Note: This is one of a series of posts adapted from my new book, Darwin Day in America. You can find other posts in the series here.
From the 1890s into the early years of the twentieth century, a growing number of American doctors advocated castration as a solution for habitual criminals as well as rapists and murderers. Proponents of castration like Frank Lydston derided the failed rehabilitation efforts of the “sentimentalist and his natural ally, the preacher,” and argued that “asexualization” surgery would produce results by preventing criminals from passing down their criminal tendencies to their children, by striking fear into non-castrated criminals, and by changing the personality of the castrated criminal. “The murderer is likely to lose much of his savageness; the violator loses not only the desire, but the capacity for a repetition of his crime, if the operation be supplemented by penile mutilation according to the Oriental method.” Lydston’s views were grounded forthrightly in scientific materialism. “The attempt to reduce criminology to a rational and materialistic basis has constituted a great step in advance–one which marks a distinct epoch in scientific sociology,” he proclaimed in 1896.
Some doctors went beyond talk and actually began performing castrations.
Dr. F. Hoyt Pilcher operated on 44 boys and 14 girls of the Kansas State Home for the Feeble-Minded during the 1890s. Though he had to curtail his castrations due to public outcry, the Board of Trustees of his institution was unrepentant, insisting that “those who are now criticizing Doctor Pilcher will, in a few years, be talking of erecting a monument to his memory.”
As I discuss in chapter 5 of Darwin Day in America (“Turning Punishment into Treatment”), efforts to cure criminals through “scientific” rehabilitation led to a parade of horrors during the twentieth century as criminals were turned into guinea pigs. This was precisely the result warned about by C. S. Lewis in his 1949 essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.”
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