Creating Born Criminals

Few cultural notions chill the blood like the myth of the born criminal: the “bad seed,” who lacks the wits or the will to tell right from wrong, hardwired by biology and, in many of the myth’s modern variants, by heredity to a career of evil. For Nicole Hahn Rafter, as for Michel Foucault, her muse in this fascinating but ultimately frustrating book, born criminals are properly understood as “cultural artifacts,” not the stuff of “hard scientific truth” (9). Creating Born Criminals combines a genealogical account of how an array of professional groups in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America defined born criminals with a history of the model institutions that the state of New York built to control “defective delinquents” and prevent them from reproducing “their kind.”

The born criminal personified middle-class fears about a shadowy biological threat germinating within the body politic, fears inspired by mass urbanization, declining rates of middle-class reproduction, the “rising tide” of immigrants from eastern and southeastern Europe, the burden of the rural poor on public welfare offices, and, not least, by a burgeoning scientific literature on degeneracy and eugenics. Born criminals were known by many names: “moral imbeciles,” “degenerate criminals,” “defective delinquents,” and “psychopaths.” In the acts of naming, producing knowledge about, and institutionalizing mentally retarded people and incorrigibles, Rafter argues, several generations of American professionals—prison wardens, institutional superintendents, criminologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists—continually reinvented the born criminal. Born criminals “were socially manufactured, brought into being by the discourses of scientists and social-control specialists” (9).

Rafter is not the first scholar to sleuth about this grim historical terrain. Historians of biological determinism have examined biological theories of crime as an important element of modern hereditarian thought. And criminal justice historians have often noted (but rarely examined) the visible hand of eugenics in Progressive Era criminal justice. But Creating Born Criminals does focus sustained attention on a significant subject that other scholars have treated only tangentially: the convergence of cultural conceptions of inborn criminality and mental retardation into a cluster of “scientific” discourses and policy prescriptions that Rafter calls “eugenic criminology.” Eugenic criminology conceived of “feebleminded” persons and “incorrigible” criminals alike as dangerous hereditary deviants. To lawmakers, welfare workers, and prison officials persuaded by eugenic criminology, the solution was irresistible: born criminals must be removed from society and barred from reproducing, either by sterilization or, more commonly, by indefinite confinement in sex-segregated institutions.

Rafter traces the origins of eugenic criminology to the creation of the first public institutions for “idiots” in mid-nineteenth-century America. Inspired by the pedagogical theories of the Frenchman Edouard Séguin, philanthropists and educators including Hervey Backus Wilbur “rescued” the mentally retarded from the local jails and poorhouses where they had languished in Jacksonian America and set up new schools to systematically educate them (17). Wilbur and the Syracuse elites who helped him found the New York State Asylum for Idiots conceived of the retarded as innocent victims, deserving of state care, who could be trained and released back into the community as productive adults. During the asylum’s first two decades, Wilbur and his sponsors expressed great faith in the moral and vocational educability of “idiots.” But Wilbur could not resist pandering to public fears of the retarded when he needed to raise more public funds: unless given the education they deserved, he argued, idiots would end up as public charges and might commit “crimes … of a serious character” (20).

By the 1870s, the early optimism about the rehabilitation of idiots had faded, a casualty, it seems, of the institutions’ success. Institutional populations grew too large for the kind of intensive personal training that Wilbur had attempted in Syracuse. Cultural perceptions hardened, too: idiots were increasingly viewed as threats to society, rather than as its victims. As the function of institutions narrowed from education to custodialism, charity officials and institutional superintendents campaigned for more and bigger institutions by warning the public of the dangerous “degeneracy” of idiots. The concept of degeneracy pervaded social policy discourse in the late nineteenth century. A kind of dark mirror image of evolutionism, degeneration theory regarded members of the “dependent, defective, and delinquent classes” as people afflicted with a hereditary “tendency to devolve to a lower, simpler, less civilized state” (37). By ascribing social deviance to hereditary atavism, degeneration theory helped pave the way for eugenics. But the theory’s hereditarian assumptions, rooted in Lamarckianism, were more permeable than eugenics would be to the causal logic of environmentalism. The Lamarckian faith in the heritability of acquired characteristics fostered the optimistic idea that institutional treatment could actually reverse the spiral of degeneracy: rehabilitated deviants would pass along their improved traits to their offspring.

Degeneration theory had faithful adherents among wardens of the new “reformatories” that many states built for young male offenders in the late nineteenth century. In a devastating discussion of New York’s celebrated Elmira Reformatory, often hailed as the birthplace of modern rehabilitationism, Rafter argues that the concept of degeneracy gave wardens like Elmira’s Zebulon Brockway a scientific language with which to explain their failure to cure intractable prisoners. In one of her more controversial claims, she argues that Elmira’s institutional practices actually produced “degenerate criminals.” The techniques of “individual treatment” called attention to men who would not adopt or accommodate the values of their keepers. And the physical abuse that many prisoners evidently experienced at Elmira “physically create[d] the diseased bodies that both encouraged and confirmed attributions of degeneracy” (103).By the turn of the twentieth century, American hereditarianism had shed its Lamarckian optimism, and full-blown eugenic criminology emerged. Rafter carefully traces how a succession of professional groups—institutional superintendents, criminal anthropologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists—developed their own particular born criminal theories, using these theories to stake out greater cultural authority and larger jurisdictions for their professions. Professionals compared notes in national fora like the National Conference on Charities and Correction (established in 1874). Through such encounters the old boundaries between the “moral imbecile” and the “degenerate offender”—figures produced in the quite different institutional contexts of the asylum and the reformatory—dissolved. Eugenic criminology reached the height of its influence in the teens and early twenties, culminating (in Rafter’s account) with the creation of “the nation’s first freestanding eugenic prison,” the short-lived Napanoch Institution for Defective Delinquents (188).

Rafter’s analysis would be more compelling if it related these institutions and professional disciplines to their larger economic, social, political, and legal contexts. For reasons Rafter leaves much too mysterious, New York eugenicists routinely soft-pedaled their eugenic purpose in their public campaigns to build new institutions for the “treatment” of “feeble-minded” people and “degenerate” offenders. Why? The absence of any discussion of criminal law in this book is particularly disappointing, given Rafter’s subject and also Foucault’s provocative thoughts on the relationship between law and discipline in modern liberal states. (Despite her enthusiasm for Foucault, Rafter references only a slim selection of his works; neither The History of Sexuality nor Discipline and Punish appear in her notes.) As a result, the book lacks a clear explanation for how law and legal institutions could both facilitate eugenic criminology (by incorporating psychopathic clinics into the machinery of criminal courts and legalizing the sterilization of “habitual criminals”) and rein it in (witness the dozens of inmates released from Napanoch on habeas corpus petitions in the early 1930s).

No one who reads Creating Born Criminals will fail to see the historical significance of eugenic criminology and the dangerous influence it exerted over the treatment of the mentally retarded and law-breakers in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America. This is an important contribution—not least because both eugenics and born criminal theory seem poised for a renaissance in the twenty-first century. Still, readers interested in history and concerned about the future would profit from a more thickly contextualized understanding of the emergence of eugenic criminology and—equally important—of the forces that ultimately contained it.







By Nicole Hahn Rafter