Asked to name the US Supreme Court’s most egregious decisions, many would cite the Dred Scott case of 1857, which ruled out citizenship for African-Americans, or the more recent Citizens United case, which lets corporations spend billions of dollars in attempts to have their way with political candidates. Few of us have even heard of Buck v. Bell.
Yet Adam Cohen, a respected historian of 20th century America, argues that this 1927 miscarriage of justice also deserves a central place in the court’s hall of shame. His new book, “Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck,” indicts and convicts any number of villains, albeit with proper judicial restraint. Cohen mostly lets the facts speak for themselves.
Carrie Buck, a poor, white Virginian who had borne a child out of wedlock, was locked up in a “colony for epileptics and feeble-minded” and later sterilized without her consent. Before the operation was carried out, she was chosen to test the constitutionality of a state law authorizing involuntary eugenic sterilization for “the unfit.”
In fact, because she had completed five grades before her foster parents took her out of school to be their servant, Carrie’s intelligence was obviously within the normal range. Irving Whitehead, her defense attorney, never challenged the state’s faulty evidence nor called expert witnesses to question the scientific validity of eugenics. In the appeals process, he plummeted from incompetent to unethical by cooperating with his alleged legal adversaries.
When the case reached the Supreme Court, the justices ruled 8-1 that Virginia’s statute was constitutional. Writing for the majority, Oliver Wendell Homes Jr., the nation’s most esteemed jurist and a gifted aphorist, infamously declared, in reference to Carrie, her mother, and her infant daughter: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Cohen skillfully frames the case within the context of the early 20th century eugenics movement. Drawing on Social Darwinism’s creed of “survival of the fittest,” notions of racial hierarchy, and the emerging science of intelligence testing, eugenics metastasized into an ideology calling for purging the least fit from society. Thus state after state voted to sterilize not only people with low IQs but epileptics and individuals with a criminal or “immoral tendency.”
Although the book suffers from repetition of the legal arguments as the case proceeds through the courts, its considerable power lies in Cohen’s closer examination of the principal actors.
As superintendent of the “colony” where Carrie was housed, Dr. Albert Priddy became Virginia’s most ardent eugenics advocate. He argued that the feebleminded should be segregated, sterilized, and then freed once they could no longer endanger society. Even before the law was passed, he cut the tubes of women in his care, under the guise of treating “pelvic disease.”
Priddy had close ties with both Whitehead and Aubrey Strode, the state senator whom he persuaded to propose the law. If Cohen portrays Whitehead as an outright scoundrel, he views Strode as a conflicted soul who was otherwise a political progressive and no true believer in eugenics.
But the national figures in this drama are Cohen’s primary knaves. Harry Laughlin at the Eugenics Records Office in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., served as the country’s leading propagandist for eugenics and Virginia’s expert witness in the case. Like the briefs by today’s climate-change deniers, a patina of facts and figures obscured eugenics’ flimsy scientific basis. Nonetheless, it impressed admirers as diverse as Theodore Roosevelt and the Nazis.
Holmes’s reputation as a progressive, Cohen notes, rests on some key dissents in favor of civil liberties. But at heart he was a Social Darwinist, pitiless toward minorities and the poor. He cites one potential Holmes biographer who gave up the task after discovering just how “savage, harsh, and cruel” the Boston Brahmin actually was. Holmes’s disdainful opinion in Buck v. Bell ran to only five paragraphs.
The only dissenter was Justice Pierce Butler, whose ferocious conservatism was moderated by his Catholicism. The Catholic Church, Cohen observes, was the only national institution consistently opposing enforced sterilization.
As for Carrie, she later married happily and lived a quiet life as an agricultural worker and domestic. At the nursing home where she spent her final years, she liked to read newspapers and solve crossword puzzles. She was one of the nation’s 60,000 to 70,000 American women unjustly sterilized.
Buck v. Bell has never been overturned. But thanks to Adam Cohen, we shall never forget it.
The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck
By Adam Cohen
Penguin, 402 pp., illustrated, $28
Dan Cryer is author of “Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church.”