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Unto The Third Generation

Creator: Elizabeth S. Kite (author)
Date: September 28, 1912
Publication: The Survey
Source: Available at selected libraries

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Field Staff New Jersey Training School for Backward and Feeble-Minded Children


The investigation of the family history of each of the 400 defectives sheltered in the Vineland Training School, Vineland, N. J., has revealed the lamentable state of ignorance which exists in the minds of even our more enlightened citizens in regard to the symptoms which are characteristic of feeble-mindedness. Society seems unaware that such degenerates should not be allowed to marry, or that where illegitimate unions have been formed the simple performance of the marriage rite before legally authorized functionaries does not in the least protect society from the venom of the race.


A striking instance of this lack of public recognition of defectives came to the notice of the institution in connection with a little girl of seven who was brought to us some fifteen years back.


On investigation it was learned that the child had been born in an almshouse. Her mother, pretty, attractive, had formed an attachment for a man in the neighborhood and the rumor was that they were engaged. Nothing came of it, however, for she was poor and was put to service with a family in a distant city. No one thought of her as feeble-minded; no one thought much about her at all, for her family had sunk so far as scarcely to emerge above the social level. The sad story of her mother which I shall tell -- the grandmother of the girl at Vineland -- had been forgotten, and the busy world went on its way intent upon cares and interests of its own. But it was only a few months before she came back bringing with her the burden of approaching motherhood. Her mother, crushed under her own load of misery, was dying or dead, and the daughter went to the almshouse. Let no one suppose that this was tragic for her. Suffering comes only with intelligence, a sense of shame only with the power to grasp an ideal, and to realize that we have fallen below it. In her case, both conditions were wanting. Like an irrational creature she had followed a blind impulse, and as blindly accepted her fate, understanding nothing, learning nothing from her fall, which in her case was no fall at all.


Previous to these happenings, the respectable community in which they took place had been roused to indignation on learning that her father (1) had been holding criminal intercourse with one of his own daughters. He was a degenerate, and when he had been put in jail the public wrath was satisfied. No one thought of his wife, who, though she belonged to a good family, had lost all social recognition through her unfortunate marriage with this man of unknown ancestry. Feeble in health, weak in will, overworked, and above all broken-hearted, she had not proved the dominant factor in the union. All she could do was to transmit enough of her own gentle, refined nature to her defective children to make them a more dangerous social element than they could otherwise have been. So she sickened and died, and it was in an almshouse that the little grandchild was born with whom we must reckon in the generation now approaching maturity.

(1) Further Investigation showed this degenerate father to be one of a family of twenty brothers and sisters, many of whom had records similar to his. The completed history of this family has recently been put into book form by Dr. H. H. Goddard under the title The Kallikak Family.


At this point the respectable community began to take an interest in the daughter, now a young mother. A humane though misguided feeling led one of its members to remove the mother and her baby from the almshouse, taking them into her own home. The step at first seemed admirable and was applauded on every side. The young woman was perfectly honest, strong, willing, and trainable in household affairs. There was something about her large, brown, appealing eyes that went to one's heart, while her gentle and unobtrusive ways won the approval of her mistress and the interest of her friends. But this was only for a time. It was not long before a strange look came into her eyes; her manners changed; she was not steady at her post; even her little child ceased to hold her, and she would be off and away no one knew where. The mistress, now deeply interested in the welfare of her charge, sought by every means in her power to bring the young woman back to her former self, but in vain. Failing here, she next sought out the cause of the change and found it in the person of a low, degraded fellow, recognized in the community as half-witted as well as alcoholic, besides being subject to strange drunken fits. Still hoping to save the girl, she attempted further to interfere but received only insults in return. Feeling, rightly enough, that something ought to be done, she decided upon what seemed to her the only alternative, that of forcing the young people to marry. Both were willing to do this, since some one cared to bother with the arrangements which meant nothing to them. Lawyer and minister were promptly summoned and the pair duly recognized as man and wife before the law.

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