Townsfolk unwitting case study 1920s tests backed sterilization theory
By Ellen Barry
Nov. 28, 2002
In the late 1920s, when eugenics was a respectable science discussed in liberal drawing rooms, researchers looking to prove that rural bloodlines had become tainted hit upon the perfect case study in Shutesbury, Mass.
Without revealing their purpose to residents, eugenicists spent many months gathering information about families in the western Massachusetts town, drawing genetic charts that showed "what may be expected when good pioneer stock is mixed with bad immigrant stock." The families of Shutesbury were used as a case study in Leon Whitney's 1934 book The Case for Sterilization, which argues that "the useless classes" should not be allowed to reproduce.
Many of the descendants of those families are learning of the study for the first time this week after a Boston Magazine reporter gathered hundreds of long-forgotten documents from the offices of the former American Eugenics Society in Philadelphia. Her article, which appeared Tuesday, sheds light on the obscure part that Massachusetts played in the selective-breeding craze that culminated horribly in the Nazi plan to eliminate Jews.
Other papers found in Philadelphia document the forced castration of 26 teenage boys at the state-run Hospital for Epileptics. The doctor who sterilized the boys - diagnosed with epilepsy, kleptomania, masturbation, or "solitary behavior" - described his actions as "an effective means of race preservation."
The emerging documents made the biggest stir among Shutesbury's residents, who racked their brains to imagine how their bloodlines could have been studied and presented to national specialists without anyone's knowledge.
"It's just scary to think where that might have gone, that kind of report, if it fell into the wrong hands" said Roberta Hunting, whose father-in-law was Shutesbury's town clerk for 60 years. The Hunting family's genealogy, carefully penned out for three generations, was among the papers found in Philadelphia.
Historians estimate as many as 60,000 Americans were sterilized without their consent in state institutions because they were alcoholic, epileptic, mentally retarded, or "morally defective."
Although information has emerged gradually about states' roles in eugenic sterilization - similar documents were uncovered in Vermont in 1999 - most people who were sterilized are now dead.
Back in 1928, when Leon Whitney approached Shutesbury school and town officials, he was unselfconscious about his goal: to find and document rural degeneracy. One academic had already characterized the town as "a typically depraved community . . . idle, ignorant and licentious."
According to documents cited in the Boston Magazine article, Whitney appealed to the superintendent of schools in Amherst to share "mental tests" of children with him, but cautioned him not to inform the public, "as we would not get the cooperation of the people."
When Whitney's studies appeared in print, the townsfolk were evidence that "degeneracy has increased . . . to such an extent that a large proportion of its people are below par."