Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“Eugenic Family Studies, Science, and Religion, 1888–1922,” By Dennis L. Durst

Deborah Kallikaks at the training school, 1912.

The cradle is God’s purest shrine:

At this fair fount of life—

Hush here, O world, your strife!—

Bow with veiled eyes, and call divine

The mother crowned as wife.

Minot J. Savage, Unitarian Minister, 1902[1]

The Progressive Era marked a time when the infant disciplines of genetics and sociology converged with the ancient role of minister in their efforts to exert social control over the institutions of marriage and the family. Central to this development was the rise of the popularity and brief scientific ascendancy of the eugenics movement in the early twentieth century. This essay explores the conflation of scientific and religious rhetoric during the period 1888–1922 in the historical genre known as the family studies literature. I argue that an emphasis on heredity over environment led to social policies corrosive of the vital boundary between the family life of the poor and the intrusive meddlesomeness of self-appointed experts in social reform.

Oscar McCulloch and the Tribe of Ishmael

The Reverend Oscar McCulloch (1843–91) was an early pioneer in the fieldwork foundational to the rise of sociology as an academic discipline. He was also a local Congregational minister deeply committed to social reform and charity in Indianapolis during his pastorate at Plymouth Church.[2] He built on the work of Richard Dugdale, who in 1877 published the first major work in the family studies literature, The Jukes: A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease and Heredity. Dugdale set the basic parameters for the study of problematic families, providing McCulloch with a more “scientific” approach to charity.

McCulloch’s classic study of the pseudonymous “Tribe of Ishmael” serves as an early window into the genre known as the eugenic family study. The eugenics movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century evinced an obsession with families of allegedly “inferior stock” or of those deemed “unfit” to continue engaging in unfettered procreation. McCulloch described his first encounter with this extended family in 1877. He recounted discovering, through public records, a “pauper history of several generations,” whose intermarriage with others had formed “a pauper ganglion of several hundreds.”[3] McCulloch and his Charity Organization Society assistants charted the family profiles of some thirty families to form the “Tribe of Ishmael.”

After laying out a litany of crimes, diseases, and sexual dysfunction among the related families of this problematic lineage, McCulloch reached the following conclusions. First he noted “this is a study in family degeneration” characterized by “parasitism, or social degradation.” Secondly, various forms of unchastity he alleged to be practiced by the tribe, evidenced in prostitution, illegitimacy, as well as “incests, and relations lower than the animals go.” McCulloch ascribed this to deficiencies of the environments in which childrearing occurred, notably overcrowding, indecency, and lack of cleanliness. Thirdly, McCulloch pointed to the “force of heredity.” Fourthly, he blamed an indulgent society for offering the Tribe of Ishmael public relief beginning in 1840, including publicly funded poorhouses as well as private benevolence. These efforts he even labeled harshly as “the alms of cruel-kind people” due to their ostensible perpetuation of the conditions leading to familial misery.[4] McCulloch’s emphasis on both hereditary and environmental factors would see a shift over the next three decades toward an increasing emphasis on heredity. Hereditary, or inborn, tendencies became first a refrain and then a constant drumbeat as eugenics burgeoned into a full-blown movement bent on preventing the procreation of a long list of allegedly “defective” citizens.

H. Goddard and the Kallikak Family

No social reformer was more associated with theorizing the causes and the treatment of feebleminded persons in the Progressive Era than Henry Herbert Goddard of the Training School for Feebleminded Boys and Girls at Vineland, New Jersey. His 1912 book, The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeblemindedness, set forth the theoretical and practical problem posed by the cognitively disabled and the familial matrix in which they were enmeshed.

The Kallikak Family begins innocently with the story of a young girl, Deborah, who had come to the home for the feeble-minded at Vineland about 1898. The chronicle turns quickly to Deborah’s progress reports, kept in detail by her minders and excerpted briefly for the reader on a month-by-month basis over the course of several years. The dispassionate modern reader notes even with the selectivity of reportage here that Deborah seems to be a fairly normal (if a bit slow or unmotivated) young female living in an institutional setting. Yet the author’s summary of Deborah’s mental state intoned this description of her condition: “This is a typical illustration of the mentality of a high-grade feeble-minded person, the moron, the delinquent, the kind of girl or woman that fills our reformatories.”

While today “moron” (Greek moronos = “fool”) is a commonplace slur against another’s intelligence in American slang, in the Progressive Era the term was believed to represent a scientific range of intelligence, on a differentiated scale along with “idiot” and “imbecile.” Idiots came to refer to those with a mental age of two years or less, imbeciles with a mental age of three to seven, and the eight to twelve age range was reserved for morons.[5] Later gradations were introduced, such as “low grade” and “high grade” morons. Here Deborah became less an individual and more a symbol, as the assessment continued: “They are wayward, they get into all sorts of trouble and difficulties, sexually and otherwise, and yet we have become accustomed to account for their defects on the basis of viciousness, environment, or ignorance.”[6] The clear implication was a greater role for hereditary defectiveness in the explanation of girls like Deborah.

Drawing upon the notions of hard heredity and degeneration theory, Goddard and his researchers went on a journey to find the fountainhead of Deborah’s alleged mental defect. They ended up identifying Martin Kallikak, the girl’s great-great-grandfather. As a soldier in the Revolutionary War, he had indulged a dalliance with a feeble-minded girl from a tavern frequented by militiamen. From there, Goddard and his researchers found a branch of the family tree comprised of persons with a whole host of social, physical, and mental problems. The scientific dispassion which often characterizes the tome often gives way to emotional language: “The surprise and horror of it all was that no matter where we traced them, whether in the prosperous rural district, in the city slums to which some had drifted, or in the more remote mountain regions, or whether it was a question of the second or the sixth generation, an appalling amount of defectives was everywhere found.”[7] The wayward progenitor after leaving the Continental army went forth and “married a respectable girl of good family” through whom he sired a legitimate lineage described as “another line of descendants of radically different character.” By 1912 the count of this side of the family was 469 of direct descent, of whom only three were found to be “somewhat degenerate, but . . . not defective.”[8] By contrast, the account refers to the entire other branch of the family tree as “the degenerate branch” and regales the reader with details of their socially problematic history. Goddard lamented: “Again, eight of the descendants of the degenerate Kallikak branch were keepers of houses of ill fame, and that in spite of the fact that they mostly lived in a rural community where such places do not flourish as they do in large cities.”[9]

By the end of The Kallikak Family, Goddard, the son of missionary Quakers, engaged in religious rhetoric to drive home his opinions about the social reforms needed. First, he cast paterfamilias Martin Kallikak Sr. as a negative example regarding sexual activity outside marriage. Acknowledging that “sowing wild oats” was an activity among young males of his own current generation as well, Goddard went further and interwove biblical morality with degeneration theory. “Undoubtedly, it was only looked upon as a sin because it was a violation of the moral law,” Goddard intoned. “The real sin of peopling the world with a race of defective degenerates who would probably commit his sin a thousand times over,” he railed, “was doubtless not perceived or realized.” With hindsight as a powerful rhetorical weapon, Goddard added: “It is only after the lapse of six generations that we are able to look back, count up and see the havoc that was wrought by that one thoughtless act.”[10]

The Kallikak Family was highly influential in fomenting public fears of the “menace of the feeble-minded.” A few years later, poor scores on army intelligence tests only inscribed this fear more deeply into the public consciousness.[11] It also shifted attention from individual assessments of intelligence and toward the search for family and intergenerational causes of mental or moral defectiveness.

Arthur Estabrook, Charles Davenport, and the Nam Family

Cold Springs Harbor in New York became the epicenter of family studies research under the auspices of the Eugenics Record Office. Armies of earnest young sociologists were deployed across the heartland by eugenics leaders such as Arthur H. Estabrook and Charles B. Davenport. Their mission was to ferret out problematic family lines so that the public could be warned of their prodigious procreative proclivities and so that their tales of woe could serve to foment social policies aimed at their reproductive restriction.

One such study, published in 1912, was The Nam Family: A Study in Cacogenics. The term “cacogenics” was coined by eugenicists to indicate “evil births,” the foil against which “eugenics” or “good births” could be promoted. The book recounts the study of multiple generations of inadequate “stock.” Funded by wealthy railroad widow Mrs. E. H. Harriman, the investigation of the Nams was carried out by Dr. Arthur Estabrook during the period 1911–12.[12]

Estabrook cited earlier studies of families, such as “the Jukes” and “the Zeroes,” as an established genre for the study of dysfunctional family lines. In the introductory “Early History of the Nam Family,” Estabrook began with the year 1760, highlighting the union of “a roving Dutchman” and “an Indian princess” in Massachusetts. Early histories of the clan labeled its members as “vagabonds” who, among other activities, “were apt to fall into temptation and rum.” One Joseph Nam had eight children, of which five migrated to New York in 1800. A few of the Nams prospered due to their industry, “the majority, however, were ignorant, unintelligent, indolent, and alcoholic,” thus failing to improve their standard of living. The verbal portrait describes their squalid living conditions with thinly veiled horror. “In one place, during the winter months,” the description laments, “thirty-two people of both sexes slept together in one room.” The social reformer concluded, “Such conditions as these can lead only to illegitimacy, inbreeding, and their attending evils of pauperism and dullness.”[13]

Subsequent chapters lay out detailed analyses of the moral and physical characteristics of multiple lines (labeled A–F) of the Nam family. Further chapters survey intermarriages of the Nam lineage with such pseudonymously dubbed tribes as “The Nap Family,” “The Nars,” and “The Nats.” In a section summarizing the findings of the study of these families, certain characteristic features of a persistently problematic nature emerge for further analysis. “Alcoholism is extraordinarily high,” the narrative states, while noting: “of the females 88 percent and of the males 90 percent are given to drinking in excess.” While acknowledging some role for environmental or nurture factors in social problems thus far identified, the authors offered a section entitled “The Inheritableness of the Non-social Traits.” The reader encounters a section on indolence, as contrasted with industriousness. With both parents identified as “indolent,” the resulting offspring Estabrook described as 76.5 percent “unindustrious.” In an effort to apply Mendelian ratios (rather uncritically) to vaguely defined descriptors such as “lazy” and “industrious,” the authors noted that “laziness carries an inhibitor which is transmitted to the offspring.” For example, in a case where a lazy mother (herself the offspring of two lazy parents) married an industrious husband, their union yielded nine out of ten children afflicted with laziness, yet only one child who was industrious. This section concludes that “such matings are eugenically unfortunate.”[14]

The next section of nonsocial traits focuses on alcoholism. Here the author cited alcoholism as the cause of increased “imbecility and epilepsy.” When both parents were alcoholic this yielded an outcome of 38 percent as either imbecile or epileptic; when only one parent was alcoholic this dropped to 13–14 percent as imbecile or epileptic. When both parents were identified as “temperate” the result was 20 percent imbecile and none epileptic. In a fascinating detail, Estabrook observed “when the mother is not alcoholic, whether the father is or not, the frequency of imbeciles in the progeny falls strikingly.” The section concludes that “alcoholism in the mother affects the mental development of her children.”[15]

The influence of biblical terminology, notably the King James Version, may be detected in the next section, entitled “Licentiousness.” Moral and behavioral categories of analysis would usually be paramount in a discussion of an issue such as sexual sin, but under the pen of Estabrook and Davenport an effort to make a moral issue into a scientific one rose to the fore. “The network of the Nam and allied families is characterized by a large amount of harlotry and prostitution; in fact they are the main anti-social acts of this locality,” they declaimed. Convinced that marriage did not carry the same social weight among the Nams as it did in society generally, they chalked the moral failings of the group up to mental incapacity. Thus “the ideals of marriage and chastity” in Nam Hollow, Estabrook bemoaned, “is insufficiently recognized, largely because the mentality of the people is not capable of appreciating their importance.” Heredity once again became the predominant etiological explanation when the researchers encounter two sisters who were reared in “chaste strains,” yielding two more chaste generations due to chaste unions. However “one daughter, IV 212, married a man who belonged to a neuropathic strain and had among her eight children a religious fanatic, a macrocephalic dwarf, and four highly erotic males.”[16] Such conclusions underwrote a burgeoning distraught social tale that merely one mistaken marriage could have disastrous consequences for society.

Estabrook’s narrative turned next to the problem of consanguineous unions among the Nams. He offered the shocking claim that “nearly a quarter of all matings of Nams are consanguineous,” that is, blood relatives. Sociological factors such as living in a valley (geographical isolation) as well as their notable “clannishness” and “their unsavory reputation” also inhibited marriage prospects for the Nams. Despairingly, Estabrook and Davenport adjudged the situation in bleak language, namely “the consorts selected from outside are frequently quite as defective as those who select them.”[17]

Anna Wendt Finlayson and the Dack Family

Another bulletin of the Eugenics Record Office family studies literature appeared in May of 1916. With a preface by Charles B. Davenport lauding the hard work of eugenics field workers, much of its wording was defensive. Noting criticisms of the work of the Eugenics Record Office, Davenport insisted that the family studies were scientifically sound, utilizing the tools of medical training and psychiatry.

The pseudonymously named Dack family was located in the west-central region of the state of Pennsylvania. A few samples will suffice to explore the rhetoric of the family study and identify scientific and religious elements. One subject, Carrie Dack, died of tuberculosis at age thirty-two. At age twenty-five she became “mentally deranged,” resulting in admission to a “hospital for the insane.” Further, the account notes that once she was admitted “she talked incoherently, and was excited, mostly on religious subjects.” Though discharged some ten months after admission as “restored,” her husband was convinced she did not seem “entirely normal mentally.” Out of her four children, one was admitted to the Warren State Hospital at age thirty after trying suicide by self-immolation. Still, the field worker described her as a well-behaved complainer, who was “easily offended, self-centered and seclusive” and was “often irritable and petulant.”[18] Such terminology strikes the modern reader as inexact and crudely homespun, but it achieved the level of commonplace in the genre of eugenic family studies.

One figure, Noah Dack, came in for harsher language still. Finlayson lambasted Noah as “a lazy good-for-nothing who has never done much work and at times has been supported by the township.” He lived for a time with “a notorious character” by the name Maggie Rust, with whom he sired three “illegitimate children.” The couple had been arrested two times on charges of “fornication and bastardy” and the constable eventually forced them to marry.[19]

The tendency of family studies literature to lapse into ad hominem attacks on physical features is starkly evident in the description of one Dillie McGinness, aged seventy. Portrayed as living a “narrow, self-centered life” isolated from her relatives, she looked profoundly unpleasant to the eyes of the field worker. “Her facial expression reveals her character strikingly;” the author sneered, adding that “her features are suggestive of an animal, her eyes are small and bead-like and her wrinkled face is entirely lacking in humanness.”[20] Quite literally, Finlayson used dehumanizing language to describe certain members of the Dack family.

A boy named Jack, age fifteen, appeared to Finlayson as naturally “lazy, shiftless, and quick-tempered.” Considered mentally unsound, she noted that “he gets many queer religious ideas and talks a great deal about the invention of a perpetual motion machine which the Lord, he says, will aid him in doing.” The investigator seemed here to have little appreciation for the imaginativeness that might be expected of a youth in his midteens.

The Dack Family account as a whole is replete with references to alcohol abuse, low intelligence, and unpleasant physical and character features. Moral failings permeate the narrative like a veritable thesaurus of inadequacy. Many of the judgments Finlayson offered using the passive voice, indicating that she routinely accepted at face value the criticisms leveled by the Dacks’ neighbors and fellow townsfolk. The document concludes with “two factors” that for the author “seem to lie at the bottom of the degeneracy shown by this family.” The first factor was nervous instability and the second a “lack of mental ability.” The account of the Dacks concludes with dire warnings about consanguinity, warning that “the marriage of cousins of defective stock produces a large proportion of defective offspring.”[21]

Marriage Restriction Debates

What were the social policy implications of these rather strange tales of defective families? According to eugenics encyclopedist Ruth Engs, social hygiene reformers sought legislation mandating the issuance of a “marriage health certificate” to assure the public that a prospective couple was free of venereal disease. Further, “by 1912 some type of marriage restriction had been enacted in thirty-four states or jurisdictions in the United States.”[22] Ministers were frequently enlisted by the eugenics movement in an effort to screen marriages to bring about eugenically acceptable pairings. At the “race betterment conference” of 1914, including a veritable who’s who of eugenics movement elites as speakers, the Rev. Walter Taylor Sumner gave a speech entitled “The Health Certificate—A Safeguard against Vicious Selection in Marriage.”[23]

The results of such efforts, however, were decidedly mixed. In 1910 F. W. Hatch, General Superintendent of State Hospitals in Sacramento, California, wrote to the state attorney general in defense of the state “asexualization law.” Part of the rationale Hatch articulated for supporting involuntary sterilization was the purported inadequacy of efforts for marriage restriction. “Idiots, imbeciles, and degenerate criminals are prolific,” he warned, adding “and their defects are transmissible.” After briefly surveying the effects of such laws in multiple other states, Hatch concluded: “unfortunately, matrimony is not always necessary to propagation, and the tendency of these several different laws is to restrict procreation only among the more moral and intelligent class, while the most undesirable class goes on reproducing its kind, the only difference being that illegitimacy is added to degeneracy.”[24]

Historian Christine Rosen points out that geneticists began to back away from eugenic claims about the value of marriage health certificates around 1913. Further, as evidence of the unpopularity of such efforts, she cites the rise of unrestricted marriages in states bordering those with stricter requirements as well as a form of popular vaudevillian mockery skewering the idealism of the eugenicists’ vision of scientific marriage.[25]

Eugenicists, however, remained convinced that a failure to restrict dysgenic marital unions would contribute to the degeneration of the race and the descent of future generations into ruination by imbecility and idiocy. Within a decade prominent eugenicist Havelock Ellis would plead with the readers of his manual on “love and virtue” that:

It is not only our right, it is our duty, or rather one may say, the natural impulse of every rational and humane person, to seek that only such children may be born as will be able to go through life with a reasonable prospect that they will not be heavily handicapped by inborn defect or special liability to some incapacitating disease.[26]

On the side of “positive eugenics,” a 1917 marriage manual by Professor T. W. Shannon, offered a pronatalist approach to the issue of childbearing. Noting the widespread fear of “race suicide” due to low birthrates among whites, he issued “an appeal to patriotism” to increase the size of allegedly good families. “Not only patriotism, but religion—our duty to God and man—also makes its appeal for larger families,” he exulted. Along with God and country, allegiance to “the race” motivated Shannon to voice his imperative for the propagation of “larger families where both parents are physically, morally, intellectually, financially and hereditarily fitted for parenthood.”[27] In hindsight, however, wherever the rhetoric of the “fit” came into play during the Progressive Era, the specter of the “unfit” always lurked in the shadows nearby.


Today’s disability studies literature allows a fresh window on the discussion of marriage restriction that had impetus within the eugenics movement a century ago. The widespread use of amniocentesis and the newer test “MaterniT21” to pressure pregnant women to abort their children based on the possibility of Down syndrome is only one of many ways expertise is used to interfere with the sacred trust of life.[28] The rise of the “wrongful birth” lawsuit is another troubling echo of eugenic ideology persisting today.[29] The right to marry and to start a family is a fundamental right; it is even acknowledged in Article 16 of the list of human rights recognized by the United Nations.[30] The family is the ultimate “little platoon” that it is the duty of conservatives to protect from the encroachments of experts (governmental or privately funded) who wish to meddle with affairs of the heart and the hearth.

In a 1931 message entitled “Light on Modern Marriage,” Lutheran theologian Walter A. Maier criticized the inadequacies of social scientific solutions to marital difficulties. “We do not believe that uniform divorce laws, stricter marriage regulations, vacations from married life, courses in eugenics, trial marriages, blood tests, and similar suggestions will lead to the desired results,” Maier proclaimed.[31] Such advice remains a sage reminder that traditional marriage has long been under siege and in each generation is in need of articulate public defense by those who seek out ancient wisdom for families struggling amidst a sea of moral confusion.


Dennis L. Durst, M.Div., Ph.D., teaches at Kentucky Christian University.



[1] Minot J. Savage, Men and Women (Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1902), 64.

[2] “Rev. Oscar C. McCulloch Papers,” accessed October 20, 2015,

[3] Oscar C. McCulloch, The Tribe of Ishmael: A Study in Social Degradation (Indianapolis: Charity Organization Society, 1888), 2. For recent research on this trope in American social history, see Nathaniel Deutsch, Inventing America’s “Worst” Family: Eugenics, Islam, and the Fall and Rise of the Tribe of Ishmael (Oakland: University of California Press, 2009).

[4] McCulloch, Tribe of Ishmael, 6–8.

[5] Goddard himself was instrumental in developing the terminology, see James Trent, Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States (Berkeley: University of California, 1994), 155–66; cf. J. Jacobs, “Care of the Mentally Retarded,” Canadian Family Physician 25 (1979): 1343–48.

[6] Henry Herbert Goddard, The Kallikaks: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-mindedness (New York: Macmillan, 1912), 35; cf. Leila Zenderland, Measuring Minds: Henry Herbert Goddard and the Origins of Intelligence Testing (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[7] Goddard, Kallikaks, 16.

[8] Ibid., 29.

[9] Ibid., 68.

[10] Ibid., 103.

[11] Daniel J. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 82–83.

[12] According to Kevles, it was in 1910 that Mrs. Harriman funded the founding of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, near where Charles Davenport conducted eugenics research. This gift included seventy-five acres of land and a provision of $20,000 per annum for operating expenses. Her patronage of eugenics from 1910 to 1918 was an estimated half-million dollars (Kevles, Name of Eugenics, 54–55).

[13] Arthur H. Estabrook and Charles B. Davenport, The Nam Family: A Study in Cacogenics (Cold Springs Harbor, NY: Eugenics Record Office, 1912), 1–2.

[14] Ibid., 65–67.

[15] Ibid., 67–68.

[16] Ibid., 68.

[17] Ibid., 72.

[18] Anna Wendt Finlayson, The Dack Family: A Study in Hereditary Lack of Emotional Control (Long Island, NY: Cold Spring Harbor, 1916), 14–15.

[19] Ibid., 20.

[20] Ibid., 22.

[21] Ibid., 44–45.

[22] Ruth Clifford Engs, “Eugenic Marriage-Restriction Laws,” in The Eugenics Movement: An Encyclopedia (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 53.

[23] Proceedings of the First National Conference on Race Betterment (Battle Creek, MI: Race Betterment Foundation, 1914), 509–513.

[24] In Harry H. Laughlin, ed., Eugenical Sterilization in the United States (Chicago: Psychopathic Laboratory of the Municipal Court of Chicago, 1922), 324–25; cf. discussion in Kevles, Name of Eugenics, 92–95.

[25] Christine Rosen, Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 71–73.

[26] Havelock Ellis, Little Essays of Love and Virtue (New York: George H. Doran, 1922).

[27] T. W. Shannon, Nature’s Secrets Revealed: Scientific Knowledge of the Laws of Sex Life and Heredity or Eugenics (Marietta, OH: S. A. Mullikin, 1917), 204.

[28] Mark W. Leach, “The Reckless, Profitable Elimination of Down Syndrome,” The Witherspoon Institute, November 10, 2011,

[29] See M. Therese Lysaught, “Wrongful Life: The Strange Case of Nicholas Perruche,” Commonweal 129 (March 22, 2002): 9–11.

[30] “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” accessed October 20, 2015,

[31] Walter A. Maier, The Lutheran Hour: Winged Words to Modern America Broadcast in the Coast-to-Coast Radio Crusade for Christ (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing, 1931), 274.

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