“Three Generations of Imbeciles are Enough” — The Case of Buck v. Bell

A newly digitized Supreme Court Case file can help students learn about the eugenics movement in the United States and its impact on one of the most infamous Supreme Court decisions: Buck v. Bell.

In his nearly 30 years in the Supreme Court, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was known for his effective use of language in both his opinions and dissents. Considered by some scholars to be the finest philosophical mind and greatest legal scholar on the bench (and one of its most-cited members), his language in defense of free speech is noted for its eloquence and progressive thinking.

“If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”
United States v. Schwimmer

“The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”
Schenck v. United States

His opinion in the case of Carrie Buck v. John Hendren Bell, Superintendent of State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble Minded stands in stark contrast with the phrase: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

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Underlined Selection from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Opinion in the case of Buck v. Bell

The supposed “imbecile” in question was Carrie Buck, by then a 21-year-old woman from Charlottesville, Virginia. At the age of 17, Carrie Buck became pregnant, which was later reported to have been the result of rape, allegedly by a relative of her foster parents. Following the birth of her child, Carrie was committed to the “Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded” (the same institution that housed Carrie’s birth mother, Emma Buck) on the grounds of “feeble-mindedness.”

Around that time, Virginia’s legislature had just passed a new law calling for “the sterilization of mental defectives.” Passed during the height of the eugenics movement in the United States, this law stated that sterilization would promote “both the health of the individual patient and the welfare of society.”

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Selection of Virginia Sterilization Act

The superintendent of the Virginia Colony, Dr. Albert S. Priddy, chose Carrie Buck to be the first test case of the legality of this new statute. In his filed Petition, Priddy evaluated her as “unfit to exercise the proper duties of motherhood” due to her “anti-social conduct and mental defectiveness.” However, he believed that if sterilized, her “good physical health and strength” meant she could leave the Colony and “enjoy the liberty and blessings of outdoor life [and] become self-supporting.”

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Selection from the Petition of A.S. Priddy

After several hearings and state court decisions that upheld the Virginia law, Buck v. Bell (for Dr. John H. Bell, who succeeded Priddy as Superintendent following his death) reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1927.

Selections from the recently digitized Supreme Court case, illustrating this ugly chapter in American history, are now available on DocsTeach. In addition to the infamous Supreme Court opinion from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the case includes a printed record of the earlier hearings, testimony, evidence, and decisions from the State of Virginia court system.

Among these earlier filings is a deposition from Harry Laughlin and testimony of A. H. Estabrook, both staff members of the Carnegie Institution’s Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. In his deposition, Laughlin describes Carrie Buck and her family as part of the “shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South” whose  “feeblemindedness is caused by the inheritance of degenerate qualities.”

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Selection from the Deposition of Harry Laughlin

Likewise, in his testimony, A.H. Estabrook describes in pseudo-scientific terms how feeble-mindedness is passed down generation to generation.

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Selection from the Testimony of A.H. Estabrook

Several people who knew Carrie Buck directly also testified during the earlier court proceedings. Most of this testimony comes from doctors, nurses, and social workers. Anne Harris, a nurse from Charlottesville, describes in her testimony an incident involving Carrie passing notes in school of an “anti-social” character.

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Selection from the Testimony of Anne Harris

Ms. Harris also describes Carrie’s mother Emma as “feeble-minded” and a “socially inadequate person” who was supported by charity, living in the worst neighborhoods and unable to support her children.

Several of the accounts included in the Supreme Court record from earlier proceedings come from people that had never actually met Carrie. A trio of teachers provided testimony about the behavior and aptitude of Carrie’s relatives (notably absent was testimony from any of Carrie’s teachers). In her testimony, Eula Wood, a teacher from Earlysville, Virginia, discusses Doris Buck, Carrie’s half-sister. Ms. Wood describes Doris as “dull in her books” and describes demoting her to first grade.

Virginia Landis, a teacher from Charlottesville, Virginia, is asked about a George Dudley, another relative of Carrie Buck. In her testimony, Virginia (who testified that she did not “know Carrie Buck at all”) describes George as “dull-minded” who was “slow in grasping things in school.”

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Selection from Testimony of Virginia Landis

Likewise, another teacher, Virginia Beard, describes Roy Smith (Carrie’s supposed half-brother) as “below the grade of other boys his age” (he was currently in the 4th grade at the age of fourteen) and one who “tried to be funny–tried to be smart.”

Though these testimonies might sound irrelevant to the specific case of Carrie Buck, during the height of eugenics beliefs in the United States, this was evidence that proved Carrie’s condition was due to an inheritance of inferior traits. This and other similar details could let Justice Holmes state that three generations of imbeciles were enough.

Several months following Holmes’s opinion and the Supreme Court decision that upheld the Virginia Sterilization Act, Dr. John H. Bell performed Buck’s sterilization by salpingectomy (removal of the Fallopian tubes) on October 19, 1927. She was the first person involuntarily sterilized under Virginia’s law for the sterilization of persons considered “unfit.” An estimated 8,300 Virginians were sterilized under the state law, which was in effect until 1972.

Over 20 selections from this recently digitized Supreme Court case are now available by searching the phrase “Buck v. Bell” on DocsTeach.

This case file was recently digitized in the National Archives’ Innovation Hub due, in large part, to efforts by the National Archives employee affinity group “disABILITY.”

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5 Responses to “Three Generations of Imbeciles are Enough” — The Case of Buck v. Bell

  1. C Ehrler says:

    I wish a picture of Ms. Buck had been included with this article. I realize these excerpts are for case study, but this is also about someone who wasn’t treated as a whole person.

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    • Christopher Zarr says:

      Hi Claudia,
      I agree. What I found most horrific throughout the entire record is how rarely Carrie Buck herself or even people that knew her directly (besides her foster parents) factor into the testimony provided on her behalf. It truly is one-side and dehumanizing.

      As to a photo, this posting was meant to highlight the Supreme Court case that was recently digitized and a photo of Carrie Buck was not among those records in our holdings. A quick Google search reveals a few photos of Carrie, including from the M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives from the University at Albany-SUNY’s (http://luna.albany.edu/luna/servlet/s/o6w343).

      Chris

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  2. Pingback: “Three Generations of Imbeciles are Enough” — The Case of Buck v. Bell | Education Updates – redlegagenda

  3. Nick says:

    Putting this issue into a larger international context, such laws and policies were in vogue in many Western nations around that time. Nazi Germany being a well-known example. However, other nations many would not expect fell in line as well. Sweden went through a bout of soul searching in the latter 1990’s due to an influential newspaper’s revelations on this topic. Here are two accounts from disparate sources: http://www.economist.com/node/155244 & https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/1999/03/euge-19m.html

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  4. Pingback: New Features on DocsTeach | Education Updates

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