Terror of The Black Stork: Love Story to Eugenics

By Keith Murfee-DeConcini

DSAB 620, Disability History, Fall 2018


“As for the exposure and rearing of children, let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.”

Aristotle, The Politics

“What’s Wrong with Perfect?”

Tagline to The Eugenics Crusade



Dr. Harry Haiselden is a name not many people know. One has to dig into American history to find even a trace of his existence. In the early twentieth century, however, Haiselden was a revolutionary for all the wrong reasons. He withheld lifesaving treatment from babies he deemed defective and advocated for the method to be more widely used by doctors. He lived in the heyday of the American eugenics movement, beginning in the early twentieth century, a few short decades before the Nazis took over the term in World War II. What he advocated was horrific.

The term eugenics (taken from Greek words that mean “well born”) was coined by Francis Galton (cousin of Charles Darwin) in the 1880s, although the concept predates the term, going back to the days of Plato and Aristotle (Goering 2014). Eugenics “is a set of beliefs . . . which advocates the use of practices aimed at improving the genetic composition of human populations” (Wilson 2013a). The term is then further subdivided into “positive” and “negative” eugenics. Positive eugenics “refers to efforts aimed at increasing desirable traits” (e.g., healthy, high-achieving people should have children, or have larger families), while negative eugenics “refers to efforts aimed at decreasing undesirable traits” (e.g., discouragement or prohibition of marriage and family life for those with eugenically undesirable traits, and sexual segregation, sterilization, and euthanasia of those with such traits; Witkowski 2000; Wilson 2013b.) While positive eugenics was practiced first, as soon as negative eugenics came along, it overtook the concept to a great extent and therefore is generally what is remembered today about the eugenics movement (Epstein 2003; Wilson 2013b).

Out of the few dozen health films about the eugenics movement, most of which did not survive, The Black Stork was “the most explicit depiction of negative eugenics to reach the silent screen” (Smith 2011, 17). The film was originally released in 1917 and then re-released in 1927 as Are You Fit to Marry? The man at the center of the film was Dr. Harry Haiselden. Throughout this paper, the author will examine the film’s story and some of the overarching cultural themes of the eugenics movement which inspired it, how the film advocated for the movement, and how it generated controversy. By the end of the paper, the reader will understand why the film was labeled as the “eugenic love story” (Pernick 1996, 41).

The main sources will be the 1927 version of the film (as the original 1917 film is no longer viewable); the PBS American Experience documentary on eugenics entitled The Eugenics Crusade (2018); and the only book written about the film, The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of “Defective” Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures since 1915 by Martin S. Pernick (1996). Given that there is only one scholarly work devoted to the film and its context in the American eugenics movement, it shall be cited heavily within this paper. Secondary sources include numerous articles, books, and films about the movement in America but will also touch on the fact that the eugenics movement was not isolated to one country or one time period. Also included in a list of secondary background sources will be sources used for background research that were not directly cited in the paper. 

Websites referenced include the Eugenics Archive through Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which faithfully documents the American eugenics movement, and the Eugenics Archives in Canada, which documents the movement in that country. While there was a start date to the eugenics movement in America, there was not an end date. Though eugenics is today seen as a misguided movement, eugenics still exists in America, just not usually by that name. This paper will begin to take a broad look at the different forms eugenics has taken in more modern times.

For the reader to understand cultural nuances of the early twentieth century and the scope in which those nuances emboldened the eugenics movement, there is no escaping the language that was used during the era. It is important to let history speak for itself. Words like “cripple,” “defective,” “moron,” “feebleminded,” “mental deficiency,” “degenerate,” “retard,” and others must be retained to illuminate the horrors of the time.

History of the American Eugenics Movement

Today it might be hard to imagine the attraction many thought leaders had to eugenics, but it did occur in the early twentieth century. The controversies created by Haiselden reveal that “it was common to reject one aspect of eugenics while endorsing others. The term eugenics covered three distinct topics: goals, methods, and powers. Thus, some who rejected Haiselden’s methods supported his goals, while others who opposed medical decision-making favored empowering someone else to eliminate the unfit” (Pernick 1996, 14). This allowed the incredible diversity of Haiselden’s supporters to spring forth, representing a shockingly extensive range of social opinion, “from socialists to business leaders, feminists to misogynists, nativists to immigrants” (Pernick 1996, 15).

What made those diverse groups rally behind Haiselden and his cause of eugenics is that he was able to magnificently argue that “such subjective and emotional disputes could be eliminated by science. He appealed to a faith common among turn-of-the-century Americans who considered themselves ‘progressive’—the belief that science constituted an objective method for resolving social and ethical questions, such as the quality-of-life decisions eugenics and euthanasia required” (Pernick 1996, 15).

The concept of eugenics predates the term by many centuries. The scope of this paper is confined to going no further back than the 1870s, as it was in the 1870s that “a few physicians and others first publicly advocated killing or not treating defective newborns. These proposals marked the initial convergence of two increasingly important concepts, eugenics and euthanasia. The word ‘euthanasia,’ which previously had meant efforts to ease the sufferings of the dying without hastening their death, now also came to include both passively withholding treatment and active ‘mercy killing’” (Pernick 1996, 21).

Most prominent British and American eugenicists would deny that they sought the death of defectives; they thought that curbing reproduction by the unfit would be effective enough. However, the conversation of applying eugenics and euthanasia “had begun as early as 1868, and proposals to kill the unfit grew in frequency from 1890 on” (Pernick 1996, 22). So ,when in the early twentieth century, Haiselden began his work and his aggressive promotion of it, the effect produced an alignment between the two concepts, merging them into one. This garnered “endorsements of euthanasia from mainstream eugenic leaders who previously had publicly rejected such measures” (Pernick 1996, 24).

Slogans of Eugenics and Focus on Heredity 

The cultural mindset of the practice of eugenics was conveyed to the masses through concise slogans such as “Better babies equals fitter families.” Just as the slogans that packaged eugenics were concise, so too were the questions the science of eugenics tried to address. Regarding better understanding and improving human heredity, eugenicists sought answers to the following questions: “First, what human differences are influenced by heredity? Second, what counts as an improvement—which human traits are good, and which are not? Third, what techniques are best to produce the desired improvements? And fourth, who should have the power to answer the other questions?” (Pernick 1996, 41; Witkowski 2000).

Haiselden tried to better clarify what the exact definition of eugenics was and how broadly it could be applied and to whom. This list evolved over the years, and as such, “The list included conditions still seen as genetic diseases today, but it also included many differences no longer considered hereditary illnesses. Some of these differences, such as syphilis and poverty are still usually seen as bad things to have but are no longer generally attributed to heredity. Others, such as dark skin color, are still generally attributed to heredity but are no longer labeled inferior. Still others, such as the trait eugenicists called ‘nomadism,’ are no longer seen as either inherited or undesirable and may not even be perceived as a meaningful category anymore” (Pernick 1996, 42). To best summarize the mindset that early eugenicists had: any trait thought to be unusual or foreign in any way was viewed with either great suspicion or condemnation. Basically, anyone who did not look right or act right was a target.

The early understandings of human heredity focused on how heredity applied to measure the optimal health of a human and their potential offspring. One analogy tied inheriting health to the example of inheriting money: “Both constituted a legacy from your parents that determined your starting point in life. If you built up your body or your bank account, not only would you become stronger and richer, but you would also leave your children a better inheritance than you had received. But if you lost your biological assets to bad habits or unhealthy conditions, your children’s inheritance would be as devastated as if you had squandered or been robbed of your financial assets” (Pernick 1996, 43).

Human heredity was not the only factor to influence eugenics; the environment and fear also played roles. Haiselden used to both great effect, especially to explain his reasoning regarding his cases. He found no hereditary defect in the parents of the six babies from whom he had withheld treatment. In fact, some of the parents had previously given birth to healthy offspring. So Haiselden blamed the environment and certain situations to which the pregnant mothers were exposed.

One father attributed his second child’s hydrocephalus and paralysis to his wife’s hapless viewing of a “hopeless paralytic in a wheelchair” during her pregnancy causing a nervous shock to her system (Pernick 1996, 49). Haiselden backed that explanation as entirely possible. Likewise, when another family a few years later expressed the opinion that “their baby’s microcephaly and exposed brain might have resulted from the mother’s having witnessed a man who ‘fell from a third-story window and dashed out his brains at her feet’” (Pernick 1996, 49), Haiselden again approved of their assessment.

These examples show that when pointing to heredity did not work, there was always another factor eugenicists could blame or stoke fear towards. This extended to anyone regarded as different and therefore less pure. If eugenicists were not above labeling nonwhite races as “germs” or as “genetic defectives” (Pernick 1996, 59), it should not be a shock that they were not above classifying less-than-perfect beauty as a hereditary disease (Pernick 1996, 61). This point was explained by a U.S. government film series entitled The Science of Life, in a segment that paralleled good grooming with good breeding. The film even tried to influence people’s perceptions of beauty by comparing optimal human beauty to a lustrous locomotive (Pernick 1996, 62).

Haiselden used a similar parallel in The Black Stork by contrasting the storyline of Claude and Anna (“unhealthy” union produces a defective child) with that of Tom and Miriam (“healthy” union produces a healthy child). Haiselden believed that ugliness was as defective as any undesirable trait, not only in the movies but in real life as well. Writing about when he showed the public his portrait of the Bollinger baby (discussed in the next section), he reflected on that image, saying it was “‘not a pretty one. It mars the pages of this book—as I intended it should mar them. It is better that the deformities of this tiny castaway should sear themselves into the minds of thinking men.’” He continued, “‘It was terribly ugly,’ . . . Such ugliness was not ‘light or superficial’; it was a true ‘handicap.’ ‘To be hideous, utterly hideous is a dreadful curse.’ Such a defective ‘is not a beautiful thing. It is a monstrosity. It is not to be saved.’ Ugliness deprived the defective of ‘it[s]’ humanity and justified depriving ‘it’ of life” (Pernick 1996, 64).

Haiselden never evolved past his belief that the ugliness of defectives was as much a curse as any other impairments they possessed. By all accounts, Dr. Harry Haiselden still believed that in mid-June of 1919 when he died suddenly of a stroke at the age of forty-eight (Pernick 1996, 12).

The Event That Inspired The Black Stork

It all started with a baby that Haiselden refused to treat: baby Bollinger. The baby was born on November 12, 1915, weighing seven pounds, to parents Allen and Anna Bollinger. Haiselden had “diagnosed multiple physical anomalies in the infant, including absence of a neck and one ear, deformities of the shoulders and chest, very slow reaction of the pupils to light, and an imperforate anus . . . Haiselden concluded that surgery could correct the intestinal defects and thus save the infant’s life, but that gross physical and mental abnormalities would remain, and he urged the parents not to request an operation. The Bollingers agreed, and five days later the baby died” (Pernick 1996, 3–4).

Haiselden was a promoter of what he called revolutionary medical practices: withholding treatment as a form of what he considered euthanasia. This created controversy. Furthermore, after Bollinger, he proudly admitted that he would continue the practice. During the next three years, he withheld treatment from at least five more babies he deemed too abnormal to let live (Pernick 1996, 4). Every case in which he withheld lifesaving treatment was highly publicized in the press. He was making a name for himself by allowing “defective” babies to die under his care by not treating them.

“Parents of handicapped children around the country wrote moving letters of support to Haiselden and requested his help in allowing their children to die” (Pernick 1996, 5). Indeed, the fear born out of this era, due in part to the actions of Haiselden, gave parents the approval for wishing death for their “defective” children, because it was better to die “than go through life a helpless cripple” (Pernick 1996, 5).

Haiselden aggressively promoted his cases through various methods, including displaying “dying infants to reporters” (Pernick 1996, 5) and arranging for their mothers to be photographed and interviewed. He wrote many articles about his cases, delivered public lectures, and was himself interviewed freely in movie newsreels. In his mind, he was a revolutionary, and for a long time, the public treated him like one. Stories by and about him appeared all over the country. His cases “made page-one headlines for days on end. At times the Bollinger case pushed even World War I to second billing” (Pernick 1996, 5).

Given Haiselden’s aggressive promotion, it was only a matter of time before the idea of creating a melodrama based on his most famous case dawned on him. In collaboration with journalist Jack Lait, Haiselden wrote and starred in The Black Stork. This film, which in its original version ran under an hour, would become the most blatant public promotion of infanticide and negative eugenics.

Splitting the Country

Through his actions, Haiselden essentially split the country’s opinion of the revolutionary medical practices being used on “defective” newborns and infants. This diversity in supporters included every faith and every profession. Likewise, his critics included a variety of different faiths and professions. Very prominent early-twentieth-century Americans could be found on both sides of the issue. Haiselden’s supporters included “such leading progressive reformers as settlement worker and nurse Lillian Wald, family-law pioneer Judge Ben Lindsey, civil rights lawyer Clarence Darrow, and historian Charles A. Beard . . . Men like Charles Davenport, Raymond Pearl, and Irving Fisher, leaders of the movement to ‘improve’ human heredity known as eugenics, championed Haiselden’s refusal to preserve supposedly hereditary defectives . . . so did the celebrated blind and deaf advocate for the disabled, Helen Keller, and the Catholic cardinal of Baltimore, James Gibbons” (Pernick 1996, 6).

In December 1915, Keller wrote a letter to The New Republic, strongly supporting Haiselden, claiming that “It is the possibility of happiness, intelligence and power that give life its sanctity, and they are absent in the case of a poor, misshapen, paralyzed, unthinking creature.” Her conclusion was that the country had a choice: “We must decide between a fine humanity like Dr Haiselden’s and a cowardly sentimentalism” (Keller 1915; Gerdtz 2006).

Haiselden’s critics were also diverse, including “such eminent physicians as Hugh Cabot of Massachusetts General Hospital, University of Michigan medical dean Victor C. Vaughan, industrial-health crusader Alice Hamilton, suffragist Anna Howard Shaw, medical educator and future senator Royal Copeland, obstetricians Fred Adair and Joseph De Lee, pediatrician Abraham Jacobi, and popular health advocate John Harvey Kellogg. [It must be noted that later Kellogg joined the eugenics movement (Ferrari 2018).] Joining these medical leaders to urge treatment for all infants were renowned social-work pioneers Jane Addams of Hull House and Julia Lathrop of the Federal Children’s Bureau” (Pernick 1996, 7). Addams offered a list of famous, notable, and historical people who suffered from disabilities. Among them were Helen Keller [despite, it seems, Keller’s own support for Haiselden], John Milton, Lord Byron, and Robert Louis Stevenson (Addams 1915).

Newspapers too were split on endorsing Haiselden. Among those supporting him were the Chicago Herald, Chicago Tribune, and Chicago American; Detroit News and Detroit Free Press; Baltimore American; Philadelphia Ledger; New York American; Washington Herald; and New Republic (Pernick 1996, 7). Lining up on the other side, criticizing Haiselden were the Boston Globe, Washington Post, New York Sun, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Chicago Evening Post, Survey Magazine, Ann Arbor News, and New York Times, “though the Times later changed its stance to oppose only Haiselden’s publicity-seeking” (Pernick 1996, 7).

Through a series of investigations brought on by his critics, Haiselden’s actions and cases were examined underneath a microscope of intense scrutiny. One panel of doctors “emphasized that a doctor’s duty is to save or prolong life.” But while they strongly criticized Haiselden’s actions, they concluded that he was “fully within his rights in refusing to perform any operation which his conscience will not sanction” (Pernick 1996, 7).

While the results of investigations tended to criticize but not condemn Haiselden, one major organization did: the Chicago Medical Society. In March of 1916, they expelled him from their ranks “not because he let babies die, but because he publicized the cases” (Pernick 1996, 8). Their decision had no immediate negative impact on Haiselden’s practice because he was too much of a household name by that point. As a result, he continued to practice, as he did not lose his license. Eventually, however, he would not be documented in the official books of medical histories.

Even though the work of Dr. Haiselden was eventually discredited, it would take several decades for this to happen. During his time in the limelight, he basked in it. He savored his image as a revolutionary doctor promoting new ways to control the birth rates of those deemed “defective” while also advancing the “noble” cause of eugenical excellence. There is no greater example of this than The Black Stork.

Staring into the Eyes of The Black Stork 

The original 1917 version of The Black Stork can no longer be viewed, but the rereleased 1927 version, Are You Fit to Marry?, allows an analysis of the film’s message. The rereleased version primarily updated the film’s length (from under an hour to an hour and a half), revised the prologue, and added an epilogue that featured several clearly contemporary characters who were dressed accordingly. The revised prologue introduces a young man named Jack who plans to marry his girlfriend, Alice. Her father is Robert Wright, a professor and a leading authority on the subject of heredity. Wright will not consent to his daughter marrying Jack, unless Jack undergoes an extensive physical examination that proves he is fit enough to marry Alice. Robert shows Jack some stock animals who are well bred; this is the definition of good heredity, the very thing humans should aspire to, he says. They take a ride around town in Wright’s flashy car to continue their talk. 

The plot of the original film is used as a long flashback to persuade Jack to heed Robert’s advice after his previous lecture leaves the young man unmoved. Robert uses the context of the original plot, inciting Jack and the viewer with the personal claim: “Let me tell you about a true story of a boyhood chum of mine and the sad consequences of his marriage.” Viewers are then treated to the 1917 plot of The Black Stork, which contrasts the lives of two couples, Claude and Anne, Tom and Miriam.

In the flashback, we first meet Claude, who has an unnamed hereditary disease that continues to haunt him. This disease was inflicted onto him as a result of his grandfather’s affair with a “vile filthy” slave in the 1917 version, replaced in 1927 by an unclean white servant girl. Claude is very much in love with his girlfriend, Anne, as she is with him. Even though Claude is wealthy, he cannot escape that his blood is “tainted” and that he should therefore never marry, as the ghost of his grandfather warns him three times. We watch as Claude is terrified over his diseased ancestry and writhes in despair as he reads a book labeled Ibsen’s Ghosts. The stage drama to which the book is a reference vividly depicts a victim born with congenital syphilis. This drama had been made into a movie the year before the 1917 version. 

Anne is introduced to viewers as she lies on a sofa, eating candies while reading a magazine and taking breaks to gaze with romantic infatuation at a photo of Claude. Her friend Miriam is behind her, holding a caged bird next to a window. While Anne can do nothing but daydream of marrying Claude and starting a family, Miriam is afraid that her mother was stricken with hereditary epilepsy, which would make her defective. Because of this belief, Miriam refuses to marry her boyfriend, Tom.

Dr. Dickey, played by Haiselden, tries to discourage Claude from marrying Anne by showing them mentally and physically defective patients in a hospital. This does not work, however, and Claude proposes to and marries Anne soon after. The audience sees that the baby born from their misguided union is severely defective. Dr. Dickey is offered the chance to operate on the child to save it, but he refuses. He reasons that “There are times when saving a life is a greater crime than taking one.” His inaction prompts an argument between him and the leaders of the Doctors Club, who advocate saving the baby.

While Claude is beside himself about what they have created, Anne is unsure what to do regarding their baby. Anne is then shown a vision from “God” that details the child’s miserable future of pain and rejection if he is allowed to live. This horror is acted out most vividly when the child leaves his home, filled with his mother’s love (his father is nowhere to be seen) and encounters a world of rejection that drives him mad, resulting in him killing the doctor who had “condemned me to live.” After a stint in jail, he gets out and breeds with a derelict woman, and they produce a brood of defective descendants.

One of the most persistent fears in the era, stoked by eugenicists, was that defectives, if they were allowed to reproduce, would breed more defectives (Pernick 1996, 57, 60). Getting this viewpoint across on film was a major argument for boosting the cause of eugenics, which is why the vision Anne is given by “God” ends with her son breeding other defective children. That final part of the vision terrifies Anne and therefore allows her to rationalize that withholding treatment and permitting her baby to die is the best course for her and for humanity as a whole.

In this vision, the film evokes the belief that delinquency, degeneracy, and financial destruction are the inevitable consequences of all disability. Furthermore, the emotional core of a disabled person’s life consists of anger, resentment, and envy, all of this a direct result of defective birth (Pernick 1998). Anne is horrified by this vision and agrees to withhold treatment. Their baby dies, and his tiny soul is embraced by a welcoming Jesus.

When Miriam, on the other hand, finds out that she was adopted and therefore has a clean bill of health, she marries Tom, and they produce a healthy baby. Hearing this story, Jack consents to be examined and passes, proudly announcing to Alice that they are fit to marry as the film ends.

The Relatability of “Defectives” 

Claude and Anne’s son was played by actor Henry Bergman, and in the film, the son remains unnamed. In the original version, which retains the opening credits unlike the 1927 version, the son is listed as “The Monster.” Despite this, many critics praised Bergman’s portrayal for its depth and humanity (Pernick 1996, 145). The author of this paper concurs with this opinion: one is more likely to pity the son than hate him. Bergman did not play the role as a menace to society but rather as a lost and confused soul, wanting connection with the world around him. The character was more relatable than Haiselden would have wanted him to be.

Another example is the scene in which Dr. Dickey displays some of his defective patients, most notably a sixteen-year-old mentally retarded girl who smiles at the camera with one hand on her hip. This shot was likely intended to convey another common eugenic fear: the “supposedly uninhibited sexuality of the feebleminded” (Pernick 1996, 145). This scene does not work to convey that fear, however, unless perhaps the viewer already strongly possesses it. Rather, this is a very common mannerism for someone to do when they know they are being filmed and want to show off. The young girl was most likely imitating the provocative stance of a female film star—which again would be very relatable to the public. The scene could have made the patients seem more attractive and more human as a result.

Sexuality and Eugenics in The Black Stork

Sexuality was another major factor that shaped The Black Stork. While the plot of the movie contained no overly sexual content, the movie did contain nudity, to bolster the eugenic argument of innocent beauty and peak physical fitness. This is shown throughout the movie as a variety of naked and nearly naked children and adolescents engage in vigorous sports. While Haiselden may have included this to strengthen the argument mentioned above, it is not hard to imagine that some moviegoers may have considered this display of nudity to be sexual in nature, and possibly homoerotic or pedophilic (Pernick 1996, 66).

Despite this possibility, the film was not censored outright because of its nudity but rather because of the subject matter of eugenics. “Despite its appeals to objective reason, eugenics contained strong doses of fantasy, longing, and desire . . . eugenics and sexuality were closely linked in mass culture. In turn, eugenicists themselves were deeply preoccupied with sex” (Pernick 1996, 67). That belief could have influenced how the public may have considered the film to be erotic, despite the film being anti-sexual. Ultimately though, the film’s tie to eugenics was enough of a reason for it to be eventually censored. “Frequent viewer repulsion toward cinematic portrayals of eugenic-based plotlines in motion pictures caused censors to ban films with this content not only on the basis of sexual immorality but also for aesthetic reasons” (Pernick 1996, 119–22).

The science of eugenics made sex a public concern for two reasons: controlling sexual behavior and eliminating specific sexual activities. “Homosexuality, masturbation, birth control, sodomy, prostitution, rape, and even too frequent sex within marriage were topics of debate among eugenicists, both as to whether they increased or decreased the propagation of other diseases, and as to whether they were inherited diseases themselves” (Pernick 1996, 68). While eugenicists tended to hold wildly different views on sexuality (e.g., what was considered “good” sex and what was considered “bad” sex), they often overlooked their differences because they understood that their shared purpose of making sexuality rational and modern as a reward for the physically fit was more important.

Other films of the era (e.g., The Science of Life) sought to control sexuality, completely disregarding sexual pleasure as a valid experience of humanity. However, The Black Stork choose to fully embrace sexual pleasure and to cast it as an earthly reward. In the film, Haiselden proclaimed that “the pleasures of the earth are only for those who are physically and mentally fit” (Pernick 1996, 69).

It should be noted again how incredibly diverse Haiselden’s supporters were, especially surrounding sexual ethics. At one end, there was “Mary Ware Dennett, who was arrested for writing that sex was ‘a vivifying joy,’” and on the other end, there was the famed eugenicist Charles Davenport, “who diagnosed ‘eroticism’ as a dangerous genetic disease” (Pernick 1996, 70). Despite their differences, neither Dennett nor Davenport had trouble seeing Haiselden’s views as compatible with their own. This was because, in the context of the early twentieth century, their shared belief in the science of eugenics as a vessel for the betterment of humanity outweighed everything else. Both believed that “modernism would produce a new source of authority to replace traditional religion as the method for distinguishing good sexuality from bad” (Pernick 1996, 70).

It was views like these, among many others, that propelled early eugenicists to believe with zealous vigor that “Strength should always marry strength, and weakness should never marry…  Nothing short of that will satisfy the true eugenist” (Pernick 1996, 74). This concept was at the heart of The Black Stork and its promotion. The basic principle of the film proclaimed that “malformations both physical, moral and mental should not form a part of human existence” (Pernick 1996, 74).

The pushback to that basic principle came in various ways. Some critics attacked the definition of defectiveness promoted by Haiselden as being too imprecise and prejudiced to be safe. Using a dangerously unbounded methodology to define some people as defectives would start an ever-widening circle and eventually lead to an all-encompassing precedent. “[W]ho in the future will be safe… where will the line be drawn between the ‘fit’ and the ‘unfit,’ between the so-called ‘defective’ and the ‘non-defective’?” asked the Catholic New Orleans Morning Star (Pernick 1996, 77).

Eugenics and the “Will of God”

In discussing the Bollinger case, Haiselden credited God for the fate of the baby. This viewpoint was expressed in The Black Stork: “It was the will of God that the child be born defective. It is his will that the child die. Shall I set myself up as wiser than the Almighty? God does not want that child to live,” Haiselden explains to Anne in the film (Haiselden and Lait 1917; Strafford and Lait 1927). Haiselden’s position in real life was to evoke the reasoning that “If God wants these babies to live, let God save them” (Pernick 1996, 86). This belief “echoed a nineteenth-century belief faith in the divine beneficence of nature, as well as that century’s skepticism about the value of artificial medical intervention” (Pernick 1996, 86).

The irony here is that while Haiselden in the movie claims that there is a God and that it is the will of God to make babies defective, the will to want them dead is also the will of God. The science of eugenics achieves this when it is carried out by doctors like him. In real life, one of the methods that Haiselden used to escape responsibility was to deflect the blame for the death of so-called “defectives” onto God. 

Rediscovering The Black Stork 

Films like The Black Stork were once considered to be lost to time, forgotten relics of a less sophisticated era. The first showings of the original film that took place in Chicago and a few months later in New York City were in 1916; the last showing, under the new title, reportedly took place in Arizona in 1942 (Pernick 1996, 157–58). For the longest time, The Black Stork stayed lost, until Martin Pernick, a professor and historian, happened to find the last viewable print of the 1927 version in a garage of a film collector. The film has since been uploaded to the Internet for those curious enough to view it. 

The author of this paper viewed Are You Fit to Marry? once, to gain a deeper understanding of the film and its popularity, after having read Pernick’s book on the film four times. The film did not invoke a strong emotional reaction, producing instead just mild curiosity, until the last thirty minutes. Because of the passage of time, the film copy had frayed substantially, and as a result, the final part of the film’s picture was warped. The warping of the picture did not take away from the film’s concluding storyline. Rather, the final part played out with flickers caused by the decaying film reels. Revealing the passage of time, these spasms add a whole new layer of how to view the film and its message. 

The Black Stork sought to convey to the masses the message of infanticide, negative eugenics, and euthanasia. It would seem the passage of time has had the last laugh—by making the only known copy of the film itself defective. If the film that was once hailed as the “eugenic love story” and “the most explicit depiction of negative eugenics to reach the silent screen” is now itself defective, then what does the science of eugenics recommend? What would Dr. Harry Haiselden demand be done regarding the defective film? The answer is quite simple: withhold treatment and let it die. With the death of The Black Stork, the passage of time has shown us how truly defective it was all along. If the film that helped propel the embrace of the eugenics movement by the mainstream public would be condemned to death, then the eugenics movement itself must die along with it.

Future of Eugenics

After World War II, many saw eugenics as the true horror show it was and had always been, having witnessed the Nazis take the concept of eugenics and twist it beyond what most Americans could fathom. An example was that the Nazis applied compulsory sterilization to a vast number of their own citizens, regardless of hereditary factors (Ferrari 2018). Out of the ashes of eugenics, a new movement arose in its place: genetics. Unlike the former movement, genetics focuses on how to better understand genetic differences to extend the human lifespan and prevent illnesses. By focusing on these areas of scientific discovery, genetics seeks to promote greater equality for all. Still, the fact that a new movement—even one that is for the most part positive—arose from the remnants of a misguided one has people understandably cautious.

For example, some members of the scientific community have asserted that “counseling for prenatal diagnosis is ‘pessimistically biased’ or ‘slanted’ and that counselors have a “pessimistic view of persons with disabilities” (Wertz 1998). Charles J. Epstein, MD, the 2003 president of the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics, stated in his presidential address that year that, in his belief, “prenatal diagnosis is, at worst, eugenics in name only” (Epstein 2003). Epstein sees the connection between prenatal testing and the desired outcome of producing well-born children, therefore tying the practice to the eugenic views of the past.

In The Black Stork, disability is viewed as inherently bad, and people with disabilities lead shattered lives that are marred by tragedy. Epstein points out that despite its best intentions, “Prenatal diagnosis programs, however, they may be justified, clearly do have as their goal the prevention of the birth of children with various types of disability” (Epstein 2003), a statement just as valid today as when it was made fifteen years ago. Epstein agrees with other members of the scientific community that “we need to keep alive our awareness of these past abuses and to maintain our vigilance that new developments are not misused in the future” (Harper and Clarke 1997).

Some people may be even more cautious, aligning themselves with evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins’ assertion that “in our time, the word [eugenics] has a chilling ring. If a policy is described as ‘eugenic,’ that is enough for most people to rule it out at once” (Dawkins 1999). Regardless of genetics’ firmer grounding in modern science, with a gentler touch and scope more akin to the positive eugenics concept, they look at genetics and still see the old basis of eugenics. Therefore, genetics is labeled newgenics, because, in their minds, eugenics by any other name is still eugenics.

No matter how advanced science may get or how great humanity’s obsession with perfection continues to grow, it remains clear (despite humanity’s stubborn refusal to accept otherwise) that science cannot design the perfect human. Still, the quest to rediscover perfection remains a very seductive goal in the imaginations of many. We see this quest in mass media, from book series like Frank Herbert’s Dune to television shows like Star Trek and Doctor Who, comic books like The X-Men, to movies like Blade Runner and Gattaca (Anders and Jackson 2012; Kirby 2000; Kirby 2007). That is only the briefest overview of how eugenics themes have continued to fascinate the modern public through books, television, and movies. Real-world scientific advancements, like genetic engineering and cloning, continue to raise questions about whether these advances should be used at all and, if so, to what degree.

So, what is wrong with perfect? Perfection does not exist in an imperfect realm, and it cannot exist by the laws of nature or by the laws of the supernatural or the cosmos. To evolve past those laws and thereby change them requires “playing God.” Do we really want to design and customize the genes of our offspring in the hopes of creating perfect children? Where does the obsession with perfection end? Who would want to be perfect when the end result of perfection in an imperfect realm must be boredom at best, or at worst, death?


There is nothing wrong with self-improvement or wanting to have a healthy child. It is the methods we use to achieve this desired outcome that should be in question. During the time that eugenics mania swept the country, big names such as the Carnegie Institute and the Rockefeller Foundation supported it, while major educational institutions were involved as well, including Harvard, Yale, and UC–Berkeley (Reilly 2016; Ferrari 2018). These were the elite establishments where the best and the brightest flourished.

Eugenics was taken to its most terrifying level by the Nazis during World War II, but the practice of eugenics did not start there, not by a long shot (Black 2013). Eugenics had become a global movement with virtually every major country being touched by eugenics at some point (Levine 2017). The facts are also clear that the United States was a foremost transmitter of the philosophy, especially throughout Europe (Ferrari 2018).

History has shown us the beginnings of the eugenics movement in America, starting in the early twentieth century, with inspiration reaching far back into the past. Rampant racism and classism added fuel to the fire of the eugenics movement. Combining those fuels with the fake science of eugenics, the obsession of connecting every line of heredity to either a positive (e.g., high intellect) or negative (e.g., destitution or poverty) trait became the fascination of the country (Black 2013).

What history has not been able to show us is the exact end date of eugenic practice in the United States. The whole era is rarely taught in schools and receives little more than a passing mention when it is, but most people who know about eugenics think that the obsession with eugenics ended either right after the conclusion of World War II or, at the very latest, in the 1970s. However, it could be argued that there has not been an end point (Black 2013).

In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a woman named Carrie Buck, ordering that it was acceptable for the state of Virginia to compulsorily sterilize her, given that the state suspected she was feeble-minded and therefore could become a menace to her community. The most respected judge at the time, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., referencing Carrie’s mother, Carrie, and her daughter, concluded that “Three generations of imbeciles are enough” (Lombardo 2010; Cohen, A. 2016a; Cohen, A. 2016b). Because of this law, the United States eventually “coercively sterilized about 70,000 people” (Cohen, A. 2016c). In the almost one hundred years since that decision was passed, it has not been overturned. Few states have publicly apologized for their past role in eugenics, though Virginia, North Carolina, and California have done so (Shapiro 2017; Young 2018).

One of the leading eugenicists of the era, the American Madison Grant, wrote a 1916 book, The Passing of a Great Race, defending the purebloods of good stock, which he referred to as the Nordic race. Several years later, Grant received a fan letter from a reader who called the book his “Bible.” That fan was Adolf Hitler, who borrowed Grant’s concept of defending the purebloods and creating a Master Race, which Hitler referred to as Aryans (Black 2013; Gerson 2018).

Soon after association with Nazism made eugenics taboo, numerous scientific discoveries, including the illumination of DNA in 1953, revealed the “science” of eugenics to be value laden by a select few who considered themselves superior, and therefore complete junk because it relied on the guidance of poor data. Richard Dawkins has even characterized contemporary views on eugenics as follows: “if cannibalism is our greatest taboo, positive eugenics . . . is a candidate for the second” (Dawkins 1999).

The undeniable fact is that had the flawed science of eugenics been allowed to continue, it would have eventually demanded the total destruction of the human race. This is because it is now known that “the vast majority of recessive disease genes are carried by healthy heterozygotes [i.e., an organism that has different gene pairings], and since every person probably carries several such genes, for the techniques of the past to have eliminated genetic diseases would have required eliminating the human species” (Pernick 1996, 173).

Haiselden argued in 1915 that it was “our duty to defend ourselves and future generations against the mentally defective” (Gerdtz 2006). It was that conviction which propelled his actions of withholding treatment to baby Bollinger and others that he deemed too defective for the privilege of life. That conviction led him to create The Black Stork with screenwriter Jack Lait, while America was at the beginning of the twentieth century and just about to enter the eugenics movement. The movement claimed to unlock the secrets of heredity to produce the optimal betterment for the human race, by weeding out the defectives, the undesirables!

Though Haiselden was only a footnote in the history of the American eugenics movement, his movie was a spark for the cause at a critical time. The Black Stork propelled the cause of negative eugenics into the minds of the public who saw it on the silent screen. It did not matter whether those who saw it liked it or hated it: Once it was seen, it could not be unseen or forgotten. The film gave eugenicists like Davenport, Grant, Pearl, Fisher, and Kellogg, among many others, a melodrama to advocate for and justify their crusade. While the crusade ultimately failed, it left behind a horrific legacy that inflicted unbelievable damage on countless lives. All done in the name of improvement! Genetics can certainly be used for good; however, as has been shown, it only takes a few people to start twisting something good into something sinister.

Further Information

If you would like to know more about the eugenics movement in America, the author recommends Edwin Black’s book War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race, first released in 2003 and then rereleased in an expanded edition ten years later. It contains more than 100 pages of footnotes based on primary sources.

The only book on the history of the film The Black Stork was the main source for this paper and is entitled The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of “Defective” Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures since 1915 by Martin S. Pernick (1996).

The PBS American Experience documentary on eugenics entitled The Eugenics Crusade (2018) is also recommended.


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