Transcript: The Kallikaks and the Eugenicists

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class, from

Tracy V. Wilson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Tracy V. Wilson.

Holly Frey: And I'm Holly Frey.

TW: Several episodes of our show have touched on the Progressive Era in the United States, which spanned the late 19h and early 20th centuries. The Progressive era was really focused on trying to make society better and counteract the downsides of industrialization and urbanization and rapid growth. So just as examples, we've talked about people like Jane Addams, known as the mother of social work, and we've talked about movements for women's suffrage, temperance, and organized labor. The temperance movement did lead to prohibition, which was a spectacular failure, but other than that, these episodes have generally talked about overall positive reforms in education and public health and workplace safety, and human rights. But the progressive era also had a focus on making humanity better through eugenics. Coined by English anthropologist Sir Francis Galton in 1883, eugenics begin with positive eugenics, and this was encouraging the people considered healthiest and most intelligent to have more children for the betterment of the species. But in a few countries, including the United States, the focus turned toward negative eugenics, or stopping people who were considered not as good from reproducing. Spurred by the same fears and prejudices and societal issues that were driving the progressive movement in general, the eugenics movement in the United States focused on identifying, sequestering and even sterilizing people who were deemed to be "unfit." So today we're going to talk about a family who became a case study for the eugenics movement, purportedly providing evidence for the idea that "feeblemindedness" was an inherited trait, and that it would be best to keep people who had that trait from reproducing. This family was known as the Kallikaks. And just as a note, a lot of the language used to talk about disability at this time was insulting, and we're going to be reading from and referring to a bunch of material that's just offensive. So any time we say "feebleminded" or "unfit" or similar words, that is in air quotes. These are not real things to describe people.

HF: Right. Also head's up it's a little long-y.

TW: It's a little longer than normal.

HF: Yeah. So if you're one of the runners who listens to us and you time your runs with the episodes, if you go the whole way you've gone too far.

TW: Probably so.

HF: And that's probably the last jest-y thing you'll hear in this episode.

TW: Yeah.

HF: So, in 1912, The McMillan Company published a book by Henry Herbert Goddard, director of the research laboratory at the Vineland Training School for Backward and Feebleminded Children in Vineland, New Jersey. It was called, "The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeblemindedness." It was just one in a whole genre of literature called eugenic family studies.

TW: The first book in this genre was "The Jukes: A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease and Heredity." This book was by Richard Dugdale. Dugdale's study came about after he visited the Ulster County Jail in New York and learned that six people incarcerated there were related to each other. Looking into it further, Dugdale found more family members with arrests and convictions on their records. He traced more of the lineage, all the way back to a woman that he dubbed "Margaret, the Mother of Criminals." He found 42 connected families, with 540 of their 709 members blood relatives.

HF: According to Dugdale's estimate, their combined criminal proceedings, social assistance and health care had cost a total of about $1.3 million. A second book by Arthur H. Estabrook at the Eugenics Record Office came out in 1915. It traced another 2,111 family members, who he described as rife with "feeblemindedness, indolence, licentiousness and dishonesty," and costing taxpayers about $2 million.

TW: Goddard's study of the Kallikaks followed Dugdale's original book on the Jukes. Like "Jukes," Kallikaks" was a pseudonym, a portmantau of the Greek words Kallos, for "beauty," and Kakos, for "bad." According to Goddard's account, Deborah Kallikak had been born in an almshouse and arrived at the Vineland School at the age of 8. Her mother had been through a convoluted series of relationships and marriages and had given birth to several children both in and out of wedlock, and according to Goddard, no man in her life was willing to support young Deborah.

HF: Goddard maintained that, from her admission at the school in October 1897 until 1911, when he was compiling his study, Deborah had never tested above the age of 9 on an intelligence scale. He described her as "a high-grade feeble-minded person," the kind of wayward delinquent who "fills our reformatories," generally causing trouble and creating a burden on society.

TW: So, "feebleminded" was a catch-all term used at the time to describe people who were, in one way or another, behind their peers. It included everything from mental illnesses to disabilities and disorders that were noticeable but not necessarily severe. A person described as feebleminded might be able to take care of their own day-to-day needs while struggling with social interactions or academic skills or physical skills. It was considered to be a precise, medically and scientifically sound description at the time, but it's not one we would use today to describe a disability, disorder or condition.

HF: Goddard also coined a new word to describe people who fit this definition. That word was "moron," defined as "one who is lacking in intelligence, one who is deficient in judgement or sense." And like "feebleminded," "moron" was adopted as an actual, clinical term.

TW: Goddard claimed he had traced Deborah's ancestry all the way back to her great-great-great grandfather, who he dubbed Martin Kallikak Sr. Martin Sr. was described as having fathered a child with an unnamed, "feebleminded" barmaid, Deborah's great-great-great grandmother. This barmaid's descendants were a family of a "appalling amount of defectiveness." But then, Martin Sr. had turned his life around and married "a respectable girl of good family." His descendants from this marriage were, Goddard's words, "respectable citizens, men and women prominent in every phase of life."

HF: As printed in the book, the Kallikak lineage, with its beautiful half and its bad half, was accompanied by family trees emblazoned with Ns and Fs for "normal" and "feebleminded," with Ns in white and Fs in black, along with notations of which ones were sexually immoral, insane, syphilitic or criminalistic — all these are words that Goddard used.

TW: And the results are striking. One half of the tree, depicting the descendants of Martin Sr.'s children with the upstanding Quaker woman he married, is full of "normal" people, flawlessly white. The other half, depicting the descendants of Martin's son with the unnamed barmaid, is dotted all over with black Fs, with notations of undesirable traits all over the place.

HF: There are also photographs, both of Deborah in her day-to-day life, and of the "bad" Kallikaks and their homes. The photos of Deborah are clearly posed, and they show an attractive young woman in a variety of day-to-day scenarios. The photos of the other Kallikaks look like they could have inspired the X-files episode "Home." Ah, the buildings are ramshackle, the people's posture is slouchy, and the facial expressions and features are oddly atypical.

TW: In Goddard's words, "How do we account for this kind of individual? The answer is in a word 'Heredity,' --bad stock. We must recognize that the human family shows varying stocks or strains that are as marked and that breed as true as anything in plant or animal life."

HF: Citing Gregor Mendel's theories on hereditary traits, Goddard goes on to advocate that normal, healthy society keep the "feebleminded" from breeding and spreading their inherited deficiencies. He suggests a combination of segregation into institutions or colonies, and sterilization.

We will talk about the colossal influence of this book after a quick sponsor break.


TW: "The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeblemindedness" became enormously influential. It was an immediate bestseller and was reprinted more than 10 times between 1912 and 1939. Though the book did have some critics, a number of academic journals, including the American Journal of Psychology and the Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, gave it glowingly positive reviews. Both "Kallikak" and "Juke" became slang terms for people thought of as unintelligent, backward and inbred.

HF: The book's conclusions were also widely accepted as scientific truth. This was in spite of this admission printed in its introduction: "It is true that we have made rather dogmatic statements and have drawn conclusions that do not seem scientifically warranted from the data. We have done this because it seems necessary to make these statements and conclusions for the benefit of the lay reader."

TW: Soon, the Kallikaks were being cited in mainstream biology and psychology textbooks. If you've heard our podcast on the Scopes Trial, you might recall that we read from "A Civic Biology Presented in Problems," and that was the widely used biology textbook that was part of that case. Chapter 17 of the 1914 edition, titled "Heredity, Variation, Plant and Animal Breeding," explains the term "eugenics" before discussing both the Kallikaks and the Jukes. It basically boils down the idea of eugenics to "the science of being well-born."

HF: In its discussion of the Jukes, the book mentions Margaret, Mother of Criminals, the more than $1 million tax cost to the state of New York, and the large number of "feeble-minded, alcoholic, immoral, or criminal persons" purportedly in the family. It then moves on to the Kallikaks: "This family has been traced back to the War of the Revolution, when a young soldier named Martin Kallikak seduced a feeble-minded girl. She had a feeble-minded son from whom there have been to the present time 480 descendants. Of these 33 were sexually immoral, 24 confirmed drunkards, 3 epileptics, and 143 feeble-minded. The man who started this terrible line of immorality and feeble-mindedness later married a normal Quaker girl. From this couple a line of 496 descendants have come, with no cases of feeble-mindedness. The evidence and the moral speak for themselves!"

TW: "A Civic Biology" goes on to say that if people were animals, we would probably just "kill them off to prevent them from spreading." It goes on to explain, "Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race."

HF: Through "The Kallikak Family" and other books and propaganda, idea that "defective" people needed to be kept from breeding became common knowledge, and in the early decades of the 20th century, more than 30 states passed laws allowing and regulating the involuntary sterilization of people who were deemed to be "feebleminded" or otherwise unfit. Often, sterilization involved a vasectomy or tubal ligation, but it could also be as involved as a total hysterectomy.

TW: Many of these laws were patterned after a model law drafted by Harry H. Laughlin of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, who was one of Goddard's colleagues within the eugenics movement. Goddard himself consulted with states on their eugenics laws as well, basically states kept passing laws that kept not being upheld in court, so these guys got together to draft a law that would be upheld as constitutional.

HF: In 1927, one of these laws made its way to the Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell. Carrie Buck had been committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble Minded, and she was sterilized there. Carrie, her mother, and her daughter were all described as "feebleminded," and Carrie and her mother were both described as immoral and promiscuous because they had had children out of wedlock. "The Kallikak Family" was entered into evidence in this case. Harry H. Laughlin provided expert testimony. Dr. Estabrook, the one who revised the study of the Jukes family, did as well.

TW: The Supreme Court found Virginia's eugenics law to be constitutional and upheld it, with the opinion authored by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., including the sentence, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

HF: Involuntarily sterilizations were also being performed on people convicted of crimes, but this generally ended after the Supreme Court ruled in Skinner v. Oklahoma in 1942. States had been sterilizing people convicted of some felonies but not others, and the court ruled that this was a violation of the 14th amendment's equal protection clause.

TW: But Buck v. Bell has never been overturned, meaning that the Supreme Court never reversed its decision on sterilization of people who were not convicted of a crime. Involuntary sterilizations of supposedly unfit people continued in the United States until the 1970s, at which point at least 60,000 people had been involuntarily sterilized, predominantly women. While there have been calls for reparations, North Carolina is the only state so far to pass legislation to do so.

HF: The idea of keeping bloodlines free from the taint of feeblemindedness also went hand-in-hand with the idea of keeping white bloodlines racially pure. Many of the same people who helped states write eugenics laws relating to the "unfit" also worked on legislation to protect white racial purity at the state and national level.

TW: For example, Harry H. Laughlin was a huge proponent of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which set quotas on immigration based on how many people already in the United States hailed from a particular place. So, it allowed the most immigration from nations that were most similar to white Americans, which was northwest Europe. It allowed almost no immigration from Africa and barred immigration from Asia entirely.

HF: This immigration act was also influenced by to Henry H. Goddard's work at Ellis Island, where he had set up an intelligence testing center to evaluate incoming immigrants and turn away the ones deemed insufficient in the nineteen-teens. In his work "Intelligence Classification of Immigrants of Different Nationalities," he claimed that 40% of immigrants were feebleminded, including 83% of Jews, 79% of Italians, 80% of Hungarians, and 87% of Russians. These evaluations began with one tester identifying probable cases by sight, then referring the people she spotted to her colleague for an assessment. Goddard employed women for this purpose because he thought their intuition was better for it.

TW: As another example, Harry H. Laughlin also helped draft Virginia's Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which defined race according to the one-drop rule, meaning anyone who had "one drop" of African or Native American blood was considered black or Native American by law. The only exception was for people who were 1/16 or less Native American, and this exception to allow prominent Virginians purportedly descended from Pocahontas to still be considered legally white. This act also prohibited interracial marriage, and there is more on that law in our two-part podcast on Loving v. Virginia from 2013.

HF: In addition to the sterilizations of the "unfit" that were codified in states' eugenics laws, there were also involuntary and coerced sterilizations of poor people and racial and ethnic minorities, including Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and African Americans, stretching into the 1970s. Because these were not conducted under any particular law or official program, the exact numbers are harder to estimate. In many cases, these sterilizations were performed in conjunction with other procedures, without the patient's knowledge. This practice was so prevalent in the South that it was nicknamed a Mississippi Appendectomy.

TW: That was either coined or popularized by Fannie Lou Hamer, who is on the list for a future podcast episode. As with Buck v. Bell, cases regarding the forced or coerced sterilizations of minorities have made their way through the courts. Two black teenagers, Mary Alice and Minnie Relf, were sterilized without their parent's consent in 1973. Their mother, who was not literate, had believed she was signing a consent form for birth control shots. And when the case made headlines, many more black and Native American women became coming … began coming forward with similar allegations.

HF: In his opinion on Relf v. Weinberger, Judge Gerhard Gesell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia wrote that federal programs had funded the sterilization of 100,000 to 150,000 low-income women during the previous few years. He went on: "Although Congress has been insistent that all family planning programs function on a purely voluntary basis, there is uncontroverted evidence in the record that minors and other incompetents have been sterilized with federal funds and that an indefinite number of poor people have been improperly coerced into accepting a sterilization operation under the threat that various federally supported welfare benefits would be withdrawn unless they submitted to irreversible sterilization."

TW: Madrigal v. Quilligan was a class-action lawsuit with 10 plaintiffs who alleged that Los Angeles County U.S.C. Medical Center had either coerced or misled them into being sterilized during a caesarian section, with the option being presented to them after hours of difficult labor. Nearly 150 Spanish-speaking women had come forward with similar allegations. In 1978, Judge Jesse W. Curtis ruled in favor of the hospital, calling it "a breakdown in communications between the patients and the doctors." Although the plaintiffs didn't win this case, it did ultimately lead to laws requiring Spanish-speaking staff to explain procedures and obtain consent from Spanish-speaking patients.

HF: Coerced sterilizations have also continued well beyond the 1970s. Buck v. Bell was cited as precedent in the 2001 case Vaughn v. Utz, heard in the 8th circuit court, in which a social service worker at a hospital coerced a woman who had been diagnosed with a mild intellectual disability into getting a tubal ligation by telling her it would help her regain custody of her children.

TW: A 2013 report by the Center for Investigative Reporting detailed the sterilizations of at least 148 incarcerated women in California prisons, which had been performed without required state approvals. Even though California banned forced sterilizations in 1979, numerous women described being coerced and pressured into the procedure while incarcerated.

HF: And in July 2017, NewsChannel 5 in Tennessee reported that General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield allowed incarcerated people who either got a vasectomy or a contraceptive implant to get a 30-day credit toward their jail time. Judge Benningfield rescinded this order on July 26, after it made headlines.

TW: While the story of the Kallikaks was just one part of the eugenics movement, the studies of the Kallikaks, the Jukes, and other "families" were widely-cited, heavily-used pieces of "evidence" of the eugenicists' idea that it was better to keep "defectives" from breeding, and, by extension, that sterilization could be used to help guarantee white racial purity. And the same people writing books about the Kallikaks and the Jukes were actively working with lawmakers to create policies to do exactly that.

HF: The book's influence spread beyond the United States as well. A German-language translation of "The Kallikak Family" was printed in Germany in 1914 and reprinted in 1933. Germany's own eugenics law, "Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring," was passed in 1933 as well, and was also based on Harry H. Laughlin's model law that was being used as a template in the United States. And it wasn't just a matter of Nazi Germany picking up and repurposing Laughlin's work. Laughlin actively corresponded with eugenicists in Germany, writing in one of his letters how pleased he was that Hitler understood that the "central mission of all politics is race hygiene."

TW: In Nazi Germany, more than 150,000 Germans with disabilities were involuntarily sterilized under its eugenics law between 1934 and 1939. In 1939, the focus shifted from sterilization to extermination, and 80,000 disabled Germans were murdered in a little less than two years. It was only in the face of this atrocity that the eugenics movement started to fall out of favor in the United States, although the sterilizations that movement had advocated have continued for decades.

HF: On top of being used to support policies that led to involuntary sterilizations and, in Nazi Germany, murders, much of the story of the Kallikaks wasn't even true. More after a sponsor break.


TW: Henry H. Goddard began publicly refuting his previous opinions about the "feebleminded" and eugenics beginning in the late 1920s and into the 1930s. He made a number of public statements that his intelligence testing had been incorrect, that he had been wrong to believe that "feebleminded" people could not be educated, and that "feebleminded" people should be allowed to have children if they chose, and should not be segregated from the rest of society. But this reversal came too late to stop the eugenics movement, or even to change the life of the star of his most famous work.

HF: Deborah Kallikak was really Emma Wolverton. She really did arrive at the Vineland School in 1897 at the age of 8. It's not clear if there was a specific reason for her to be institutionalized. Although the book does seem to have embellished her mother's life and relationships, it's very likely that it boiled down to poverty. Even the wording in the book is REALLYcagey here … "On the plea that the child did not get along at school and might possibly be feeble-minded, she gained admission to the Training School."

TW: But by the time Goddard published "The Kallikak Family," the Vineland school, and Goddard himself, were using Emma as an example of a success story for the school. In addition to the book, her picture and pseudonym appear in the school's reports and fundraising materials as a shining example of their work. When she was transferred to a facility for adults across the street at the age of 25, her "acquisition" was viewed as a success for them.

HF: A social worker described it this way: "Deborah at this time was a handsome young woman, twenty-five years old, with many accomplishments, though her academic progress had remained stationary just beyond second grade. For our part we knew we had acquired distinction in acquiring Deborah Kallikak, for by this time the story of her pedigree was becoming well known. And such a capable, well-trained and good looking girl must be an asset."

TW: In terms of "well-trained": Emma Wolverton was excellent at embroidery, woodworking, basketry and gardening. She made and repaired costumes for school plays, was in charge of the Vineyard school's kindergarten, and worked as a nurse's aide in the school's hospital. She also played the coronet beautifully, was an avid reader and a devoted correspondent, and bred Persian cats. In her adulthood, visitors to her institution often mistook her for a staff member. She distinguished herself to the point that she was allowed to work for the family of Vineland's superintendent, along with others in the community. And to be clear, although working for the superintendent's family was framed as a privilege and a reward, all of this work was actually compulsory.

HF: It's difficult to diagnose historical figures who aren't alive to be examined. This is even more difficult in Emma Wolverton's case, since her school records are often contradictory, and the institutions caring for her had a vested self-interest in people simultaneously believing that she needed to be institutionalized, while also demonstrating a success story in terms of what that institution could accomplish. But by cross-referencing school records with witness accounts, modern researchers suggest that she probably had a learning disability. Whether she had a disability, or what that disability was, has no bearing on her worth as a human being, but it's clear that the institutions housing her were using her to their own ends, and that her portrayal in the book that made her famous was far from the truth.

TW: The photos of Wolverton in "The Kallikak Family" clearly serve to show her as both a success and a warning. She's neatly dressed, either shown in association with something productive, like sewing or serving a meal, or with something considered intelligent, like reading a book. These are in contrast with the photos of "the Kallikaks" and their homes, which are clearly meant to suggest something nefarious.

HF: The pictures of the other Kallikaks have definitely been retouched, and there's some debate about whether that retouching served to deliberately exaggerate them, or just to prepare them for publication. Regardless, the book is making a very clear implication, and a very clear value judgement on all the Kallikaks based on their physical appearance and their surroundings. It's that, without the constant care, supervision, and custody in an institution, Emma Wolverton would have been just another degenerate living in a hovel. And without keeping her segregated from society, she would have just made more of them.

TW: However, that dichotomy between Emma Wolverton and the rest of the family, or between the family's "good" and "bad" branches, just does not add up. The "bad" line of Martin Kallikak Sr.'s descendants purportedly begins with Martin Jr., really John Wolverton. John Wolverton was the son of Gabriel Wolverton and Catherine Murray. But the Kallikak study presents his father as another John Woolverton. This second John Woolverton wasn't his father, though. The book's entire premise is incorrect.

HF: In addition to the two John Wolvertons not being father and son, both parts of the family really had their share of troubles, as every family does. But Goddard and field worker Elizabeth S. Kite and set out to compile their study with the goal of finding a hereditary thread of feeblemindedness. So, consciously or unconsciously, when piecing together the history of the family members, some of whom had long since died, they ignored evidence of people in the "good" line who they might have described as feebleminded, and flagged people in the "bad" line based on the thinnest evidence.

TW: A lot of this was based on stuff like family gossup.

HF: Which is very scientific.

TW: Yeah they would do things like interview elderly family members from the other side of the family, and folks would be like "Oh, yeah, he was totally a drunk." So that person would be marked down as feebleminded even though if you looked at things like tax records and property records it was clear that this person was, like, a landowner, not bothering anybody.

HF: Perfectly living their life just fine.

TW: In reality, going back into to the 18th century, the Wolvertons were, overall, not particularly affluent, but mostly self-sufficient farmers living in rural New Jersey. In the late 19th century, industrialization and urbanization led several of them to move from the country to Trenton and other cities. As with so many others who moved from the country to the city, they found themselves in an unfamiliar environment with a totally different social structure and economy, without a lot of resources or education. And when they lost jobs, as Emma's mother did, they no longer had an extended family network nearby to turn to for support, instead winding up in jail or in a poorhouse. It was definitely not something that could be explained by a hereditary "taint."

HF: Similarly … some of Arthur H. Estabrook's papers containing the Jukes family's real names were found in the early 21st century, and it turned out that many of them were respected citizens of Ulster County, New York. Their existence had conveniently been ignored in Estabrook's study.

TW: Emma Wolverton died at the age of 89, in 1978. She knew she had been written about as "Deborah Kallikak," and that she had been used as a widely-read, and even famous, example of a "high-grade feeble-minded person." It's not clear whether she knew that depiction had been at the heart of the eugenics movement, or what that had ultimately meant.

HF: She was offered the chance to leave the institution toward the end of her life, but didn't feel that she could, because she'd developed severe arthritis and needed a lot of medical care. She spent the last year of her life in a hospital, and at the time of her death, she had been institutionalized for 81 years.

TW: I normally say something to wrap up here. Uh … but mostly this whole episode makes me incredibly angry.

HF: Yep. It's the magical combination, right, of like, poorly executed, biased "science," and I'm using the air quotes there, used to, one, work this whole like superiority angle, that is gross, as well as really damaged the lives of people without their consent. And most of those people were women.

TW: Yeah. ANd even the positive eugenics angle that we referenced really briefly at the beginning of the show, like, even that is ofunded on the idea that some people are better than others, and that the better people should have the most babies. Which, like, that might sound okaaaay? at a surface level, but quickly falls apart when you think about whose deciding who is worthy of having more babies. My mom worked with people with a range of disabilities for a lot of her career, and it's like, there are definitely complicated moral and ethical questions when people are capable of having a child, but genuinely not necessarily capable of taking care of a child,

HF: Right.

TW: These conversations do not include things like telling a woman if she gets her tubes tied she can get her kids back.

HF: Right.

TW: Like … nothing like that. I have some listener mail that is not even related.

HF: That is not so horrifying.

(Listener mail)