The Master Race

Make a right off Route 202, about 90 miles west of Boston, and climb a steep tree-lined road to the town of Shutesbury, population: 1,800. There are a few houses along the one-mile ascent, behind patches of thinning trees and knobby dirt driveways. “ZERO TOLERANCE SPEED ZONE” reads a sign near the crest of the hill. The people who live in these parts like for things to move a bit more slowly.

What passes for downtown Shutesbury is a short block of neatly manicured lawn, where a red one-room library forms a triangle with the town hall and a stoic, steepled Baptist church. The town hall is a gray building fronted by a circular drive and a lone pay phone. There are no visible parking lots because of preservation squabbles, so people park on the grass. There's no restaurant in Shutesbury, either — no stores of any kind. The nearest place to buy groceries is the village co-op, 5 miles outside town.

Shutesbury's residential architecture can be characterized by a fetish for brightly colored trim and low slate walls, with a newer strip of pricey homes owned by a growing population of professors who commute to nearby Amherst and Northampton. People rave about the clean air. Neighbors engrossed in conversation wave absent-mindedly to each passing car. It's a throwback to another time.

No one — not even the town's oldest living residents — remembers the summer when teams of researchers came to administer intelligence tests and ask about people's genealogy, taking notes and saying little. No one knew their medical records were being read, their family histories documented, their children, spouses, and grandparents screened for perceived hereditary “defects” including pauperism, “immorality,” and “feeble-mindedness.” No one knew the town was already considered “a network of degeneracy” — its people “socially unfit” — by the followers of a popular pseudoscience called eugenics, a movement that sought to identify people with “inferior” traits as a first step toward purifying the gene pool. The testing was to be done “quietly and without the residents knowing what is going on or what it is all about,” read a directive of the time.

The Shutesbury study, which was carried out in 1928, was part of a campaign to promote sterilization, segregation, selective breeding, and immigration restrictions — a campaign with leadership and widespread support among academics from Harvard and other top New England colleges and universities.

Now, long-forgotten evidence shows that this movement succeeded in ways that were never widely known. A state-run hospital sterilized 26 patients — almost all of them 14- and 15-year-old boys — by cutting off their testicles because they were epileptics or showed signs of being kleptomaniacs or “in poor moral condition.” For the first time, once-secret records reveal that a state official also quietly tried to recruit the help of Boston-area hospitals to sterilize “defective” women without their consent, apparently blocked from doing so only when the hospitals — on the advice of their attorneys — refused to perform the operations. By then, however, other advocates had already succeeded in getting Massachusetts legislators to consent to the virtually unknown, indefinite imprisonment of people considered to be “defective delinquents,” according to documents buried in dusty state archives.

Leslie Bracebridge, Shutesbury's town clerk, leads the way through a maze of discarded benches, fractured record books, yellowing papers, and antique scales to a vault in the building that houses the town's records. Here, officials have stockpiled centuries of tax documents, indentured-servant clauses, maps, farming logs, pauper registries, town meeting minutes — even royal acts and resolves from before the Revolutionary War. There isn't a scrap of evidence that anything particularly unusual happened in 1928.

Bracebridge suggests a chat with 79-year-old Ward Hunting, whose late father, Nathan Hunting, was town clerk from 1911 until 1961. The elder Hunting, she says, was meticulous and heavily involved in town affairs — including local opposition to a one-time plan to run Route 202 through the center of Shutesbury, something he thought would pollute the air. Yet not even he knew of the eugenics project, his son says. “I don't remember that ever having been discussed,” Ward Hunting says. “And we talked about everything. Whatever he knew, I knew.”

His wife, Roberta, emerges with cold fruit juice, then listens in about the long-ago eugenicists. She shakes her head. “It sends chills up my back,” she says. “You think you're in Germany. You think you're under Hitler.”

In fact, the Northampton man behind the Shutesbury study was corresponding with German scientists, whose sterilization policies he called “courageous” and “admirable.” And that man, Leon Whitney — a thin, bespectacled dog breeder whose book, The Case for Sterilization, won him an admiring personal letter from Adolf Hitler — was no crackpot loner. There was a whole movement behind him, legitimized by scientists, academics, and influential policymakers. And Massachusetts was one of its epicenters, beginning at a time when Hitler was an aimless Austrian barely in his teens.

A mix of early genetic science and the ideology of racial improvement, eugenics took root in early 20th-century America with the position that social problems could be cured by removing the “genetically inferior” from the gene pool. “It is better for all the world, if . . . society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind,” wrote Bostonian and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in a 1927 decision upholding the sterilization of a Virginia woman against her will. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

A lot of other Massachusetts notables thought so, too. A distinguished Harvard anthropologist named Earnest Hooton believed that what he called the overpopulation of inferiors was a national emergency. He urged a “biological purge” to ensure the “superior future quality of the American people,” according to his personal papers, still on file deep in the archives of Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Hooton was at Harvard for more than four decades beginning in 1913, during which time he served as curator of the museum and head of the university's anthropology department, as well as president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. Like other eugenics enthusiasts, he believed that crime, insanity, and illness were incurable hereditary defects, and that conditions ranging from pauperism to prostitution were symptoms of inferior biology. In a 1937 story in the New York Times, he was quoted advocating “a sit-down reproductive strike of the busy breeders among the morons, criminals, and social ineffectuals of our population.” An active member of the American Eugenics Society, Hooton endorsed sterilization and segregation of the “biologically and sociologically unfit” and “selective mating and . . . breeding for a better stock.”

Harvard was a brain trust of eugenic thought. In 1926, at least nine members of the Eugenics Society's advisory council were also on the Harvard faculty, and many more were affiliated with Harvard as students and researchers. The society's vice president, Charles Davenport, was a Harvard-trained biologist who also founded the Eugenics Records Office, which kept tabs on people's genetic backgrounds. Like Hooton, Davenport believed that increased charity, philanthropy, and medical advances had interfered with the natural survival of the fittest. Two of Davenport's Harvard associates, Robert DeCourcey Ward and Prescott Hall, spearheaded something called the Immigration Restriction League; they, along with other eugenicists, were instrumental in persuading Congress to curtail the influx of “inferior immigrants” by imposing literacy tests and other restrictions.

Harvard academics and scholars weren't the only local backers of such measures. Former Boston University president Daniel Marsh, for whom the BU chapel is now named, called eugenics “a subject of vast importance,” according to records on file at Yale. Professors at both Smith College and the Massachusetts Agricultural College — now UMass Amherst — were enthusiastic supporters of Leon Whitney's work in Shutesbury, volunteering their students as fieldworkers. The Eugenics Society was “in the first line of importance,” said former Amherst College president George Olds, “in making for the progress of the race.”

Two earnest young Smith College women head down a pocked and hilly country road that branches out from Shutesbury's town center. They're carrying a map, a notepad, and a copy of the 1920 census, knocking on doors like cheerful salespeople and asking to speak with the heads of each household. After long days of asking questions and taking notes, they report back to their professor and begin the work of charting their findings into elaborate family trees, which they call “pedigree charts.”

“Miss Fisk and Miss Benedict came in about noon with the last of the mental tests,” the professor, Frank Hamilton Hankins, wrote to Leon Whitney at the American Eugenics Society. Whitney was directing the secretive Shutesbury eugenics study from his headquarters in New Haven, showing up occasionally in person to accompany fieldworkers on their visits. He was collaborating with professors at Smith and Massachusetts Agricultural colleges, announcing his visits by Western Union telegraph and counting on students to help him collect information — from the history of the town's settlement, industry, and agriculture, to residents' test scores, church attendance, tax records, medical files, and family histories. “Of course, we do not want to make much noise about what we are doing because then we would not get the cooperation of the people,” Whitney wrote, according to documents obtained from the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, which now maintains the records.

Constantine Ladas, a student fieldworker from the Massachusetts Agricultural College, had the bad luck to conduct his research in Shutesbury during a fierce heat wave. He complained of having to hike 3 to 5 miles in the heat to seek out isolated townsfolk who weren't always home when he called. “But, still, our research must come out successfully,” he wrote. Whitney arranged for Ladas to board with “the Misses Reed” for $10 a week, during which time he went door to door with detailed questionnaires. In addition to recording basic information such as age, height, and eye color, fieldworkers were trained to judge a person's temperament, habits, and apparent “defects.” They roamed the streets that summer, tapping useful local informants who could testify about the character of their fellow townspeople. “His word was good,” said one description. “Always paid his bills.” Read another: “His wife for years has been sexually irregular.”

While fieldworkers pried into the lives of the adults, Whitney was evaluating their children. He wrote district superintendents and school principals in Amherst, Greenfield, and Millers Falls, asking for copies of their students' intelligence tests and for permission to perform more. The superintendents and principals cheerfully cooperated. Most were simply told that “a study of the old families of Shutesbury and Leverett is now being made. This is confidential.” Medical records were requested from school nurses. By February of 1929, Whitney wrote, all the children in Shutesbury and Leverett had been tested. Ransom Greene, superintendent of the Walter E. Fernald State School for the mentally ill, furnished all the data he had on patients from the two towns — 10 in all — with their full names and conditions and the addresses of their nearest relatives. “She was an imbecile and insane,” Greene wrote of one former patient. Of others: “He was an idiot and epileptic . . . they were both feeble-minded . . . . She was a moron with a mental age of 10 4/12 years. . . . Both of their parents were subnormal mentally.” The eugenicists added it to their growing files.

Whitney, like other eugenicists, was trying to prove that “defects” were passed on through generations and that degeneracy tended to afflict rural communities where it could spread unless certain people were removed from the gene pool. This, despite the fact that he himself had little formal training outside horse and dog breeding. He had gotten a job as the Eugenics Society's executive secretary after seeing a notice in the Northampton Gazette.

Even before Whitney launched his secret study, Shutesbury had come under the scrutiny of other eugenicists. In 1912, a woman named Isabelle Kendig spent 10 weeks doing research there. The result: a scathing 16-page report that described Shutesbury as “so uniformly decadent that a normal comparison is lacking.” Within four years, a master's thesis delivered at the Massachusetts Agricultural College was calling Shutesbury “a typically depraved community. Whenever an example of decadence is sought, among the first names mentioned is this town.”

Whitney came to the same conclusion. The biggest problem, he argued, was the influx of immigrants — or, as he put it, “unwanted human debris” from abroad, degrading “good pioneer stock” through intermarriage “so that a few generations later the mixture is producing degenerates.” Shutesbury itself was identified as “Cellar Holes” in Whitney's resulting book, The Case for Sterilization. It was, he wrote, “an example of the progress of degeneracy in our country” and made an argument for sterilization and immigration restrictions. “Cut off the useless classes by preventing their reproduction, and increase the better,” Whitney wrote. He urged “careful consideration of the kind of people we want to have forming the race of the future.”

The Eastern States Exposition fairgrounds in Springfield — still home to what is now known as the Big E — were teeming with families on September 21, 1925, lured by the offer of free admission for children. Fairgoers huddled over the baby pigs, lunched along the Avenue of the States, and were entertained by circus acts. All six New England governors were also in attendance — it was Governors' Day — and there was a horse show at the coliseum. A theatrical fireworks exhibit depicted the “fall of Rome under Nero,” and automobiles raced past the grandstands at the track. Farmers swapped the latest breeding techniques, entering their finest horses, fattest pigs, even sleekest cats, for prizes.

But among the most popular contests on the Avenue of the States was the one that gave out prizes not for the best livestock, but for the best human stock. The Eugenics Society's Fitter Families for Future Firesides booth was staffed by teams of physicians and “hereditary experts” who ranked contestants based on their physical, mental, and other qualities. The idea was to show how people could be bred, too. Winners got a medal signifying that they were fit to marry and reproduce, and their genetic information was sent to Davenport's Eugenics Records Office. There were also eye-catching exhibits showing visitors how their “defective” neighbors were a drain on society. “Some People Are Born to be a Burden on the Rest” read a 4-by-12-foot sign. A red light blinked every 15 seconds to show that another $100 of tax money had gone to take care of “a person with bad heredity.” Another flashed every 50 seconds, the interval at which someone somewhere was said to have been sent to jail.

For Walter Fernald, all of this was more than just the topic of a contest at a fair. Fernald was the first resident superintendent of what was then called the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded — later renamed, in his honor, the Walter E. Fernald State School. (The school would later also become infamous for having participated in a study that fed radioactive oatmeal to unwitting children who were patients in the 1950s.) In a lecture before the Massachusetts Medical Society in 1912, Fernald said: “The only way to reduce the number of the feeble-minded is to prevent their birth.” “High-grade female imbeciles,” he said, were the most dangerous. “They are certain to become sexual offenders and to spread venereal disease or to give birth to degenerate children.” By 1929, as the Shutesbury study wrapped up, Fernald School superintendent Ransom Greene — the same man who had collaborated with Whitney — was asking Massachusetts General Hospital director Frederic Washburn to help him sterilize “several high-grade defective girls,” according to aging documents newly obtained through public-records laws. “[The patients] might be more secure for discharge from the institution if sterilization were performed,” Greene wrote. “Is there any method whereby the Massachusetts General Hospital would, or could, sterilize certain individuals?” “Defective” was a loosely defined category that could include unwed mothers, epileptics, the poor, alcoholics, and others considered to be socially undesirable.

It took nearly a year for Washburn to respond. After discussing the matter, he wrote, the hospital's trustees and legal committee had decided that sterilizing the Fernald School's patients would be “inadvisable.” (The Catholic Church was also staunchly opposed to sterilization, an important consideration in heavily Catholic Massachusetts.)

No matter. Everett Flood, an active member of the eugenics movement and superintendent of the state-run Hospital for Epileptics in Palmer — now the Monson Developmental Center — had long since taken matters into his own hands. He sterilized at least 26 patients, most of them 14 and 15 years old, by cutting off their testicles because they were epileptic or showed signs of kleptomania, persistent masturbation, or “solitary behavior.” Like other eugenics advocates, Flood believed that those considered to be mentally and socially “defective” should be prevented from having children. He reported his gruesome surgeries to Martin Barr, president of the American Association for the Study of Feebleness, who wrote in 1904 that children should be sterilized “immediately upon being adjudged defective . . . as an effective means of race preservation.”

If Flood continued to operate on patients under his supervision throughout the early 1900s, the paperwork no longer exists. But Fernald argued that sterilization was not as effective anyway as “the permanent segregation and control” of so-called defectives. He headed a campaign in 1910, backed by Flood and others, to stop the “newly understood menace of irresponsible feeble-minded persons at large” by indefinitely confining the “unfit,” preventing them from reproducing — “especially women of childbearing age” — according to a report delivered to state lawmakers by a commission Fernald led. The bill passed easily, but was stalled by lack of funding. By the 1920s, criminals and the mentally ill were being shuffled from existing institutions or rounded up as they passed through the court system. With minimal proof they were classified as a new category of inmate: “defective delinquents,” who were considered rebellious, worthless, and incapable of reform, but not insane enough to be committed to a mental institution and not criminal enough to be locked up for life. “No other state or country has yet made similar legal recognition of these so-called defective delinquents,” Fernald told the Massachusetts Medical Society in 1912. “Every feeble-minded person, especially the high-grade imbecile, is a potential criminal,” he said. “No feeble-minded person should be allowed to marry or to become a parent.” (Fernald would reverse his position later in his life.)

In 1922 Massachusetts' first Department for Defective Delinquents opened at the Bridgewater State Farm. By the early 1930s, records show, 548 people had been sent there. Many were transferred from other institutions and had never been arrested for a crime. Nearly half of the “habitual delinquents” had been arrested twice, 181 only once. Children as young as 13 were committed, as were men as old as 76. Assigned to “squads” and “platoons” under the supervision of a former sergeant major in the British Army, the males were nicknamed “blue boys” because of their military-style uniforms and put to work on the farm. Bridgewater superintendent Henry Stram called them “mentally deficient, morally blunted . . . social misfit[s] and public liabilit[ies].”

The roundups went on largely out of the public's sight. But there were some critics. There was “an unnecessary latitude for the miscarriage of justice,” wrote one, Charles Ricker, in 1934. Yet the program continued until the “defective delinquent” law was overturned by the state in 1970. As late as 1968, there were nearly 100 “defective delinquents” still at Bridgewater, most of them aging men who had been taken there as boys.

Massachusetts was hardly the only state to take such drastic measures. Organizations like the Sterilization League, Race Betterment Foundation, and the Eugenic Babies Foundation, which sponsored selective breeding and the sterilization of people considered unfit for parenthood, proliferated. Before the hysteria died down amid the outrage that followed the disclosure of the European Holocaust, an estimated 40,000 Americans in 30 states were sterilized (though 20,000 more were sterilized between 1940 and 1960). In some cases, not even the people immediately affected knew about it; many of those who were sterilized were told that they were merely undergoing routine appendectomies.

This year, Virginia became the first state to publicly apologize to victims of forced sterilization. It was, said Governor Mark Warner, “a shameful effort in which state government never should have been involved.”

Greater Boston — with its confluence of genetics, medicine, and biotechnology — is now again at the center of a new age of genetic experimentation. The Human Genome Project has already mapped out genetic information, which could be used for genetic selection, like choosing the sex of an unborn child, or for locating certain strains of hereditary illness. Gene therapy, meanwhile — the manipulation of genes to prevent disease — is in the experimental stages.

“It's great that we have these advances in technology, but it's a slippery slope,” says Alan Stoskopf of the Brookline-based educational organization Facing History and Ourselves. “One might be acting upon certain ideas of who is superior and inferior, might be screening out children with a certain condition because you want a perfect child. It gets to the question of, What does it mean to be normal or perfect?”

The Eugenics Society continued to be active into the early 1970s, though its members were perpetually at odds over how to redefine its image after World War II. Like the Shutesbury study, the pseudoscience of eugenics is largely forgotten, reduced to an embarrassing episode no one talks about.

The moral of the story, says Harvard geneticist Jonathan Beckwith, is that geneticists today “have to be much more wary than they have in the past of those who might use the information to discriminate against groups.” That includes pressuring parents to end a pregnancy based on the odds that a child will have a hereditary inclination toward an undesirable trait.

“My fear is that people will begin to see human beings as the sum of our DNA base pairs. That's frightening to me,” says Stoskopf. “Eugenicists reduced people to their inborn traits. And that impulse is still with us.”