"Fathers perfect physically, morally and mentally and mothers perfect mentally, physically and morally would produce children with all these desirable attributes," Hays professed. His goal was to alter American heredity to "improve the human breed" in order to "produce a race equal, if not superior, to the physical and intellectual attractiveness of the Greeks of old."
Hays founded the Heredity Commission that year to advise the United States government. The New York Times explained its purpose as "encouraging the increase of families of good blood, and of discouraging the vicious elements in the cross-bred American civilization." Hays argued in his writings that there were genetic facts needing to "be faced squarely" with fearlessness. First, he stated, it must be decided how to keep "genetically deficient classes and families" from reproducing. This included, in his words, "the feeble-minded, the insane, and several other classes of defectives" who had "no racial right to perpetuate their kind, a large percentage of whom cannot sustain themselves and must be a burden on society." The term "feeble-minded" referred to those perceived to underperform on IQ tests. Hays added that these people must be "rendered unproductive, by segregation or otherwise" and stressed for the "elimination" of these "defective classes."
Within a few years, eugenics was mainstream in the United States. Newspapers nationwide provided platforms for eugenicists. Speakers traveled around the country, elevating it in the public consciousness. Motivations varied. For some, it was clearly racism and xenophobia. For others it was ableism: a desire to eliminate physical disabilities and mental illness. Others yet believed controlling reproduction could reduce crime. If it wasn't embraced, one eugenicist proclaimed, there would soon "be more lunatics than sane people in the world."
In December 1912, the Erie Daily Times reported on Utah's "insanity experts." They suggested the sterilization of "all persons insane from hereditary causes." Believing criminal deviance was heritable, they proposed granting the courts sentencing powers of forced sterilization. They also wanted to add it as a parole requirement. Other states flirted with similar ideas, including Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia Press asserted sterilization was "an experiment which promises much for the good of humanity" and that civilization should not permit the "unfit" to "hand on to succeeding generations the ills that afflict themselves."
The following year, the eugenics debate entered Erie directly. A magnetic New York eugenicist and preacher named Dr. J. Aspinall McCuaig arrived in the city on behalf of the National Christian League for the Promotion of Purity. Known for engaging and energetic speeches, McCuaig was a superstar in the movement and described as "one of the greatest authorities in the world" on eugenics. He, as one paper described him, "woos a city as a man woos a maid." For two weeks he spoke throughout Erie in well-attended afternoon and evening sessions at various organizations, churches, and businesses about "race improvement" and "race betterment."
As these ideas gained traction, theories on how eugenics could be applied to society differed. The Harrisburg Telegraph published an article in 1914 by well-known poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox. She argued for eugenic marriages certified by physicians, as "only the fit will be permitted to populate the world." As for the "unworthy and unfit?" Sterilization.
"Eugenics will compel them to know that idiots, cripples and demented offspring are … directly traceable to [heredity]," wrote Wilcox. "And when both men and women know that ... children may be made whatever the parents desire, a new earth will be given to us. And a new race of people to occupy it."
In 1920, A.L. Cooper, president of the Child Conservation League of Erie, spoke to a group of 150 women at the local YWCA. He advocated for these certified marriages and the passage of laws permitting sterilization of those with physical disabilities and mental illness and those deemed incompetent, including "criminals, epileptics, and the insane."
Many others leaned into the racial component. An Erie Daily Times column with a zoologist claimed the "gradual deterioration" of humans was due to the "crossing of the races." Another stated that as "the intellectual families die out, the foreigners are waiting to take their places in the community" and that the "influence of these lower types on our youth and on the American people, generally is the worst." Some locally-published stories were even more outlandish, such as a full-page 1922 article titled "The Astounding New Theory That Men Should Marry Their Sisters" where Dr. Helen Dean King of the University of Pennsylvania championed inbreeding, as "blood marriage would produce a superior race."
In 1923, the Erie Daily Times ran an op-ed calling for a national eugenics plan. This was long desired by many eugenicists. A nationwide committee on eugenics had met that summer and suggested federal legislation on segregation and sterilization of "defective types." The author railed against public education, saying money spent educating "backward and sub-normal pupils" was wasted and that philanthropists and the government should instead "devote all of their energies to the problem of encouraging the intelligent ones to progress." He believed that the "best brains" in the United States were committing "race suicide … because of the remarkable opportunities we offer to all."
Local churches were popular meeting places for these discussions. In 1924, a meeting for men was held at the Glory Barn on Eighth and Cranberry streets for a lecture titled "Practical Eugenics." Attendance from doctors, teachers, and preachers was specifically requested. The "soldier-evangelist" John Sproul spoke before an audience of 4,000 where he professed that the "perversion of our procreative powers" was the "greatest curse of the world today." Sproul gave another talk while in town titled "Sex Hygiene" to 2,500 local women. He pointed out lax morals and told them they must urge the local school directors to incorporate eugenics and "sex hygiene" in the county high schools, which would reduce crime.
An event was held at the downtown Hotel Lawrence the following year, where the chairman of the Pennsylvania Conference on Social Welfare teamed with locals to declare support for a bill that would include a racial and eugenics clause for marriage certificates. Meanwhile, pro-eugenics propaganda continued to be published in the local newspapers. One eugenicist feared civilization was becoming "Frankenstein in disguise" and predicted that within 50 years the U.S. would "be industriously sterilizing the imbecile, segregating the inferior, [and] encouraging the reproduction of the best stocks."
Around this time, the Erie Social Hygiene Association was founded. Much of their work involved notable public health measures: promoting sex education, testing for sexually-transmitted diseases, reducing drug use, and improving the sanitary conditions of Erie jails. Yet, the social hygiene and eugenics movements often overlapped and the association provided a local platform for eugenicists, bringing numerous speakers to Erie from the American Eugenics Association and related organizations.
Active members of the Erie Social Hygiene Association in 1928 included prominent Erie figures such as Rev. Joseph J. Werhle, Bishop J.C. Ward, Home for the Friendless founder Sarah Reed, Erie Times founder John J. Mead, educators Joanna Connell and John C. Diehl, prominent Erie businessmen such as Alex Jarecki, Otto G. Hitchcock, and over 100 others. Each of their personal views concerning eugenics remains unclear, although Werhle, then superintendent of the parochial schools and future president of Gannon College, spoke against forced sterilizations on at least one occasion.
Werhle's opposition came during an event featuring American Eugenics Society executive secretary Leon F. Whitney. Within a few years, Whitney would be receiving praise from the Nazis for his book The Case for Sterilization and he, in turn, would describe Adolf Hitler's "courage and statesmanship" for Nazi Germany's sterilization laws. While in Erie, Whitney was described as being in "the thick of the fight" for sterilization legislation. His talk, titled "The Destroyers of America," described charity towards the "feeble-minded" as "ignorance, selfishness, thoughtlessness and misdirected." He told the Erie audience that "segregation and sterilization" were the "two great remedies" to America's woes.
Werhle provided his opposing viewpoints to Whitney's lecture, but the Erie Social Hygiene Association's official objectives still listed studying sterilization and "promoting among public officials an interest in this subject" as a priority. That same year, they invited Dr. Eugene L. Swan of the American Hygiene Society. He commended the progress of the association, but said plainly that America's problems would not be solved without sterilization.
While eugenics didn't receive much criticism in the Erie Daily Times, there was pushback on occasion. In one article, they noted that "bigoted" eugenicists were spreading "Nordic craze" propaganda stating immigrant quotas should limit immigration from Southeastern Europe and increase quotas for "the blond, dolichocephalic race" of the "Germanic people of Northern Europe." In another, they featured a doctor who believed that voluntary birth control was the answer over forced sterilization, which he reckoned had "dangerous possibilities." An anthropologist noted that "to 'breed' a race of humans involves a decision as to what is desirable" and that "cast-iron despots" would ultimately make those decisions.
Indeed, they seemed to be prophesying the rise of Adolf Hitler, who implemented forced sterilization laws in Germany almost immediately after obtaining power in 1933. During these years before the war, German and American eugenicists even worked together and exchanged information as German eugenicists followed closely what many American and British eugenicists had done first. It's important to note that Nazism was not necessarily viewed then as it is today in the United States. As late as 1938, a Gallup poll indicated that 65 percent of Americans thought the treatment of Jews in Germany was either partly or entirely their own fault. Only the looming war would begin to reverse that trend.
By the 1940s, as the atrocities of Nazi Germany became more clear to the world, the eugenics movement began to fall out of favor. The Nazis had conducted at least 400,000 forced sterilizations, murdered 275,000 through its involuntary euthanasia T4 Program, and committed genocide of millions with the Holocaust all in the name of "racial purity."
The last openly eugenicist guest hosted by the Erie Social Hygiene Association was as late as 1942. His name was Paul Popenoe, who helped popularize eugenics while editing the Journal of Heredity. His well-known stances included the racial inferiority of Black people, who he described as "germinally lacking in the higher developments of intelligence," and the sterilization and segregation of "waste humanity." While leading the Human Betterment Foundation, he influenced the passage of California's sterilization laws. These had been cited by the Nazis as inspiration for their own sterilization programs. In fact, in 1934, Popenoe wrote an essay praising Nazi Germany's sterilization laws, calling them "favorable" and "the product of many years of consideration by the best specialists in Germany" He quoted Hitler's Mein Kampf approvingly throughout. Eventually, Popenoe rebranded as a marriage counselor and began writing advice columns for Ladies' Home Journal.
In the years following World War II, eugenics transformed into genetics. Geneticists warned of the dangers of letting belief systems and sinister ideologies corrupt scientific inquiry. For many in the United States though, it was too late. Numerous state governments did enact eugenics-based policies. Sterilization laws had been passed in many places, along with interracial marriage and sexual relations prohibition laws.
As Elizabeth Catte notes in her recent book Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia, sterilization numbers in the United States are unknown and inconsistent across sources. Some estimates are in the 70,000 range. What is known is the intent of these sterilizations. "Allowing the 'unfit' to reproduce was tantamount to creating a societal debt that could never be repaid," Catte writes of the unifying message of the eugenics movement.
In the '70s, Austin J. O'Toole, who worked in the biology department at Erie's Gannon College, considered the ethical implications of trying to predetermine man's future through genetics. "Who will determine which qualities are better for man? For this man?" O'Toole wondered. "Men have shown themselves neither wholly unprejudiced, nor critically wise in their choice of criteria."
In 1972, the Erie Daily Times published a column by widely-read scientist and writer Robert Ardrey. He warned against desires for an "Instant Man." In his view, the "rebellious man" was already a success story. There was no need for attempts to "domesticate" humans.
"Having failed spectacularly to invent better worlds, we presume to invent appropriate men to live in them," penned Ardrey. "I renounce instant Utopias. Whatever his avarice, self-seeking ambitions, competitiveness, and presently perceived impossible contradictions, man's strength remains the strength that has seen him through billions of evolutionary years."
Perhaps then Andrey's lesson, as simple as it sounds, is the most poignant. Instead of working to artificially alter humanity, which led to catastrophic consequences, we as humans can work to invent a better world.
Jonathan Burdick runs the historical blog Rust & Dirt. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org