“One eugenical scheme to purify the state’s polluted protoplasm was bring in a better class of Vermonters — tourists and summer homeowners.”
What is one of the first things you notice when you cross the border back into Vermont? No billboards, right? What about the other features we take for granted: tourist information booths, great hiking trails, summer homes — many, many summer homes — cabins, cottages and even a few mansions. Yes, our tourist industry is one of the major things that keeps Vermont on the map. We have a brand that, thanks in part to various movie references across the decades, is known even internationally. And we are proud of it.
But what if I told you this tourist industry had racist and socially discriminatory roots? That even the construction of Route 7 and the improvement of other highways starting in the 1930s were to make our state more attractive and accessible to the “right” people”?
Now what if I told you that it was a Brandon woman whose key support helped further the Vermont Commission on Country Life’s “program for the future,” which called for Vermonters to “wake up” so that their “children’s children will be less hampered by the social and economic drag of avoidable low grade Vermonters?”
The age of the Vermont Eugenics Survey is a dark moment in our not-so-distant past, spreading its prejudiced tentacles into so many seemingly — and in some cases, authentically — noble and compassionate enterprises. The history and details of this story are so expansive that I can only touch on the surface of them here.
WHAT IS EUGENICS?
Coined by Charles Darwin’s cousin, the term “Eugenics,” according to Wikipedia, comes from Greek eu, meaning “good/well”, and -genēs, meaning “born.” It is the “belief and practice of improving the genetic quality of the human population. It is a social philosophy advocating the improvement of human genetic traits through the promotion of higher reproduction of people with desired traits (positive eugenics), and reduced reproduction of people with less-desired or undesired traits (negative eugenics).”
Founded in 1925 by University of Vermont zoology professor Henry F. Perkins, the Eugenics Survey of Vermont was built on the “belief in the existence of racial stereotypes,” and “accepted the myth that certain people (particularly those of northern Europe) possess a monopoly of desired characteristics, and thought that human differences were invariably caused by heredity.”
Armed with these beliefs, Perkins and his supporters went out into the hills and valleys of Vermont searching for, studying and analyzing the so-called data on the “pirate families,” those who lived on houseboats and had French-Canadian ancestry; “gypsy families,” those with the dark-skin of African-American, Abenaki or French-Canadian descent; “chorea families,” those with the illness Huntington’s Chorea; and other “defectives.”
The categorization of these “inadequates” included: illiterate, illegitimate, insane, thief, queer, pauper, immoral, dishonest, rapist, sex offender, syphilitic, untruthful, epileptic, twin, stillborn, dependent, alcoholic, speech defect, “just not right,” harelip, “a little odd,” sloppy, light-fingered, “smoked and chewed at age 12,” wild, wanderer, cruel, deserted husband or wife, one-eyed, tuberculosis, poor memory, breach of peace, shiftless, degenerate.
In the late 19th century, around the time of its centennial, Vermont was taken up in a parade of patriotism. Tipped off by “concern over declining population and economic stagnation” in many rural communities, UVM’s online documentary of Vermont’s eugenics history explains that state leaders drummed up “reverence for Vermont’s pastoral landscape and natural beauty, carved from the ‘wilderness’” through home days, pageants and local history celebrations. In the 1930s these types of events, as the “fostering of patriotism,” were a specific function of the Vermont Commission of Country Life’s committee on Tradition and Ideals on which served some of Vermont’s foremost authors, including Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Sarah Cleghorn.
But beneath this seemingly innocent pride in home lay a less-than-noble fear: “that the rural exodus had ‘skimmed the cream’ from country farms and villages, while those who remained lacked the intelligence and resourcefulness of either the emigrants or their celebrated ancestors. The gradual replacement of Yankee farmers with immigrants, mostly (Catholic) French-Canadian but also Irish, Italian, southern European and Scandinavian, posed demographic and cultural challenges to the future dominance of Vermont’s ‘old colonial stocks.’”
New scientific beliefs of the time were purporting that social traits were hereditary and therefore “bad heredity” could be blamed for the “decline in the quality of life in Vermont’s hamlets and villages.” With the support and testimony of several physicians, the first sterilization of the “unfit” law was passed by the legislature in 19
12 under Gov. John A. Mead (but later vetoed by his successor, Fletcher Allen.)
SUPPORT FROM RUTLAND COUNTY
In 1915, the state passed a series of laws to “assist and relieve towns of their poor, their disabled and their orphaned, neglected or indigent children.” The result was the State School for the Feebleminded in Brandon, which had a waiting list soon after opening.
In 1919, after the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 left many families, especially children, in pitiful circumstances, Rutland native Bernice Tuttle founded the Vermont Children’s Aid Society to “engage in child welfare work and in social service designed to maintain the integrity of wholesome family groups.”
Meanwhile, other progressive reformers were also looking to environmental and social factors and promoting the development of country schools, churches, libraries and recreational programs. It was to these progressives that Henry F. Perkins took his message of “good eugenics.” Two such women with roots in Rutland County were not only receptive to what Perkins had to say but became his first and biggest supporters.
Emily Proctor Eggleston, granddaughter of Redfield Proctor and daughter of former Vermont Gov. Fletcher Dutton Proctor, was a Vermont Children’s Aid Society backer who gave the original $5,000 to Perkins which allowed him to begin the Eugenics Survey. After she donated an additional but final $2,500, a source of continuous support was found in Shirley Farr.
Farr was the daughter of a Brandon native who, after becoming a wealthy businessman in Chicago, built a summer home in Brandon (now the Lilac Inn on Park Street). A Vermont Children’s Aid Society trustee, Farr donated $5,000-$6,000 to the Eugenics Survey every year from 1925 to 1936.
In 1921, Rutland native Lena Ross, began a rehabilitation program for “female delinquents” or “the feeble-minded” at the Riverside Reformatory for Women in Rutland, where she instituted progressive reforms for the women who were mostly serving time for “crimes against morality,” i.e. adultery, cohabitation or prostitution. Ross, a member of the Eugenics Survey Advisory committee, initiated IQ tests on the women by a survey fieldworker.
The overall mission of the Eugenics Survey was “to gather information about the inheritance of human traits, primarily for the implementation of ‘negative eugenics,’ i.e. marriage restriction, permanent custody in institutions and sterilization.”
Harry H. Laughlin, director of the Eugenics Record Office, which had been founded in 1910, wrote to Perkins that his Vermont survey, “… could recommend a definite policy for maintaining the permanent survey which would comb the state for defectives, and after finding them, would act as an executive agent in bringing to the courts the defectives for disposition in institutions or sterilization.”
Laughlin hired former Vermont Children’s Aid Society employee Harriet E. Abbott as the Survey’s first fieldworker. Gaining trust through familiarity, she interviewed families under the pretense that she was writing a book. Following Laughlin’s advice, she gathered information on the racial descent of the “inadequate’s” four grandparents, his “place or habitat” and occupation, education and other family histories on 62 families, all of whom she considered “primitive.”
Abbott’s notes documented eugenicists’ success in always identifying the degeneracy regardless of “how tenuous the evidence.”
One report based on “Mary, a potential sex-delinquent” housed in Rutland’s Reformatory, is an example of the eugenicists committed belief in the stereotype of the “bad woman” and categorized them as a “social menace.” This prejudice had prompted Gov. Mead to write that his 1912 sterilization law should be applied “chiefly to those of the female sex.” Indeed, a sterilization law that finally passed in 1931 resulted in a total of 253 sterilizations, with two-thirds of the operations on women. The Survey deemed 80 percent of all the sterilized to be “mentally deficient.”
THE TOURISM ISSUE
While the “degenerates” were being institutionalized and sterilized, or citizens were fined for marrying an “idiot” or “imbecile” under the rubric of negative eugenics, the remaining “cream” were encouraged in positive eugenics.
Asked to study their ancestry as a way to foster “pride in the achievements and high qualities of their ancestral stock” which would guide their choice of mate, “every normal couple” was to do their patriotic duty and “have children in sufficient number to keep up to par ‘the good old Vermont stock.’”
Meanwhile, the Vermont Commission on Country Life, which Perkins formed when he first pursued funding for the study of rural Vermont in 1927, was also using eugenic ideas for the regeneration of rural communities they saw as being taken over by the “unfit.” Belittling the “pauper” farmers tending the land, where “pickle-making was a charming pursuit, but moonshine distilling was not,” VCCL romanticized the country life touted in tourism literature.
And here we return to Brandon’s Shirley Farr. Farr, along with author Dorothy Canfield Fisher, an “enthusiastic proponent,” helped spur on the eugenically-based tourism marketing. Celebrating Vermont’s pastoral beauty, the banning of billboards, which Farr added to the VCCL agenda in 1931, was part of the “reinvention of Vermont as a recreational haven.”
However, in reality, the goal was to “improve the overall ‘stock’” of the state. In a VCCL meeting, Fisher told the committee that the state should hand-pick its summer people, and that preferably they should be “teachers, ministers, doctors, librarians and college professors.”
She went on to suggest that “prospective summer folk (should be protected) from any sharp dealing on the part of the hard-bitten hill farmers.”
Although the Eugenics Survey ceased to be in 1936 after Farr discontinued her support, sterilizations continued until 1963. In 1951 Perkins insisted that the law had been “one of the most important and progressive measures on the statute books.”
Interestingly, for a state that has often proudly touted its history of being on the just side of human rights, there was little protest on the Survey by Vermonters. Apparently, concerns with the decline of rural communities, traditions and values, the plight of farmers and French Canadians immigration took precedent at the time.
But in a deliciously ironic twist of history, Perkins’ final years, as well as those of his compatriot, Laughlin, essentially negate every belief upon which they based their life’s work. As he grew older, Laughlin suffered increasingly from epilepsy; Perkins died from liver failure after years as a bedridden alcoholic. Both epilepsy and alcoholism were, according to the Eugenics Survey, defective traits of the “degenerates” of whom Vermont needed to be cleansed.
Information for this story was gather from “From Degeneration to Regeneration: The Eugenics Survey of Vermont, 1925-1936” by Kevin Dann in “Vermont History: The Proceedings of the Vermont Historical Society, Winter 1991.” Additional information found at uvm.edu/~eugenics.
Originally published 2/19/14 Rutland Reader | Joanna Tebbs Young