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Buck v. Bell: 1927

Carrie Buck As A Test Case

On November 19, 1924, Buck v. Priddy was argued before Judge Bennett Gordon in the Circuit Court of Amherst County. Aubrey Strode represented Dr. Priddy, who had come to have Buck declared feebleminded and suitable for compulsory sterilization. Irving Whitehead, a lifelong friend to Strode and one of the first board members of the colony, represented Buck in a manner that seems to have been halfhearted. Whitehead's fee was paid by the colony.

Anne Harris, a Charlottesville district nurse, was the first witness. She testified that "Emma Buck, Carrie Buck's mother … was living in the worst neighborhoods, and that she was not able to, or would not, work and support her children, and that they were on the streets more or less."

Strode asked, "What about the character of her offspring?"

Harris replied, "Well, I don't know anything very definite about the children, except they don't seem to be able to do any more than their mother."

Strode pounced. "Well, that is the crux of the matter. Are they mentally normal children?"

And Harris responded, "No, sir, they are not."

Harris then admitted during Whitehead's cross examination: "I really know very little about Carrie after she left her mother [at age 3]. Before that time she was most too small."

Three teachers testified about Carrie's sister, brother, and cousin, using descriptions such as "dull in her books." There was additional testimony about several of Carrie's other relatives, one of whom was described as "right peculiar." The testimony did not relate to Carrie herself until Caroline Wilhelm—a Red Cross social worker contacted by the Dobbs family during Carrie's pregnancy, took the stand.

Strode asked Wilhelm, "From your experience as a social worker, if Carrie were discharged from the Colony still capable of child-bearing, is she likely to become the parent of deficient offspring?"

Wilhelm replied, "I should judge so. I think a girl of her mentality is more or less at the mercy of other people.… Her mother had three illegitimate children, and I should say that Carrie would be very likely to have illegitimate children."

Strode concluded, "So that the only way that she could likely be kept from increasing her own kind would be by either segregation or something that would stop her power to propagate."

Wilhelm next testified about Carrie's daughter, Vivian "It seems difficult to judge probabilities of child as young as that [eight months], but it seems to me not quite a normal baby."

Whitehead, on cross-examination, raised what should have been a pivotal point: "[T]he question of pregnancy is not evidence of feeblemindedness, is it? The fact that, as we say, she made a miss-step [sic]—went wrong—is that evidence of feeblemindedness?"

Wilhelm replied, "No, but a feebleminded girl is much more likely to go wrong."

Arthur Estabrook of the Carnegie Institute of Washington testified, discussing his 14 years of genetic research and his studies of "groups of mental defectives." Of his conclusions in The Jukes in 1915, a study of one family over four years, he said, "The result of the study was to show that certain definite laws of heredity were being shown by the family, in that the feeblemindedness was being inherited … and … was the basis of the antisocial conduct, showing up in the criminality and the pauperism."

Spode asked, "From what you know of Carrie Buck, would you say that by the laws of heredity she is a feebleminded person and the probably potential parent of socially inadequate offspring likewise afflicted?"

And Estabrook replied, "I would."

Dr. Priddy testified last. Carrie Buck, he said, "would cease to be a charge on society if sterilized. It would remove one potential source of the incalculable number of descendants who would be feebleminded. She would contribute to the raising of the general mental average and standard [by not reproducing]."

And, finally, Harry H. Laughlin's deposition was read into the court record. Dr. Priddy had written Laughlin, describing Carrie and asking for Laughlin's help in enforcing the sterilization law against her. The information contained in Dr. Priddy's own letter forms the basis of Laughlin's sworn testimony: Carrie, he wrote, has "a mental age of nine years,… a record during her life of immorality, prostitution, and untruthfulness; has never been self-sustaining; has one illegitimate child, now about six months old and supposed to be mentally defective.… She is… a potential parent of socially inadequate or defective offspring." There is no evidence that Carrie Buck was examined by Laughlin.

In February 1925, Judge Gordon upheld the Virginia sterilization law and ordered the sterilization of Carrie Buck. Irving Whitehead appealed to the Virginia Court of Appeals. (The case was now Buck v. Bell because Dr. Priddy had died a few weeks earlier and Dr. J.H. Bell had taken his place at the colony.) The appeals court decision upheld the circuit court decision.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940Buck v. Bell: 1927 - Virginia Approaches Its Courts With A "solution", Carrie Buck As A Test Case, Supreme Court Reviews Case