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Naomi Oreskes


  • Originally published 06/28/2014

    Lawrence Veiller: Progressive Tenement Reformer and Eugenicist

    Liberty and Power

    As part of my research on another topic, I happened across some rather provocative correspondence from Lawrence Veiller. After the turn of the century,Veiller was the most significant national leader in the progressive tenement reform. New York’s Tenement Law of 1901 was largely his brainchild and became a model of similar legislation nationwide. He often worked closely with such luminaries as Jane Addams, Jacob Riis, and Theodore Roosevelt. Through groups such as the National Housing Association (which he headed) and the National Conference on Planning (in which he served as an officer), Veiller was relentless in pushing for tougher building courts, limits on density, zoning, and other housing regulation. As the correspondence shows, he was also a zealous advocate of sterilization laws. Veiller felt emboldened to act in his own state after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Buck v. Bell (1927 upholding the constitutionality of sterilization laws In 1929, he persuaded the Committee on Criminal Courts of the Charity Organization Society of New York to endorse state legislation “providing for the sexual sterilization of insane, idiotic imbecilic, epileptic and feeble-minded inmates of certain state institutions.” As part of this effort he called for a “united front” of social workers to assemble in Albany to press for enactment. Apparently, however, Veiller was never able to persuade the Charity Organize Society as a whole to back a law and it was never enacted. One obstacle was Lawrence Purdy, a fellow official in the COS, who expressed his reluctance to Veiller: “Even if the law were so stringent that it would result in operations on a considerable number of people, the number would still be very small and I should myself have grave doubts concerning a law that was strong enough to be at all effective.”