Author: Adam Cohen
It was a mismatch of profoundly appalling proportions. In one corner was the esteemed 86 year-old Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the most acclaimed Supreme Court justice in US history. In the other corner – with no legal defense to speak of – was Carrie Buck, a poor, 20 year-old, single, unemployed, mother of one with a sixth grade education. The contest played out in 1927, when Holmes wrote the 8-1 majority opinion that allowed the state of Virginia to surgically sterilize Ms. Buck without her consent, simply because she wasn’t intelligent enough. Forever known as Buck v. Bell, it was quite possibly the foulest moment in American legal history. Effectively and compellingly, journalist and Harvard Law School graduate Adam Cohen uncovers all the vile details behind this miscarriage of justice in Imbeciles.
Known as the Virginia Sterilization Act of 1924, it was the crowning achievement of the eugenics movement, which sought to improve the vigor of the American gene pool by selective sterilization. According to leading eugenicists of the day, there were a lot of people on the “undesirable” list who shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce. More than just the supposedly “feeble-minded”, like Carrie Buck, but also Jews, Italians, Blacks, Eastern Europeans, Asians, Mexicans, Native Americans, the physically handicapped and so on. Hyperventilating experts preached that as many as 15 million Americans – 10% of the population – constituted a danger to the gene pool, threatening the very fabric of society.