From Chapter Three: The Horror at Cracked Wheel
An Excerpt from Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism
As orphaned farm-boy Jason Thistledown and his newly-met aunt, Germaine Frost shelter in the town office of the plague town of Cracked Wheel, Montana, in the winter of 1911, they discuss Germaine’s interest in biological sciences, and her coming to work for the newly-formed Eugenics Records Office.
When Aunt Germaine was quite a bit younger and Mister Frost was still of this world, she took a hungry interest in the foundling science of biology — “like medicine,” she said, “but with an interest in all living things.”
“I had thought you were a doctor, or a nurse or some such thing, all you know about germs,” said Jason. “Didn’t you say you was a nurse?”
“We are getting ahead of ourselves,” said Germaine.
Mister Frost was a doting husband and so indulged his wife’s passion as much as his pocketbook would permit. He purchased her a microscope and kit for making slides — allowing her to view the most minute specks of life — and a small library of volumes which included: Herbert Spencer’s Social Statistics; Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species; and of course, Charles Galton’s seminal tome Inquiries into Human Faculty and Development.
“What about Bulfinch’s Mythology?”
“That is not a biology book,” said Aunt Germaine.
In addition to her reading and her microscopy, Mr. Frost’s fortune enabled Aunt Germaine to attend summer lectures at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences in New York. That was where she first heard Doctor Charles Davenport speak.
“Looking at him, one could see the divinely inspired brilliance,” said Aunt Germaine. A native New Yorker who had completed his studies at Harvard University, Charles Davenport was engaged with the Institute at their biological research station in Cold Spring Harbour at Long Island. He was a tall man, stooped, in his early middle years then but with a goatee going to white on a chin and an expression of sheer intellectual vigor in his eye.
“Sheer intellectual vigor,” repeated Jason. “Now what’s that look like?”
“Studious. Serious,” said Aunt Germaine.
Charles Davenport was a zoologist — which is to say that he studied the ins and outs of the animal kingdom. The first lectures that Aunt Germaine encountered were discussions of studies he had made of lower life forms such as he might dredge from the harbor: pill bugs and mollusks and primitive fish.
It was clear to Aunt Germaine, however, that he was most interested in the study and improvement of the kingdom’s greatest achievement.
“What was that?”
“Man,” said Aunt Germaine.
Doctor Davenport even then had very clear ideas about the way that man might be bettered. In the course of his lecture, Aunt Germaine recalled, he stopped and asked the room:
“Why do we study these lowly, wet creatures? These things that cling to the bottom of rocks and suck up algae? Is it because we have a direct application for them in our lives? Surely not. Then why?”
Aunt Germaine’s hand shot up, and when he called upon her, she answered:
“Toward the betterment of all mankind?”
“Excellent, Madame,” said the doctor. “Precisely. For we are all made from the same protoplasm. And in understanding these creatures — how they live and eat and, forgive me madame, how they breed — we can better understand how we might live, might eat, might breed. To our race’s betterment, of course.”
This occasioned, said Aunt Germaine, some controversy in the lecture hall, as some wondered whether the Doctor was comparing humanity to common garden slugs by some blasphemous design. But Doctor Davenport was not deterred.
“Our ignorance,” he said, “is appalling, when it comes to the understanding of the effect of interbreeding on the races and the children they beget. And the consequences might be severe, should we not move swiftly to eradicate that ignorance.”
Jason wasn’t sure that he would have been any less put-off than the others who were there. “I know I ain’t a garden slug,” he said. “Or descended from one either.”
Aunt Germaine’s eye twinkled at that. “Do not be so certain, Jason.”
“And what did he mean about interbreeding?” asked Jason. “What consequences are those?”
Aunt Germaine sat back.
“You and your mother raised swine,” she said. “Perhaps we can explain it that way. How is it that you get a prize pig? Do you pray for one? Do you purchase two inferior pigs and mate them? No. You feed and keep a good sow. And from time to time you bring in a prize boar.”
“If there’s one around,” said Jason.
“All right,” said Aunt Germaine. “If there’s one around. If there is not — and you mate your beautiful sow with some — oh, some stringy, undersized, sickly little pig… What sort of offspring would you expect?”
“Not so fine,” he said, “I expect.”
“There is a saying that Doctor Davenport coined some time after that. Breed a white woman with a Negro — the baby’s a Negro. A German with an Italian: Italian. A white fellow with an Indian squaw?”
Jason guessed: “A baby squaw?”
Aunt Germaine clapped.
“You mean to tell me Doctor Davenport was talking about breeding people the way farmers breed pig.”
Aunt Germaine beamed. “It is a science,” she said. “A new science.”
“A new science.” Jason shook his head. “That’s something.”
“Do you know what it’s called?”
He shrugged. “Breeding, I guess.”
“It is called that. But there is a better word.”
Aunt Germaine leaned forward, her hand on Jason’s arm.
“Eugenics,” she said. Her eyebrows sprang up over the top of her glasses for an instant, and she smiled. “Eugenics, nephew.”
“And now there’s a Eugenics Records Office,” said Jason. “I guess it caught on.”
The ERO as Aunt Germaine called it had started up officially in the last year. But it had been a dream of Doctor Davenport’s for more than ten years.
“Doctor Davenport contacted me personally,” said Aunt Germaine, “to join his crusade.”
“A figure of speech. Call it a mission. The mission, then, of the ERO was to compile an immense list — of every man, woman and child in America. Divided, of course, into segments.”
“Of the population. Am I speaking too scientifically for you to follow, Jason?”
“I am following.” Jason took a sip of coffee. “Doctor Davenport contacted you to help him make this list with segments and all.”
“Very good. Last year, he engaged a number of very proficient researchers — nurses, biologists, breeders, and so on — to travel out to the far corners of this nation, and compile this list. We all gathered at Cold Spring Harbour. We learned how to gather the information so as to be most useful to the enterprise. And then, one by one, we set out.”
“To Sing Sing?”
“Among other places, but yes. Sing Sing and prisons and hospitals are places that we have visited. It is particularly important to understand the scope of the criminal and the infirm, after all. For those — illness and stupidity and criminality — are among the things we hope to one day eradicate.”
“I thought you were eradicating ignorance.”
“Do not be disrespectful, Nephew.”
“I am sorry, Aunt.”
That box of cards contained Aunt Germaine’s contribution to Doctor Davenport’s bold enterprise. The numbers — fully eleven digits long — were each one of them different from the next, and matched up with particular folks. The descriptions underneath (Habitual Criminal, Rapist and so on) were indications of what was wrong with those folks.
The percentage numbers said how good that person was overall. One of the things that the ERO was on the lookout for, said Germaine, was all the people that fell into the very lowest percentage. Jason couldn’t figure that.
“Why not look for the highest percentage?” he asked, and Aunt Germaine nodded and smiled at that.
“Why not indeed?” she said, and went back to work, entering the names and ages of the poor people of Cracked Wheel. They weren’t exactly murderers or habitual criminals or sufferers of epilepsy, but they weren’t the top of the percent either. They couldn’t have been that special. The germ had killed them all.