In Reckless Hands: Skinner V. Oklahoma and the Near-Triumph of American Eugenics


The disturbing, forgotten history of America?s experiment with eugenics.
In the 1920s and 1930s, thousands of men and women were sterilized at asylums and prisons across America. Believing that criminality and mental illness were inherited, state legislatures passed laws calling for the sterilization of ?habitual criminals? and the ?feebleminded.? But in 1936, inmates at Oklahoma?s McAlester prison refused to cooperate; a man named Jack Skinner was the first to come to trial. A ...

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In Reckless Hands: Skinner v. Oklahoma and the Near-Triumph of American Eugenics

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The disturbing, forgotten history of America’s experiment with eugenics.
In the 1920s and 1930s, thousands of men and women were sterilized at asylums and prisons across America. Believing that criminality and mental illness were inherited, state legislatures passed laws calling for the sterilization of “habitual criminals” and the “feebleminded.” But in 1936, inmates at Oklahoma’s McAlester prison refused to cooperate; a man named Jack Skinner was the first to come to trial. A colorful and heroic cast of characters—from the inmates themselves to their devoted, self-taught lawyer—would fight the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Only after Americans learned the extent of another large-scale eugenics project—in Nazi Germany—would the inmates triumph. Combining engrossing narrative with sharp legal analysis, Victoria F. Nourse explains the consequences of this landmark decision, still vital today—and reveals the stories of these forgotten men and women who fought for human dignity and the basic right to have a family.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

The shocking story of the American eugenics movement has been told before, but Nourse's first book focuses on the Supreme Court case that dealt the movement its death blow: the 1942 decision in Skinner v. Oklahoma. Nourse conveys the popular acceptance of the idea of "race betterment" in the 1920s and '30s: in the permanent Eugenics Pavilion at the Kansas Free Fair, for instance, flashing lights toted up the cost to society of the criminal and the "feebleminded." Against this background, Nourse, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin, conveys the magnitude of the constitutional challenge facing Jack Skinner, an Oklahoma convict ordered sterilized pursuant to a eugenic statute aimed at "habitual criminals." Nourse is equally effective depicting the legal strategies and the impact of the Depression and the growing awareness of Nazi atrocities on the High Court. A bit more challenging is Nourse's analysis of Skinner's theoretical underpinnings. She argues convincingly that today, when genes are viewed as the "cause for everything from criminality to spirituality," America's flirtation with eugenics is a cautionary tale worth remembering. 11 photos. (July)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Memorable account of a landmark case that stymied the practice of forced sterilization. The original 1934 plaintiffs were three men jailed in Oklahoma's McAlester prison; each had at least three felony convictions, which made them eligible for sterilization under the state's broad 1933 law. Similar laws around the country drew their rationale from the pseudo-science of eugenics, which claimed that insanity, feeble-mindedness, promiscuity and criminality were inherited traits. Pseudonymous, frequently flawed family studies in the late 19th- and early-20th century had made names like Jukes and Kallikak synonyms for generations of imbeciles and criminals. Two crusading Oklahoma lawyers took the McAlester inmates' case and managed to delay implementation of the law as they lost appeal after appeal to higher courts-losses that occasioned prison riots and breakouts. At the 11th hour, two additional lawyers filed for consideration of Skinner v. Oklahoma by the U.S. Supreme Court. By that time, in late 1941, the court was headed by Harlan Stone and included Roosevelt appointees Felix Frankfurter, Hugo Black and William O. Douglas. The world was at war, and even the self-righteous who saw eugenics as the path to society's betterment were having second thoughts in light of Nazi atrocities. Douglas wrote in the deciding opinion on June 1, 1942, that "in reckless hands," entire "races or types" might "wither and disappear." Moreover, the law violated equal protection because it did not mandate sterilization for embezzlers or tax cheats (non-felons). Perhaps the most visionary language, however, came in the justice's reference to procreation as "an area of human rights." In a nuanced discourse, Nourse(Criminal and Constitutional Law/Univ. of Wisconsin) recounts how legal thinking concerning race, liberty, constitutionality, equal protection and civil rights has changed dramatically since Skinner. However, she warns, society may once again be looking for "the ‘natural' secret to criminal tendencies," this time in the form of bad genes. A legal tale that reads like a cliffhanger. Agent: Cecelia Cancellaro/Idea Architects
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393065299
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 7/28/2008
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Victoria F. Nourse received her JD degree from the University of California, Berkeley. Currently the Burrus-Bascom Professor of Criminal and Constitutional Law at the University of Wisconsin, she lives in Shorewood, Wisconsin.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: An Intellectual Seduction 13

1 The Justice, the Governor, and the Dictator 17

2 The Brain Trust 39

3 Thoroughbreds 55

4 Heat and Love 65

5 White Trash 75

6 Skinner's Trial 89

7 The Supreme Court in 1937 111

8 Science in a Foreign Mirror: 1937-1941 121

9 Deciding Skinner 135

Epilogue: Failures of Modern Memory 161

Acknowledgments and Method 175

Notes 179

Index 229

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