In 1936, Connecticut’s governor, Wilbur Cross, commissioned a Survey of the Human Resources of Connecticut that seemed better suited to Nazi Germany than the Constitution State. The survey classified state residents based on 21 factors including race and citizenship. A 1938 report based on the survey called for weeding out, either through forced deportation or sterilization, immigrants and various ethnic groups, as well as those thought to suffer from a variety of supposed disabilities including mild vision impairment.
When I first heard about it, I thought it was a conspiracy theory. Unfortunately, it’s true, in all its ugliness.
The eugenics movement, which would ultimately inspire Adolf Hitler, was born in the second half of the 1800s. Inspired by Charles Darwin’s work, his half-cousin, Francis Galton, theorized that successful people could strengthen the human race by breeding with other successful people. Galton coined the term “eugenics” in 1883 from the Greek word for “well-born.” His work inspired widespread eugenics research and found many receptive ears in the U.S.
In 1909, Connecticut became one of several states to enact a sterilization law, by which those believed to have handicaps or mental illnesses could be sterilized without their consent. Between 1909 and 1963, more than 500 people were sterilized this way.
This practice was only one of several ways eugenics infected the state. The American Eugenics Society was housed in New Haven with an office overlooking the city’s green, and the state was home to many outspoken proponents of the movement, including Yale economics professor Irving Fisher, often hailed as the greatest U.S. economist in history.
Of course, Connecticut was not alone. Across the Sound on Long Island, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory housed the Eugenics Record Office of Charles Davenport and Harry H. Laughlin, two prominent eugenicists. Research conducted by Laughlin and Davenport was used to justify the Immigration Act of 1924, which limited dramatically the number of immigrants allowed to enter the country from Southern and Eastern Europe. The term “moron” entered the lexicon in the early 1900s due to research from eugenist Henry H. Goddard.
The practice of forced sterilization of the “unfit” in Connecticut and across the country was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1927 Buck v. Bell case. “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. … Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in his infamous opinion in the case.
However, the Connecticut survey of the 1930s stands out, even in that era, for its disturbing ambition. In 1935, an act of the state’s legislature called for the formation of a commission to, in the words of its title, Study the Laws and Facilities of Connecticut Pertaining to the Prevention, Treatment and Care of Mental Defects and Disease and Allied Problems. Gov. Cross signed the act into law, and the commission was established in 1936 and appointed Laughlin, from the Eugenics Record Office, to commence the study. Laughlin set up shop in the State Office Building in Hartford, and with some assistants began collecting data on state residents.
“Laughlin’s plan was to sterilize approximately 175,000 Connecticut residents — or about 10 percent of the state’s population,” writes Edwin Black, a journalist and author. “To save expense, others would not be sterilized but simply thrown out of the state. Immigrants would be deported to their native countries. Unfit Americans would be expelled to their family’s original locale.”
In recent years, Black’s 2003 book War Against the Weak and an updated version released in 2012 have helped shine a light on the mostly forgotten survey.
Fortunately, after its completion in 1938, the report seems to have had little impact. It was not published and does not appear to have been widely circulated. More recently, there has been debate about the level of responsibility Cross bears for the direction the survey ultimately took.
In 2014, Linwood Branham Sr., an organizer of the Society of Former Slaves and Freemen, called for a discussion of whether the New Haven high school and parkway bearing Cross’ name should be removed. The effort garnered media attention, but the high school and parkway’s names remain unchanged.
Even though it went nowhere, the very existence of the survey, along with the forced sterilizations, remain a shameful piece of Connecticut history that deserves to be better remembered. No matter how unsettling that memory might be.