Clarence Darrow, American Iconoclasts, and Modern Politics

Darrow versus the Eugenicists


Recently a friend asked me to explain Clarence Darrow’s position on mercy killing and eugenics in the context of Darrow’s comments on the case of Anna Bollinger and her baby daughter, who was born with multiple physical anomalies in 1915. One of Bollinger’s doctors, Dr. Harry J. Haiselden, advised that because of the physical and probable mental problems, the Bollingers should allow the baby to die, which they did. The story of the Bollinger baby as well as a number of other patients of Dr. Haiselden whose inherited diseases resulted in what some people called at the time “mercy killings” created a national sensation. Haiselden capitalized on the media fervor by writing, producing, and starring in the Black Stork, a film that presented a fictionalized account of the Bollinger case. Leading figures of the day commented on the case, the film, and the idea of mercy killings. Jane Addams said every child “should be kept alive as long as possible. It is not for us to decide whether a child should be put to death. If it is a defective, it should be treated as such, and be taught all it can learn. The law states that only a judge has the power to decide who shall die, and then only in the case of crime.” Darrow took the opposite view—as the lifelong contrarian often did. In the November 18, 1915 edition of the Washington Post, Darrow, who was identified as a “lawyer and humanitarian” took the anti-humanitarian position: “Chloroform unfit children. Show them the same mercy that is shown beasts that are no longer fit to live.”

Now for my friend’s two questions: was this Darrow’s position on mercy killings and was it indicative of his views on eugenics? First a discussion of Darrow is in order. Clarence Darrow spent a lifetime on the political left and committed most of his career to defending the guilty, the downtrodden, and those who fought to expand liberty and freedom such as unionists and political dissenters. That said, he was never a systematic thinker and often took positions that he later abandoned. So, to say that this one quote proves that Darrow supported Haiselden may or may not be true. He could have held that position for that day or he might have thought that mercy killings were justifiable. Darrow could be quite flippant. Once he wrote that kidnapping was a profession, and not a crime. He abandoned that after he became the defense lawyer for Leopold and Loeb, the two young men who had kidnapped and murdered a neighbor. And, even if in 1915 Darrow maintained that mercy killings were justifiable, he may have abandoned that position later in life. Darrow was a flipflopper on all sorts of political, social, and economic issues. But for the moment, let’s assume that Darrow’s quote revealed a larger commitment to the mercy killing of children. That position did not translate into support for eugenics. In two articles—neither of which mentioned mercy killlings—Darrow made his position clear that he opposed eugenics. His first article, “The Edwardses and the Jukeses,” published H.L. Mencken’s The American Mercury in 1925, rebuked eugenicists like Albert Wiggam and Charles B. Davenport who used highly selective and suspect genealogies of New England preacher Jonathan Edwards and of another family (concealed under the name “Jukes”), which had several alleged criminals in order to support the idea of inherited greatness or inherited horribleness. Darrow wrote: “Here, again, we must be on our guard against the blandishments of the eugenists.” In the “Eugenics Cult” (1926) also published in The American Mercury, Darrow made a more strident attack upon eugenics and concluded: “I, for one, am alarmed at the conceit and sureness of the advocates of this new dream [ie., eugenics]. I shudder at their ruthlessness in meddling with life. I resent their egoistic and stern righteousness. I shrink from their judgment of their fellows. Every one who passes judgment necessarily assumes that he is right. It seems to me that man can bring comfort and happiness out of life only by tolerance, kindness and sympathy, all of which seem to find no place in the eugenists’ creed. The whole programme means the absolute violation of what men instinctively feel to be inherited rights.”

In typical Darrow fashion, he might have held both ideas on mercy killing and eugenics to be true, refusing to think about any contradictions in his positions. Or, he might have abandoned his off the cuff remarks about mercy killing altogether, since he did not seem to return to the subject later. What we can say for sure is that Darrow was an ardent critic of eugenics, which he saw as dangerous form elitism posing as science.

Sources: “Noted Men and Women Differ on Ethics of Letting Baby Die,” Washington Post (November 18, 1915); Clarence Darrow, “The Eugenics Cult,” The American Mercury 8 (June 1926): 129-137; Clarence Darrow, “The Edwardses and the Jukeses,” The American Mercury 6 (October 1925): 147-157; and Martin S. Pernick, The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of “Defective” Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures Since 1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).



Author: andrewkersten

Andrew E. Kersten is Frankenthal professor of history in the Department of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. He received his PhD in American history at the University of Cincinnati in 1997. Clarence Darrow, American Iconoclast is his latest book. He has published others—Race, Jobs, and the War: The FEPC in the Midwest; Politics and Progress: The American State and Society since the Civil War; A. Philip Randolph: A Life in the Vanguard; and Labor’s Home Front: The American Federation of Labor during the Second World War—as well as several articles. He is also interested in and has written about Wisconsin history and the history of the city of Green Bay.

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