The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck
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One of America’s great miscarriages of justice, the Supreme Court’s infamous 1927 Buck v. Bell ruling made government sterilization of “undesirable” citizens the law of the land
New York Times bestselling author Adam Cohen tells the story in Imbeciles of one of the darkest moments in the American legal tradition: the Supreme Court’s decision to champion eugenic sterilization for the greater good of the country. In 1927, when the nation was caught up in eugenic fervor, the justices allowed Virginia to sterilize Carrie Buck, a perfectly normal young woman, for being an “imbecile.”

It is a story with many villains, from the superintendent of the Dickensian Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded who chose Carrie for sterilization to the former Missouri agriculture professor and Nazi sympathizer who was the nation’s leading advocate for eugenic sterilization.  But the most troubling actors of all were the eight Supreme Court justices who were in the majority – including William Howard Taft, the former president; Louis Brandeis, the legendary progressive; and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., America’s most esteemed justice, who wrote the decision urging the nation to embark on a program of mass eugenic sterilization.

Exposing this tremendous injustice—which led to the sterilization of 70,000 Americans—Imbeciles overturns cherished myths and reappraises heroic figures in its relentless pursuit of the truth. With the precision of a legal brief and the passion of a front-page exposé, Cohen’s Imbeciles is an unquestionable triumph of American legal and social history, an ardent accusation against these acclaimed men and our own optimistic faith in progress.

From the Hardcover edition.


“This well-written narrative of legal history demonstrates what happens when the powerful and elite in society fail to protect the powerless and poor…Imbeciles combines an investigative journalist’s instinct for the misuse of power, a lawyer’s analytic abilities, and a historian’s eye for detail to tell this compelling and emotional story…[The book] serves as a cautionary tale about what may happen when those who have, or obtain, power use the institutions of government and the law to advance their own interests at the expense of those who are poor, disadvantaged, or of different ‘hereditary’ stock.”Los Angeles Review of Books

“[IMBECILES is] the story of an assault upon thousands of defenseless people seen through the lens of a young woman, Carrie Buck, locked away in a Virginia state asylum. In meticulously tracing her ordeal, Cohen provides a superb history of eugenics in America, from its beginnings as an offshoot of social Darwinism—human survival of the fittest—to its rise as a popular movement, advocating the state-sponsored sterilization of ‘feeble-minded, insane, epileptic, inebriate, criminalistics and other degenerate persons.’”—David Oshinksy, The New York Times Book Review (cover review)
“In this detailed and riveting study, Cohen captures the obsession with eugenics in 1920s America… Cohen's outstanding narrative stands as an exposé of a nearly forgotten chapter in American history.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“IMBECILES indicts and convicts any number of villains, albeit with proper judicial restraint. Cohen mostly lets the facts speak for themselves…[and] skillfully frames the case within the context of the early 20th century eugenics movement…[The book’s] considerable power lies in Cohen’s closer examination of the principal actors…Buck v. Bell has never been overturned. But thanks to Adam Cohen, we shall never forget it.” —Boston Globe
“Cohen…tells the shocking story of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in U.S. history…and demonstrates to a fare-thee-well how every step along the way, our system of justice failed…The last chapter of the case of Carrie Buck, Cohen reveals, hasn't been written…IMBECILES leaves you wondering whether it can happen here — again.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“An important new book…which details the eugenic horror that still haunts the American legal system… Cohen’s narrative of the legal case that enshrined these practices is a page-turner, and the story it tells is deeply, almost physically, infuriating… Cohen reminds us of the simple, shocking fact that while forced sterilizations are rare today, they remain legal because American courts have never overturned Buck v. Bell.”—The New Republic

Imbeciles is lively, accessible and, inevitably, often heart-wrenching.”—Nature 

“Searing…In this important book, Cohen not only illuminates a shameful moment in American history when the nation’s most respected professions—medicine, academia, law, and the judiciary—failed to protect one of the most vulnerable members of society, he also tracks the landmark case’s repercussions up to the present.”—Booklist (starred review)

“The story of Carrie Buck…illustrates society’s treatment of the poor, of minorities and immigrants, and other populations considered ‘undesirable.’… This thought-provoking work exposes a dark chapter of American legal history.”—Library Journal 

Imbeciles is a revelatory book. Eye-opening and riveting. In these pages, Adam Cohen brings alive an unsettling, neglected slice of American history, and does so with the verve of a master storyteller.”  Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here

“Cohen revisits an ugly chapter in American history: the 1920s mania for eugenics…[in this] compelling narrative....He also tells a larger story of the weak science underlying the eugenics cause and the outrageous betrayal of the defenseless by some of the country's best minds…A shocking tale about science and law gone horribly wrong, an almost forgotten case that deserves to be ranked with Dred Scott, Plessy, and Korematsu as among the Supreme Court's worst decisions.”—Kirkus (starred review )
“Adam Cohen knows how to recognize a story and has the gift to tell it with disarming fidelity to facts that make us cringe. In that vein, Imbeciles made me question my longstanding admiration for the mind and character of Oliver Wendell Holmes and my fading hope that the Supreme Court can sometimes save us from ourselves.”Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution

“‘Three generations of imbeciles are enough’—these are among the most haunting words in the history of the Supreme Court. In Imbeciles, Adam Cohen unearths the secret history of the case that moved Oliver Wendell Holmes to utter that notorious sentence. The book provides a stark portrait of the resilient eugenics movement—and a welcome warning about its sinister appeal.”—Jeffrey Toobin, author of The Oath and The Nine

“A powerfully written account of how the United States Supreme Court collaborated in the involuntary sterilization of thousands of poor and powerless women. Cohen’s Imbeciles is that rarest of books—it is a shocking story beautifully told, and also the definitive study of one of the darkest moments in the history of American law.”—John Fabian Witt, author of Lincoln’s Code and The Accidental Republic

"Imbeciles is at once disturbing, moving, and profoundly important.  With the zeal of an investigative journalist and a novelist’s insight, Adam Cohen tells the story of an injustice carried out at the highest levels of government, and how it reverberated across history and remains with us today.  Cohen is one of our most gifted writers, and he has turned the story of the Supreme Court and American eugenics into one of the best books I’ve read in decades."- Amy Chua, John M. Duff, Jr. Professor of Law, Yale Law School, and author of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

From the Hardcover edition.

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