Illustration by Stacy Reece
Illustration by Stacy Reece

Ghost Stories, Master Race

A night spent searching the web for ghost stories from his home state of Virginia led Scott Hurd into the state’s dark history of sterilization and breeding to create a white master race.

As my kids will readily tell you, I have no stomach for horror movies. I sometimes find the realities of life terrifying enough. Why would I want to be entertained by horror, let alone pay to watch it?

I’ll happily admit, however, to liking ghost stories. Not because they’re scary — although I guess some of them are. I just enjoy the stories, especially the historical nuggets behind them. That’s why I subject my family to ghost tours on vacation. We’ll never forget one night in a Charleston graveyard.

“That the wind came out of the cloud by night,” recited our guide from Edgar Allan Poe as an icy wind arose, “chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.” When the poem ended, so did the breeze.

I don’t have any ghost stories of my own, however. As a Church of England seminarian, I lived one year in an old monastery, directly beneath a chapel rumored to be haunted by the community's founding monk. But I never heard phantom chants or suspiciously creaking floorboards. There was only the wind rattling the warped door at the end of the hallway, pipes banging to life in the darkness when the hot water came on and, occasionally, well-lubricated soccer fans singing throaty songs in the street after some victory.

My home state of Virginia is awash with ghost stories. Hanover Tavern, where my wedding reception was held, is typical. This former haunt of Patrick Henry, and sometime rest stop for George Washington, Marquis de Lafayette and countless Union and Confederate troops, does a brisk business in after-hours paranormal tours. Late one night, I visited the tavern’s website for pre-nuptial research and saw an announcement for one of these events.

A few clicks later I found myself tunneling down an Internet rabbit hole of Virginia ghost hunter websites. While my phone’s blue light fouled my circadian rhythm, I devoured stories with screams, scuffles, banging doors, whispered voices, echoes of cannon fire and pale shadows of broken-hearted lovers. There were tales of pirate wraiths searching for gold, skeleton specters in armor, flying ghost ships and menacing headless cows. I learned that Richmond has a vampire, and Pungo had a witch.

Truth became scarier than fiction with the ghost stories of Virginia’s “lunatic asylums,” as they were originally called.

But truth became scarier than fiction with the ghost stories of Virginia’s “lunatic asylums,” as they were originally called. Sure, there were the usual accounts of cold spots, floating orbs and doors that opened and closed on their own. Yet these reports were benign in contrast to allegations of what actually happened in those places: “feebleminded” inmates chained in padded cells, raped by orderlies, strapped into straightjackets, prostituted to outsiders, gnawed on by rats, handcuffed and shackled, and punished by lengthy confinements in solitary “blind rooms” with only a pot for their waste.

Treatments included insulin comas, electrical shocks, frigid ice baths and lobotomies in which an “ice pick,” inserted through an eye socket, removed a portion of a patient’s brain. And while they sound dreadful to us today, all of them were standard therapeutic therapies through the middle of the last century. I’d first heard of them in high school, not from textbooks, but from the absurd poppy-punk songbook of the Ramones, who begged for shock treatment, wanted to be sedated, claimed teenage lobotomies and rhymed “thorazine” with “refried beans.”

But the Ramones never sang about another practice at those asylums which, while it didn’t recall medieval tortures, was to my mind far more sinister: the forced sterilization of men and women, some of whom were of school age. These procedures weren’t intended to improve their mental health. Instead, they were imposed upon those labeled “morons'' and “imbeciles” to prevent their passing on “hereditary forms of insanity,” and contaminating the Virginia gene pool. It was a systematic attempt at eugenics: creating a more perfect human race by eliminating those who didn’t make the grade.

Had I not spoiled a good night’s sleep scrolling through ghost stories, I would not have known that my home state tried to create a master race.

Had I not spoiled a good night’s sleep scrolling through ghost stories, I would not have known that my home state tried to create a master race. They made no mention of it in high school. One history teacher had informed my all-male class that he would make us “Virginia gentlemen.” Which, given our teenage proclivities, was as much a threat as it was a promise. But that effort didn’t explore this dark chapter in the commonwealth’s history. Neither did my college U.S. history classes in Virginia’s capitol. Then again, as I would learn much later, eugenics had long been promoted at my school, the last traces being erased from the course catalog only 14 years before I arrived.

In all fairness, I had been an accounting major, stuck in the business school, far removed from arts and sciences. My studies had focused on tax law, auditing theories, inventory systems and marking up paper spreadsheets with little hieroglyphs in colored pencil. Classroom deep dives didn’t explore disturbing state medical practices. We learned instead of disturbing bookkeeping practices, like certain bribes being a legit business expense called “grease money.” Perhaps, then, my course selection had kept me from hearing lectures on Virginia eugenics — or eugenics anywhere, for that matter.

Pop culture provided my initial introduction to eugenics. It wasn’t the Ramones, but Roberto Benigni’s 1997 Oscar-winning film, “Life Is Beautiful.” One scene in this half-comedy, half-tragedy is set amid a formal banquet in fascist Italy. An elegantly dressed diner comments on the third-grade math being taught in Nazi Germany, recalling one question to the third-graders about how much the state would save by killing off “lunatics” and “cripples.” Disregarding its horrifying premise, the woman is astonished that the Nazis assign such complicated problems to children. With admiration she concludes: “It’s truly another race!”

Before seeing this, I’d had no idea that Nazi atrocities included the deliberate killing of those disabled and mentally ill. Yet, as I came to learn, it was all part of their warped vision to engineer pure and perfect people. After that, I assumed that Nazis and eugenicists were one and the same. But I was mistaken. The Virginia eugenicists I encountered later weren’t Nazis. They were simply admirers. And chief amongst them was Dr. Joseph DeJearnette, the son of a Confederate officer, and for nearly 40 years the director of Staunton’s Western State Hospital — the old “lunatic asylum.”

“The Germans are beating us at our own game!” implored DeJearnette in 1934 before the Virginia General Assembly, as he pleaded for further sterilizations. He was even more frustrated four years later, lamenting that Germany had sterilized two and a half times as many of the “unfit” as had the United States. In Virginia, DeJearnette had performed many of the sterilizations himself. He was such an enthusiast for the procedure that he came to be known as “Sterilization DeJearnette.” I can’t think of a worse nickname than “Sterilization.” But he wore it as a badge of honor.

Racial purity was an obsession for eugenicists. They feared white blood mixing with Black and, in Virginia especially, that of Native Americans.

In addition to being a dreadful nickname, “sterilization” seemed to me, at first, an odd description for the procedures themselves. People who voluntarily undergo them today don’t say they’ve been “sterilized.” Women speak of having their tubes tied; men joke about getting “snipped.” When I think of sterilization, what comes to mind are the cleaning products under my kitchen sink, promising to eliminate impurities and, if they contain bleach, keep things white. And then it struck me: That’s exactly what eugenic sterilization was also intended to do — eliminate impurities from the gene pool, to keep the population white.

Racial purity was an obsession for eugenicists. They feared white blood mixing with Black and, in Virginia especially, that of Native Americans. They called people of mixed heritage “mongrels” in a clinical sort of way. This appalled me. “Mongrel” conjured images of mangy mutts skulking in alleyways, foraging for scraps. It’s a derogatory term; even the pack of strays in “Lady and the Tramp” used it as an insult. But that’s how eugenicists referred to those with non-white blood. Mongrel dogs could be euthanized, however, and mongrel humans could not. At least in the United States. But they could be sterilized. And that’s exactly what happened.

To press his case for sterilization, DeJearnette turned to poetry. He composed "Mendel's Law: A Plea for a Better Race of Men," reciting and publishing it often, even in reports to the Virginia state legislature. Dripping with unvarnished contempt, he scorned as "repulsive" the "defectives" he dismissed as the "worst" of the human family. Five times in the poem, he likened them to monkeys or apes, as if they threatened to roll back evolution. Just as livestock and vegetables are selectively reproduced, he argued, so should human beings.

"Sterilize the misfits properly," he pleaded, "for all are not fit to breed!"

DeJearnette was a prime advocate for the passage of the Virginia Sterilization Act, which became law in 1924 without much public fanfare. Far more attention that same year surrounded the passage of the Racial Integrity Act — a law that forbade marriage between “coloreds'' and those of the “pure white race” — and Charlottesville’s momentous erection of a massive statue of Robert E. Lee, unveiled by his 3-year-old granddaughter before a jubilant crowd of 25,000, and anticipated three days earlier by a parade of the Ku Klux Klan.

That statue, and those marriage prohibitions, asserted white supremacy. So did the sterilization law, in a way. It’s true that the percentage of whites sterilized was proportional to Virginia’s population overall.

It’s a wonder that only 6,000 Virginians were sterilized before the laws were changed in the 1970s. And it’s a wonder that it took online ghost stories for me to first learn of any of them.

But those whites threatened the march toward white perfection because they were “feebleminded” — a condition caused by all sorts of reasons including, as one “expert” put it: menopause, excessive study, masturbation, religion, sunstroke and disappointment in love. And because “feeblemindedness” could be passed on to offspring, those afflicted were poor breeding stock.  It’s a wonder that only 6,000 Virginians were sterilized before the laws were changed in the 1970s. And it’s a wonder that it took online ghost stories for me to first learn of any of them.

Knowing this now, I feel like I've been living under a rock. Then again, maybe that's where some had wanted me to be. One longtime president of my Virginia alma mater was a committed eugenicist, a legacy unspoken of during my student years. Later, at my Church of England seminary, there were vague hints of a 1930s effort to keep the superior religion of the "free Northern races" separate from that of southern Europeans, who were superstitious, tacky and had browner skin. But never did I hear that one of that era's giant figures, William Inge, dean of London's St. Paul's Cathedral, was a strident eugenicist who proposed that the state should determine who could have children.

I wish someone had taught me back then. And I hope it’s being taught about now. But I suspect that it’s not. And if it has been taught recently, I fear that it will be stopped. Virginia has long whitewashed its history, from last century’s school textbooks issued to blunt civil rights gains, to a present governor who promised to prohibit the teaching of “inherently divisive subjects,” like those related to white supremacy. Even the history of “Sterilization” DeJearnette’s lunatic asylum has been, well, sterilized. The actual building been refurbished into luxury condos and a boutique hotel. And while the official website touts the facility’s origins as a compassionate attempt to treat mental illness, there’s no mention of the sinister chapters that followed.

The woods on those old asylum grounds conceal a cemetery with the graves of over 2000 patients who had the misfortune to die there. Maybe “patients” is too gentle a description of what they were; perhaps “inmates” is more appropriate. Their gray headstones are now nameless and dateless. The paint which once paired a plot with a person is long since washed away, leaving blank slates for forgotten lives whose stories were erased. Only numbers identify them now, as if those whose final resting places they mark were simply statistics, not human beings. They’re all that’s left to recall the lives that became the sad, collateral damage of a warped plan to create a master race.

Are there ghosts in that graveyard? That depends on what we think ghosts to be. Can we understand them not as the dead but as the living who, from injustice or misfortune, are only pale shadows of what they might have been, had they lived in another day and age, and been offered different opportunities? Poet Molly McCully Brown does. She grew up near the former asylum in Lynchburg, Virginia, the site of many forced sterilizations, and which locals derisively called “The Colony.” Her poems give voice to the anguished colonists, who through arrogance and ignorance were denied a voice of their own, and a future of their choosing.

“Try not to think of ghosts,” cries one poem in prayer, “wasting away in this world.”

We might also think of ghosts as echoes from the past, places and people that still haunt us today, lingering in our collective memory, representing some unresolved, unfinished business. If that's true, then the ghosts of the quest for a white master race are very much alive in Virginia where, as the Old South ballad “Dixie” warns, "old times here are not forgotten." Consider Hanover County, home of Hanover Tavern, whose website was my first introduction to Virginia ghosts. Recently, the local Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan spread flyers with swastikas to threaten black businesses, and assert this of their dead Confederate heroes: "Their Spirits Are Still Alive."

The online Urban Dictionary offers a more contemporary definition of "ghost:" a white person in the dark. I chuckled when I read it, because that's a label that can easily be applied to me. I am white, and was long kept in the dark about a disturbing chapter in Virginia's past that haunts my state still. Four decades after my school days, many are still being kept in the dark. Historian Tina Irvine has written about teaching an online undergraduate history class about eugenics last year. One incredulous student asked her: “How come we never learned this in high school?”

That’s a good question. It’s my question, too.

I can speculate about probable answers, most of which focus on my fellow Virginians who cling to fading myths, celebrating the memory of certain ghosts while fearing some of the others. And I’ll concede: The ghosts of our history can indeed be scary. That’s exactly why we should tell their stories. History can be healing if we face up to its lessons. But they can repeat themselves if ignored. So, let’s tell those ghost stories now. That other ghosts might finally be laid to rest.

Scott Hurd is the author of five books, including "Forgiveness: A Catholic Approach." His books have been translated into Korean, Polish and German, and won awards from the Association of Catholic Publishers and the Catholic Press Association. His recent essays have been published by Pembroke Magazine and KAIROS Literary Magazine. A native Virginian who holds degrees from Oxford University and the University of Richmond, he is married to fellow writer Diane Kraynak.


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