Thursday, February 07, 2013


Bob Perske has been a tireless advocate for people with disabilities.  This is a recent article he penned.  Thanks to Rev. Bill Gaventa from the Boggs Center in New Jersey for sending this to me.

By Robert Perske

            I know how hard you worked at getting others to see people with disabilities as PERSONS FIRST!  What I learned from you makes me want to tell you about a woman named Emma Wolverton.  Her good name was being smashed down like a tractor driving over a flower. 

            Emma's complete story can now be found in a new book entitled GOOD BLOOD, BAD BLOOD: Science, Nature, and the Myth of the Kallikaks (AAIDD, 2012).  It was written by David Smith and Michael Weymeyer, two researchers who worked like detectives on the case since 1976.  Here are a few of the many things they discovered about Emma.

*     *     *     *     *
            Emma Wolverton lived in an earlier time when there were no self-advocates.  As a tiny girl she stayed in an "almshouse," a home for poor people.  When she became 8 years old, she was taken to live in an institution called The Training School for Feeble-Minded Boys and Girls in Vineland, New Jersey.  After her arrival, a psychologist named Dr. Henry Goddard tested her and claimed that she was a "feeble-minded girl."  She lived in the institution for 81 years.  She died with the whole world never knowing her real name.
            Goddard hired field workers to study Emma's relatives who lived before her.  In doing so, they found that Emma's great-great-grandfather was a Revolutionary War soldier who "dallied" with a feeble-minded girl in a tavern -- leading to the birth of a "feeble-minded son."

            The workers reported that 480 relatives were found after the tavern affair -- and 143 were "feeble-minded."  Then the workers traced the lineage of the soldier after he "straightened up and married a respectable girl of good family."  This time the workers found 469 direct descendants and all of them were "normal."

            Then Goddard wrote a book called THE KALLIKAK FAMILY: A Study in The Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness (Macmillan, 1912)In his book, he used the fake name "Kallikak" to hide the real names of all of the relatives in the two sets of families.  It was derived from two Greek words:  Kallos (beauty) and Kakos (bad).  The first word was used mostly to emphasize the beauty in the soldier's family after he shaped up.  Then Emma became the "poster child" for all the bad in the descendants of the illegitimate, feeble-minded infant.

            After his book came out, Goddard saw to it that Emma was always to be addressed as Deborah Kallikak -- and never be called Emma Wolverton again. 

           Smith and Weymeyer found numerous negative statements by leaders in high places: President Theodore Roosevelt saw Emma's kind as leading us all to "Race Suicide" . . . U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called people like her "a sap on the strength" of the country . . . Many states voted laws that ordered the sterilization of thousands of persons with disabilities . . . Every state began building institutions to house the so-called "bad" Kallikaks.  After all, Goddard got many to believe that if we didn't stop them, they would outbreed us.

            Now, for the first time that I know of, Smith and Weymeyer had the guts to print Emma Wolverton's real name and to describe all the good things they found in her existence.

            Smith and Weymeyer uncovered a number of reports showing Emma to be most caring and talented:  She was a handsome woman at 25 . . . She excelled in embroidery, woodcraft and basketry . . . she played the cornet beautifully . . . took star roles in plays and pageants . . . she was well-trained in fine laundry work and dining room service . . . she used a power sewing machine and made clothes . . . she became a valued helper with children living in "the cottages" . . . she worked as a nurse's aide in the institution's hospital . . . and still later, she filled a nanny-housemaid role in the superintendent's home . . . Still later, she wrote warm and newsy letters to the children after they grew up and left the superintendent's home.

            It is also interesting to know that as a mature woman she fell in love with a maintenance worker.  She developed a system for crawling out her window to be with him.  When they were discovered, the man was fired and regulations were tightened on Emma (Smith, David: Minds Made Feeble. Pro-Ed 1985).

            For me, the turning point in the story came when Smith and Weyermeyer discovered a scholarly 860-page book on the Wolvertons by geneologists David MacDonald and Nancy McAdams (The Wolverton Family 1693-1850 and Beyond, Penobsot Press, 2001).  Their findings did not mesh with the ones created by Goddard and his field workers.

            I write the same conclusion that readers will find in Smith's and Weymeyer's book.  It is about respecting the good names of persons with disabilities.  I could never improve on what they wrote.  So I have decided to print it here:
            When we strip people of their names, we strip them of their dignity, their value, their selfhood.  It allows us to talk about "them" in anonymity, referring to our perjoritive name for them or the number we've tattooed on them, as if they were not people, not human.  We can refer to them as morons, criminal imbeciles, or degenerates as if they were not really sentient beings.  We can lock them away for the rest of their lives or sterilize them without their knowledge.  We -- we humans -- can march them into gas chambers by telling them that they are going to take a shower.
            Her name was Emma, not Deborah.
            Emma Wolverton.
            We at least owe her the respect of calling her by her name.