Last time, we spoke of the positive reforms made by the Indiana State Board of Health and its leader Dr. John Hurty during the term of Gov. Hanly. However, there was a dark side to reform generally and Hurty in particular. One of the major dark marks against Indiana is its eugenics history. Hurty (an Ohio native who worked with Col. Eli Lilly) was an advocate of the state’s eugenics law, passed in 1907. Hurty viewed the sick and undesirable as financial burdens on the state.
In 1907, the Indiana legislature passed the nation’s first law providing for the sterilization of those labeled undesirable. Until the law was vetoed in 1909, several hundred Indiana residents convicted of criminal offenses and those deemed mentally or morally deficient were sterilized.
Eugenics advocates viewed sterilization as not just a benefit to society but a benefit to those subjected to the procedure as well. Alexander Johnson of Indiana’s State Board of Charities wrote in 1889, “Generation after generation many of the families to which these defective people belonged had been paupers, in or out of the asylum; their total number and the proportion of feeble minded among them steadily increasing as time went on.” The eugenics movement was seen by many as just another aspect of the progressive impulse to use regulatory authority to combat poverty and disease.
It was perceived that the “dregs of society” were reproducing themselves at a rapid rate compared to the rest of society, and it was vital to use all the tools at hand, including eugenic sterilization, to prevent those posing the greatest threat to the state from propagating those like themselves (Stern 2007, p. 13). Extended family studies such as the Tribe of Ishmael, done in the late 19th century, supposedly proved that certain family groups were posing undue burdens on the state through irresponsible living and high birth rates (as such people were more likely to spend time in jail and be on public relief) (Stern 2007, p. 15).
Dr. Harry C. Sharpe of the Indiana State Reformatory paved part of the way for the movement by developing the vasectomy procedure in the 1890s. (He developed the procedure, or at least was the first one to perform it in large numbers (42 inmates), to “cure” masturbators. This was an improvement of the prior method of outright castration.) Sharp praised governor Hanly, and stated that his administration “has been noted for its efforts at race purity and civic righteousness.”
The 1907 law itself can be found here. It provides, in part:
AN ACT entitled an act to prevent procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists[.]
. . .
Whereas, Heredity plays a most important part in the transmission of crime, idiocy and imbecility;
Penal Institutions—Surgical Operations.
Therefore, Be it enacted by the general assembly of the State of Indiana, That on and after the passage of this act it shall be compulsory for each and every institution in the state, entrusted with the care of confirmed criminals, idiots, rapists and imbeciles, to appoint upon its staff, in addition to the regular institutional physician, two (2) skilled surgeons of recognized ability, whose duty it shall be, in conjunction with the chief physician of the institution, to examine the mental and physical condition of such inmates as are recommended by the institutional physician and board of managers. If, in the judgment of this committee of experts and the board of managers, procreation is inadvisable and there is no probability of improvement of the mental condition of the inmate, it shall be lawful for the surgeons to perform such operation for the prevention of procreation as shall be decided safest and most effective.
In 1909, the new governor Thomas Marshall stopped the use of the 1907 law by threatening the funding of institutions who used it. The law was formally struck down in 1921 by the Indiana Supreme Court. However, a new law would be passed in 1927, after a United States Supreme Court case that upheld forced sterilization in Virginia, and Indiana’s 1927 law would remain on the books until 1974. It strikes me that the eugenics movement has a kinship with the White Caps movement. It was a movement often rooted in class and often targeting the poor and vulnerable. (In researching this segment, I came across something called “better baby contests” that would show up at state fairs in the 1920s. Hopefully I can remember to include them in the next installment)
As is becoming common in these posts, I don’t have a good segue, but it seems worth noting that in 1906, U.S. Steel founded the city of Gary, Indiana. Named after United States Steel’s founding chairman, Elbert Henry Gary, it was meant as a location for its new plant, Gary Works. The site of the city was chosen “for its proximity to Chicago, Great Lakes shipping, and railroad access to bring in ore from Minnesota and coal from the south and east.” U.S. Steel founded two companies for the undertaking. The Gary Land Company built housing, and the Indiana Steel Company built the plant. It would contain 12 blast furnaces and 47 steel furnaces. A harbor had to be excavated. The steel mill opened in 1909.
The corporation adopted a sort of old fashioned, paternalistic relationship with its laborers similar to that of coal or textile mill “company towns.” Social events and much of life outside the workplace revolved around the company, while on the downside this meant blacklists kept track of any employee with the wrong political affiliations.
The city grew rapidly, hitting 55,000 by 1920. At that time, about 20% of its residents were foreign born, mostly from Eastern European countries. By 1930, the city topped 100,000 and became Indiana’s fifth largest city, comparable in size to South Bend, Fort Wayne, and Evansville.
Next time: Thomas Marshall and (very nearly) a new Constitution