The Epileptic Colony That Ushered in the Eugenics Movement

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For many, the term “eugenics” invokes Nazi Germany. This is sensible, given the expansive sterilization programs that the Nazis implemented as early as 1933, years before those authorities began to place Jewish and other minority populations into concentration camps. But unbeknownst to many members of the public, the United States provided a blueprint for Nazi sterilization programs—and that blueprint was largely based on the gruesome goings-on within an epileptic colony in rural Virginia.

The Virginia State Epileptic Colony opened its doors in 1911. Purposed with housing 100 epileptics from the state’s three mental hospitals, the Amherst County facility contained two 40-bed wards, living rooms, lavatories, linen rooms, a kitchen, dining room, and other spaces typical of the period. A servant’s cottage, an executive mansion, stables, and livestock-filled yards sat adjacent to this main building, along with a newly constructed railroad track that transported supplies to the colony.

The designers of the Colony took care to ensure that the compound was not easily accessible to the public. Unless they had an automobile, visitors were forced to take a jitney from Lynchburg into the local town and then walk a mile to reach the Colony. Under no circumstances were visitors permitted to lodge at the Colony.

The Colony’s insularity enabled medical authorities to conduct a number of forced sterilizations over the years, based on the recommendations of superintendent Albert Priddy. Two years after opening, the Colony expanded to include “feebleminded women,” though epileptics still constituted the majority of the population. “Feebleminded women” included anyone determined to be cognitively deficient or too promiscuous for society. Low-class, uneducated women were the primary targets. In a 1914 report, Priddy claimed that segregation from society was not adequate to prevent these “anti-social morons,” “prostitutes,” and “non-producing shiftless persons, living on public and private charity” from reproducing; the Colony had to take further measures to protect society.

Initially, sterilizations at the Colony were not documented, so it is not known how many women were subjected to the procedure. But in 1924, the State formally authorized a program of involuntary sterilization with the Eugenical Sterilization Act. This program took as its guinea pig 17-year-old Colony resident, Carrie Buck.

Buck had been admitted to the Colony shortly after she became pregnant with an illegitimate child. Though this detail was obscured at the time, this pregnancy was the result of a rape by a relative of her foster parents. Buck’s biological mother, Emma Buck, was already a resident of the Colony, having been designated as “feebleminded” years ago. Noting that Carrie had inherited her mother’s traits, Colony representatives argued that it was in the best interests of society to prevent her from birthing another “imbecile” child. (Her daughter Vivian was already apt to imitate the ways of her mother and grandmother, authorities said.)

By 1924, eugenics was no longer a behind-closed-doors practice. It had gained popularity among the public, thanks to the many authorities who touted its social benefits and scientific basis. The Dean of the Department of Medicine at the University of Virginia, for instance, had proclaimed that eugenics would “work the greatest social revolution the world has yet known.” It would create “the highest type of physical, intellectual, and moral man within the limits of human protoplasm.” On a national level, eugenics had the support of figures like Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge.

Buck challenged her planned sterilization in the Circuit Court of Amherst County. Her case was doomed from the beginning, as she was represented by a former member of the Colony’s Board of Directors, Irving Whitehead, who also happened to be close friends with the defense counsel, Priddy and Aubrey Strode. Whitehead did not challenge any of the witnesses that testified to Buck’s moral and cognitive unfitness, including a former schoolteacher who was called upon to speak about the flirtatious notes that Buck had passed to schoolboys and a nurse who concluded that Buck’s daughter Vivian was “not quite normal.” The nurse’s conclusion was based on a photographed test in which the baby’s eyes did not follow a coin that was moved in front of her face.

The Court ruled against Buck, who appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. Before the appeals court heard the case, Priddy died, and his name was replaced with that of his successor, Dr. John H. Bell. This named case, Buck v. Bell, would go on to the United States Supreme Court in 1927.

“Chief Justice Holmes: Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

In an 8-1 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Virginia Court’s ruling by deferring to a Massachusetts law that required school-aged children to receive a smallpox vaccination. Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the opinion, declaring, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Buck was sterilized against her will in October of 1927. Her case ushered in a new era for eugenics in the United States. Leading medical institutions, including the University of Virginia, began to offer courses in eugenics, and dozens of states swiftly adopted sterilization laws of their own. (A few already had such laws on the books.) These legislative acts were often coupled with anti-immigration laws.

Before Americans began to scrutinize the ethics and the quasi-science of these programs in the 1940s, Germany’s Nazi government already had its hands on the legal policies and the public language used to support such programs. In 1933, Germany enacted the Law for Protection Against Genetically Defective Offspring and went on to involuntarily sterilize 80,000 individuals. Other European countries followed suit, far outpacing the United States in scale. The disproportion unsettled some authorities in America, including another of the Virginia program’s founders, Dr. Joseph S. DeJarnette. “Germany in six years has sterilized about 80,000 of her unfit while the United States with approximately twice the population has only sterilized about 27,869,” DeJarnette complained. “The fact that there are 12,000,000 defectives in the U.S. should arouse our best endeavors to push this procedure to the maximum.”

In the 1950s, most states that had adopted eugenics programs began to retire those programs, having realized the racial and social prejudices undergirding them. However, it was not until 1974 that Virginia repealed its sterilization law. The last sterilization on record at the Virginia Colony took place in 1956, though some historians suspect that the practice may have continued until the law was repealed in the 1970s.

Today, the facility exists as the Central Virginia Training Center. It primarily serves individuals with cognitive impairments. On the property, there is a cemetery in which many of the original Colony’s epileptics and “feebleminded” are buried.

This haunting place recently inspired Lynchburg native Mary McCully Brown to compose a collection of poetry based on the Colony’s original residents. The verses in The Virginia Colony For Epileptics and the Feebleminded (2017) imagine the vibrant, but tortured inner lives of the women who lived behind the asylum’s walls. Brown’s “beautiful poems about a house of horrors” have been hailed by The New York Times and other outlets for their hair-raising renderings of epilepsy, disability, and the ghosts of the eugenics movements that pervade American culture today.

Photo Courtesy of the Central Virginia Training Center

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About Author

Audrey Farley is the Editor in Chief of Pens and Needles. She recently earned a PhD in English from University of Maryland, College Park, where she studied contemporary American fiction, popular culture, and the medical humanities. She has written for various peer-reviewed journals in the literary fields, as well as outlets such as Public Books, ASAP/J, and Insulin Nation. She lives with chronic migraine and is the parent of a child with Type 1 diabetes. Follow her on Twitter @AudreyCFarley.

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