Fixed To Fail: Buck vs. Bell and the US illusion of justice

3 generations: Carrie, Emma, and baby

These people belong to the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.
--Harry Laughlin, designer of a "Model Law" for compulsory sterilization, that was adopted by 27 US states and, later, Nazi Germany
The judgment finds...that Carrie Buck 'is the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted, that she may be sexually sterilized without detriment to her general health and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization,' and thereupon make the order...It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes... Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
--Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., delivering the 1927 decision of the US Supreme Court

While Virginia and other states have recently apologized for their role in the involuntary sterilization of those labeled as "feebleminded", the Supreme Court ruling that sanctioned those sterilizations has never been overruled - so the precedent still stands.

But the case of Carrie Buck also established a precedent in deception: Carrie Buck's lawyer conspired with the opposing lawyer to guarantee that her challenge would fail, so that the sterilization law would be upheld by the highest court. "Opposing" lawyers colluding to ensure that challenges against injustice fail? Was it a unique instance of cronyism from the past, or does the precedent of deception posing as justice still stands - and nobody's apologizing?

Born Unfit, Breed Unfit

In the early years of the last century, mainstream US public discourse and, consequently public policy, freely expressed the ongoing obsession with ridding America of those deemed unfit for its gene pool: blacks, recent immigrants, and poor whites. Carrie Buck was in the latter group. Since involuntary sterilization was favored over more extreme forms of genocide, it was almost inevitable that Carrie would join the estimated 60,000 others in the US who were forced under the surgeon's knife. 1

In an American version of the caste system, Carrie's fate was sealed at birth. Frank and Emma Buck had been married ten years when their daughter Carrie was born in Virginia in 1906. Her family's story 2 reflects how the South's slavery and patriarchy poisoned the entire society, debilitating the oppressor as well as the oppressed. White women were dependent on white men, and the white men were dependent on free black labor. When the free labor was gone, Frank and Emma's fathers' fortunes went too and, in the economic devastation of the post-Civil War South, Frank seemed to have been unable to earn a decent living on his own labor. When Frank disappeared after Carrie's birth, Emma had neither a white man nor free black labor to support her. Yet all the white patriarchy could provide white women in such circumstances was scant charity and ample black bodies hung from trees as shrines to the purity of the Southern belle - along with severe limitations on the ways a white woman could support herself. Emma's desperate world careened through charity, intravenous drug use, patronage, syphilis, and two births out of wedlock. 3

The Final Solution: Better Living Through Science

Lewis Terman So, when Carrie was four, the state stepped in and Carrie found herself in a foster home. Ten years later Carrie's foster father, in his role as a peace officer, took Emma from the streets to court, which committed Emma to the Lynchburg asylum. All inmates at the asylum were measured and classified using the new intelligence test invented by Lewis Terman at Stanford University. Scientists held it as the most accurate means for detecting a "feebleminded" person, defined by England's Royal College of Physicians as: "one who is capable of earning his living under favorable circumstances, but is incapable from mental defect existing from birth or from an early age of competing on equal terms with his normal fellows or of managing himself and his affairs with ordinary prudence".

Given that this definition hinges on ability to earn a living and managing affairs with "ordinary prudence", it's not clear how the defect could be detected at birth. But such questions did not throttle the zeal of Terman, who wrote: In the near future intelligence tests will bring tens of thousands of these high-grade defectives under surveillance and protection of society. This will ultimately result in curtailing the reproduction of feeble-mindedness and in the elimination of an enormous amount of crime, pauperism, and industrial inefficiency".

Although the generic feebleminded person in the definition is described in the masculine gender, when scientists such as Terman sought to "curtail the reproduction", they focused their aim on women. 4 Using the archetype "evil seductress" argument, forced sterilization for feebleminded women was pushed as a Final Solution acceptable to America's professional class.

Buck vs. Bell-Whitehead: A Case That Was Fixed To Fail

While living in her foster home, Carrie completed school through sixth grade with normal performance. But then her foster parents ended her schooling, and she felt herself becoming less a family member and more a family servant. We'll never know whether this feeling arose from common adolescent concerns, or from her foster parents' desire to retain the free servants lost when slavery ended in the previous generation. In any case, her time with her foster parents came to an end just after she turned seventeen - and found herself pregnant. She told her foster parents that their nephew had raped her. With family honor at risk, Carrie could not stay. Carrie's foster parents had her committed to the same Lynchburg asylum that Carrie's mother Emma was committed to. The law did not allow Carrie's baby to be committed until she turned 8 years old, so the baby stayed with Carrie's foster parents.

3 degenerates: Priddy, Strode, and Whitehead

Albert Priddy, the asylum's superintendent, saw Carrie's arrival as the perfect opportunity to fulfill his dreams of wiping out the "feebleminded" through sterilization. Priddy had asked Aubrey Strode to write Virginia's forced sterilization law. Strode used Harry Laughlin's "Model Law" of forced sterilization - a template designed to satisfy the US Constitution's requirements of equal protection and due process, while getting around the Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. 5 Previous laws for forced sterilization had been struck down as unconstitutional for failing to meet these requirements. So Virginia's new law needed a test case to take before the Supreme Court and firmly establish the law's validity. With both Carrie and her mother as inmates, along with the "bastard" baby, Priddy had three generations of "feebleminded" females to back his case for sterilization.

So the plan was for the asylum to order Carrie's sterilization under the new law. The legal guardian appointed for Carrie would then bring a suit against Priddy as a challenge to the law. As Priddy's attorney, Strode would defend the new law. The job of presenting the challenge to the law was a critical one, requiring a degree of finesse. The constitutional objections had to be argued clearly, so that the court could rule on them, but not so effectively that the court might be swayed by them. With the future of the Great White Race under threat from the fecund womb of Carrie and her feebleminded ilk, a trusted associate was needed for the job.

Strode's friend since childhood, Irving Whitehead was appointed to advocate Carrie's case in court. Whitehead was closely tied to both the asylum and the cause of sterilization: 6

  • He was one of the founding directors of the asylum
  • He had appointed Priddy to be the asylum's superintendent
  • While on the board, he personally approved sterilization of 24 women by Priddy
  • He had served on committees with Priddy to promote sterilization and lobbied the legislature for more power to sterilize
  • After leaving the board, he served as the asylum's attorney in some cases
  • One of the asylum's buildings was named after him
  • Just before the trial, Priddy recommended Whitehead for a government position

It was clear who Whitehead really worked for: Whitehead's costs were paid not by Carrie's legal guardian, but by the asylum he was suing - with checks signed by Priddy! Clearly, Whitehead was the right man for an airtight collusion that ensured that the injustices of the forced sterilization law would be challenged - and that the challenge would fail.

When Priddy died of cancer before the trial verdict was handed down, his assistant J.H. Bell succeeded him as asylum superintendent and case defendant - and the case became known as Buck vs. Bell. But, given the degree of collusion, it is more accurate to refer to it as Buck vs. Bell-Whitehead. Whitehead served his purpose well. He waived the right to a jury trial, called no witnesses, presented no evidence. Instead of challenging testimony during cross-examination of witnesses, he asked questions that elicited additional damaging testimony against Carrie. As planned, the court ruled in favor of the asylum and Whitehead appealed. And as planned, Whitehead's appeal clearly spelled out the challenges to the law - without attacking the case in any way that risked success.

The successful test case in 1927 led to a rapid adoption of forced sterilization in the US - and abroad, where it was taken to the next level 7: When Hitler came to power in 1933, he charged the medical profession with the task of implementing a national program in race hygiene. The first key element was the enactment, in 1934, of a law permitting involuntary sterilization of feebleminded, mentally ill, epileptics, and alcoholics. ERO Superintendent Harry Laughlin's model sterilization law was closely modeled, and his contributions to race hygiene were recognized with an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg...

By the outbreak of WWII, in 1939, an estimated 400,000 people had been sterilized. However, in 1940 the need for hospital beds for wounded soldiers prompted a "final solution" for "lives not worth living." Psychiatrists and medical doctors identified more than 70,000 mental patients who were poisoned with carbon monoxide in extermination centers at psychiatric hospitals.

After following the US lead towards the Final Solution to eliminate the unfit, at least one Nazi could not understand why the US put him on trial at Nuremburg for crimes against humanity. SS Race and Settlement Office leader Hoffmann defended himself with a 1937 Nazi report asserting that US racial legislation provided an example for the world - specifically "Since 1907, sterilization laws have been passed in twenty-nine states of the United States of America". The report even acknowledged the nascent Nazi ideas of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr: In a judgement of the Supreme says, among other things: "It is better for everybody if society, instead of waiting until it has to execute degenerate offspring or leave them to starve because of feeble-mindedness, can prevent obviously inferior individuals from propagating their kind." 8

Nazi admiration of the US surely would have been even greater, had they only known how the case reached the Supreme Court through heinous deception. But Hoffman did get a personal taste of the illusion of US justice: he was sentenced to 25 years in prison, while the US continued to sterilize people in targeted groups, Indian reservations, and in Puerto Rico - at least another 20,000 over the next 30-40 years.


  1. "The national figure [from 1909 to the 1960s] fluctuates between 60,000 and 66,000 depending on Source and citation", Eugenic Nation, Alexandra Minna Stern, publ. University of California Press, 2005
  2. This version taken from Better For All The World, Harry Bruinius, publ. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006
  3. Carrie is also listed as illegitimate in Laughlin's analysis for the Supreme Court
  4. " 1942 there were 15,780 males and 27, 307 females who were sterilized under state laws", The Unfit, Elof Axel Carlson, publ. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2001
    That means 37% of those sterilized were men, while 63% were women.
  5. It's interesting to note that Strode's law placed both himself and Laughlin as prime candidates for forced sterilization: both Strode's parents died in mental asylums, while Laughlin was epileptic. But, of course, beneath the claim of "equal protection", the law was created and enforced by the rules of upper class white Anglo-Saxon male supremacy.
  6. See War Against The Weak, Edwin Black, publ. Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003
  7. German/Nazi Eugenics, The Eugenics Archive
  8. War Against The Weak, p 409