ASA 2018 – Fighting for Their Future: Youth Resistance to Michigan’s Eugenics Laws, 1910s-1940s

Link to PowerPoint

Thank you all for coming. Today’s talk will briefly outline both the invisibility and hypervisibility of eugenic segregation and sterilizations in Michigan over the course of the 20th century. I will tell you two stories of resistance to Michigan’s eugenics laws; one successful, one not. They both take place in Michigan’s first and largest home for the feebleminded, the Michigan Home for the Feeble Minded at Lapeer. Feebleminded was a term used from the late 19ththrough mid 20th century that broadly referred to perceived mental deficiency. As it was considered a hereditary trait, it became the center of American eugenics. The goal of most eugenicists was to segregate and sterilize the so-called feebleminded so they could not reproduce. 

Our first story today is that of Bessie Lewis, a young white woman who was forcibly committed to Lapeer in 1907 despite never being diagnosed as feebleminded. She and her mother fought against her institutionalization by arguing that she was not feebleminded. Her story was picked up by the national press and lead to intense public outcry against the “wrong” people being institutionalized – in this case, an attractive white woman who was of sound mind. Not only was Bessie successful in being released, but Michigan’s state government and Lapeer itself worked quickly to repair its public image by passing new regulations and conducting a thorough review of all patient files.

In the 1940s, the Aslin siblings fought against the same state and institution with tragically less successful results. The nine siblings, poor Native Americans from the Upper Peninsula, were committed to Lapeer after the death of their father. All nine siblings were targeted for sterilization and every one of them protested. However, only one of the siblings escaped sterilization by running away to another state. The siblings became 8 of the nearly 4,000 sterilizations conducted under eugenic laws and recorded in Michigan’s institutions. Unlike Bessie, the Aslins’ stories were kept from the public record until the late 1900s.

These are two images of Lapeer that were presented to the public in the early 20th century. One is a carefully curated image in the form of the postcard. The other is the lived reality of what Bessie and the Aslin siblings would have experienced. 

To date, very little has been written about Michigan’s eugenic laws outside of national figures and organizations such as the Kellogg brothers and the Race Betterment Conference. Legal historians have written about the 1917 Haynes v. Lapeer Circuit Judge case where the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that Michigan’s first eugenic sterilization law was unconstitutional but virtually nothing is known about the woman at the center of that case, the woman who successfully fought against her sterilization, Nora Reynolds. 

The different outcomes of the Bessie Lewis and the Aslin siblings cases can partially be explained by the intersection of race, sex, class, and contemporary political climate. The purpose of this talk is to explore the circumstances of these two examples of resistance and the public’s respective reactions. What I hope you come away with today is the knowledge that eugenic policies were not always passively accepted by targeted individuals but that there were active resistances by young and their families. 

Bessie Lewis 

In 1904, 13-year-old Bessie Lewis was sent by her mother to the Girls’ Industrial School in Adrian, Michigan. As a young child, Bessie’s father had been killed in a train wreck and her mother quickly remarried to a man who abused and then abandoned them. Ill and unable to work, Mrs. Lewis felt she had no choice but to send Bessie to the industrial school where she would be taken care of and educated. Unbeknownst to Mrs. Lewis, by sending Bessie to the school, she had effectively terminated her rights as a parent. She believed that Bessie would be kept in Adrian until the age of 18 and then returned home, but what she didn’t realize was that the state now had the power to make all decisions on Bessie’s behalf.

Young Bessie was intelligent but mischievous. Her teachers were frustrated by her lack of dedication to school and authority figures routinely punished her by depriving her of what little free time she had to play freely with her peers. In the words of newspapers at the time, she was “deprived the privileges of youth.” After two years, the authorities at the industrial school were fed up and made the decision to transfer Bessie to the Michigan Home for the Feeble Minded at Lapeer. Her mother was never told of her transfer and didn’t understand why Bessie hadn’t come home once she turned 18. It was then that Mrs. Lewis began asking questions of the Adrian school and was finally told that Bessie had been transferred to Lapeer. Placement at Lapeer meant that she wasn’t required to be released once she turned 18. In fact, authorities could hold her there indefinitely under state law.

Mrs. Lewis fought for Bessie’s release for several years as she was adamant that her daughter was not feebleminded. She eventually recruited doctors in their home town of Grand Rapids to go and examine Bessie. Like her mother, they concluded that Bessie was not feebleminded. At this point, they discovered that Bessie had never actually been tested or diagnosed by any doctors either before or during her confinement at Lapeer. She was released in 1913 at the age of 22. In the years that followed, Bessie attended night school, worked retail jobs, and eventually went on to marry and have a family. 

Bessie was fortunate in more ways than one. She had a parent who advocated on her behalf, doctors who could vouch for her lack of feeblemindedness, and a hospital that was already in the midst of a myriad of other scandals including abuse, neglect, and overcrowding.[1] She was also an attractive white woman whose face and story grabbed the public’s attention leading to national outcry. In the aftermath of this scandal, the Michigan legislature quickly passed a law which would, in theory, prevent another “normal” person like Bessie from being confined to Lapeer. The law also required that every case at Lapeer be reviewed for errors leading to the release of 14 patients who were there “accidentally.” While her story immediately made headlines around the country, the major papers in Michigan largely remained silent.[2]  

Sterilization laws 

During the same legislative year that the law to protect “normal” people from Lapeer passed, 1913, the first Michigan eugenic sterilization law was passed. Michigan had been one of the first states to propose a eugenic sterilization law in 1897. While this bill failed, the reworked bill was passed in 1913 making Michigan the seventh state to enact such a law This bill was only applicable to inmates in state institutions whose stay was being subsidized by taxpayers.[3]

Only one person was sterilized under the 1913 law before it was challenged in court. It was found to be unconstitutional as it was only applicable to patients in institutions, thus violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.[4] A new law was passed in 1923. This law was essentially the 1913 law expanded to include individuals outside of institutions.[5]

Bessie, fortunately, was never subjected to these laws. The Lapeer Home where Bessie had been transferred became the center of Michigan’s statewide sterilization campaign. The medical superintendent of Lapeer, Dr. Haynes, was one of the leading crusaders of eugenic sterilization and the plaintiff in the Haynes v. Lapeer Circuit Judge case that declared the 1913 law unconstitutional. 

Once the Supreme Court of the United States declared sterilizations legal in Buck v. Bell, sterilizations in Michigan and the United States increased substantially. Michigan passed its final sterilization law in 1929. This law, titled “An Act to Prevent the Procreation of Feeble-minded, Insane and Epileptic Persons, Moral Degenerates, and Sexual Perverts” instructed the courts, superintendents, and other welfare and medical professionals to apply this label as liberally as possible in order to prevent the procreation and increase of individuals who are or may become “a menace to society or wards of the state.”[6] Under these instructions, nearly 4,000 patients would be sterilized in state hospitals from the 1920s through the 1960s.[7] The majority of these occurred in the 1930s and 40s in Lapeer. 

The Aslin Family 
In 1936, Fred Aslin was just 10 years old when the state took him and his eight brothers and sisters from his mother in the Upper Peninsula and sent them to Lapeer. His father had died and his mother struggled to provide for Fred and his siblings. Over the course of the next decade, all nine Aslin siblings were approved for sterilization. While the state succeeded in sterilizing eight of them, the ninth escaped the institution before she could be sterilized. In 1944, at the age of eighteen, it was Fred’s turn. He later recalled that he tried to fight against the procedure. The doctors didn’t tell him what then surgery was but he had heard stories from older boys and knew he didn’t want to have a vasectomy. Despite his protests, he was sterilized. 

Aslin was released in 1948 and went on to fight in the Korean War. When he returned, he married a widow with two babies that he adopted and raised as his own. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Fred and his brother, Ted, pressed the state to release the files related to their confinement at Lapeer and sterilization. When Fred received his file filled with over 100 papers, he was shocked at what he found. He had been told he was sterilized because he was found to be feebleminded. However, other than an evaluation and diagnosis by a doctor in the UP, there were no signs of any sort of mental deficiency. In fact, several teachers wrote glowingly of his intelligence; a music teacher went as far as saying that Fred was one of the best musicians he ever had in one of his courses. This baffled and angered Fred, his surviving siblings, and Fred’s two adopted sons. 

One of Fred’s surviving brothers, John, believed they were sterilized because they were poor. Fred, on the other hand, believes it was because they were Native American as the Aslin siblings were part of both the Ottawa and Chippewa tribes. The true motivation of the doctors and other professionals who facilitated his confinement and sterilization will likely never be known. Either way, Fred was the first sterilization victim to publicly demand an apology from the state and filed a lawsuit for compensation. The suit was dismissed as it had long passed the statute of limitations and the only apology Fred received was in the form of a letter and an unofficial meeting with the director of the Michigan Department of Community Health. For Fred, that wasn’t enough. He passed away in 2014 still angry that he had been lied to, sterilized, and that there were no natural-born heirs to carry on his family’s name.  

Conclusion 

Bessie and the Aslin siblings’ stories are two of the thousands of stories of protest by young people and their families against eugenic policies. We will likely never know for sure why Bessie succeeded in appealing her case whereas the Aslin siblings didn’t. Despite IRB approval from both the state and University of Michigan, I have not yet been allowed to see the patients’ files from Lapeer or any other institution in Michigan due to strict HIPAA regulations. 

What we do know, however, is the public reaction to each of these cases. Bessie’s protests were picked up by the national presses and prompted action by both the officials at Lapeer and in the state government, largely due to public outcry. The Aslin siblings’ protests were ignored. Even when Fred Aslin came forward with his story decades later, the state refused to acknowledge its past actions and offered him nothing more than an unofficial apology. The only news outlet that picked up Fred’s story was the local newspaper. To this day, the state has not formally apologized for its eugenics campaign, making it one of the very few states to not have done so. 

The stories of doctors, politicians, and other professionals who drove the 20th century eugenics campaign are often well known. This paper begins to add the voices of young peoples’ resistance to the history of eugenics. 


[1] “Officials for Michigan Home for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic Meet in  Detroit,” Detroit Free Press, June 14, 1912.

[2] “To Relieve Lapeer Home Congestion,” St. Joseph Evening Harold, August 7, 1913.

[3] Harry Hamilton Laughlin, Eugenical Sterilization in the United States (Chicago, IL: Psychopathic Laboratory of the Municipal Court of Chicago, 1922).

[4] Haynes v. Lapeer Circuit Judge, 201 Mich 138 (Mich, 1918). 

[5] Proceedings of the Third Race Betterment Conference: Battle Creek, Michigan, January 2-6, 1928 (Battle Creek, MI: Race Betterment Foundation, 1928). See especially “The Sterilization of the Feeble Minded in Michigan” by H. E. Randall for a more detailed description of the history of sterilization laws and the early history of sterilization in Michigan.

[6] Public Act 281 (Mich, 1929)

[7] At least several hundred more took place in county level institutions but due to the lack of centralized record keeping, the total of number of sterilizations that took place in Michigan under the various laws has yet to be compiled. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.