Today In History, 1893: Texas Doctor Proposes Castrating “Sexual Perverts”

Jim Burroway

August 16th, 2016


Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which introduced his theory of evolution to the masses in 1859. The theory, in simplified form, held that species evolved through a process of natural selection which weeded out the weaker and less capable variations of the species. Darwin wasn’t the first to propose the theory; others proposed the theory as far back as the eighteenth century. Another theory, Degeneration Theory, also grew out of an earlier body of theories that informed Darwin’s evolution. Degeneration Theory was more fully developed by the French alienist Bénédict Augustin Morel in 1857 in his Traité des Dégénérescences Physiques, Intellectuelles et Morales. The Italian criminologist and physician Cesare Lombroso adapted, expanded, and popularized Morel’s theory in his influential 1876 text, L’uomo Delinquente. By the time Degeneration Theory  made its way into the popular imagination thanks to the Hungarian physician and social critic Max Nordau’s best-selling 1892 book Degeneration, it had long been embraced by physicians, psychologists, criminologists, sociologists, political theorists, and social critics throughout the western world.

Degeneration Theory postulated that, thanks to the conveniences of modern society and its advances in medicine and hygiene, modern man was increasingly immune to nature’s “culling of the herd.” And because modern man was no longer being culled by natural forces, the human race was experiencing a devolution — or “de-generation” — and was becoming more primitive, which promoters termed a “reversion to an atavistic (ancient or ancestral) state.”

Degeneration theorists believed that heredity played a key role in determining an individual’s health, moral, and social development. The theory also held that an individual’s experiences, accomplishments, and moral failings could leave a hereditary mark on future generations. In other words, a ne’er-do-well from a well-bred family was destined to pass his criminality on to his progeny, along with his blue eyes and blond hair. Alcoholics begat alcoholics, criminals begat worse criminals, rapists begat more violent rapists.

Furthermore, with criminality was now in his genes, this “degeneracy” was also bound to reveal itself in physical traits, what Degeneracy Theorists called “the stigmata of degeneration.” And it’s here where degeneracy theory became intrinsically intertwined with racism: the pronounced brow and wide noses common among several groups of African were taken as evidence of that primitive, “atavistic” state Degeneration Theorists warned about. The particular shape of Asians’ eyes were stigmata of their particular brand of degeneracy, as were the hirsute bodies and hooked noses of the “Mohammedans.” Lombroso devoted entire volumes to his exacting measurements of the skulls of criminals and the criminally insane. Degeneracy didn’t always yield blemished children: geniuses were also held as examples of a kind of positive “de-generation” (because they deviated from the norm), although evidences of their degeneracy were often found in various personality quirks or other eccentricities. Nevertheless, Degeneration Theory, at its core, was always a very racist one.

Dr. F.E. Daniel

Dr. F.E. Daniel

So how do you halt this modern-day degeneration that threatened the higher races, you might ask? That’s where Eugenics came in. Eugenics came in two forms: positive Eugenics (the hygienic and temperance movements, and campaigns for child labor laws and free public education were just a few examples), and negative Eugenics, which included sterilization programs aimed at severing the generational capabilities of degenerate lines.

On August 16, 1893, Dr. F.E. Daniel of Austin, Texas, and editor of the Texas Medical Journal, delivered an address before the World’s Columbian Auxiliary Congress titled, “Should Insane Criminals or Sexual Perverts be Permitted to Procreate?” The main perversions that Daniel was worried about were rape and masturbation, the latter of which was believe to cause of insanity. For the case of sexual criminals judged to be insane, there had already been calls for castration in lieu of hanging, partly because it was believed that hanging someone who was insane constituted a breach of justice. Daniel also held that view, because, ever the humanitarian, he considered hanging to be an extreme, cruel, and ultimately ineffective form of punishment. And so he added an additional reason to consider castrating criminals who, despite their obvious degeneracy, were nevertheless judged to be sane:

In this country, and recently, several writers have advocated castration. Dr. W. A. Hammond’s paper on the subject will be recalled by all present. Dr. Frank Lydston (Va. Medical Monthly) in reply to a question from Dr. Hunter McGuire as to the cause of so much rape by negroes in the South, advises castration as a remedy for the evil; and there is much wisdom in the advice. He would castrate the rapist, thus rendering him incapable of repetition of the offense, and of propagating his kind, and turn him loose — on the principle of the singed rat — to be a warning to others. Dr. Lydston says, and very truly, that a hanging or even a burning is soon forgotten; but a negro buck at large amongst the ewes of his flock, minus the elements of manhood, would be a standing terror to those of similar propensities. Dr. Orpheus Everts (Lancet Clinic, March, 1888,) would castrate all convicted criminals, thus arresting the descent of their respective vices of constitution.

Daniel found Everts’s advice too extreme: “innocent persons are sometimes convicted of crime, and we might cut the wrong man.” But Daniel did believe that sexual crimes were in a special category because, he argued, it was almost impossible to draw a line between sanity and insanity where sexual crimes were concerned:

In light then of the very evident doubt as to the sanity of those who commit sexual crimes, and therefore, of their responsibility; and particularly as it is impossible in the present state of our knowledge to draw a line and say where, in mental alienation, unsoundness to the extent of irresponsibility for acts exists, I would substitute castration as a penalty for all sexual crimes or misdemeanors, including confirmed masturbation.

…The lower animals limit production, and eliminate the weaker by battles between the males for the possession of the female; and certain of the rodents, the squirrel I am told, castrate the young males. But with civilized man the procreative function, and the right to exercise it ad libitum seems to be something sacred; it is respected, even in those who have, by their misconduct, outraged society, and forfeited all other rights, civil, religious and political. Is it not a remarkable civilization that will break a criminal’s neck, but will respect his testacles? [sic]

A number of asylums were already beginning to sterilize both their male and female patients. Daniel argued that if those programs were extended to sexual criminals, it could usher in a new age of sexual continence within a generation:

While we can not hope ever to institute a Sanitary Utopia in our day and generation, it would seem within the legitimate scope and sphere of Preventive Medicine, aided by the enactment and enforcement of suitable laws, to eliminate much that is defective in human genesis, and to improve our race mentally, morally and physically; to bring to bear in the breeding of peoples the principles recognized and utilized by every intelligent stock-raiser in the improvement of his cattle; and in my humble judgment the substitution of castration, as advocated above, for the useless and cruel execution of criminals, is the first step in the reformation. I predict that in twenty years the beneficial results of castration for crimes committed in obedience to a perverted (diseased) sexual impulse will be established and appreciated.

Rape, sodomy, beastiality [sic], pederasty and habitual masturbation should be made crimes or misdemeanors, punishable by forfeit of all rights, including that of procreation; in short by castration, or castration plus other penalties, according to the gravity of the offense.

[Source: F.E. Daniel. “Castration of sexual perverts.” Texas Medical Journal 9, no. 6 (December 1893): 255-271. Available online at Google Books here.]

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