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In Reckless Hands: Skinner v. Oklahoma and…

In Reckless Hands: Skinner v. Oklahoma and the Near-Triumph of American… (edition 2008)

by Victoria F. Nourse

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Title:In Reckless Hands: Skinner v. Oklahoma and the Near-Triumph of American Eugenics
Authors:Victoria F. Nourse
Info:W.W. Norton & Co. (2008), Hardcover, 256 pages
Collections:Your library

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In Reckless Hands: Skinner v. Oklahoma and the Near-Triumph of American Eugenics by Victoria F. Nourse



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"It was an almost irresistible intellectual seduction: a Promise that asylums and prisons would fade away and that the problems of the old and infirm and unemployed would 'cease to trouble civilization.' The seduction was once named the science of eugenics. Law would confront this seduction and its science in a case called Skinner v. Oklahoma."

From the opening paragraph in this book to the final page, I was completely wrapped up in the writing and the story itself. Nourse takes a rather controversial decision of the Supreme Court, and through it, explores the racial attitudes of the United States in the early 20th century.

By racial, Nourse makes it clear that it is not specifically color of skin that she's talking about. Rather, eugenics used to refer to the ethnic and class distinctions which even scientists used to classify people.

She starts by referring to a newspaper that has photographs of 3 men on the front page: Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Oklahoma Governor Alfalfa Bill Murray, and Adolf Hitler. Today, any such grouping would be an automatic 'guilt by association.' But when the picture appeared, it was in reference to the hot new science of eugenics, which its proponents believed held the key for transforming society by eliminating poverty, mental illness, and crime. Those carrying 'bad germ plasms', which we call genes today, would be sterilized and therefore all the nasty things that affect humanity would disappear in a generation or two.

It was only when reports began to leak out of Nazi Germany that people began to realize that eugenics could also be used as a handy excuse to exterminate entire populations. Nazi doctors bragged of sterilizing over 1000 people a week, including children. Of course, eventually they got tired of that and just began exterminating people. That way, the Aryan race would remain pure.

But in the 20s and 30s, a really staggering number of people subscribed to this way of thinking, without ever considering what kinds of abuses it would lead to. When Oklahoma proposed a law allowing involuntary sterilization of any prisoner convicted of three crimes or more, all hell began to break loose. Men at McAlester prison rioted, escaped, and shot it out with police in an effort to escape the procedure. Hundreds of inmates in Oklahoma asylums were sterilized without their consent.

Eventually, the inmates in the McAlester prison had collected enough money to hire a lawyer, choose a plaintiff, and take the case to court. Interestingly, the very aspect that would strike most modern readers as being the deciding factor in declaring this process as unconstitutional, that of the right to privacy, was scarcely mentioned. Nourse goes over all the aspects of the decision, which ultimately meant the end of eugenics as practiced in the prison.

But was I was astounded (and infuriated) to learn was that the practice of sterilizing the mentally ill continued up until 1983, when a court ruled that North Carolina officials were justified in sterilizing a young Black woman because she was 'promiscuous' and 'feeble minded.' The young woman went on to graduate from college.

I think what really made me so angry was the realization of how this law would have affected my own family. My grandmother suffered from depression, although she was never hospitalized. If things had been different, and she had lived just 100 miles north of her home, she could have been one of the ones selected for sterilization. That would have meant that now, 3 generations of people would not have been born. Among the 20 of us, there are certainly those who do have depression, some who have been hospitalized and received medication. But there are also 2 veterans who have and are serving their country. There are a few who have attended college, a couple of them graduating. There are no hardened criminals - in fact, the worst any of us has done is received a traffic ticket. In the meantime, we have married, raised families, worked hard, paid taxes, and served in our communities. All that would never have happened if my grandma hadn't been so lucky in where she lived.

What I took away from this book is a recognition that I need to be more vocal in demanding my rights. I need to stand up for my children, and refuse to allow anyone to deny them anything because of their tendency to mental illness. Today it is almost impossible to find a family who has not been affected by mental illness. And yet, we go on, and we are still good people. My children are inferior in absolutely no way to any other child. Such practices seem completely barbaric today. But if we're not careful, it could happen again. ( )
2 vote cmbohn | Sep 7, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393065294, Hardcover)

The disturbing, forgotten history of America’s experiment with eugenics.

In the 1920s and 1930s, thousands of men and women were sterilized at asylums and prisons across America. Believing that criminality and mental illness were inherited, state legislatures passed laws calling for the sterilization of “habitual criminals” and the “feebleminded.” But in 1936, inmates at Oklahoma’s McAlester prison refused to cooperate; a man named Jack Skinner was the first to come to trial. A colorful and heroic cast of characters—from the inmates themselves to their devoted, self-taught lawyer—would fight the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Only after Americans learned the extent of another large-scale eugenics project—in Nazi Germany—would the inmates triumph. Combining engrossing narrative with sharp legal analysis, Victoria F. Nourse explains the consequences of this landmark decision, still vital today—and reveals the stories of these forgotten men and women who fought for human dignity and the basic right to have a family.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:03:16 -0400)

In the 1920s and 1930s, thousands of men and women were sterilized at asylums and prisons across America because it was believed that criminality and mental illness were inherited. This is the disturbing, forgotten history of America's experiment with eugenics.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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