family stories

 A detail of a crudely retouched image of "Kallikak" children which (intentionally?) made them appear grotesque. From the book The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness.

Did anyone else find the article in the New Yorker, Strangers on the Mountain, about the "Jackson Whites" of New Jersey, as riveting as I did? I'm not sure why I have an utter fascination with genealogy, ethnic tracing, endogamy, and consanguinity*. The piece was a rather unexpected investigation of the self-proclaimed Ramapough Mountain Indians of Stag Hill, New Jersey, a group of "racially indeterminate clansfolk" whose isolation, rustic customs, and general "hillbilly" designation have kept them in local legend for generations. While the article tried to tread carefully,  distinguishing between fact and folklore and long-held prejudice, it still conveyed unmistakable  throwaway descriptions of local color: the Stag Hill area dotted with spare tires and rusting appliances.

Thinking is that these "mountain people" are descendants of Lenape Indians, Hessian deserters, Tory sympathizers (from the Revolution), and runaway Dutch-owned slaves, though most of this is unproven. What is known is that many families have Dutch surnames, are "negroid" or reddish-complected, and some have blue eyes. Their reputation for close intermarriage, poverty, and penchant for squirrel meat put me in mind of the Jukes and the Kallikaks, an earlier obsession of mine. (See my earlier post on Hapsburg Jaw, and the not-at-all-sinister Cold Spring Eugenics Archive, among other topics)

The "Jukes" were a New York hill family studied in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Richard L. Dugdale. He found that of 29 male blood relatives, 17 had been arrested and 15 convicted of crimes. His book, The Jukes: A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease and Heredity, claimed "Max," a descendant of early Dutch settlers and who was born between 1720 and 1740, had been the ancestor of more than 76 convicted criminals, 18 brothel-keepers, 120 prostitutes, over 200 relief recipients and 2 cases of "feeble-mindedness." A follow-up study was published in 1916 by Arthur Estabrook of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, New York (see online archive, mentioned above).

The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness, a 1912 book by psychologist and eugenicist Henry H. Goddard, was another in a stream of "scientific" social treatises published in the first few decades of the century when the eugenics movement was at its peak. The pseudonymous Jukes, Kallikaks, and Nams studies assumed iconic status and contributed to sterilization laws adopted by 30 states in the early part of the 20th century. Laws allowing the involuntary sterilization of sex offenders, habitual criminals, epileptics, and the "feebleminded" were meant to keep "defectives" from reproducing and, thus, reduce the number of those burdening the state. Additionally, there was the intent to prevent mildly retarded people from reproducing. Oliver Wendell Holmes delivered the Supreme Court's 1927 opinion upholding the legality of eugenic sterilization, which included the infamous phrase "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

In a shocking (on many levels) reprise of that famous case, this past fall a 35-year-old Tessa Savicki sued a Boston-area hospital for performing a tubal ligation, thus sterilizing her, after the birth of her 9th child. Two of her children are on welfare and she is unemployed...

I once sent away to get my DNA tested. I was crushed to discover that, as a female, I could only get mitochondrial DNA traced: my mother's side. Half the story is missing! The portion of me that was readable was deemed to be 89% European and 11% East Asian. Ironically, it was my father who was once mistaken for an Asian, or so the story went, much to the hilarity of all involved.
*update: I just realized why I periodically return to this subject with passionate interest— it is because genetic tracing, genealogy, et al. are all threads connecting the present to the past in some tangible way. It is like discovering echoes that never quite fade.

The New York Evening Journal, 1923

1 comment:

Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

Thank you for sharing these thoughts. Family stories are not always pretty.

Dr. Bill ;-)
Author of "13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories"


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