She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity (12 page)

Working with his wife, Gertrude, a zoologist, Davenport started with simple studies on the color of people's eyes and their hair. He then expanded his research, training a team of fieldworkers to search across New England for families with hereditary disorders such as Huntington's disease. Davenport also wondered if American asylums and other institutions—homes for the deaf and blind, insane asylums, prisons—might already have the information he was looking for. When he wrote to the Vineland Training School, he was stunned to get a letter back from Goddard, explaining all the work he had already done.

I can hardly express my enthusiasm over these blanks,” Davenport told Goddard, “and my enthusiasm that you are planning, I trust, extensive work in the pedigree of feeble minded children.”

Davenport traveled to Vineland to meet Goddard and help launch the project. He showed Goddard how to manage field researchers and analyze the data they brought back. Most important of all, Davenport gave Goddard a crash course in genetics.

By 1909, a growing number of biologists had come to accept Mendel's
findings. But none of them could yet say for sure what was responsible for his patterns. The Danish plant physiologist Wilhelm Johannsen gave Mendel's factors a new name: genes. “
As to the nature of the ‘genes,'” Johannsen warned, “it is as yet of no value to propose any hypothesis.”

Under Davenport's guidance, Goddard swiftly embraced Mendelism. It remained to be seen whether feeblemindedness was a recessive trait, arising in children when they inherited the same gene from both parents. To search for evidence, Goddard talked a Philadelphia philanthropist into paying for a study on heredity. He built up his field team, choosing only women, who he required to have “
a pleasing manner and address such as inspire confidence,” he said, along with “a high degree of intelligence which would enable her to comprehend the problem of the feeble-minded.” Goddard would come to depend most of all on his top fieldworker, a former school principal named Elizabeth Kite, who had studied at the Sorbonne and the University of London.

Kite and the other fieldworkers began traveling to meet the families of the Vineland students. Within a matter of months, Goddard claimed he saw patterns that “
seem to conform perfectly to the Mendelian law.”

Writing about the results in the school's annual report, he predicted great things for Vineland. “Once we prove that the law holds true for man we shall be in the possession of a powerful solvent for some of the most troublesome problems,” he said. “We are within reach of a great contribution to science that would make the New Jersey Training School
famous the world over and for all time.”


Fanning out from Vineland across New Jersey and neighboring states, Goddard's fieldworkers gathered data on 327 families of students. In a few cases, the families had normal intelligence. The feeblemindedness of the students seemed to arise from some unknown source. It was far more common, however, for the fieldworkers to find families with many feebleminded members, not to mention alcoholics and criminals.

Back in Vineland, Goddard gathered what he believed to be more
evidence that feeblemindedness was inherited like Mendel's wrinkled peas. If two feebleminded parents had children, the school records seemed to show, much of their family might end up feebleminded, too. Based on his pedigrees, Goddard estimated that about two-thirds of feebleminded people owed their condition to heredity. “They have inherited the condition just as you have inherited the color of your eyes,
the color of your hair, and the shape of your head,” he said.

This dawning realization revolted Goddard. He felt as if he was pulling a scrim away from American society, revealing a hidden rot. And none of the stories gathered by his fieldworkers appalled him more than that of Emma Wolverton.

When Goddard first examined Emma, she seemed just one of many morons in the school's care. She was a pleasant enough student within the confines of Vineland. But she would be doomed if she stepped off the property. “
She would lead a life that would be vicious, immoral, and criminal, though because of her mentality she herself would not be responsible,” Goddard predicted.

Goddard's curiosity about Emma sharpened when Kite dug into the history of the Wolverton family. Kite first managed to track down Emma's mother, Malinda. By then, Malinda had eight children and was earning money by working as a farmhand and selling soap. Kite told Goddard that Malinda seemed indifferent to her family—even to herself. “
Her philosophy of life is the philosophy of the animal,” Goddard later declared.

Kite pushed further back into Emma's pedigree. She investigated Emma's aunts and uncles and cousins. She traveled to the reaches of New Jersey—to slums, to farms, to mountain cabins—and came back with more disturbing tales of filthy half-naked children, of unheated tenements, of mothers covered in vermin, of incest.

Kite sometimes proffered a letter from the school to get into people's houses, but other times she hid her mission, sweetly asking if she could get shelter from impending storms or pretending to be a historian researching the Revolutionary War. She asked old people about their dim memories of long-dead relatives. They told of horse thieves, of young women seduced by
lawyers, of an old drunk nicknamed “Old Horror” who would show up at the polls on Election Day to vote for whoever would pay him.

Kite eventually traced 480 Wolvertons to a single founding father, named John Wolverton. She claimed conclusive proof of feeblemindedness in 143 of his descendants. But Kite also encountered descendants of John Wolverton who were doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and other respectable citizens. Their intelligence seemed utterly different from Emma's relatives. The two branches of the family, the high and the low, didn't seem to know of each other.

Kite was confused until an elderly informant dispelled the fog. John Wolverton, Kite learned, had been born into an upstanding colonial family. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, he joined a militia, and when the militia stopped one night at a tavern, he got drunk and slept with a feebleminded girl who worked there. John promptly got back on the respectable path, married a woman of good Quaker stock, and went on to have a happy family, with many descendants who rose to prominence.

John had no idea that he had impregnated the tavern girl, who gave birth to a feebleminded son. She named him John Wolverton after his missing father. When John the younger grew up, he turned out an utterly different man—depraved enough to earn the nickname “Old Horror.” He started a family of his own, and the two lines of Wolvertons veered in different directions over the next 130 years—one to greater respectability, the other into feeblemindedness and crime.

The biologist could hardly plan and carry out a more rigid experiment,” Goddard said. The data flowing into Vineland “was among
the most valuable that have ever been contributed to the subject of human heredity,” he said.


Goddard convinced himself the United States was sliding into a crisis of heredity. “If civilization is to advance,
our best people must replenish the Earth,” he said. To Goddard, the best people in the United States were his fellow New Englanders, “the stock than which there is no better.”
But one by one, the great New England families were disappearing for lack of children. Meanwhile, the feebleminded were multiplying at over twice the average rate, according to Goddard's estimates.

Goddard was hardly the first person to contemplate controlling human heredity. Four centuries beforehand, Luis Mercado had advised people with hereditary disorders to avoid having children together. In the early 1800s, alienists urged that the insane be prevented from starting families. Francis Galton turned these concerns into something far more extreme: a call to governments to breed their citizens like cows or corn. Galton recognized that in order to win people to his cause, he would need, as he put it, “
a brief word to express the science of improving stock.” In 1883, he came up with an enduring term:
To Galton, eugenics was full of happy visions of arranged marriages that would lead to ever-better generations of humans. “What a galaxy of genius might we not create!” Galton promised.

Galton's enthusiasm attracted some noteworthy English biologists, who formed the Eugenics Education Society. But they never gained much power or influence over British affairs. By the dawn of the twentieth century, eugenics had begun taking root in the United States, and there it flowered into darker blooms. American eugenicists wanted to prevent people with bad traits from having children. Some argued for institutionalizing the feebleminded to stop them from having sex. Some called for sterilization. In 1900, an American physician named W. D. McKim went so far as to call for “
a gentle painless death.” He envisioned the construction of gas chambers to kill “the very weak and the very vicious.” It would be pointless to try to improve these people through experience, because, McKim declared, “heredity is the fundamental cause of human wretchedness.”

Davenport embraced eugenics without any hesitation, and he argued that Mendel's rediscovery only strengthened the case for it. If genes were carried in the germ line, there was nothing to be done about the bad ones except to keep them from poisoning the next generation. Davenport believed that eugenics would have to be carried out based on a thorough knowledge of hereditary traits, and so he established a repository of data—the Eugenics Record Office—next to the research station at Cold Spring
Harbor in 1910. Ultimately, Davenport predicted, eugenics would provide “
the salvation of the race through heredity.”

Under Davenport's sway, Goddard quickly became a eugenicist, too. In 1909, he joined Davenport on a prominent committee of eugenicists, and two years later he published a manifesto entitled “
The Elimination of Feeble-Mindedness.” Goddard wrote that it was possible for environmental causes, such as an illness during pregnancy, to cause feeblemindedness, “
but all these causes combined are small compared to the one cause—heredity.”

To eliminate feeblemindedness, Goddard rejected the calls of people like McKim to kill the feebleminded. But he did want to make sure they didn't get to have children. And by “they,” Goddard mostly meant women.

Goddard conjured up a specter of attractive, feebleminded women wantonly seducing decent men. He warned that the country's reformatories were full of feebleminded girls who “do not conform to the conventions of society,” who were “
boy crazy” or, worst of all, “preferred the company of colored men to white.” These feebleminded girls “in many instances are quite attractive,” Goddard warned, requiring them to be put “under the care, guidance, and direction of intelligent and humane people, who will make their lives happy and partially useful, but who will insist upon the one important thing, and that is that this race should end with them; they shall never become the mothers of children who are like themselves.”

Institutionalization wasn't the only way to keep women from becoming mothers. Goddard joined the movement to sterilize women deemed unfit. In the early 1900s, an Indiana prison surgeon named Harry Sharp performed vasectomies to stop men from transmitting defective “germ plasm,” and in 1907 the Indiana legislature made
sterilization a state policy. In New Jersey, Goddard lobbied for a similar bill, which Governor Woodrow Wilson signed in 1911. The first woman slated to be sterilized took her case to New Jersey's Supreme Court, which ruled it unconstitutional in 1913 as cruel and unusual punishment. Goddard responded to the defeat by redoubling his efforts. He joined new committees with ominous names, like the Committee for the Heredity of Feeble-mindedness, and the Committee to Study and to Report on the Best Practical Means of Cutting Off the
Defective Germ-Plasm in the American Population. “There is no question that there should be
a carefully worded sterilization law upon the statute book of every State,” Goddard said.


Lobbying governments and publishing reports would not be enough for Goddard. He wanted to win over public opinion. The heap of data he was collecting from hundreds of families would not make the country as a whole appreciate the threat of feeblemindedness. He needed to find a parable to illustrate the destructiveness of feeblemindedness through a single family. The choice was obvious: Emma Wolverton and her ancestors.

Goddard began work on a book, his first. He used the school's notes about Emma to put together a short biography up to age twenty-two. To protect her identity, he referred to her as Deborah Kallikak. Her last name was another one of Goddard's Greek creations—a combination of the words
(“good”) and
(“bad”). Yet he felt no compunction about adding photographs of Emma to the book. In one picture she posed at her sewing machine. In another, she held a book open in her lap, her thick black hair kept neat in a bow. Casual readers might not see anything amiss with this young woman, but Goddard was quick to set them aright: Intelligence tests showed that she had a mental age of a nine-year-old.

“The question is, ‘How do we account for this kind of individual?'” Goddard asked. “The answer is in a word ‘Heredity,'—
bad stock.”

To prove his point, Goddard used Kite's research to tell the story of the Wolvertons. He started with John Wolverton, renaming him Martin Kallikak. Interspersed with the tales of drunks and horse thieves, Goddard's book included photographs Kite took of Emma's relatives—old women and dirty children scowled at the camera, standing in front of sheds or sitting on sagging porches. Goddard also added family trees to the book, drooping with squares and circles, some of which were colored black to indicate feeblemindedness. The defect flowed down through six generations of the trees, demonstrating the power of heredity.

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