Reading

Targeting the "Unfit"

This reading comes from the Facing History and Ourselves resource Race and Membership in American History: The Eugenics Movement.

In his textbook, Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, Charles Davenport argued, “It is just as sensible to imprison a person for feeble-mindedness or insanity as it is to imprison criminals belonging to such strains. The question of whether a given person is a case for the penitentiary or the hospital is not primarily a legal question but one for a physician with the aid of studies of heredity and family histories.” Throughout the early 1900s, Davenport and other eugenicists repeatedly warned the nation of the threat posed by the “unfit”—the so-called “menace of the feebleminded.”


Caretakers at institutions for people with mental disabilities popularized the term feebleminded in the late 1800s. Although they never clearly defined it, the word originally referred to an individual who was not only “hereditarily deficient in mental capacity” but also a “burden” to society. By the turn of the century, the word had a new connotation—the “feebleminded” were more than a “burden,” they had become a “threat” to society. Lewis Terman, a noted psychologist and eugenicist, explained:

Not all criminals are feebleminded, but all feebleminded persons are at least potential criminals. That every feebleminded woman is a potential prostitute would hardly be disputed by anyone. Moral judgment, like business judgment, social judgment, or any other kind of higher thought process, is a function of intelligence. Morality cannot flower and fruit if intelligence remains infantile.1

The campaign against the “feebleminded” had consequences. Lawmakers in state after state responded by building special institutions to separate the “feebleminded” from other Americans. By 1917, 31 of the nation’s 48 states supported “homes,” “colonies,” or “schools” for mentally retarded and epileptic persons (regardless of intelligence).2

The campaign also affected how the “menace” was defined. In 1920, a writer for Mental Hygiene, a professional journal, explained, “Whereas ten years ago 80% of [admissions] were idiots and imbeciles and only 20% border-line cases or morons, now 20% are of the idiot and imbecile class and 80% are morons or border-line cases.”

The vast majority of those admitted to institutions for the “feebleminded” in the early 1900s shared other characteristics as well. Almost all of them were white. There were no comparable institutions for African Americans at the time.

Almost all of the inmates were poor and the vast majority were female. In many respects, “Deborah Kallikak” (pages 82-84) was a typical inmate. An article in a professional journal reflected the “conventional wisdom”:

Feeble-minded women are almost invariably immoral, and if at large usually become carriers of venereal disease or give birth to children who are as defective as themselves. The feeble-minded woman who marries is twice as prolific as the normal woman.

There is no class of persons in our whole population who, unit for unit, are so dangerous or so expensive to the state. This excepts no class, not even the violently insane. There are much more dangerous and expensive than the ordinary insane or the ordinary feebleminded or the ordinary male criminal. Why is this? They are dangerous because being irresponsible wholly or in part they become the prey of the lower class of vile men and are the most fertile source for the spread of all forms of venereal disease. They have not the sense or the understanding to avoid disease or any care as to its spread. They are most expensive to the state because they are the most fruitful source of disease and mentally defective children who are apt to become state charges.3

These assumptions and beliefs shaped both public policy and private actions. Until the 20th century, all but the most severely retarded lived much as their neighbors did. They attended the same schools, prayed in the same churches and synagogues, paid the same taxes, and worked at many of the same jobs. They, too, married and had children. By the early 1900s, eugenic propaganda had persuaded a growing number of Americans that the “feebleminded” should not only be separated from the rest of society but also denied the rights that other Americans enjoyed.

In 1907, Congress closed the nation’s borders to immigrants who were “feebleminded.” A few years later, nine states had laws banning the sale of alcohol to such individuals and one forbade the sale of firearms. By the 1920s, 39 states denied the “feebleminded” the right to marry. In 18 states they could not vote, and six states denied them the right to enter into a contract. In some states, they could not serve in the National Guard and there was talk of removing the “feebleminded” from the U.S. armed forces.4

What did the growing isolation mean to those who were labeled as “unfit”? How did their families respond to their incarceration? For the most part, their feelings and emotions have been lost to history. Stories like “Deborah Kallikak’s” offer some clues. So does a letter written in 1902 by a resident of a facility for the “feebleminded”:

My dear Father: 
I wish you would leave me come home for my birthday which is not far off. It comes on the 25th of September, which is Thursday. There is one question I wish to ask you it is this: if I ask you to take me home, you say you haven’t the money and I run away why you seem to have it to bring me back, and that is what puzzles me. I only wish I could spend just one month with you, I would be more than satisfied, and you know I have been here exactly 9 years and haven’t been home in a decent way yet, and I guess I never will. If you can’t give me a little change, I will have to make it myself. I will never show my face near home, and you can depend on it. 
                                                                                  Your unthought of Son.5

An experiment in an institution in New York State also offers insights into the way some young Americans responded to the labels. Although the directors of most institutions supported eugenicists in their calls for lifelong segregation of the mentally retarded, Charles Bernstein was among the few to challenge that idea in the early 1900s. Convinced of the power of education to help the “feebleminded” become self-sufficient, he began to release inmates after offering them some training. In a monthly newspaper, he often printed letters from recently discharged inmates. In 1917, a former inmate wrote:

Just a few lines to let you know that I am still alive and in the best of health. I am now in the US Navy. I enlisted July 9th and I am now at the Training Station at Newport, R.I. and expect to leave here on the ship next week for France.

This is a fine place down here. There are about 10,000 boys down here. There isn’t a chance to get lonesome. There are a lot of boys in your institution who I think if they were in the navy it would make a man of them.

I was considered feeble-minded once, but I was given the chance to prove I was not. I am now in a place where you have to have a strong mind and be quick witted. I am proud to say that I am just as good as any of them. The reason for me getting out of that I once got in is that I made a fool out of the ones that tried to make a fool out of me. You must remember me, the kind of a boy that I was, so if there are any others like me, give them a chance, they will make good.6

A few years later, yet another former inmate reported:

I have just received my report card Friday, so I thought I’d let you know my marks. Algebra, three; Civics, three; English, two; Latin, four; Gym, three, and Citizenship, two. On the back of the card it told what the marks stood for and I will copy it for you. Group one includes those whose work is of the highest excellency, a distinction reached by few in a class; group two those whose work while not perfect is still so excellent that it is decidedly above the average of good work.7

  1. Citations

    • 1 The Measurement of Intelligence by Lewis Terman. Houghton Mifflin, 1916, p. 11.
    • 2 Quoted in A History of Mental Retardation by R.C. Scheerenberger. Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co., 1983, p.158.
    • 3 “High-Grade Mental Defectives” by W. Bullard. Journal of Psycho-Asthenics, 1909, p. 15.
    • 4 Quoted in "A History of Mental Retardation" by R.C. Scheerenberger. Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co., 1983, p. 155.
    • 5 Ibid., p. 159.
    • 6 Quoted in "Inventing the Feeble Mind" by James W. Trent. University of California Press, 1994, p. 210.
    • 7 Ibid., pp. 210–211.

Connection Questions

  1. How do you explain why people in one century accepted individuals with the characteristics of “feeblemindedness” and people in the next century isolated them? What fears prompted the change? What does the reading suggest about the consequences of neighbor turning against neighbor? Record your ideas in your notebook so that you can add to your ideas or revise them as you continue reading.
  2. How do you account for the fact that the majority of inmates in “homes for the feebleminded” were white females from poor families? What do those facts suggest about the way Americans were defining their “universe of obligation” in the early 1900s? What attitudes and values were reflected in those definitions?
  3. Why do you think that women labeled as “feebleminded” were considered a burden to society and more dangerous than “the violently insane” or the “ordinary male criminal”? What did they threaten? Whom did they threaten?
  4. Walter Lippmann coined the word stereotype in the 1920s. He defined the term as a “picture in our heads.” He thought of stereotypes as both positive and negative. Today, any kind of stereotype is considered offensive, because it applies a small kernel of truth about some people to an entire group. According to sociologist Herbert J. Gans, “Negative labels rarely stereotype only behavior; more often they transform and magnify it into a character failing. As a result, welfare recipients become defective personalities or deficient moral types; that they are also family members, churchgoers, or neighbors is immaterial. Indeed, one of the purposes of labels is to strip labeled persons of other qualities.” Research the way a particular group—the mentally or physically disabled, the poor, African Americans, Chinese Americans, Latinos—is portrayed in the news, in movies, and on TV. Brainstorm a list of ways the stereotypes you and your classmates uncovered might be revised or abandoned.

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