Pueblo County, Colorado
Colorado Insane Asylum
Scarred For Life
November 21, 1999
Colorado routinely sterilized the mentally ill before 1960
By Mike Anton
Denver Rocky Mountain News Staff Writer
The people who did it to her are dead, what was done forgotten. She, too, has tried to erase that day from her mind. But after nearly six decades, the scar is as fresh and as horrifying now as it was then.
"The day before," she remembers, "they came to me and said, 'Tomorrow, you're going to the hospital ward.' And I said, 'Why?' And they said, 'So we can operate on you.' And I said 'What for?' And they said, 'So you can't have children.'
"What could I have said? What could I have done? I was a minor. They said, 'If you let us do it, you can go home.' And afterward, I did go home."
It was May 1941. She was 17. A repeat runaway. A nervous kid with an IQ of 99. A rebellious kid who didn't fit in.
The year before, a Denver lunacy commission labeled her mentally ill. A judge ordered her to the Colorado State Hospital in Pueblo for treatment.
The removal of her fallopian tubes was part of that treatment.
She is 75 now. Inside, she carries a bundle of pain and anger and shame.
"I try to act like it never happened, but I'm just like a female spayed animal," she says. "They got away with murder. They took out my heart and left a stone."
She wants no one to know, especially no one who lives in the spartan Denver apartment complex she has called home for years. "If people here knew about me, my life would be a living hell. Understand? A living hell. I thought that was buried a long time ago."
Yet it was her willingness to step forward in court 41 years ago in a lawsuit she filed against three state hospital administrators that provides the only evidence that Colorado ever sterilized women mental patients.
Testimony during the 1958 trial revealed that for more than 30 years, beginning in the 1920s, doctors at Colorado's primary mental institution robbed dozens of women of their fertility even though the state never had a law allowing it.
Nationwide, tens of thousands of people, mostly young mentally ill women, were sterilized prior to the 1970s under state laws that were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Colorado's top mental health official, though, knew he had no authority to perform sterilizations.
The state attorney general told him so.
"The question of sterilization of mental patients comes up quite frequently," Dr. Frank Zimmerman, the hospital's superintendent, wrote Attorney General William Boatright in 1928, not long after the legislature voted down a sterilization law. "We would like to know just what our responsibility (is)."
"It is my opinion," the answer came back, "that there is no authority at the present time for performing such operations."
But three decades later, Zimmerman was still the hospital's superintendent, still a promoter of the so-called social benefits of sterilization. And they were still being done, three or four times a year one administrator estimated, although testimony at the trial suggested there may have been far more.
Zimmerman said he didn't know how many there had been. Doctors, he told the Pueblo jury that would exonerated him and the others, could sterilize patients without consulting him as long as they got permission from a parent or guardian. In 1981, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that parental permission itself is not enough.
But in 1958, it was. At least for Zimmerman.
"Would you consider a sterilization operation then as being routine in the hospital?" the woman's attorney asked Zimmerman.
"I would say it isn't dangerous and I would say in years gone by, we considered it a minor operation," he said.
"Was such an operation routine in your hospital?"
"You mean by that every day, every week, every month, or what?"
"Well, how often do you do them, doctor?"
"I wouldn't know."
Colorado officials still don't know.
Buried in the past
"We can't find anything in our records about it," says Eunice Wolther, spokeswoman for what is today called the Colorado Mental Health Institute. "But just knowing what mental health treatment was like at that time, it doesn't surprise me that it happened."
The modern eugenics movement from which government-sanctioned sterilizations evolved has a long and complicated history.
"When people think about the eugenics movement they can't just think about Hitler and the Nazis. They've got to think about what happened in their own backyard," says Nancy Gallagher, a historian whose recently published book, Breeding Better Vermonters, documents that state's largely forgotten sterilization program.
In the early 1900s, enlightened progressives embraced eugenics as a way to create a stronger society by genetically stopping mental illness in its path. Proponents included Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, Eleanor Roosevelt, economist John Maynard Keynes and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger.
"More children for the fit, less for the unfit," Sanger wrote in 1919.
By the 1930s, as scientists determined that mentally retarded people didn't necessarily give birth to mentally retarded children, sterilization proponents found new reasons to continue the practice. Some believed it was therapeutic for patients and would calm them. Others simply felt that some women weren't capable of handling children.
"As the genetic hypothesis for mental retardation faded, the states aimed more at wayward young women and they were sterilizing a lot of women whom I'm convinced weren't retarded at all," says Dr. Philip Reilly, director of the Shriver Center for the study of mental illness outside Boston and the foremost historian of the eugenics movement in the United States.
Reilly has documented that between 1907 and 1960 at least 60,000 Americans were operated on in states that had sterilization laws. But he believes that many states, like Colorado, sterilized people without a law.
"It was done very quietly," Reilly says. "I think it was a mark of how devalued mentally retarded people were back in those days. Within the walls of institutions, the people who ran them in that era could pretty much do anything they wanted. Those hospitals in the '30s and '40s and '50s were closer to prisons than they were to hospitals."
In that era, the Colorado State Hospital was under constant siege, a match strike away from disaster.
Overcrowded and understaffed, it was a dumping ground for the state's sick and frail. A madhouse where hard-core psychotics rubbed shoulders with the mildly disturbed. A warehouse of alcoholics and problem teens, "feeble-minded" elderly people and "child morons."
When Frank Zimmerman, the blunt-spoken, chain-smoking son of a Montana rancher became superintendent in 1928, he pleaded with lawmakers for more money.
"The needs of the hospital are so great and its income so limited that special thought and study must be given to the situation," he wrote.
That year, he had 2,843 patients. By the late 1950s, he had nearly 6,000 patients and was still pleading with lawmakers. He had just six staff psychiatrists. Treatment was scant. Few left the hospital "cured" of their illnesses. Each year, hundreds of patients escaped.
"I walked the long, dark, overcrowded halls of the state hospital for the mentally ill here," a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News wrote. "To do it, I had to take a firm grasp on my sanity."
"This place was his life. I don't know how -- or why -- he stayed in that job for so long," says Nell Mitchell, who worked at the hospital for 36 years and today maintains a small history museum in the Mediterranian-style home that was built for Zimmerman.
"The condition of the hospital was appalling. Once, Dr. Zimmerman met with lawmakers and they told him, 'Can't you do more with what you have?' He threw his hospital keys on a desk and said 'If you think you can do a better job of it, then here, go ahead."'
But beyond money, Zimmerman's views on treating patients, Mitchell says, were considered "rigid" and outdated by Gov. Steve McNichols, who in 1958 began to reform Colorado's archaic mental health system.
That year, Zimmerman, 65 years old and nearing retirement, took the stand in that Pueblo courtroom and testified why he thought some people should be made infertile.
"So they will not produce more mental deficients," he said.
Most mental health experts in the United States had abandoned eugenics as the reason for sterilizations years before. Zimmerman, however, had not.
"We have three or four generations out at the state hospital," he testified. "In my opinion, something should be done about it."
It all happened long ago, in the years before sterilization as a treatment would be discredited, before reforms radically changed the way the mentally ill are treated in America.
But for at least one Denver woman, it might as well have happened yesterday.
"Do I sound like I'm retarded?" she asks, more challenge than question. "I did need help. I was in desperate measures. But I never got it. In fact, I was made worse by it.
"Anything any dang-blame doctor told my parents they went along with it regardless of the circumstances because the so-called doctors were the almighty. They figured they knew what they were doing.
"They never did anything for me. They did plenty to me. I'd like to get ahold of them and put a match to them."
Question: How much, dollarwise, are you asking for pain and suffering?
Answer: Sir, there isn't enough money in this world to make up for the pain and suffering and humiliation which I have gone through and am going through now and will for the rest of my natural life.
Q: What pain are you going through?
A: The humiliation of knowing I am only half a woman.
No one knew what to make of her or what to do with her.
She was a fair student. But her Denver public school teachers said she was undependable, didn't respect authority and didn't make friends.
Her parents, who struggled to make ends meet, found her hard to handle. She lied to them and stole. Petty stuff: a bicycle, a purse containing $2, a puppy from a pet store.
There were other problems, too. Skipping school. A lack of discipline. Running away from home. They sought psychological counseling for her when she was 10 years old.
Once, she left school in the middle of the day. She returned with a sleeping infant she had taken from a front porch. She refused to tell teachers where she got the baby; eventually, the child was returned to its frantic mother.
A few days shy of her 11th birthday, she was picked up by police after shoplifting a doll. A juvenile officer described her as "a very small, undernourished, extremely nervous child." She blamed her frailty on the pneumonia she survived as a newborn; the nervousness on the measles she had when she was 3.
"The applicant has had a very unhappy home life," a probation officer wrote later in a report that outlined the woman's early life. "She states her parents did not want her in their home."
Life behind doors
In 1934, her parents put her in the Good Shepherd Home for emotionally disturbed girls in Denver, which was run by an order of Catholic nuns.
She hid from the sisters in the washing machines. She did poorly in school. "Repeated every grade as many as three times," her juvenile court record states. "She caused a great deal of trouble." Eventually, the nuns kicked her out.
Now 13, she landed at the State Industrial School in Morrison. The place was full of problem girls like her. Her mood swung between apathy and anger. She was often "hysterical" and was "careless of her personal appearance."
"A constant problem wherever she is," one of her handlers wrote.
At 16, it was recommended that she be evaluated by experts at the Colorado Psychopathic Hospital in Denver.
"Her hair is stringy and matted," they noted in their exam, using the cruel vernacular of the time. "She pays no attention to her clothes and spends most of her time stretched out on a bed, with a stupid, open mouthed expression, demonstrating pain and grief ... She is rather stupid in appearance and quite untidy.
"It is felt that she should be hospitalized, and, perhaps after a period of training and occupational therapy, or some other treatment suited to her mentality, she might be able to make an outside adjustment in a few years."
It was July 1940.
In August she was found to be insane and shipped to the state hospital in Pueblo.
Eight months later her parents signed a piece of paper.
Two weeks later she went under the knife.
Soon after that, she was released.
But the operation was not the end of the story, merely the conclusion of one chapter, a watershed in a life that never got on track.
Whatever curative effect that was envisioned never appeared. Over the next dozen years, she bounced in and out of institutions. At 18, she stole $9 from some girls on a ward and escaped from the State Home for Mental Defectives in Grand Junction. For 18 months she roamed the country, from Florida to California, existing on a series of weeklong waitressing jobs.
In San Diego, she looked up a nurse who had befriended her during her stay in Pueblo. The nurse wrote the young woman's father.
"She definitely needs some help and understanding, along with a lot of love and patience from someone. She has a lot of good qualities when they are brought forward."
Her dad paid for her bus ticket back to Denver. She rented a room for $4 a week. Her job paid $12. It wasn't enough.
She began breaking into homes, slipping in through open windows or unlocked doors, taking clothes from one place, a bedspread from another.
On the fourth try, she was arrested. A judge ordered that she have yet another mental exam.
"I'm just sick and tired of being kicked around," she told them.
She had no use for her family. They had no use for her. Particularly her father.
"He feels that she is embittered towards the family and it would not be to her best interests to ... be associated with members of the family," her probation officer wrote. "He feels that part of her present difficulty was brought about by reading True Detective magazines."
Over the years, she hopped from job to job. As a clerk, a typist, a housesitter. Once as a nursing assistant at a mental home. She quit that job, too.
"Because there were children," she told jurors who heard her case against the hospital administrators. Then she broke into tears.
She filed her suit in December, 1955. She was 32, sought $250,000 and had two of Denver's best-known attorneys in her corner.
Norman Berman would become president of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, and later, a judge of the Colorado Court of Appeals. His partner, Molly Edison, was both feared and revered, a 5-foot-tall pistol who was among only a handful of women who played in what was then a man's game.
"She wasn't demure," state appeals court Judge Sandra Rothenberg says of Edison. "She was a big, booming little person who could dish it out.
She was sort of an Annie Oakley of her day. Nothing seemed to faze her. She was always nose to nose with the guys. She played cards with them, drank with them, smoked with them. She was a tough little cookie."
Edison and Berman, both now dead, saw their case as bigger than the story of one wronged woman. They hoped to prove that doctors routinely coerced parents into giving permission for their daughters to be sterilized as a condition of release. When Zimmerman testified, Berman grilled him about the policy.
"Doctor, isn't it true that the members of the staff there had instructions that if a mental deficient was to be paroled, every effort was to be made to obtain this authorization to perform a sterilization from the parents or custodian prior to the parole?"
"I don't think that would pertain to every case," Zimmerman said.
"You don't think that would pertain to every case, but to a great many cases?"
"You knew, did you not, doctor, that this state had no sterilization law?" Berman asked later.
"I don't think that had anything to do with it at all," Zimmerman said.
"Just answer my question. You knew that this state had no sterilization law."
"No law authorizing it?"
"And no law forbidding it."
The woman's mother testified that she and her husband were told they had to sanction the sterilization if their daughter was to be released. She also said she was told that the operation was reversible. In fact, it isn't.
They are claims that couldn't be verified, however, since the doctor who performed the procedure had died and Zimmerman couldn't recall the case.
"The parents were afraid that she would become pregnant," Zimmerman said, adding, "I am testifying as to what my doctor probably told me."
Berman and Edison wanted Zimmerman to answer detailed questions about the sterilization of five other women. All had been committed to the state hospital by a Denver court between 1938 and 1950. At least three, records show, were sent there as juveniles.
But Judge Philip Cabibi ruled Zimmerman didn't have to answer them.
Cabibi has long since retired from the bench. However, he does remember the case and doesn't find it surprising that the jury threw it out.
"We had three of the finest doctors who were the adminstrators in that hospital," Cabibi says. "They were very respected citizens. They were nationally known."
Harriet Tipton looks back on it differently.
Tipton, 75, is the only surviving member of the jury who recalls anything about the case. Her memory, in fact, is uncanny.
She says that, at first, many of the jurors, herself included, were ready to rule against the hospital.
"Seemed to me they didn't need a jury trial to find out this was wrong," Tipton says. "I figured maybe we were just there to tell them how much."
But then they read Cabibi's instructions. There were 31 in all, but one stood out: If the testimony showed that the plaintiff was sane more than a year prior to filing her suit, then the case had to be thrown out because the statute of limitations had run out.
Legally, she had been "returned to reason" by a court in January 1955 -- within a year of making her claim. The jurors, however, looked at other evidence.
"They had made it very plain that she had gotten out of the hospital, she had gotten jobs, supported herself," Tipton says. "It was quite obvious that she could have filed sooner. And that was the whole thing in a nutshell. Right or wrong, we really didn't have a case to judge.
"We felt very limited in what we were deciding the case on. There was a holdout for a long, long time. A school teacher. She just felt so sorry for that girl. You could tell that she was just torn up by it."
The jurors voted several times. Each time, it was 11 to 1.
It's been 41 years, but Tipton still thinks about what happened in that courtroom during the last week of October 1958. The woman's tale, which moved her so. The judge's rules, which left no room to move.
"If there was any way that I could make her feel better, then, why yes, I would," Tipton says when told the woman is still alive. "I could tell her there were reasons that we were restricted from just outright giving people money. There were rules, legal rules, that had to be followed."
And if she could speak to Zimmerman now?
"I would tell him that I'd certainly hate to be a patient in his hospital."
And then, as suddenly as it appeared, the story vanished and was forgotten.
The fact that sterilizations were performed at the Colorado State Hospital has remained buried ever since, entombed by the passage of time, by the severing of institutional memory, by incomplete records.
But it is not ancient history. If state doctors operated on a 17-year-old in 1958, that woman would be 58 today.
How many such people are still alive is impossible to say.
It is not ancient history, but it is quickly becoming so.
"With each passing year the number of people who are alive to complain about this is dwindling," Reilly of the Shriver Center says. "I don't think we will ever know the true extent of what happened.
"Many of these people were mildly retarded. Many were uneducated. Plus, by the very fact that they were sterilized, they don't have children to speak up for them. Who is going to speak up for them?"
"They're invisible," adds Paul Lombardo of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry & Public Policy at the University of Virginia.
Lombardo worked for the plaintiffs in a Canadian lawsuit that sought compensation for 200 mentally ill people who were ordered sterilized by Alberta's Eugenics Board between 1928 and 1972. Earlier this month, the Canadian government settled, agreeing to pay the victims $55 million.
Similar lawsuits in the United States have fallen flat. In 1980, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Virginia, where doctors performed 7,200 operations between 1924 and 1974 when that state's sterilization law was repealed.
While Virginia officials did agree to search for and provide psychotherapy to victims, a judge ruled that the state did nothing wrong since its law -- the model for similar ones in other states -- was once upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
"There were lots of places where people were wanting to bring lawsuits," Lombardo says. "The Virginia case, and how it turned out, put a cork in all that."
A 1973 Colorado law prohibits the sterilization of a mentally ill person without their consent. Eight years later, the Colorado Supreme Court addressed the issue of mentally ill minors for the first time.
The court, noting the history of abuse in such cases, said that the parents of a 15-year-old Adams County girl couldn't consent to their daughter's involuntary hysterectomy. Only a judge using uniform criteria could do that.
"It is not the welfare of society, or the convenience or peace of mind of parents or guardians that these standards are intended to protect," the justices wrote. "The purpose of the standards is to protect the health of the minor retarded person, and to prevent that person's fundamental procreative rights from being abridged."
The ruling was clear, even if the history of such operations in Colorado is not.
"If the Supreme Court in Colorado is saying that it is a deprivation of rights for someone to be sterilized unless you go to court," Lombardo says, "then you can certainly argue that it was a depravation of rights for the same thing to have happened to a person years ago."
It's an argument, however, that may carry more moral weight than legal weight. Given how much time has passed, any lawsuit brought against the state today would face huge hurdles, Lombardo says.
"No politican is going to say there are some people out there who've been wronged and we have to compensate them unless those people step up and there's a public outcry," he says. "But I don't think it's a likely thing. Who wants to be known in the newspaper as the feeble-minded person who was sterilized?"
Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado, says state officials should, like those in Virginia, attempt to find people who were sterilized at the Pueblo hospital and offer them help.
"If the state of Colorado was forcing mental patients to get sterilized or was performing such operations without valid consent, it has an obligation to do something to right this wrong," Silverstein says. "It would be unconscionable for the state to avoid its responsibility by hiding behind legal technicalities such as the statute of limitations."
Robert Hawkins, the state hospital's current superintendent, didn't respond to repeated requests for an interview.
Wolther, his spokeswoman, said "it was wrong, of course," for patients to have been sterilized.
But what could -- or should -- be done now?
"I don't know the answer to that question," she says. "First of all, I don't know if these people want this to be known. Or if they want to be helped. I'm sure that if they did want some help we would be able to help them get it."
Not long after historian Nancy Gallagher exposed Vermont's sterilization program, her phone began ringing with survivors wanting to talk. Not about wanting money, or retribution.
"The people I know who are dealing with this," Gallagher says, "don't talk about lawsuits. What they want is for the truth to come out. They want people to know that this happened to them. And the truth ought to be so darned uncomfortable that we never want for it to happen again."
For most of these years she has handled it herself, furtively hauling the secret from adolescence to adulthood to old age. The one time she brought it out, showed it to the world, she was left humiliated. She vowed that wouldn't happen again.
"Would people understand? I don't want them to. As long as I'm alive ..." She stops and shifts uncomfortably in her chair. "I don't want anyone to know. After I'm gone, I don't care. I don't have too many years left."
In 1958, a newspaper reporter described her as a "tall, attractive blond." But she never married, and her parents' fears went unrealized.
Their daughter, now in her eighth decade, is still a virgin.
"I loved my mother. I thought a lot of her," she says. "She's gone now, but just a few years before she passed away, she apologized and said she wished she hadn't signed those papers. My mother told me that my dad said sign it, or it would be too bad for her. He would leave her.
"I did forgive her, but not fully."
She lost track of her family, her three brothers and two sisters. "I was an outcast, a reject, a misfit."
A plaque in her kitchen reads: "A good acquaintance is a jewel. A special friend is a treasure." It's an epitaph for a life filled with loneliness.
"Who would want me?" she says. "All those years I did not date. Why should I? Anytime a man got close, I froze up to them. I didn't have any feeling for any of them.
"Not too long ago, a man who lives here took me shopping. He was a perfect gentleman. I respect that. And when they do a kindness for me I do hug them. You know what I mean? To show my appreciation for their kindness."
Information about sterilized patients scarce
It may never be known how many people were sterilized at the Colorado State Hospital. No records were kept, and individual patient files are closed to public scrutiny.
However, during the civil lawsuit brought by a sterilized former patient in the 1950s, attorneys asked the hospital superintendent, Dr. Frank Zimmerman, detailed questions about operations performed on five other women.
The judge in the case ruled Zimmerman didn't have to answer.
But Denver court records show all five were committed to the state hospital between 1938 and 1950.
At least three were sent there as minors.
Their case files shed light on the frighteningly efficient way in which county lunacy commissions of the time locked people up. When they met, commissioners typically heard 10 cases every three hours. They were paid $10 per case.
It's impossible to tell what happened to those women. An extensive search of computer databases and court files turned up little about them or their families.
Except for Elmer Hoar.
Hoar's sister, Mabel, was one of the women. When Elmer was 4, his father died and his mother, unable to cope, put him and his two sisters in the state orphanage. In 1944, he and Mabel were shipped to the Colorado State Hospital.
He's 70 now and has trouble remembering. He has lived in a retirement home in west Denver for 30 years. He shares a room with three other men. He's used to it.
"They told me I was sick," Elmer says of his years at the hospital. "But they never told me what I had."
He looks away and laughs. He is holding a faded photo in a cheap gold frame. Behind the smudged glass is Mabel, her hands neatly folded in her lap. A doctor once summed up her problems with a broad brush: "Mabel Hoar suffers from a definite mental disorder."
Little of her life after that is known. In and out of the hospital. Resident of a Cañon City nursing home. Died about five years ago.
Her name typed in an old court file full of unanswered questions.
"Word had gotten around to me about what happened to her," says Mabel's sister, Laura Josh, who was adopted from the orphanage. She has been married 53 years, raised two sons, and lives in the eastern plains town of Yuma.
"I wondered why in the heck they would do that to a girl," Josh says. "She was still in her late teens, early 20s at the time. I thought it was very disgusting."
For years, she and Mabel exchanged letters, Christmas and birthday cards. Josh never brought the subject up.
"I figured the least said the better."
But the truth stayed with her, gnawed at her.
"It bothered me so much that I took it to the Lord in prayer," Josh says. "I just couldn't handle it myself."
November 21, 1999
© Copyright, Denver Publishing Co.
Colorado's Secret Scalpel
by R. Prince
(Note: this article was submitted to the Rocky Mountain News, but was not printed. It is a commentary on Mike Anton's piece of November 21, 1999)
Mike Anton's finely researched piece on the involuntary sterilizations at the state mental hospital in Pueblo since 1928 (RMN - November 21, 1999) merits a response.
Some six years ago, my curiosity touched concerning that bizarre early 20th century attempt at a biological utopia called eugenics' and looking for a new research focus for my anthropology teaching, I went to a local historian here in Denver for advice as to how one might research the stirrings of this movement in Colorado. His response - that there was none - somewhat irritated what might be referred to as my built-in-manure-detector. After all, that now forgotten movement rid the country of `feeblemindedness', crime, alcoholism, prostitution and a host of other social ills through the magical procedure of snipping the vas deferens or the fallopian tubes, was a national phenomenon in the earlier part of this century.
My historian friend's statement was not exactly false. What is true is that unlike some 30 states in the USA, Colorado never did pass legislation legalizing the eugenic sterilization of mentally, physically handicapped or just plain poor people. But it was not for lack of trying nor for that matter, for lack of an active and organized eugenics movement within the state.
1. Four times (1908, 1913, 1925, 1928) eugenics bills were introduced - the last time being in 1928. Although 3 of the 4 times, the bills never made it out of committee, in 1928, one year after eugenics received the national blessing of a US Supreme Court decision (May 2, 1927 Buck vs. Bell Decision), a eugenics bill passed both houses of the legislature. It was vetoed by the governor only after intense public pressure, most of it coming from Catholic circles (the Knights of Columbus, Denver Catholic Register) in particular.
2. A eugenics movement did exist, was centered in the medical community and enjoyed the participation of some of the state's most famous early 20th century physicians: Mary Bates and Minnie C.T. Love of Denver, Richard Corwin who ran CF&I's industrial health clinic in Pueblo for 48 years and Hubert Work, who ran a private Pueblo insane asylum in Pueblo and later rose to become the Secretary of the Interior under Herbert Hoover. The Colorado Medical Society had a special committee to agitate for eugenic legislation and its medical journal for years had a special section entirely dedicated to eugenic developments and propaganda throughout the country. There were eugenics club' chapters in Boulder and Greeley. The Colorado Women's Clubs, so active in so many social endeavors were usually supportive and lectures supporting eugenics were heard regularly at Greeley's Unitarian Church - one of the bastions not of conservatism but of liberalism within the state.
3. In 1913, Colorado's four eugenic musketeers (Bates, Love, Corwin and Work) organized a eugenic baby show (they were common in that period) after which they announced the formation of a national eugenics organization to be based in Denver. In that great tradition of making Denver `a world class city' they hoped to win support for this proposal from national eugenics' leaders. However, they had not prepared the groundwork sufficiently. In an exchange of correspondence between to of the nation's leading eugenics advocates - biologist Charles Davenport of the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor NY and Stanford University President David Starr Jordan - the two reject the Denver offer out of hand.
This background might add some perspective on Anton's strange tale of a hospital superintendent who, with an explicit written statement in hand by the state's attorney general not to perform eugenic sterilization, proceeds to do so anyway, and continues to authorize such surgeries until he retires some 30 years later in an underhanded and patently illegal manner. It is interesting to speculate as to why he proceeded. Anton's article makes it clear that the man was an ardent in eugenics supporter. But he needed political support and obviously had enough to confidence to ok the sterilizations for 30 years.. He also played on the ambiguity of the law, i.e.. while there was no law authorizing eugenic sterilization, there was no law forbidding it either - a point he argued in the 1950s suit filed against him by one of the victims. Possibly the underhanded, illicit manner he performed these surgeries was very likely building on an extralegal tradition that might have gone on in Colorado - as it did in the rest of the country - for years and not just in the Pueblo asylum?
Anton's research could be more than just an effort at exposing a dark secret of Colorado's history. Perhaps it can be the spring board for the future as well: a worthy testimony to the victims of these state crimes would be a movement in Colorado to overturn Buck vs. Bell - the Supreme Court Decision still in force which provides the legal framework for eugenics in America and under whose umbrella - Frank Zimmerman and many others like him - flourished.
November 24, 1999
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