Cross Era’s Dark Secret Resurfaces

When you hear about the governor who gave New Haven’s largest high school its name, you never hear about a state-commissioned report that would have carried out a Nazi-style ethnic cleansing campaign in Connecticut. One group in town says it’s time you did.

The secret 1938 report, prepared for the state by a pro-eugenics researcher with ties to Nazi Germany, called for mass sterilization and deportation based on a ranking of all Connecticut citizens by 21 classifications such as “race descent,” “nativity and citizenship, “and kin in institutions.” Blacks, Jews, immigrants, the poor, and most of all people with physical deficiencies such as blindness and deafness, and people classified as mentally handicapped, would not fare well in that project.

The plan never became reality, although Connecticut did have a sterilization law, first enacted in 1909 and found to be constitutional by the state attorney general in 1912. Under the law the state sterilized 557 people classified as mentally handicapped or insane, up until 1963. (A woman could be classified as “feeble-minded” for having a child out of wedlock or a low IQ test score.)

Details about the secret report emerged in recent years due to the research of a prolific author about American institutional connections to Nazi-era crimes, named Edwin Black. His work caught the interest of the New Haven chapter of a group called the Society of Former Slaves and Freemen, which has begun circulating excerpts of Black’s writing on the subject. (The video captures an event the group held in New Haven this past weekend.)

Society organizer Linwood Branham Sr. (at center in photo at the top of this story) contacted the Independent to ask that the subject be raised with the broader community, to spark discussion about Wilbur Cross’s role and how we should recognize it today, including whether to have the city’s largest public high-school and the Wilbur Cross Parkway named after him. Yale’s alumni association also gives out an award in Cross’s name. No word of the episode appears in official or widely read accounts of Cross’s tenure in office, which focus instead on the opening of the parkway and his ascension to political office after a non-political career as a Yale English professor and literary critics.

“Our forefathers did not always do the right thing. We have the obligation to set some things straight. The people will decide what to do about it,” Branham said.

“We have to be able to talk about these things. We have to heal and grow as a society.” (Those interested in contacting the society about it can email Branham .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).)

A current Yale professor who specializes in eugenics research and has revisited some of the source material that forms the basis of Black’s work agreed that this was a disturbing episode in Connecticut history. He disagreed that evidence points to personal culpability by Cross.

What do you think? Let’s start with Black’s argument.

Black’s Revelations

Black, the son of Holocaust survivors, is a journalist who has written numerous books and spoken around the world about genocide and human rights. He has assembled teams of researchers to pore into untold stories about ties between, for instance, IBM and the Carnegie Institution and prominent American scholars with the emerging Nazi regime in the 1930s.

His research into the Connecticut episode under the Cross administration grew out of his work on a 2003 book called War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create A Master Race. He published a second edition of the book in 2012 with a new chapter about what happened in Connecticut. He had previously published some of the information on the web—you can find that here.

Black alleges that the “concept of a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed master Nordic race was not Hitler’s,” but rather “largely cultivated in Connecticut: with Connecticut “play[ing] an important, largely unknown, role in America’s campaign of ethnic cleansing.” Yale professors played a role in the eugenics movement, praised by Hitler; the American Eugenics Society was housed in an office overlooking the New Haven Green. (Click here to read “God and white men at Yale,” a Yale Alumni Magazine article about that little-told history.)

Connecticut already had a sterilization law (dating to 1909) when, in 1937, a commissioned headed by Gov. Cross’s welfare chief, a former U.S. senator named Frederic C. Walcott, hired a eugenicist with a working relationship with the Nazis named Harry Laughlin to prepare a Survey of the Human Resources of Connecticut. Cross had named Walcott to head the commission; Walcott was responsible for hiring Laughlin.

Black alleges that the survey’s “purpose ... was to bring Nazi-style ethnic cleansing to Connecticut in an organized scientific fashion but devoid of the type of Brownshirt violence that so typified Nazi Germany.”

Paul Bass PhotoLaughlin produced his report to the state the following year. It called for physicians to select people for sterilization and to “eliminate the family bloodlines of anyone who was sick,” including people with “even the slightest vision problems.”  According to Black, the state proceeded to establish 21 categories of human classifications, including by race and nativity. While proeparing the report, “Laughlin had discreetly surveyed 160 towns in 8 counties, 46 town farms, 10 jails, 18 institutions, and many other population and residential dynamics. He also investigated 8 complete Connecticut families, generation by generation, as prime examples of undesirable bloodlines.” Black claims that Laughlin devised a plan to eventually sterilize about 10 percent of the state’s population, among them prison inmates, people “unqualified for work, disabled, morally unacceptable, or otherwise ‘socially inadequate.’” The plan also “involved external and internal deportation” of “unifit” “alien” citizens to their native countries, according to Black. He writes that Laughlin identified Rocky Hill as “a model for biological surveillance,” to begin carrying out the plan, with the state beginning to fingerprint its citizens and draw up a registry.

Black discovered that Walcott gave a speech at Yale Medical School drawing from Laughlin’s research and conclusions.

Cross lost the 1938 election. “With Cross out of office, Connecticut cast aside Laughlin’s project,” Black writes. “Just a few copies of the full secret report were ever circulated. State officials hoped no one would ever discover their plans.”

That’s Black’s version.

A different take comes from Yale history professor Daniel J. Kevles, whose book 1985 book In The Name Of Eugenics has been called a “standard text” on the subject. At the request of the Independent, Kevles took a new look at Black’s assertions, with an eye toward what we know about Cross’s connection to the Laughlin affair. He produced the following written response:

Cautionary Comments

By Daniel J. Kevles

Edwin Black’s account of the The Survey of the Human Resources of Connecticut is unfortunately misleading with regard to its origins, “official” standing, and connection with Governor Wilbur Cross. Much of the truth about the survey can be found in a masters thesis completed at Southern Connecticut University in 1988 by Heidi M. Rydene titled, The Connecticut Human Resources Surveys of 1938 and 1948 Examined as Local Examples of the Eugenics Movement in the United States.

Governor Cross did not create the Commission on his own initiative. Its establishment was mandated by an act of the Connecticut State Legislature in 1935 The act stipulated, to cite its title, that the Commission was to “Study the Laws and Facilities of Connecticut Pertaining to the Prevention, Treatment and Care of Mental Defects and Disease and Allied Problems.” It was also to develop legislation and procedures designed to produce “an economic and efficient program for such prevention.”  (Special Acts of Connecticut, SP No. 360, June 1935, quoted in Rydene,  p. 9).

The legislature’s initiative was likely stimulated by the fact that the number of patients in the state’s institutions for the mentally ill and “mentally defective” – the term was common among mental health professionals at the time—had been rising, increasing state costs for housing and care at a time when the Great Depression was subjecting the Connecticut budget to severe pressure.  In other states it was thought that such costs could be reduced by programs to prevent these afflictions and to train people who suffered from them to lead self-sufficient lives. The reasoning was very likely no different in Connecticut.

Governor Cross signed the bill and soon appointed the Commission. It comprised five people and a secretary and was chaired by Frederic C. Walcott, a Republican who had recently lost his U.S. Senate seat and was now the state’s Commissioner of Welfare.  The Commission, not Governor Cross, chose Harry Laughlin to manage the study. He was the director of the Eugenics Record Office of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, at Cold Spring Harbor, on Long Island. Laughlin established a headquarters for the work in a room in the State Office Building in Hartford. He and some number of assistants spent much of the next two years gathering data in the field.

In 1937, Governor Cross sent the legislature a preliminary report from the Commission.. Its recommendations, he said, “contemplate the establishment of a State Department of Mental Health that would foster the “reeducation of patients” and “provide for boarding out, home supervision or other extra-mural care.”  It would also devise “measures designed to allay mental disease and prevent its increase.”  (Report of the Commission to Study Laws and Facilities for Prevention, Treatment and Cure of Mental Diseases and Defects, 1937, pp. 2-3, quoted in Rydene, p. 15). Governor Cross’s private notes on the Commission make clear that he understood that it would lead to “a New Training School for defectives.” (Rydene, p. 36)  His aims were care and education rather than sterilization and ostracism.

In December 1937, Laughlin’s operation, including the accumulated data, was transferred to the Eugenics Record Office, where Laughlin was to analyze the data and write a report. The result was the The Survey of the Human Resources of Connecticut, which was finished in 1938. (Hartford Courant, Oct. 23, 1937; Laughlin, “Survey,” p. 3.)

Laughlin was every bit the bad eugenic actor that Black says he was. Expressing his wrongheaded science and abominable social views, the Survey bore virtually no resemblance to the preliminary report that Cross had presented to the legislature the year before. Laughlin found warrant in the law’s mention of “allied problems” to focus the report on preventive measures rather than on the remedial ones that had aroused the enthusiasm of Governor Cross. To that end, he analyzed the data with regard to “the biological aspect of hereditary degeneracy as a major cause of individual handicap and social inadequacy among citizens of the State.” (Laughlin, Survey, pp. 1, 3-4). Building on that analysis,  the Survey advanced various recommendations for ridding the commonwealth of its people thus burdened, including extensive sterilizations.

However, the “Survey” was not an “official” document of the State of Connecticut. It was no more than a lengthy mimeograph of the Eugenics Record Office.  It was not published and does not seem to have been officially circulated, if it was circulated at all. Rydene (p. 5) was unable to find reference to it in the State Library or any other library. (One copy   is currently in the Yale Law Library). While Laughlin presented “The Survey” in its front matter as coming from the Commission, there is no evidence that the Commission endorsed it. And no evidence has come to light that Governor Cross ever embraced its inflammatory contents. He may not even have known of the mimeograph’s existence.

Does this mean that Connecticut is blameless in the history of eugenics and sterilization, and in this sorry episode in particular? Not at all. The state did enact two sterilization laws, one in 1909, the other in 1919, that authorized the procedure for patients in three state institutions for the mentally deficient. Between 1909 and 1963, when the operations ended, 557 people were subjected to the knife, and 82 percent of the procedures were carried out between 1921 and 1944 (See the essay on Connecticut in Lutz Kaelber, Eugenics: Compulsory Sterilization in 50 American States, University of Vermont, April 4, 2012, at As several other states have done, Connecticut might well issue at least an apology – and better yet compensation—to the victims, if any survive, and their families.

Even if the “Survey” was not an official document of the state, Connecticut, via the Commission, was complicit in enabling it. The Commission provided a headquarters for Laughlin’s study in the State Office Building and it tolerated a display of the study’s developing information in Room 259 titled: EXHIBIT ON THE HUMAN RESOURCES OF CONNECTICUT. (Laughlin, Survey, p 3)

New Haven, the home of the American Eugenics Society, was a center of eugenics between the wars, and a number of Yale faculty were among its prominent supporters. Given this network, it was surely no accident that the Commission turned to Laughlin for the study of the state’s human resources. Walcott (Yale, 1891) was probably the prime mover. In a brief account of the establishment of the Commission, Laughlin wrote that upon becoming Commissioner of Welfare, Walcott grew “impressed with the essentially biological nature of the problem of human handicap and hereditary degeneracy as reflected in the demands for aid and service by the State.” (“Survey,” p.2) A talk that Walcott gave at the Yale Medical School, reported by Black, suggests that he personally may have embraced some of the ideas in Laughlin’s Survey. If any state official is culpable in this deplorable episode, it would seem to be Frederic C. Walcott.

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posted by: Josiah Brown on September 24, 2014  5:15pm

Thanks for an interesting, if troubling, article.

“Evolutionary Medicine” was the subject of a 2009 seminar that Paul Turner – Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology – led through the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute.  The curriculum units that NHPS teachers developed as Institute Fellows are collected in this volume:

One unit addressed eugenics specifically:

posted by: Sagimore on September 25, 2014  9:52am

Weak sauce putting this on Cross, but then it wouldnt of made the news if he didnt.

posted by: JustAnotherTaxPayer on September 26, 2014  3:21pm