The Logic of Eugenics Still Haunts Virginia

Historians in the News
tags: books, eugenics, scientific racism

When Elizabeth Catte began researching Pure America, her new book about the history of eugenics in Virginia, her first act seemed, on its surface, like a non sequitur: she spent a night at a new luxury hotel, the Blackburn Inn, in her hometown of Staunton, Virginia. What interested Catte was that, in its former life, the building that now houses the Blackburn Inn had been the Western State Hospital—or, as it was better known upon first opening in 1828, the Western State Lunatic Asylum. It was where many Virginians deemed “feeble-minded” were incarcerated under the directorship of Joseph DeJarnette and where, between 1927 and 1964, hospital surgeons sterilized approximately 1,700 people without their consent. The sprawling, bucolic campus includes a cemetery where the remains of more than 3,000 indigent inmates lie buried in unmarked graves, now discreetly barred by “No Trespassing” signs to dissuade hotel guests from accidentally discovering it during a post-meal stroll.

The Blackburn Inn—like its neighboring complex of condos selling for half a million each and cheerily dubbed the Villages at Staunton—is the brainchild of Richmond developers Robin Miller and Dan Gecker. During the process of earning permitting approval for the property’s redevelopment, they promised that their historic preservation project would help grease the wheels of the local tourism economy. And Catte, who situates the Blackburn Inn and the Western State Hospital at the center of her book, is the first to admit that Miller and Gecker made good on the initial claim that they would take the “good bones” of Western State’s buildings and give them a new incarnation. “I’ll admit the hotel is really nice,” Catte writes of her getaway.

But where the developers saw good bones, Catte also saw ghosts, and Pure America gives voice to them by tracing how white eugenics, far from being a short-lived horror, was in fact a “world building enterprise.” And it built a world within whose structures, both visible and invisible, we are still living today.

In 1840 Virginia’s Western State Lunatic Asylum (founded 1828) came under the directorship of Dr. Francis T. Stribling, a recent University of Pennsylvania graduate eager to test out his theory that the best therapy for mentally ill patients was relaxation and fresh air rather than a stint in jail or the local almshouse. Nestled in the Shenandoah Valley, with a calming view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the hospital was touted as a state-of-the-art facility for the humane treatment of “lunatics.”

But the appointment of Joseph DeJarnette as superintendent in 1905 marked the dawn of a new era. It was during a period when the country faced an influx of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, coupled with the rise of a new class: the urban industrialized poor. Many Americans feared an apocalyptic “race suicide” of the nation’s founding Anglo-Saxon stock. Eugenics emerged as a solution backed by science: population control of society’s defectives and unfit, a catch-all term for the non-white, disabled, and poor. Advocates couched eugenics in the familiar Progressive Era language of social uplift, public good, and civic duty. And DeJarnette was a zealous devotee of the movement.

In colorful prose, Catte makes clear that DeJarnette was far from an outlier. Rather, he was at the center of a robust movement that sought to transform society through the science of eugenics. In Virginia, state legislators partnered with University of Virginia eugenics professors, hospital superintendents, and lawyers to push the passage of the state’s Sterilization Act of 1924. The act authorized the sterilization of “defective persons . . . likely to become by propagation of their kind a menace to society.” In actuality, the act simply gave legal cover to the already de facto policy of forcibly institutionalizing and sterilizing such individuals. In his capacity as superintendent at Western State, DeJarnette drew fresh inspiration from Nazi Germany’s 1933 Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring, Hitler’s opening bid to purge the Reich of its genetically and racially “inferior” stock. In 1934 DeJarnette calculated that 56,244 defectives had already been sterilized under the new regime, fuming that “the Germans are beating us at our own game.”

Read entire article at Boston Review