During the early twentieth-century, criminality emerged as a social problem that threatened North American children, families, women, motherhood and social purity, while increasing government expenditures. Mental hygienists and eugenicists constructed criminality as a symptom of feeblemindedness and mental deficiency. Those people categorized as “morons,” the highest grade of mental deficiency, were considered to be particularly susceptible to criminal influences. A variety of eugenicists across North America held that the majority of criminals were mentally defective. This was a claim that was supposedly supported by the scientific evidence collected through family studies, and often repeated in efforts to legislate sexual sterilization programs.
Criminality and Mental Deficiency
Sociologist Gerald O’Brien has examined the way in which the concept of the moron was used to galvanize support for eugenics. Eugenicists in North America and Europe used the term as a metaphor for things that were feared, including equating the moron with a contagious disease on an otherwise healthy society, natural disasters, and a variety of invading animals and insects. They also recast individuals labeled as mentally defective, and specifically as morons, criminals, and enemies of the state (O’Brien, 2013). As O’Brien observes, eugenicists often used “criminalistic terminology” in their writing referring to individuals residing in psychiatric institutions as inmates, discharge from such institutions as parole, and those deemed to be mentally defective who were not yet institutionalized as being at large (O’Brien, 2013, p. 93).
One of the ways in which eugenicists recast those deemed mentally defective as criminals, was through family studies. Such studies traced the presence of specific traits and behaviours across generations, demonstrating that in families where mental deficiency was present, so was criminality, as well as alcoholism, pauperism, prostitution, and illegitimacy. In his 1912 study of the "Kallikak family", Henry Goddard wrote, “[t]he best material out of which to make criminals, and perhaps the material from which they are most frequently made, is feeblemindedness.” (Goddard, 1912, p. 54) These studies served to provide a sort of scientific legitimacy to eugenic thought and associated measures, including sexual sterilization.
Criminality and Sexual Sterilization
The first eugenic sterilization program, introduced in 1907, allowed for the sexual sterilization of a portion of Indiana’s prison population, specifically those incarcerated at the Indiana Reformatory in Jeffersonville. Historian Alexandra Minna Stern has argued that the Indiana legislation was an afterthought intended to protect the superintendent of the Indiana Reformatory, Dr. Harry Sharp, who began performing vasectomies on inmates in 1899 (Stern, 2011, p. 97). In the beginning Sharp viewed sexual sterilization as therapeutic, specifically in addressing excessive masturbation, but he eventually saw its eugenic potential (Stern, 2011, p. 97). Calling for the passage of the 1907 act he wrote, “[n]o confirmed criminal or other degenerate ever begot a normal child.” (Stern, 2011, p.98). Shortly after being elected in 1908, Indiana Governor Thomas Marshall questioned the law’s constitutionality and ordered a stop to the sterilizations. In 1921, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled the 1907 law unconstitutional on the basis that denying a public hearing to inmates facing sexual sterilization went against the state constitution's due process clause (Lantzer, 2011, p. 31-32). In the wake of Buck v. Bell, the state proposed a new bill in 1927 that authorized the sterilization of individuals in institutions for the feebleminded exclusively, granting them the right to a review process (Lantzer 2011, p. 33).
Indiana was not the only state to subject a segment of its prison population to sexual sterilization. In California for instance, although the initial legislation focuses on the feebleminded, in 1913 it was expanded to allow for the sterilization of those in the state prison system who had been convicted of a sex crime on two occasions, or who had been convicted of three other crimes, and deemed a ‘sexual pervert.’ (Stern, 2011, p. 99).
In Canada, although neither of the two sterilization programs focused on the sterilization of prisoners at any point, eugenicists similarly constructed criminality, and juvenile delinquency as hereditary in their efforts to secure eugenic segregation, sterilization and immigration restriction policies (See Hogeveen, 2005). In her 1920 work, The Almosts, which was published following her time as Ontario’s special inspector of the feebleminded, Dr. Helen MacMurchy argued that the feebleminded often participated in criminal activity, as they were easily influenced by those around them. She suggested that the feebleminded should be cared for and sheltered from such “evil” influences from a young age, in order to maintain their child-like innocence (MacMuchy, 1920, p.19-22). According to MacMurchy, the feeble-minded were responsible for “for up to 60 per cent of…[the population’s] alcoholics, 66 per cent of its juvenile delinquents, 50 per cent of its unmarried mothers, and 29 to 97 percent of its prostitutes” (McLaren, 1990, p.40). She shared Goddard’s opinion that “every mental defective is a potential criminal” (McLaren, p. 40), writing in an earlier report, “‘[i]t is impossible to calculate what even one feeble-minded woman may cost the public, when her vast possibilities for evil as a producer of paupers and criminals, through an endless line of descendants are considered’”(McLaren, 1990, p. 40).
Between 1918 and 1922 Dr. Clarence Hincks, Director of the CNCMH, carried out surveys of mental health in provinces across Canada. He demonstrated that the feebleminded were disproportionately “foreign-born,” and disproportionately represented within the provinces institutions, including jails. Hincks’s survey was instrumental in shaping the eventual introduction of Alberta’s eugenic sterilization legislation (1928-1972), and the anti-immigrant sentiment, and interest in reducing government expenditure while protecting select Canadian families apparent in the survey continued to influence the program throughout its operation.
Four years after the introduction of the legislation, John MacEachran, chair of Alberta’s Eugenics Board from 1928 until 1965, gave an address to the United Farm Women of Alberta on criminality. In the address he argued that many prisoners were mentally defective, referencing a survey of one of the province’s jails, which revealed that 100 out of 150 inmates examined had lower than normal intelligence. He argued that prisons were “converting wayward youths into confirmed criminals,” calling for more attention to measures aimed at preventing crime, primarily the sexual sterilization of “men and women of defective intelligence or of criminal tendencies.” He wrote,
Even if…[the] children [of such individuals] are lucky enough to escape the taint of heredity, the parents are unable to provide for them adequately, or to give them a proper bringing up. There is one remedy for such eventualities, and we fortunately have begun to make use of it in Alberta – although not nearly extensively enough. This is the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act. Since the state must assume most of the load of responsibility in connection with its defective children, it surely is justified in adopting reasonable measures to protect itself against their multiplication. (MacEachran, 1932, p. 3)
MacEachran was concerned with the financial costs associated with mental deficiency, and associated criminal tendencies, not only in terms of the expenses related to incarceration, but also those associated with the care of the children who were likely become wards of the state once their parents were convicted, and who were also likely to participate in criminal activity themselves due to their defective lineage. From MacEachran’s point of view, crime cost the government money, and the sterilization program provided a way to minimize these expenses.
When it came to the Board’s sterilization decisions, perhaps unsurprisingly, criminal behaviour was one of the factors that received consideration, particularly in the case of male patients. Sociologist Jana Grekul found that in the sexual history section of male patient files there was either no information provided, or a mention of criminal sexual behaviour, or institutional misbehaviour of a sexual nature (Grekul, 259-260). In female cases, although they were often outshone by immoral sexual behaviour, theft, and other putative criminal tendencies were also used to justify institutionalization and sterilization. For instance, Leilani Muir, the first individual to successfully sue the Alberta government in court for wrongful sterilization, was put in contact with the sterilization bureaucracy for stealing lunches from her classmates, despite the fact that she was driven to do so by poverty and parental neglect (Muir v. Alberta, 1996; Muir, 2014).
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Dugdale, Richard. (1872). The Jukes: A Record and Study of the Relations of Crime, Pauperism, Disease and Heredity. New York: G.P. Putnam Sons.
Goddard, Henry. (1912). The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble‐Mindedness. New York: MacMillan.
Grekul, Jana. (2008). “Sterilization in Alberta, 1928‐1972: Gender Matters.” Canadian Review of Sociology 45, (3): 247‐266.
Hogeveen, Bryan. (2005). “‘The Evils with which we are Called to Grapple’: Élite Reformers, Eugenicists, Environmental Psychologists, and the Construction of Toronto’s Working-Class Boy Problem, 1860-1930,” Labour/Le Travail, 55, 37-68.
Lantzer, Jason S. (2011). “The Indiana Way of Eugenics: Sterilization Laws, 1907-74.” In A Century of Eugenics in America: from the Indiana experiment to the Human Genome Era, edited by Paul Lombardo, 26-41. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
MacEachran, J.M. (1932). “Crime and Punishment: Being an address delivered to the United Farm Women’s Association of Alberta,” The Press Bulletin: Issued by the Department if Extension of the University of Alberta 17, (6): 1-4.
Muir, Leilani. (2014). A Whisper Past: Childless after Eugenic Sterilization in Alberta. Victoria, BC: Friesen Press.
Muir v. Alberta. (1996). The Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII) 7287 (AB Q.B.).
O’Brien, Gerald. (2013). Framing the moron: The social construction of feeble-mindedness in the American Eugenic Era. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Samson, Amy. (2014). “Eugenics in the Community: The United Farm Women of Alberta, Public Health Nursing, Teaching, Social Work, and Eugenic Sterilization in Alberta, 1928-1972,” PhD Dissertation, University of Saskatchewan.
Stern, Alexandra Minna. (2011). “From Legislation to Lived Experience: Eugenic Sterilization in California and Indiana, 1907-79.” In A Century of Eugenics in America: from the Indiana experiment to the Human Genome Era, edited by Paul Lombardo, 95-116. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.