She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity (13 page)

BOOK: She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity

The story of the Kallikaks, Goddard concluded, was a powerful
argument for rounding up the feebleminded and putting them in colonies, at least until a better solution could be found. Sterilization might turn out to be that solution, but Goddard warned against simply operating on every member of feebleminded families. To Goddard, his pedigrees seemed to show that feeblemindedness was a Mendelian trait, carried on a gene. If that was true, then it was entirely possible for a moron to have some children who were feebleminded and others who were of normal intelligence. To sterilize them all would be like using a hatchet when a scalpel would do.

The one thing that would
save the country from feeblemindedness was naive hope. “
No amount of education or good environment can change a feeble-minded individual into a normal one,” Goddard warned, “any more than it can change a red-haired stock into a black-haired stock.”


In 1912, Goddard published
The Kallikak Family
. It gave a modern, Mendelian polish to old beliefs about feeblemindedness as a punishment for sin. The
Evening Star
, a Washington, DC, newspaper, reprinted large excerpts from
The Kallikak Family,
accompanied by a shuddering commentary: “
I doubt if there is in all literature a more damning presentation of how one single sin can perpetuate itself in generations of untold misery and suffering, to the end of time.”

The book became a bestseller, turning Goddard—a psychologist at a little-known backwoods institution—into one of the most famous scientists in the United States. His fame helped attract more attention to his imported intelligence tests. The New York City school system adopted them, administering them to all their students, and soon other school districts across the country followed suit. The United States Public Health Service reached out as well. They didn't need his help to teach students. Rather, they wanted to test the flood of immigrants arriving in the United States.

Between 1890 and 1910, more than twelve million immigrants traveled from Europe to Ellis Island. Doctors inspected thousands of people arriving there each day to make sure they were in good physical health. In 1907, Congress passed a law to also exclude “
imbeciles, feeble-minded and persons
with physical or mental defects which might affect their ability to earn a living.” The new law meant that the doctors on Ellis Island had to inspect the minds of immigrants as well as their bodies. Congress gave them no guidance, and so the Health Service asked Goddard if he could adapt his test to find the feebleminded among the immigrants.

We were in fact most inadequately prepared for the task,” Goddard later admitted. He knew that a test designed for American children might not work well on adults who didn't speak English or understand anything of American culture. But Goddard accepted the request, unwilling to pass up the opportunity, and created a new test for immigrants.

Goddard brought his team of fieldworkers to Ellis Island on a series of trips, starting in 1912. When ships docked and immigrants shuffled into the main building on the island, Goddard's fieldworkers scanned them. They pointed out those who looked like they might be feebleminded. The selected immigrants were pulled out of the crowd and taken to a side room. There, another fieldworker and an interpreter would give each immigrant a series of tasks, such as fitting blocks into holes or telling them what year it was.

Goddard's staff kept careful records of the tests, which he analyzed back in Vineland. The results stunned him: A huge proportion of the immigrants tested as feebleminded. Goddard broke down the results by ethnic group: 79 percent of Italians were feebleminded, 83 percent of Jews, 87 percent of Russians.

When Goddard published the figures, they were seized upon by opponents of immigration. For years they had been claiming that the new wave of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe was a burden to the country. More recently, they translated their bigotry into the language of eugenics. In 1910, Prescott Hall, a leader of the Immigration Restriction League, made the connection clear. “
The same arguments which induce us to segregate criminals and feebleminded and thus prevent their breeding,” he said, “apply to excluding from our borders individuals whose multiplying here is likely to lower the average of our people.” Goddard now handed them seemingly hard numbers, which they would use to justify slashing immigration quotas.

Goddard himself was more suspicious of his own results. “
They can hardly stand by themselves as valid,” he said. Immigrants might score badly on tests for all sorts of reasons. A Russian peasant might never get the chance to learn how to count; calendars might be useless to him, as he worked on a farm. Goddard worked through the numbers again, using a more lenient cutoff for feebleminded, and found that the fraction dropped by half.

On reflection, Goddard seemed comfortable with the notion that 40 percent of immigrants were morons. “It is admitted on all sides that
we are getting now the poorest of each race,” he said. But Goddard didn't argue that any race was inherently less intelligent. He did suspect that some immigrants inherited their feeblemindedness—“
Morons beget morons,” Goddard said—but poverty might be to blame for the low test scores of many other immigrants. “
If the latter, as seems likely, little fear may be felt for the children,” Goddard said.

Goddard's team was now overwhelmed with work. In addition to studying immigrants, he was continuing to analyze the data from hundreds of families that Kite and others had interviewed. Goddard was also training psychologists at Vineland in mental testing. But the work at the lab came almost entirely to a halt when the United States entered World War I and much of his staff enlisted. Goddard decided he could help the cause in his own way as well. He warned the army that it might risk losing the war by unwittingly drafting hundreds of thousands of morons.

The army had Goddard and a group of his fellow intelligence experts draw up a test they could give to draftees. In 1917, he hosted a meeting at Vineland, where they adapted their tests to examine young men. The army then hired four hundred psychologists, who administered the new test to 1.7 million soldiers. It was an intelligence study thousands of times bigger than anything ever attempted before.

“The knowledge derived from
testing of the 1,700,000 men in the Army is probably the most valuable piece of information which mankind has ever acquired about itself,” Goddard later declared. The soldiers followed the same swelling curve that Goddard had seen when he had tested New Jersey
schoolchildren six years earlier. Most of the scores were close to the overall average, while a few soldiers scored exceptionally far above or below the rest. Goddard saw the army results as a vindication of everything he had been saying about the biological nature of intelligence.

Yet the average score of the soldiers was startlingly low. According to Goddard's standards, 47 percent of the white soldiers and 89 percent of the blacks should be categorized as morons. The average white soldier, the psychologists found, had a mental age of thirteen years, just barely above the cutoff for feeblemindedness. The majority of Americans, in other words, was feebleminded or close to it.

When news of the results got out, it caused many Americans to look at their country with a new sense of self-loathing. “We have a working majority of voters who have children's minds,” a prominent newspaper editor named William Allen White declared.

White was convinced that the “
moron majority,” as he dubbed it, must be a recent development. “A new biological condition faces us,” he warned. The new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe lacked the mental grasp of the colonists who fought in the revolution. “Our darker-skinned neighbors breed faster than we,” he explained, and their descendants inherited their feeblemindedness. “The plasm of the lame brain keeps right on producing lame brains,” White concluded.

To Goddard, the army test results demanded a new form of government. Only about 4 percent of soldiers got an A on the test, meaning that they possessed “very high intelligence.” The top 4 percent of the country must be allowed to rule over the remaining 96. The fact that the United States was a democracy might make this arrangement hard to achieve, but Goddard believed that if the most intelligent came to understand how to make other Americans comfortable and happy, they would be elected to rule. “
And then will come perfect government,” Goddard declared in a 1919 lecture at Princeton.

To put it another way, Goddard had decided that the entire country had to be turned into a giant Vineland Training School. The children at the school had not voted to put Goddard and the rest of the administration in
charge of their care, of course. “But they would do so if given a chance because they know that the one purpose of that group of officials is to make the children happy,” Goddard said.


Almost no one outside of Vineland knew that Emma Wolverton was Deborah Kallikak. But in the tiny world of the training school, everyone was aware, Emma included. Yet her local fame did not protect her from the brutal indifference of institutional life. Two years after the publication of
The Kallikak Family
, Johnstone summoned her to his office to tell her that she was going to have to leave.

Rich children could stay for life at the Vineland Training School if their parents paid a onetime fee of $7,500. Poor children, whose care was paid for by the state of New Jersey, had to move out when they grew up. By the time they became adults, only a few of Vineland's students could be trusted to live on their own. The rest needed to be moved elsewhere. Now twenty-five, Emma Wolverton walked back out the gate she had entered seventeen years before. Garrison had died in 1900, and now his tomb stood at the corner just outside the gate. She stopped to thank him for her time there. “The Training School,” she whispered. “
My home.”

Her trip was short. Emma was moved across Landis Avenue to the New Jersey State Institution for Feeble-Minded Women. Its mission was to keep its inmates from “propagating their kind.”

Across the street, the institution staff also knew that Emma was the real Deborah Kallikak. While she might have been famous for her monstrous family, they found Emma capable and well trained. She got to work with a “
dignified courtesy,” according to a social worker there named Helen Reeves. She cared for the children of the institution's staff, including that of the assistant supervisor. The children adored her and would send letters to her for the rest of her life. Emma also worked in the institution's hospital, even serving as a special nurse during an outbreak in the early 1920s. One day a patient bit one of her fingers so badly it had to be amputated. She sported the injury with pride.

Emma discovered plays to perform in her new home as well. Once, when she played Pocahontas in a play at the institution, she had to throw herself on a dummy that represented Captain John Smith.

You could put more pep in it,” the superintendent shouted during rehearsal.

“If it were a real man, I would,” she replied.

Emma even managed to find a few real men. While she worked as a nurse during the epidemic, she moved into a room near the patients where she was under less monitoring. Using her skills at woodworking, she tinkered with the window screen so that she could slip in and out at night unnoticed. In the moonlight, she would meet a maintenance worker. They were eventually caught, and her suitor was “
kindly dismissed by a lenient justice-of-the-peace,” as Reeves later put it.

Emma became involved with at least two other men, but each time the authorities broke it off. Only a few clues about those relationships survive. In 1925, the institution hired Emma out as a maid, but her service was cut short after less than a year. Over thirty years later, Emma met a psychology intern named Elizabeth Allen. Allen later recalled the stories told about Emma at the institution. “Apparently every time she was released to work on the ‘outside'
she would return pregnant,” Allen wrote. If Emma did indeed become pregnant, there's no record of a child, an abortion, or sterilization.

It isn't as if I'd done anything really wrong,” Emma later complained. “It was only nature.”


Only four years after Emma Wolverton was forced out of the Vineland Training School, Henry Goddard was forced out as well. Johnstone shut down Goddard's laboratory in 1918, but the documents that have survived don't offer many clues as to why things ended so badly. Writing to one of his funders, Goddard condemned the decision as a “
fatal error.”

Perhaps the parents of Goddard's subjects grew weary of him using them as psychological guinea pigs. Whatever the reason, Goddard abruptly left the Vineland School for Ohio. His celebrated work on eugenics and
intelligence came to an end. In Ohio, he worked in relative obscurity, studying how to prevent juvenile delinquency and to help gifted children thrive.

The Kallikak family had gained so much strength in the popular imagination that they no longer depended on Goddard. They endured without him. Paul Popenoe, the editor of the
Journal of Heredity
, recounted their story as he lobbied for more states to sterilize the feebleminded. “
Such children should never be born,” Popenoe declared. “They are a burden to themselves, a burden to their family, a burden to the state, and a menace to civilization.” In 1927, the Supreme Court heard a case about a young Virginia woman named
Carrie Buck who had been scheduled for sterilization. The eugenicists submitted
The Kallikak Family
as evidence that Buck's children would be doomed. The Supreme Court approved the state's petition, and Buck was sterilized. The court's decision led to a boom in sterilizations in the years that followed.

In the 1920s, Goddard's work with the US Army also continued to fuel scientific racism. Eugenicists pointed to the difference between black and white soldiers on the army tests as proof of hereditary differences in intelligence between the races, and that the races should not be allowed to intermarry. The eugenicist Madison Grant declared that miscegenation was “
a social and racial crime of the first magnitude.”

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