As boys, they were confined to the Fernald State School in Waltham, Mass. during the 1940s into the 1970s, often on the basis of a single faulty intelligence test. With no possible way of being released, they were considered “morons” or “imbeciles”… less than human. They were completely at the mercy of the state run institution. Torture and sexual abuse was rampant.
One example was “Red Cherry Day” where all the boys were required to sit in a circle. Then each boy’s name would be called, one by one. The boy who was called would be required to stand up, go to the middle of the circle, pull down his pants, and then be beaten with a switch until his buttocks were “Cherry Red”.
But perhaps the worst part is the human experimentation at the boys home. In doing research for nutritional study for Quaker Oats, scientists from MIT started serving up oatmeal dosed with high levels of radiation. Those boys that participated in the study were told that they were joining a science club.
Of course the boys thought that they were given special treatment in receiving the oatmeal every day. In fact, if requested they would get to have additional helpings of the oatmeal along with extra milk. But nobody mentioned to the boys that the milk was also dosed with radiation as well.
How could such a horrific condition occur? Doesn’t this sound like something during the concentration camps of Nazi Germany? The link may surprise you.
To understand how such hellish actions towards these innocent children requires some knowledge of a dark secret in America’s past, something not likely to be in any history books:
Nowhere were the principles of eugenics more accepted than America. The first American eugenics law was passed in Indiana in 1907 and by 1936 there were 35 states that had such laws. As a result, large numbers of individuals in America were forcibly sterilized–primarily poor children taken in by state institutions.
As these operations were sometimes conducted covertly, an accurate assessment is probably not possible. The mentally ill and retarded were the most frequent victims of this program but also children and youth were sterilized. These included unwed mothers and boys in reformatories and orphanages, especially if they were judged to be mentally deficient.
The extent of the sterilizations varied widely from state to state, but was most pronounced in states that were largely Protestant because of the opposition of the. There were also large numbers of sterilizations conducted on blacks in the South by the largely white medical establishment. These were known as “Mississippi appendectomies.”
Indiana Committee on Mental Defectives
One of the strongest proponents of Eugenics, Indiana had set up a Committee on Mental Defectives, funded in part by the state Legislature. This Committee acted much like the hereditary courts that the Nazis had established in Germany during the 1930s.
The Committee submitted an annual report to the governor. Information from doctors, hospitals, teachers and various government officials was collected. Surveyors would make home visits and submit assessments of individuals who were suspected to be mentally defective. “Mental defective“ was defined by the Committee to include the insane, epileptics, and the feeble-minded. These were further classified into one of three categories: idiot, imbecile, and moron.
The Committee claimed on a scientific foundation that mental defects were “transmitted from parent to offspring”, thus entire families might be under suspicion for being mentally defective.
First Fitter Family Medal
Given for a baby “Free of defects” at a Eugenics contest held at a County Fair. Contests like these were held in most states.
State Fair Judging for the Fitter Family “Free from Defects” award. Georgia and Michigan shown.
American Scientific Racism
Stanford president David Starr Jordan originated the notion of “race and blood” in his 1902 racial epistle “Blood of a Nation,” in which the university scholar declared that human qualities and conditions such as talent and poverty were passed through the blood.
In 1904, the Carnegie Institution established a laboratory complex at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island that stockpiled millions of index cards on ordinary Americans, as researchers carefully plotted the removal of families, bloodlines and whole peoples. From Cold Spring Harbor, eugenics advocates agitated in the legislatures of America, as well as the nation’s social service agencies and associations.
The Harriman railroad fortune paid local charities, such as the New York Bureau of Industries and Immigration, to seek out Jewish, Italian and other immigrants in New York and other crowded cities and subject them to deportation, trumped up confinement or forced sterilization.
A book written by American eugenicist, lawyer, and amateur anthropologist Madison Grant in 1916 “The Passing of The Great Race“ was influential in encouraging scientific racism and the early American Eugenics. The book put forward Grant’s theory of “Nordic superiority” and argued for a strong eugenics program in order to save the waning “Nordics” from inundation of other race types. Later, anthropologist Stephen Jay Gould would describe the book as “the most influential tract of American scientific racism ever published.”
Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Involuntary Sterilizations
But it turns out that the three generations in this case, Carrie Buck, her mother Emma, and her daughter Vivian weren’t imbeciles. Carrie was an average student and Vivian, taken from her mother and placed in the home of the family whose nephew had fathered her, made the honor role once in her short life.
In 1934, as Germany’s sterilizations were accelerating beyond 5,000 per month, the California eugenics leader C. M. Goethe upon returning from Germany ebulliently bragged to a key colleague, “You will be interested to know, that your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in this epoch-making program. Everywhere I sensed that their opinions have been tremendously stimulated by American thought.…I want you, my dear friend, to carry this thought with you for the rest of your life, that you have really jolted into action a great government of 60 million people.”
That same year, ten years, after Virginia passed its sterilization act, Joseph DeJarnette, superintendent of Virginia’s Western State Hospital, observed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “The Germans are beating us at our own game.”
American Funding of Germany’s Eugenics Programs
More than just providing a scientific road map, America actually funded Germany’s eugenic institutions. By 1926, Rockefeller had donated some $410,000 — almost $4 million in 21st-Century money — to hundreds of German researchers. In May 1926, Rockefeller awarded $250,000 to the German Psychiatric Institute of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, later to become the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Psychiatry. Among the leading psychiatrists at the German Psychiatric Institute was Ernst Rüdin, who became director and eventually an architect of Hitler’s systematic medical repression.
In 1927, the Rockefeller Foundation provided funds to construct the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics in Berlin, which came under the directorship of the appropriately named Eugen Fischer. Adolf Hitler read Fischer’s textbook Principles of Human Heredity and Race Hygiene while in prison at Landsberg and used eugenical notions to support the ideal of a pure “Aryan” society in his manifesto, Mein Kampf.
Another recipient in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute’s eugenic complex of institutions was the Institute for Brain Research. Since 1915, it had operated out of a single room. Everything changed when Rockefeller money arrived in 1929. A grant of $317,000 allowed the Institute to construct a major building and take center stage in German race biology. The Institute received additional grants from the Rockefeller Foundation during the next several years. Leading the Institute once again, was Hitler’s medical henchman Ernst Rüdin. Rüdin’s organization became a prime director and recipient of the murderous experimentation and research conducted on Jews, Gypsies and others.
Leon Whitney, executive secretary of the American Eugenics Society declared of Nazism, “While we were pussy-footing around…the Germans were calling a spade a spade.”
Rockefeller executives never knew of Mengele. With few exceptions, the foundation had ceased all eugenic studies in Nazi-occupied Europe before the war erupted in 1939. But by that time the die had been cast. The talented men Rockefeller and Carnegie financed, the institutions they helped found, and the science it helped create took on a scientific momentum of their own.
After the war, eugenics was declared a crime against humanity–an act of genocide. During the famous Nuremberg Trials of Nazi War Criminals, the lawyers for the Nazis cited the California statutes in their legal defense. Legal precedent of the forced sterilizations were brought up in the Nuremberg courtroom hearings but to no avail. They were found guilty. In spite of the convictions of several Nazi and subsequent hangings, the Eugenics program continued with sterilization programs and forced internment institutions.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Micheal D Antonio tells the amazing story of how a group of imprisoned boys won their freedom, found justice, and survived one of the darkest and least-known episodes of American history.
The State Boys Rebellion retells the true story of Frederick Boyce and his friends who spent their childhoods in the Walter E. Fernald School for the Feeble-minded in Massachusetts, a government program that locked poor or uneducated children into mental institutions from the early 1900s through the 1970s. There, the children were neglected, abused and used for scientific experiments as part of the eugenics movement that tried to separate people considered to be genetically inferior from the rest of society in order to prevent them from reproducing.
In 1957 they staged an uprising at the institution which focused some
media attention to their situation. Some of the boys that rioted were criminally charged and thrown into a separate prison, thus escaping the hellish conditions at Fernald .
Related articles and links
- The Early Days of Eugenics (scientificamerican.com)
“The State Boys’ Rebellion” D’Antonio, Michael.
“Breeding better citizens: A Hidden chapter of American history” Parker, Valerie.
“Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell“ Lombardo, Paul.