This article was originally featured in Ancestry Magazine, November-December 2007.
My grandfather died when his wife and children were still quite young and America was in the grip of the Great Depression. At the time, fatherless families had few options for financial assistance. My grandmother turned to the church for help and placed her children in a Catholic orphanage. This fact was never exactly a secret in my family, but it was never discussed in detail either.
To me, however, that time period represented a mystery that I needed to solve. And my cousins held individual pieces to this puzzle. My grandmother’s oldest daughter journeyed back to the orphanage when her children were grown, and now her children knew the name and location of the place. Another cousin discovered her mother’s diary decades after her mother died. Inside she learned about the homecoming of another sister “from the convent” and a visit from a brother who had been living in a school in Massachusetts. Even I held my own piece—it came when my aunt, in a rare moment, told me that two of her siblings were put in a school for delinquent children, while she was placed in a foster home.
I decided to visit the Catholic orphanage first and see what information they had, if any, about my father’s family. A kind woman wrote down the names of the children and the year my grandfather died and told me she would look them up. A few weeks later, I received a letter from her listing the dates that the children were placed with them, as well as the dates they were released back to their mother’s care.
The dates weren’t exactly what I had hoped for—the children were only in that orphanage for about two years and there was no mention of where they spent the rest of their childhood. I was told the orphanage had no further information about the family.
I turned to the Internet, where I posted the meager information I had on several genealogy forums. A few replies came in, including one that explained that, in the 1920s and 1930s, two of the schools I named were involved in the Vermont Eugenics Project.
Eugenics? It didn’t sound good.
I looked further into the topic, starting with the book, Breeding Better Vermonters: The Eugenics Project in the Green Mountain State, by Nancy L. Gallagher (1999). I read it cover to cover. Then I read it again.
What Is Eugenics?
Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, defined eugenics as societal controls “that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally.” In other words, selective breeding.
This was the age of invention. Scientists, doctors, and economists were the elite of the era. Millions of immigrants, mostly from southern and eastern Europe, added to a growing working class, and cities overflowed. A rising crime rate, poverty, and slums accompanied the population shift to urban areas. The value of farmland declined 40 percent by 1929. The number of people who were dependent on the government was quicky increasing. Citizens began to fear the future of a centuries-old way of life, and the American identity itself was in danger.
“Scientific studies” began to link the expense of dependent populations to the high birthrates of people who were likely to become government dependents—criminals, paupers, and people with mental and physical disabilities, for example. Conversely, the highly educated upper classes and old pioneer stock began having smaller families, committing what Theodore Roosevelt called “race suicide.” Procreation became a matter of public concern. Eugenics theories provided answers to people eager for solutions and reassured by its well-regarded proponents.
Vermont wasn’t the only state to embrace eugenics, and America wasn’t the only country involved in eugenics research during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The theory that mental illness could run in families prompted a number of studies worldwide to document the heritability of illnesses including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. Supporters of eugenics movements ultimately used findings from studies like these as justification for their cause.
States began to write laws in the late 1800s and early 1900s that prohibited marriage between whites and nonwhites and that required sterilization of people with undesirable traits and mental illness in order to prevent passing on the same traits to the next generation. However, the proponents of eugenics classified alcoholism, promiscuity, and “shiftlessness” as forms of mental illness. They postulated that these social ills were preventable with selective breeding.
Eugenics foundations, record offices, institutes, and departments sprang up around the globe. In New York, the Eugenics Record Office was opened. On the West Coast, it was the Human Betterment Foundation. Minnesota had the Minnesota Eugenics Society. And schools including Harvard, Brown, and Cornell each housed departments to study the movement.
While each organization had its own agenda and underlying prejudices, there was one factor that linked all of the eugenics movements—heredity. In order to prove or disprove any theory of eugenics, family genealogies had to be compiled. Social workers, students, and volunteers collected the genealogies of people who were poor, dependent, or who had physical or mental disabilities to prove that they descended from parents and ancestors who were poor, dependent, or who had physical or mental handicaps.
In Vermont, a state whose population is 97 percent white, eugenics was interpreted a bit differently. In 1931, 71 percent of the population of Vermont was native to the state, according to Elin Anderson, author of Selective Migration from Three Rural Vermont Towns. Native Vermonters are known as rugged, independent, and proud of their predominantly British heritage. The majority of non-natives were French-Canadian Catholics, American Indians (Abenakis), or a mixture of the two.
Antagonism between the native Vermonters and the French-Canadian and Abenaki populations had existed since the French and Indian Wars. The antagonism grew into prejudice over the years—both the French-Canadians and Abenakis were seen as inferior by pioneer-stock Vermonters.
The French-Canadians and Abenakis freely intermarried, and each had descended from rugged groups—hunters, trappers, woodsmen, and lumberjacks. National boundaries were meaningless in the forests of New York and northern New England at the time, and the families regularly moved with the seasons and availability of work. The work these men performed kept them isolated from the general population, and they formed close-knit clans. They were accustomed to primitive living conditions and the barest of essentials. In many families, alcoholism and hardship became the only consistent facts of life.
Around the start of the 20th century, logging companies moved their operations to more lucrative northwestern states. Game grew scarce, and hunting laws were enacted. The men of the forests of New England were forced to find work within the confines of towns and cities. Here, they often became part of the overburdened welfare departments.
Collecting and Connecting Family Trees
The Vermont Eugenics Survey conducted extensive investigations on selected kinship groups in Vermont to develop “pedigrees of degeneracy” among Vermont’s poor. Harriet E. Abbott, an experienced field investigator for the VES, collected data on more than 6,000 individuals from 62 family lines by 1928. This information was put into the Social Services Exchange, a central repository that made it possible for social workers to track nomadic families across state lines. Additionally, all children deemed neglected or dependent were required to be registered as wards of the state.
The collaboration of the Vermont State School for the Feebleminded, Waterbury State Hospital for the Insane, and other state institutions contributed enormously to Harriet Abbott’s work. Neighbors, relatives and acquaintances were told it was their civic duty to share private family information with VES caseworkers. The superintendent and a social worker at the Vermont Industrial School provided family data on two of their charges that was displayed on a 15-foot-long, five-generation pedigree chart at the Museum of Natural History in New York as an exhibit for the 1932 International Congress of Eugenics.
The Breakup of a Family
My Vermont pioneer-stock grandfather married a 16-year-old French-Canadian/Abenaki girl when he was almost 50. A family joke maintained that my grandfather paid my grandmother’s parents a good deal of money for her. I don’t know if the story was true—we never took it seriously—but this did happen early in the 20th century. Social workers’ reports of the practice led to a new legal age limit on marriage.
My grandfather’s wife was not a welcome addition to the old-line family. The fact that her parents, siblings, and various cousins were frequent visitors added fuel to the family rift. The child bride’s mother, my great-grandmother, was only 33 at the time of her daughter’s marriage, and they both gave birth in 1918, 1921, and 1924. My grandmother had six children and was widowed before her 30th birthday.
My grandmother and her family would have lent credence to the study’s theory that her racial group was inherently feeble-minded, shiftless, or worse. Most of the family were illiterate; her grandfather, father, uncles, and brothers had all been lumberjacks when there was work for them and would move frequently throughout the northeast and Canada. When it wasn’t hunting season or the lumber work was slow, they would collect ginseng or hemlock bark to sell in town. The women would take in laundry or work as servants. Almost all the men spent at least some time in jail or a mental hospital.
The young, very attractive widow didn’t grieve for long. My father told me about the abuse the children endured from their mother’s male friends who were often drunk and would become aggressive and violent. The children were neglected, so my father assumed responsibility for his sisters and tiny brother. Within a short time, my grandmother asked the local Catholic orphanage to take care of the children for her.
But when my grandmother remarried two years later, the children were returned to her. Her new husband was most likely French-Canadian/Abenaki. The family soon came to the attention of social workers. I have no knowledge of exactly what transpired, but any one of the incidents that have been related to me and my cousins would have been serious enough to warrant removing the children from their mother and stepfather.
The Eugenics Legacy
The separation of my father’s family from their roots and loved ones was part of the overall strategy of eugenically trained social workers. The children suffered the ills that were pervasive at the time in most institutions—overcrowding, abuse, poor sanitation—as well as the absence of much affection.
Hundreds of thousands of American children were warehoused in state institutions and labeled feebleminded, insane, and delinquent, victims of the eugenic movement early in the last century. In the effort to prevent these children, considered genetically inferior, from reproducing, more than 60,000 of them were sterilized.
By the end of World War II, the eugenics movement was all but abandoned in the United States, thanks mostly to the country’s sentiment toward the actions of Nazi Germany. Programs were disbanded. Those that remained altered their focus and dropped the term “eugenics.”
But the effects of the eugenics movement linger in family trees and throughout society. In 1994, it was determined that a school in Massachusetts allowed scientists to conduct research on some of its charges during the eugenics era. Students in the school’s Science Club were fed radioactive oatmeal as part of a “nutrition” study; at the time, the boys thought they were receiving special treatment—extra attention and extra food. But the most poignant testimony to the era came from a member of the club years later: “I never saw a man or woman who loved each other growing up…. I never saw family life.”
Finding the Records
When I discovered that family trees had been created as part of the Vermont Eugenics Survey, I telephoned the Vermont Bureau of Records, where the records of the eugenics project are stored. Although I talked to several people, I could find no one who knew much, if anything, about these files. I decided to make the 650-mile trip to the Vermont Buildings & General Services Middlesex Complex in Middlesex, Vermont, to see if I could get better results in person.
The files of the Vermont Eugenics Project are not indexed, although Nancy Gallagher (author of Breeding Better Vermonters) did catalog the contents of the boxes in 1998.
After requesting the box containing the 1942 inventory, I was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement. Then I waited while someone retrieved the box. (I still have the blood of a long line of Vermonters in my veins, so it was hard to keep asking others to retrieve cartons for me.)
For me, the most important cartons contained the pedigrees. However, those cartons were unavailable. Lesson learned—always check the availability before you go.
The time scheduled for my trip was too short, but I learned a lot about the Vermont Eugenics Project records and procedures. When I return—soon, I hope—I will feel more comfortable and will be able to pick up where I left off. I will also call in advance.
Unfortunately, I also learned that records of the Vermont Eugenics Survey are stored in a way that is not conducive to easy searching—there is no way of discovering the names of the families in the records without going through each carton of pedigrees, and no plans are in the works to change that. As of now, a visit to Middlesex to search through boxes of files is the only option for family researchers.
What of the Children?
I have been trying to dig up information about my father’s family from this time period (1930–55) for at least a decade. I had to really tiptoe around the subject with his siblings and their spouses and children. When I tried to question my stepmother—whom my dad actually talked to about those years—she discovered from my questions that she was actually his fifth wife. She had known about three other marriages, but for some reason, he hadn’t told her about the first wife. This sent her over the edge and ended the conversation. Dad’s youngest sister would sometimes go down memory lane with me but then would suddenly get depressed and start crying. His youngest brother was pretty open about things right before he died. I found out that he had told his daughters a lot, but those cousins haven’t been speaking to the rest of the family for a while.
Still, I’ve been able to piece together the following bits of the children’s stories:
It is unlikely a foster home that could accommodate six siblings was available. Since two of the children were sent to the Vermont Industrial School, a reformatory, they probably were not good candidates for foster care, in any event. The prettiest child, who was about 10 years old, did get a foster home, though. In time, she dissociated completely from her ethnic roots and her mother’s family. She was estranged from her sisters for most of her life, reconnecting only briefly with her youngest sister before her death. She never had children.
The youngest sister was sent to a convent school in New York, just across Lake Champlain. She would have been able to see the soft outline of the familiar Green Mountains she left behind on the far side of the lake. Her life would have been hard, but she found happiness in her marriage, celebrating a golden anniversary before her husband—her best friend—died. They raised two sons.
The second daughter was sent directly from the orphanage to St. Mary’s Academy in 1931. She remained in Vermont for the rest of her life, except for a short time while she was in the army. She married a dairy farmer and had one child, a daughter.
My father, a strong, tall boy with an easy grin and charming personality, was sent to an industrial school in Sudbury, Massachusetts. The school was owned by Henry Ford, one of the most progressive men of the era. Ford’s school tested his theory that boys from poor families could become responsible, productive citizens through his programs of healthy nutrition, hard work, and hands-on learning. As an adult, my father could fix just about anything. He amazed me one day by fixing an 1830 cast iron door lock on my house. I remember him most for his love of animals and nature. He married and divorced five times and often seemed disconnected as a husband and parent. Since I have discovered more details of his upbringing, I have a new understanding of his problems with personal relationships and realize his shortcoming was not in his love for his children, but in the ability to display his feelings.
The youngest child in the family was placed in the same school as one of his sisters, although he would have had little or no contact with her (she was eight years older). He grew into a troubled young man who accidentally killed a man in a fight and served time in prison. There he met a minister and the minister’s daughter, both of whom had a profound influence on him. He married the daughter and had two children, but his violent temper continued throughout his life.