Indiana’s Eugenics History Has Disturbing Connections to the Present

Posted on: July 24, 2019, by :
Logo from the Second International Eugenics Convention, 1921.

By Jeff Turner

We live in very dangerous times. The electorate is almost evenly split between the supporters of our current President, who has brought out the worst aspects of humanity in many of his unwavering supporters, and those who stand in opposition, “the Resistance” as they sometimes refer to themselves. The partisan divide has never been wider. All the venom, name calling, and partisan bickering, none of it seems to have accomplished anything. In fact it seems to have only made matters worse. There are those diehard progressives and others who cite the Republican Party, namely the conservative wing that makes up the majority, are racists, that their supporters are uneducated bigots that vote against their interests. This may well be true, for some of them. But then again, there may be some truth to the belief that some of those on the left are affluent elitists, or at the very least condescending in their attitudes towards those on the political right. There is no justification for the racism espoused by some of Trump’s more vocal backers. And yet Progressives can’t claim to have always had the moral high ground in regards to racism. This isn’t referring to how the Democratic and Republican parties were fundamentally different at one time, having essentially flipped positions on certain key issues. Racism isn’t limited to one political party or even one political ideology. Even today I’m sure you can find some less than tolerant diehard progressives. In fact born out of progressive schools of thought over a century ago was one of the most evil concepts ever conceived. It was a philosophy created to aid in the “betterment” of humankind. It’s called eugenics, was conceived of here in the United States. And Indiana is where the first eugenics law in the entire word was enacted.

Eugenics comes from the Greek words “eu” which means “good” and “genos” meaning “offspring.” Though today regarded as a pseudoscience, the idea actually came about during the Progressive Age of the late 19th/early 20th century. It was promoted by well-to-do, affluent, individuals, progressives, gradually becoming a popular belief. In truth however it would seem that the eugenics movement was motivated by xenophobia, racism, and nativism (The Ku Klux Klan actually had its second rise around this same time, preying on that same racism and anti-immigrant resentment). Proponents believed that eugenics policies needed to be put into place to prevent certain segments of the population from developing degenerative qualities. These “segments,” according to researchers, were white Anglo-Saxons from the North and Northeast, those deemed superior in the world of eugenics in the United States. In 1907, the Indiana General Assembly passed the Indiana Plan, a bill inspired by eugenics proponents and signed into law by Governor J. Franklin Hanly. The bill called for the forced sterilization of those identified as “confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles, and rapists,” according to the State of Indiana website’s entry about this horrific law. It was the first bill of its kind, not just in the United States, but in the world. It would inspire several more such laws that would be implemented in other states. It would even be used as a template by the Nazis for their own eugenics programs. Nazi scientists and doctors, most notably Dr. Josef Mengele, would cite eugenics as justification for their rather heinous experiments.

So why was Indiana the first state to pass a eugenics law? What was happening in the late 19th/early 20th century that prompted such a bill to be passed and signed into law? According to several accountings, forced sterilization were already being carried out in institutions across the state. One man, Dr. Henry Clay Sharp, of Jeffersonville, was known for introducing usage of the vasectomy for such procedures. This was considered to be a less painful sterilization method. Sharp was known to be a key proponent for the 1907 bill.

Prior to this however, one of the launching points for the eugenics movement in Indiana was a 1879 paper written by social scientist Harriet Foster, and sent to the Social Science Association of Indiana. It described how “imbeciles” often passed their conditions to their progeny, and that this is what led to mental problems among the population.

There was also the case of the “Tribe of Ishmael” of the late 19th century, so named by Oscar McCulloch. McCulloch was a preacher who studied this group of people living in Indianapolis, often in deplorable conditions. The “Ishmaelites” largely consisted of “poor white upland Southerners,” according to They were largely ostracized by the middle and upper class whites in the city, those who came from other North and Northeastern cities. Much of the eugenics movement, and what led up to it, has been described by some scholars as more socioeconomic in nature than anything (though clearly rooted in racism), as it was often poor whites in the cities as well as the rural poor who were targeted here in Indiana.

McCulloch believed that some type of genetic degradation was what caused caused certain individuals to display undesirable traits, such as “criminal behavior, pauperism, licentiousness, and poor morals.” He argued that this was hereditary, the result of defective genes. His work grew in popularity as public interest in eugenics among the more affluent segments of the population increased. Many social scientists, doctors, and others would come to similar conclusions. They believed there was a link between mental illness, low socioeconomic status, and poor behaviors. As a result, “imbeciles and mental defectives” were considered a risk to future generations should they procreate, or worse yet (from the point of view of eugenics proponents) intermarry with Anglo-Saxon men and women from the North and Northeast, thus risking “contamination.” And from this warped point of view, the Indiana law was eventually passed.

The Indiana law experienced setbacks however. Governor Thomas Marshall halted the forced sterilizations in 1909, though they resumed a few years later. In 1921, the Supreme Court ruled Indiana’s forced sterilization law unconstitutional. In 1927 however, a Supreme Court decision on another eugenics related bill allowed for Indiana lawmakers to craft a version of the old bill that adhered to the one that had been upheld. It wasn’t until World War II that eugenics began to wane in popularity, largely due to the Nazis and the atrocities they committed. Despite this, the Indiana law remained in place.

Finally, in 1974 all sterilization laws in the state were repealed by the Indiana General Assembly. In 2007, one hundred years after the bill had been signed into law, a resolution was passed apologizing for the forced sterilization law. But it was too little too late for those who were victims of it most, if not all, already dead. Sources vary in regards to how many were sterilized here in Indiana while the law was in place, roughly 2,300-2,500. It was a paltry sum compared to the totals in other states that crafted similar policies modeled after the Indiana law. But it was this state that set into motion the eugenics laws that were implemented all across the nation, a dark chapter of this state’s history that has been all but forgotten. Or has it?

Today there are still residual traces of this school of thought. President Donald Trump made a comment on the Oprah Winfrey show more than two decades ago about how he believed “good genes” are the key to his business acumen and success. He’s made several similar statements as well, including in recent years. Such thinking is dangerous, as it promotes and perpetuates racial and ethnic stereotypes, though Mr. Trump and his handlers don’t seem to care. He’s made a great many statements of a racist and bigoted nature, citing threats posed by immigrants coming into the United States, namely those coming from non-white countries and south of the border. He. hasn’t publicly stated support for eugenics, or called for such laws that would adhere to that school of thought. But what if something changed?

Trump has brought the nativism and racism within his base to the surface, promoting his “America First” policy (which was an actual slogan used by the KKK in the early 20th century). What if his administration were to devise a more heinous solution for “Making America Great Again,” as certain progressive circles did more than a century ago in response to an influx of immigrants arriving into the country and existing racial attitudes?

President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Bojangles’ Coliseum, Friday, Oct. 26, 2018, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Could we see a return to the school of thought that led to the development and popularity of eugenics? We can only hope and pray that never comes to pass.

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