The wall under construction.

The Discovery of the Defectives: From Harmless Unfortunates to Born Criminals

For most of our history, the mentally retarded were accepted in their home communities as generally harmless unfortunates. Such was the view when NY established its first "school for idiots" in the 1850s. The Syracuse Asylum worked to improve residents' functioning through education and training. By the end of the century, however, the former tolerance was being replaced by fear, and institutions were expected to serve a frankly custodial function: protecting the community by isolating the retarded. . . .

The Jukes, an 1877 report by Richard Dugdale of the New York Prison Association, was especially influential. Tracing the offspring of one Ulster County woman over seven generations, Dugdale chronicled a prolific spread of poverty, crime, insanity, and alcoholism, as well as feeblemindedness. His readers were to concluded that feeblemindedness was just one of a host of nearly interchangeable antisocial traits, as though they were different manifestations of one generalized "defective" gene. The term "mental defect" was coined to encompass all the interrelated variations.

Toward the turn of the century, prison and reformatory administrators began to report increasing numbers of feeble-minded in their institutions -- evidence, it seemed, that defectives were "born criminals." Elmira announced in 1901 that 16 percent of its population was feeble-minded. Further investigation was bolstered by a new scientific instrument, the intelligence test, developed in France in 1905 and quickly adapted for use in the U.S. By 1912, using the new measuring tool, the percentage of defectives at Elmira had risen to 42 percent. Sing Sing's Psychiatric Clinic reported 21.8 and Auburn 35.6 percent defectives; in 1911, the New York State Reformatory for Women at Bedford Hills reported that, of one hundred white admissions, not a single inmate tested higher than the 12 year old level -- the generally accepted threshold for feeblemindedness.

The eugenics movement of the 1890s and early 20th century held that certain people were genetically superior to others and that the human race could be bred for improvement. To curb reproduction by the "unfit," NY passed an involuntary sterilization law in 1912. The law was declared unconstitutional in 1915, but there were other ways to stop the feebleminded from breeding. The NYS Charities Aid Association in 1910 recommended "supervision and care that will last during the whole lifetime of the feebleminded individual, certainly during the reproductive period."

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