Carrie Buck was not an “imbecile.” She had successfully reached the sixth grade, and Dr. Albert Priddy, Virginia’s superintendent for epileptics and the feebleminded, privately acknowledged that her practical knowledge and general information were “about up to that of her class and opportunity.”
Nor did public officials have evidence to support their assertion that Carrie’s daughter was mentally defective, since Vivian was not yet 6 months old in 1924 and had undergone no intelligence tests.
Nonetheless, a circuit court in Amherst County, Va., upheld an order that Carrie Buck be sterilized. And in 1927, eight justices of the U.S. Supreme Court declared that Virginia’s sterilization statute was constitutional. Instead of waiting to execute degenerates for their crimes or letting them starve, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, society should “prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”
In “Imbeciles,” Adam Cohen, a graduate of Harvard Law School and former senior writer for Time magazine, tells the shocking story of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in U.S. history. Cohen sets the context for the sterilization of Carrie Buck and thousands of others: a panic, fed by the pseudoscience of eugenics, that so-called feebleminded people constituted a threat to public safety and the nation’s gene pool. And he demonstrates to a fare-thee-well how every step along the way, our system of justice failed.
Along with Justice Holmes, eugenicist Harry Laughlin and state’s attorney Aubrey Strobe, Carrie Buck’s lawyer, Irving Whitehead, holds a prominent place in Cohen’s hall of shame.
In a trial that lasted less than a day, Cohen indicates, Whitehead made no attempt to challenge claims that his client was feebleminded or that sterilization was in her interest. He called no witnesses to the stand — no experts to refute the spurious claims of “hereditary science,” or teachers to demonstrate that Carrie had been a competent student, or neighbors to report that she had been raped (and was not promiscuous). Worst of all, while Whitehead was preparing his (poorly argued) appeal, he was also “strategizing with the very people who were trying to sterilize her.”
The last chapter of the case of Carrie Buck, Cohen reveals, hasn’t been written.
The Supreme Court has never overturned its ruling in Buck v. Bell. Between 1907 and 1983, the year Buck died, more than 60,000 Americans were involuntarily sterilized. In 2015, prosecutors in Nashville were using sterilization as a plea-bargaining tactic. Most ominously, perhaps, genetic mapping has led to a warning published in the American Journal of Human Genetics that “there is a significant risk” for the return of a eugenics movement in the United States.
And so, “Imbeciles” leaves you wondering whether it can happen here — again.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.
By: Adam Cohen.
Publisher: Penguin Press, 402 pages, $28.