National news stories are off-topic here, but that 1905 Press Democrat headline, “Dr. Brown Would Drown the Idiots”, is irresistible, and also lends the opportunity to briefly discuss Sonoma County’s shameful role in the 20th century eugenics movement.

Like many other states, California had an institution for children that were diagnosed as “feeble-minded” (more about that offensive term below). Founded in 1883 by a pair of civic-minded women, the facility shuffled between four South Bay and East Bay towns until the state agreed to buy a ranch near Glen Ellen. With a band playing a cheery tune at the train stop, the first 148 children arrived in 1891 at what was then called The California Home for the Care and Training of Feeble-Minded Children. By 1904, the Home had 541 “inmates” and a staff of 70, making it the largest employer in the county. The state was also pouring money into the institution to expand it rapidly. (More on the history of the institution proper can be found in a November 19, 2000 Gaye LeBaron column available by searching the Press Democrat web site archives. The Home is still often referred to interchangeably as “Eldridge,” which was the name given to the train stop.)

“It was with the idea of providing a home for the purely custodial cases as well as undertaking the training and development of the epileptic feeble-minded that the management in the past ventured its memorable struggle…from its former inadequate quarters to the present unrivaled location,” the PD noted in a 1904 promotional insert that contained a full page on the Home, partially seen at right. But wait — read that section again: why the mention of the epileptic feeble-minded?” That’s because, according to a 1904 Census Bureau report, (PDF) about 18 percent of those institutionalized as feeble-minded were actually epileptic — by far the largest category of those considered “physically defective.”

Jack London visited the Home (which was adjacent to his ranch) in the summer of 1905, later writing a short story, “Told In the Drooling Ward.” Written from the viewpoint of a “high-grade feeb” (who sounds more like a cousin to Huck Finn), the story follows the attempted escape from the institution by two boys with epilepsy. London’s character described the world of the “epilecs” at the Home:

“You see that house up there through the trees. The high-grade epilecs all live in it by themselves. They’re stuck up because they ain’t just ordinary feebs. They call it the club house, and they say they’re just as good as anybody outside, only they’re sick. I don’t like them much. They laugh at me, when they ain’t busy throwing fits. But I don’t care. I never have to be scared about falling down and busting my head. Sometimes they run around in circles trying to find a place to sit down quick, only they don’t. Low-grade epilecs are disgusting, and high-grade epilecs put on airs. I’m glad I ain’t an epilec. There ain’t anything to them. They just talk big, that’s all.”

“Club house” or no, these children with epilepsy were still captives, warehoused until age 18 as “feeble-minded” alongside others with severe cognitive disabilities, such as microcephaly. What “training” they were given at the Glen Ellen facility is not apparent; photos from a few years later show inmates tending crops in fields surrounding the grounds. Contemporary pictures of East Coast institutions show girls sewing or doing needlepoint, and boys working in tailoring or leatherwork.

The children also may have faced a greater risk of harm from the institution itself than their disability. The late Victorian era believed that there was a dangerous form of epilepsy — use the Google ngram viewer and you’ll find “epileptic insanity” discussed in hundreds of articles and book chapters in medical literature up to the 1940s. Although there was no scientific proof that epileptic insanity was an actual physiological disorder, some authors at the time confidently reported that it accounted for 10-30 percent of all epilepsy cases. Some also claimed that everyone with epilepsy was, by definition, mentally unstable; a 1883 text on insanity stated, “There are those who, as soon as they find the slightest indications of epilepsy in the person under investigation, instantly jump at the conclusion that, ergo, that subject cannot be of sound mind.”

(Although their definition of epileptic insanity was fuzzy, it didn’t stop doctors from prescribing specific medical treatment: A 1917 medical text says epileptic insanity attacks can be treated with a regular enema cocktail of chloral hydrate, tincture of cannabis and digitalis, although “use of opium for a long period has been known to break up recurrent maniacal attacks.” Well, I should think so.)

Not only was their notion of “epileptic insanity” mistaken, but also was their certainty of precise underlying causes of epilepsy. According to our best science in 2008, about 100 diseases and conditions are thought to have possible links, but we admit today that no certain cause is discovered in 7 out of 10 cases. But a 1902 Clinical Psychiatry textbook noted “genuine epilepsy” was linked to unknown anatomical changes in the brain most of the time — with the insanity form, however, “defective heredity” was diagnosed as the cause in most cases. Such certainty that “defective heredity” caused a non-existent disorder was an early step down the very dark road of eugenics.

Eugenics was a popular debate topic in the 1890s and first years of the Twentieth Century. America’s leading popular scientist, Santa Rosa’s own Luther Burbank, contributed a widely-reprinted 1906 treatise, “The Training of the Human Plant.” To Burbank, “mingling of races” was healthy, but he thought it was a “crime against the state” if “degenerates” had children:

“Suppose we blend together two poisonous plants and make a third even more virulent, a vegetable degenerate, and set their evil descendants adrift to multiply over the earth, are we not distinct foes to the race? What, then, are we not distinct foes to the race? What, then, shall we say of two people of absolutely defined physical impairment who are allowed to marry and rear children? It is a crime against the state and every individual in the state. And if these physically degenerate are also morally degenerate, the crime becomes all the more appalling.”

(UPDATE: On closer reading, the context of “moral degenerate” was in reference to people who had syphilis and other STDs which were incurable at the time.) The truly appalling thing was Burbank’s flawed humans-as-plants metaphor. Aside from implying that some people are no better than weeds, he lost what scientific authority he had in this essay by sweeping “moral degenerate[s]” into his definition of “absolutely defined physical impairment.” As with his poorly-reasoned “kinetic universe” theory (see earlier post), Burbank didn’t seem aware that he was spoiling the stew by tossing a dollop of pseudoscience into his pot.

To his credit, Burbank stopped short of linking “moral degeneracy” to heredity. But in the years that followed, there was no shortage of medical experts who sought to blame criminality and other anti-social behavior on impaired brains or bad genes. A 1916 Boston Medical and Surgical Journal article reported that one examining doctor found 1 in 3 delinquents were feeble-minded. The author followed with a sweeping generalization that “every person who is called a criminal is now thought to have some mental variation from the normal.” Nor were epileptics exempt from this thinking. A 1918 study, “American Social Problems,” went even further: “Many feeble-minded, however, are also epileptic, and epilepsy is a common trait of criminals.”

Down the slippery slope of eugenics we tumble; if criminals usually had epilepsy (not true, of course), were epileptics usually criminals? If someone in authority, such as the 1916 “Special Investigator” for Massachusetts State Board of Insanity wrote in the article above that all criminals had some sort of mental disorder, wasn’t having a brain impairment suspect behavior in itself?

The stigma of once being labeled (or suspected) of feeble-mindedness also carried the risk of incarceration at a state hospital. The Insanity Board investigator — surely with the best of intentions of separating the disabled from the population of hardened criminals — believed that cops and other law-enforcement officials could be trusted to pick out the feeble-minded and send them to an institution without court hearings:

My belief is that the first mental examinations should be made by probation officers, judges and police officers…I think that an examination several hours long is not feasible or necessary. I think that a good history of the life, brief and easy to get from every man arrested, obtained before sentence, would in the majority of cases enable a non-medical man to separate out most of the insane and feeble-minded.

Those sent to the Sonoma State Home (the new name for the institution, as of 1909) possibly faced harsher punishment than a regular convict. A just-passed state law allowed for the “asexualization… [of] any person who has been lawfully committed to any state hospital for the insane, or who has been an inmate of the Sonoma State Home, and who is afflicted with hereditary insanity or incurable chronic mania or dementia.”

To be clear: The California law was authorizing forced sterilization of any inmate — and with no more review than a signature from two health board members. As the years progressed, they must have suffered writer’s cramp.

Although many other states followed suit before WWI, California was by far the most active. A 1922 study found 4 out of 5 forced sterilizations nationwide were performed in the state, with the justification being “mainly eugenic, also for the physical, mental or moral benefit of inmate, also partly punitive in certain cases.” Women usually had their tubes tied, and men were given vasectomies; but about 5% of the time, doctors performed hysterectomies or castrations.

(For details on sterilization in all states in this era, see the Carnegie Institution’s survey: “Eugenical Sterilization in the United States.” The Carnegie Institution — which, incidentally, was Luther Burbank’s patron for a few years at this time — actively promoted race-cleansing eugenics projects in the U.S. that were later studied approvingly by the Nazis, including a proposal for locally-operated gas chambers.)

Until 1918, sterilization was rare at Eldridge, with only 12 inmates forced to undergo the operation. But under new superintendent Dr. Fred O. Butler, it became virtually a factory operation, with about 5,400 sterilized between then and 1949, a thousand of the procedures performed by Dr. Butler himself. “We are not sterilizing, in my opinion, fast enough,” he said.

In examining admittance records from Butler’s tenure for her book, “Building a Better Race,” scholar Wendy Kline found there was also a marked shift in the types of patients arriving at the Home: “…a large proportion of Sonoma’s activities had nothing to do with the problem of mental deficiency and much to do with the problem of female sexuality.” Kline cited a 1926 study of the Sonoma Home that reported almost half of the women were there because they were classified as sexually delinquent, with notes in their records that they were “passionate,” “immoral,” “promiscuous,” or similar. The study found only 3 percent of the women were accused of actual crimes, such as prostitution. Male patients, however, were never found to have “sex delinquency;” most were adolescents sent to Eldridge for sterilization by their families because they were “masturbators” or “passive sodomists.”

Like all eugenics true-believers, Butler and his staff always sought evidence of physical deformity to “prove” their crackpot theories. Wrote Kline:

Doctors took note not only of patients’ sexual behavior but also of the sexual organs themselves. For example, of the eighty-two women admitted to Sonoma between January 1918 and August 1919 who were sterilized, forty-one, of 50 percent, were also noted for their “abnormal” genitals. Twenty-two of these patients were singled out specifically for enlarged genitals — the clitoris, vaginal wall, or labia — additional evidence (in the opinions of institutional physicians) of sexual deviance…and underscored the assumption that feeble-minded women were indeed “oversexed.”

The valuable chapter in Kline’s book aside, very little is written about Dr. Butler’s house of eugenic horrors. What happened there certainly wasn’t a secret; Butler was a prolific writer. And nothing is available (at least, nothing that I’ve found) about Sonoma County’s views on the doings behind the walls at the Home, which continued through WWII and after, even as Germans were being rightly condemned for the same practices. This is fertile ground for an American History grad student seeking a thesis topic.

As for our theme item about Dr. Brown and the idiots, not much else is known; several newspapers around the country printed a small item like this, also usually quoting a quip from the Richmond Times-Dispatch: If we were to drown all the idiots like rats, “some states would soon be mighty hard up for legislators.”

Special Dispatch to Press Democrat

New York, Jan. 28 — Dr. Brown of the Board of Health created a sensation while speaking of the proposed new system of education for the backward scholars when he declared that idiots should be drowned. He argued that there was no time these days to spend on children that were deficient in mental powers and said that as there was no hope for idots [sic] their lives should be extinguished.

– Press Democrat, January 29, 1905

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