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Creation 40(1):50–51, January 2018

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Life imprisonment for ‘feeble-mindedness’?

The tragic story of Emma Wolverton

Emma at age 15


In the early 1900s, various ‘morality tales’ sought to advance the idea of eugenics. Squarely based on evolutionary belief in ‘survival of the fittest’, the eugenics movement was founded by Francis Galton, cousin to Charles Darwin1

This taught that, just as a farmer controls the breeding of his livestock to enhance the quality of his herd, promoting the childbearing of ‘ideal’ people and preventing ‘undesirable’ people from having children could improve the human race. One of the most popular pro-eugenics accounts was the story of ‘Deborah Kallikak’ (a pseudonym).

The story of the ‘Kallikak’ family supposedly went back to an ancestor code-named ‘Martin Kallikak’, who as a young man had a relationship with a “feebleminded barmaid” that resulted in the birth of Martin Jr. Later, Martin married a “worthy Puritan woman”, and their union produced many productive people. But alas, the damage had been done, because Martin Jr, a drunkard and worthless individual, had many children, and those children were all morally and intellectually bankrupt. Supposedly Deborah was a direct descendant of Martin Jr, and she was tested to be ‘feebleminded’, and was locked away in an asylum, supposedly to keep her from immorality.2

The Vineyard Training House

‘Deborah Kallikak’ was a pseudonym for the real woman Emma Wolverton. The problem is, the story was wrong from beginning to end. The genealogy was wrong for a start. ‘Martin’ and ‘Martin, Jr.’ were second cousins, not father and son, and were both the offspring of respectable married couples.3 And the testing used on Emma was invalid, as they didn’t take into account her complete lack of previous schooling when she first came to the asylum. Later evaluations also tended to downplay the significant gains that she made in learning practical skills. In fact, visitors to the asylum frequently expressed astonishment that such a ‘feebleminded’ woman could present herself so well. But unfortunately, no one ever doubted the story that Emma was feebleminded.

Emma at the training school

Emma entered Vineland Training School in Vineland, New Jersey at eight years old, and as a young woman was transferred to the women’s institution across the street. She was never offered the chance to have a life of her own—she was not offered freedom until she was far too old and ill to accept it. She died in 1978 at 89 years of age, having been a victim of a cruel branch of pseudoscience.4

Why does this matter?

Some might wonder why Emma Wolverton is important today. It is a sad story, but she died almost 40 years ago. Today, eugenics has a bad name because the Nazis used the ideology to support exterminating Jews and other ‘lesser’ races—after using it to justify murdering large numbers of mentally and physically handicapped people in the name of preventing them passing on their supposedly ‘inferior genes’.

Emma at the sewing machine

But when Emma first entered the Vineland Training School, it was the scientific consensus in the western world, accepted by all preeminent researchers in the field, and approved by the US Supreme Court (Buck v. Bell, 1927). It seemed self-evident, enough to justify the lifetime incarceration of some ‘feeble-minded’ people, and the permanent sterilization of tens of thousands more.5 We look back in horror on the atrocities committed against people whose only ‘crime’ was being poor, uneducated, or otherwise disadvantaged, who were abused to advance a theory that built the careers of some of the most famous scientists of the day.

But it’s easy to forget that scientists still make pronouncements that affect the life and death of people today. Some ‘ethicists’ say that it is more merciful to kill a child in the womb when he or she may be born disabled, and that it is better to help a troubled or ill person to commit suicide rather than to ‘force’ him or her to live a life that they arbitrarily decide is ‘not worth living’. Someone as famous as Richard Dawkins proclaimed that the ‘moral’ thing was to abort a Down Syndrome baby and ‘try again’,6 and Peter Singer (Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University) infamously remarked that some animals have more moral value than some newborn babies.7

The only worldview that upholds the value of all human life, regardless of intelligence and ability, is the Christian worldview, because Scripture teaches that all human beings are created in the image of God and are thus inherently valuable, despite that image being marred by sin.

References and notes

  1. See Grigg, R., ‘Hooray for eugenics!’, Creation 30(3):50–52, 2008; creation.com/eugenics-church Return to text.
  2. ‘Deborah’s’ story was first told in Goddard, H., The Kallikak Family, New York, Macmillan and Company, 1912. Return to text.
  3. Smith, J.D. and Wehmeyer, M.L., Good Blood, Bad Blood: Science, Nature, and the Myth of the Kallikaks, pp. 200–201, Washington, D.C., AAIDD, 2012. Return to text.
  4. Emma’s real history is given in detail in Smith and Wehmeyer, ref. 3, and Smith and Wehmeyer, Who Was Deborah Kallikak? Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities 50(2):169–178 | doi:10.1352/1934-9556-50.2.169, April 2012. Return to text.
  5. Sarfati, J., America’s evolutionists: Hitler’s inspiration? Creation 27(2):49, 2005;creation.com/weak. Return to text.
  6. Cosner, L., Richard Dawkins: Dolphins worth more than babies with Down syndrome? creation.com/dawkins-ds-abortion, 24 August 2014. Return to text.
  7. .Cosner, L., Blurring the line between abortion and infanticide?creation.com/infanticide, 2 July 2008. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Jon A.
To CMI A number of years ago I knew a woman who had been unfairly incarcerated in a mental institution by her ex-husband and his deranged family (sordid details omitted).
In time her whereabouts were discovered by her sister, who secured her release. She and her husband took the woman into their home and graciously provided her needs for the remainder of her life.The rescued woman became a Christian, learned to drive, was a stalwart at prayer meetings, and began a little ministry from home sending cards and notes to members of the congregation who were ill or home-bound due to age. This was effective, and she soon expanded it to include others as well, remembering us on our birthdays, holidays, or simply sending a cheerful note of encouragement. The notes were often accompanied by a card with a lovely picture and Bible verse. I received about one per week from her. Considering what her former life had been, her penmanship was excellent, and her grammar and writing style revealed considerable facility. Fortunately, I saved most of the cards. Unfortunately, they are not all in one place, so they turn up unexpectedly from time-to-time and provide a memory or message of support. It has been a number of years since she has gone to be with the Lord Whom she loved, but her words still serve as a precious gift.
Stephen T.
When man decides he has the “right” to decide who is “normal” and is worthy to be allowed to lead a “normal” life - or even to live at all - he is elevating himself above God.
During the time that Jesus walked on earth, He spent far more time talking and preaching to what society saw as the “dregs” of society such as the poor, the blind, the lame, lepers etc than he did with the rich and powerful. Jesus never judged anyone as being unworthy - and neither should we. I read an account of 2 (unrelatedly)! babies born in a hospital on the same day. One was a girl - she had Downs Syndrome and never had a career or even an education - in society’s eyes she was a “nobody” But later in her life her mother had a stroke and this girl with Downs Syndrome became the carer for her mother for the rest of her mothers life. The boy received a good education and was successful in his career and became very well known - everyone knows who he was.His name was Adolph Hitler. We know which of the two gave the greater benefit to the world - and which one God will judge as being worthy.
Lita Cosner
Cute story, if obviously a "tall tale". But clearly it is correct that Jesus did not value people based on economic or social status.
Dorcas S.
Anthony B. Above States ‘there is nothing as cruel today’. The United Kingdom carries out abortions daily. These are cruel and violent and easily the equal. The Democrat party in the United States is pushing for abortion to birth and beyond for people deemed unworthy to live. The battle against evil is constant. It comes in so many disguises, but many of its lies have depended on the belief in evolution. Thank you for standing up against the main stream onslaught against our humanity. You do a great job Of laying out clearly the truth.
David M.
Humans use knives and forks to eat with. Knives and forks can also be used to kill people. Should we no longer use our knowledge of metals to make them? Humans discovered how stars function, and we used that knowledge to manufacture nuclear weapons. Does that mean that we should cease to educate ourselves about how the Universe works? No! Similarly, using our knowledge of DNA and genes in order to attempt to artificially create a so-called 'perfect race' is the stuff of Hitler/Stalin type nightmares and is no longer acceptable. But, using that same knowledge to improve health-care systems with increasingly better diagnostic capability is good use of that knowledge. By the 1930's, many geneticist were repudiating eugenics, in particular the American Thomas Hunt Morgan, who showed, for example, that there was no evidence to support the notion of the hereditary of feeble-mindedness. The author of this piece - Lita Cosner - is right to remind us that eugenics was an appalling idea, but that should not stop humans from discovering how the Universe works. What REALLY matter is how we humans use such knowledge. We currently face a major global Climate Crisis, and the more knowledge we gain on this topic the better for the world and for the survival of plants and animals on which all humans - us included - depend. One of the few truths elicited from the Bible is found in the Book of Isaiah, namely 'All flesh is grass' - we would do well to remember that.
Joseph W.
My wife and I were urged to abort out Trisomy-18 boy since ultrasound indicated he was "not normal" and would probably die around the time of birth. What a tragic mistake that would have been! The overwhelming joy this boy brings to our life daily is far beyond anything we could have anticipated. He's now 11 years old, by the way.
John H.
I have come to regard Charles Darwin as yet another false prophet among many false prophets. As Jesus said you can tell them by their' fruit.
Dan M.
The love of God is not in them and in their eyes you're just an evolved slab of meat! there is no God or higher plain of existence or of thought and morality is subjective in their world view. So they are like brute beasts driven by their lusts and desires, 2Pe 2:12, Jud 1:10.
I don't say this to be mean but to define the playing field. We live in a fallen world cursed by God because of our lack of love, understanding and obedience. He loves us and wants the best for us but we don't want to listen.
Some can be saved but I think most according to the scriptures will parish in their stubbornness and ignorance. The bright spot in all of this is, that God through scientific discoveries in the last fifty years is exposing to those willing to listen, the fact of the foolishness and futility of the evolutionary paradigm. They tell me I'm a fool for believing in a merciful, loving creator while they believe everything came from nothing? A scientific and intuitive fantasy to justify living out the above quoted scriptures!
It's like taking a loan for a sports car you can't afford. It's fun while it lasts but what happens when it is repossessed? The party is over!
I thank the Spirit of God for bringing me to my senses and pray for those who are open to his message!
Anthony B.
In the UK until about 50 years ago,so called ''moral defectives'' were incarcerated. These were often poor girls who had perhaps become pregnant outside wedlock and were controlled in an enclosed environment. Modern society has its problems but such cruelty does nor occur today.
Mark T.
Christians were forcing the Bible upon many people who were deemed savages and heathens long before the ideas of evolution and eugenics were developed. Both sides have learnt much from mistakes made previously.
Lita Cosner
The missionary impulse to go to the ends of the earth, including people who lived lives and engaged in customs that would be deemed savage by most, was not driven by the belief in the superiority of Christians, but by belief in the necessity of the Gospel for anyone to be saved. The fact that missionaries believed that these people could believe and be saved means they believed that these were fully human people. Of course, some missionary groups engaged in actions we wouldn't condone today.
Allen C.
A good article that reminds us that the human race doesn't learn from the past. Small compromises always go further.

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