Carrie Buck lived a poverty-stricken childhood, depending on charity, food donations and makeshift work to survive. Despite her struggles, she was noted to be “very good” in school. However, when Carrie was 13, her mother, Emma Buck, was caught on the streets in town, either for prostitution or for “homelessness”’ and brought before a municipal judge. Emma was convicted and sent off to Lynchburg, Virginia. Carrie’s father, Frank Buck, a tin worker, had either departed from home or died in a accident many years before.
Carrie was placed in foster care and her chances of a normal life began to deteriorate as time went by. She was raped by her foster parents’ nephew and soon discovered that she was pregnant. To avoid the embarrassment, Carrie’s foster parents casted Carrie as psychotic, impulsive and sexually promiscuous with the hope that a judge would confirm a diagnosis of “feeblemindedness”.
During the 1920s, “feeblemindedness” meant that you exhibited cognitive disability in some form. More accurately, it was an excuse to admit a diverse group of men and women, some with no mental illnesses at all – prostitutes, orphans, depressives, the homeless, petty criminals, schizophrenics, dyslexics, feminists, rebellious teenagers – whose behaviours, desires, choices or appearance did not comply with the accepted norm.
The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded spread over two hundred acres. As the word colony suggests, this was never supposed to be a hospital and rehabilitation was strictly off the agenda. Instead the colony ensured that these delinquents would not continue breeding, saving the American people from further contamination by idiots and morons.
It was a real-life Arkham City.
It was here that Emma Buck, Carrie’s mother, arrived after her conviction. She was cleaned and bathed, her clothes thrown away and her genitals sprayed with mercury to disinfect them. A psychiatrist confirmed the initial diagnosis of a “Low Grade Moron”. She would spend the rest of her life in the colony.
On January 23, 1924, Carrie too was assigned to the colony. Carrie arrived at the Virginia State Colony and underwent a psychological examination. “There is no evidence of psychosis – she reads and writes and keeps herself in tidy condition,” read the report. Yet, she was classified as “Moron, Middle Grade” and confined.
If the colony was Arkham City then Dr. Albert Priddy matched up well to the fictional supervillain, Dr. Hugo Strange. They both had the same role as the superintendent’s of their respective facilities and both had deranged plans to inflict their vision of justice upon the world. Priddy was not content with just imprisoning feeble minds, he wanted to ensure that the gene pool would remain intact, even if the “mentally defectives” were released. Sterilization was Priddy’s weapon of choice and Carrie Buck would find herself at the forefront of Priddy’s vision.
Legal and political leaders were largely supportive of Priddy’s ideas. Between 1890 and 1924, nearly 10 million immigrants – Jewish, Italian, Irish, and Polish workers – poured into New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, filling the streets with foreign tongues, rituals and foods. White eugenicists in America – people who believed in superior genetic groups – had long been fearful that African slaves would intermarry with whites, destroying the racial purity of white Americans. Laws to prevent interracial marriages enacted in the 1860s had eased their fears. This time, the genetic threat was not as easy to identify, skin colour was no longer a reliable indicator, many of the immigrants were white too. White eugenicists’ fears were hitting their peaks in the 1920s and Priddy needed to act fast.
On March 29, 1924, with Priddy’s assistance, the Virginia Senate authorized sterilization as long as the person being sterilized had been screened by the “Boards of Mental-Health Institutions.” During one such screening, Carrie was asked a single question: “Do you care to say anything about having the operations performed on you?” Her reply was brief : “No, sir, I have not. It is up to my people.” It is unclear who Carrie was referring to but we know for certain that her “people” did not rise to her defence.
Priddy’s request to have Carrie sterilized was approved. However, Priddy could not stop here, his sterilization programme could still be challenged by the state and federal courts. Carrie was simply a pawn in his grand vision to sterilize thousands of women just like her across America, many of them poor, vulnerable and weak.
By 1927, the case had reached the US Supreme Court. Priddy had passed away so his work was being carried forward by John Bell, the new superintendent of the colony. Priddy had past all legal and political hurdles and all Bell needed to do was win the verdict of the Supreme Court.
Writing the 8-1 majority opinion, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. reasoned, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute the degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that covers compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.”
These words are made even more shocking by the fact that Holmes was a man widely celebrated for his skepticism of social dogmas and a vocal advocate of judicial and political moderation. He was one of the few justices to be known as a scholar and The Journal of Legal Studies has identified Holmes as the third-most cited American legal scholar of the 20th century. The myths of genetic and racial superiority had breached even the most rational minds in America.
As Carrie Buck lay unconscious on an operating table, John Bell, the superintendent, made an incision in her abdomen that would leave a scar not only on Carrie but on the history of genetics. The fallopian tubes transport egg cells from the ovaries to the uterus facilitating the creation of new life. John Bell, removed a section of both fallopian tubes, tied the ends of the tubes and stitched them shut. There were no surgical complications. Buck recovered in her room uneventfully while the American eugenics movement gleed at the completion of the first operation under the sterilization law.
The American eugenics movement expanded throughout the nation. While there were more overt expressions of the movement, such as states introducing legal measures to sterilize men and women judged to be genetically inferior, it was the more subtle methods of indoctrination that transformed lies into a natural law like gravity.
“Better Babies Contests”, were a popular attraction seen by million of Americans. Teams of doctors, psychiatrists, dentists and nurses would examine children as young as one or two years old. The “fittest” babies would be showcased at fairs and featured on posters, newspapers and magazines. They were the Forbes 30 under 30 cohort of their time.
The American public became fascinated with winning the genetic lottery. After all, the eugenicists promised much more than money, it was a matter of life and death as the movement descended further into outright murder. European eugenicists watched with a mix of eagerness and envy. One particularly eager man, by the name of Adolf Hitler, would read about American eugenics and inspired by their progress would vouch to rid Germany of Lebensunwertes Leben (lives unworthy of living).
Inspiration: Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An intimate history
Image credit: The M.E. Grenander Special Collections and Archives, University at Albany.