Forgotten Stories of the Eugenic Age #3: Divorce, “Crying Off,” and the Perils of Eugenic Perfection
[Forgotten Stories of the Eugenic Age is a blog series exploring the lesser-known ways that eugenics affected and engaged American lives during the first half of the twentieth century.]
The previous installment of this series reviewed the early twentieth-century idea that eugenics could be a tool for selecting a good spouse and building a happy marriage. The optimistic eugenists promoting this approach might not have expected that eugenics could also play a role in the demise of romantic relationships.
Though divorce was difficult and stigmatized in the early 1900s, about 10 to 15 percent of American marriages were legally ended between 1910 and 1925. Judges typically only granted divorces for abandonment, adultery, or abuse. Perhaps because marriages were so often permanent, a woman could sue a man for damages if he ended an engagement to marry. (The reverse was rarely true, since it was considered a woman’s prerogative to change her mind.) Eugenics featured in several “breach of promise” cases because it was a convenient and seemingly moral reason for a man to “cry off.”
In the most high-profile and dramatic of these cases, covered by the Washington Post in 1916, Sigma Ahlgren sued Ward Hall Ream for $10,000 for ending their engagement. Ream had reneged on his promise to marry Ahlgren when her doctor, Lucetta Morden, diagnosed her with tuberculosis, a disease many believed was inheritable. Although Ream affirmed that Ahlgren was a “respectable young woman,” he claimed she didn’t meet his “ideal of a mother.” Ahlgren denied that she was tubercular and argued that she had since obtained two physicians’ certificates indicating that she was “a magnificent specimen of womanhood.” She further declared that she would be willing to “‘prove it in open court,’ if the judge wants her to.” (The Washington Post article notes sardonically, “The judge doesn’t.”)
Ahlgren offered an alternative reason for Dr. Morden’s diagnosis: a nasty love triangle. She accused Morden, Ream’s longtime family friend, of being a “catty” rival for his affections. Morden denied that she harbored romantic feelings for Ream, only admitting to a “friendly interest.” The court hearing eventually fell into disorder, with Ahlgren and Morden sniping at each other about their age and physical appearance.
In a similar breach of promise case, Rose Markewsky brought a $25,000 suit against Charles F. Drucker after he broke off their engagement. Drucker alleged that he ended their engagement when he discovered that Markewsky's brother had tuberculosis. Markewsky refuted this accusation, adding that her brother “is a stronger man than Mr. Drucker.” She continued, “I might have been entitled to break the engagement from a eugenic standpoint, but certainly Drucker was not. I can play better golf and tennis than he can today. I was never ill a day in my life.”
In yet another case, David Arthur Greenhouse of New Jersey ended his engagement with Bertha Schechtel when she told him that she was infertile. Schechtel sued for breach of promise, but the judge found for Greenhouse, declaring that a man had a right to children, children had a right to "a heritage of mental and physical health," and matrimony "concerns the entire human race." The judge said, "A man or a woman is justified in withdrawing from a marriage contract if he finds that his, or her, prospective life partner has a sufficiently serious physical or mental defect.”
If publicly labeling one’s former romantic partner as biologically inadequate appears cruel, perhaps even more striking than the breach of promise cases are the dissolution of eugenic marriages. In 1914, the Washington Post highlighted the story Josephine and Joseph Sanger of Cleveland, each of whom hurried to beat the other to the local courthouse to file for an annulment of their eugenic marriage. In their suits, each alleged that the other had “misrepresented [his or her] physical condition.” Said Mrs. Sanger, “He told me he was a marriageable, healthy man. I found out he wasn’t.”
Yet another eugenic marriage unraveled after only one month. Both Mr. and Mrs. Perron had obtained eugenic health certificates and both had “declared that their mating was in strict accord with scientific principles.” But after only a few weeks of marriage, the groom told police that he had been assaulted by a man whom he had encountered alone with his wife. In her defense, the bride complained that all of the eugenic praise had inflated her husband's ego.
Though all these stories about the termination of eugenic marriages made news, the public was particularly shocked by the divorce of Waldo and Dorothy Rice Peirce.* Waldo was a former Harvard football star, World War I ambulance driver, and rising painter. Dorothy was a millionaire heiress and famous aviatrix who had trained women war pilots. While there is no evidence that Waldo and Dorothy regarded their marriage as a “eugenic” one, many others saw it that way. Waldo and Dorothy seemed like the perfect couple, and in accordance with eugenic principles and eugenists’ promises, their marriage ought to have been a happy one. Nonetheless, the New York Times reported in 1917 that Dorothy filed for divorce from Waldo on grounds of non-support and cruel and abusive treatment.
Newspaper stories grappled with the question of how a relationship between two such perfect—even eugenic—individuals could fail. The December 9, 1917, issue of the San Francisco Chronicle included a full page spread on Dorothy and Waldo’s divorce with photographs of the unhappy couple, entitled “The Sad and Very Imperfect Romance of a Perfect Man and Perfect Woman.” The article stated that when Dorothy and Waldo married in 1912, the public saw it as “the test of a new biological theory—the mating of two perfect persons.” It continued:
The young couple were hailed as the progenitors of a new race: exponents of the theory that only the perfect man and the perfect woman should be allowed to marry. Scientists, surgeons and medical men, educators and ministers, legislators and sociological theorists, witnessed the marriage with great expectancy, hoping it would prove and that the children that should come of it would prove the contention that eugenic principles and not the impulses of the heart should be the foundation of every marriage license.
But now, the perfect man and the perfect woman “declare that perfection, like familiarity, breeds contempt.”
The article attributed to Dorothy the claim that her husband was violent because of his pride in his physical perfection and to Waldo the accusation that Dorothy's bohemian eugenic upbringing, fashioned by her mother to mold her into the "perfect woman," had skewed her marital expectations. Although Waldo had passed the eugenic tests upon which Dorothy's mother had insisted, their marriage had not lasted. How could perfection have gone so wrong?
From our twenty-first century vantage, perhaps a better question is why the public was so surprised, and how twentieth-century Americans so easily accepted eugenic claims about perfection. It seems fairly obvious that expectations of flawlessness are rarely met by fallible people in a complicated world. And a close look at the intricate social effects of historical eugenics reveals that just as the label of "defective" can do harm—in the cases of individuals sterilized and institutionalized, or, more simply, in promises broken—so can the label of "perfection." Treating individuals not as complex human beings with intrinsic worth but as gradations on some arbitrary "quality" scale not only hurts those who do not rate highly, but places unrealistic expectations on those who do. The greater the external pressures for perfection, the more profound the sorrow, disappointment, and shame when we inevitably fall short. This pain is even more acute when the pressures emanate from those who have promised to love us.
After Dorothy Peirce's marriage ended, her "heartbroken" mother said, "I had hoped my daughter would be honored in all future histories of the world as the creator of the perfect race. I am sorry she could not become more than a mere wife—and an unhappy one at that.”
For her part, Dorothy pledged, "I want no more perfect men. My next husband will have been examined most carefully before we approach the altar, not for perfection, but for signs of the faults that will make him human.”
*Some sources incorrectly spell their surname as "Pierce."
1. “Aviatrix Seeks Divorce.” New York Times, Oct. 16, 1917.
2. “Eugenics and Law in Charge to Jury.” New York Times, Dec. 18, 1914.
3. “Eugenics Breach of Promise Suit Due to ‘Catty’ Rival, Declares Girl.” Washington Post, Feb. 27, 1916.
4. “Eugenic Bride Packs Up Her Belongings.” Boston Daily Globe, Jul. 29, 1913.
5. “Failure in Eugenics." Washington Post, Aug. 24, 1913.
6. “Girl Says Eugenics Broke Troth, Sues Man.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug. 29, 1913.
7. “History in the Making: First Eugenic Marriage Is Failure.” San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 17, 1913.
8. “Jilted by Eugenic Wooer.” Washington Post, Feb. 26, 1916.
9. Jones, Audra M. “Historical Divorce Rate Statistics.” Accessed August 5, 2015. http://divorce.lovetoknow.com/Historical_Divorce_Rate_Statistics.
10. “The Sad and Very Imperfect Romance of a Perfect Man and Perfect Woman.” San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 9, 1917.
Previously on Biopolitical Times:
- Forgotten Stories of the Eugenic Age #2: Eugenics, Love, and the Marriage Problem
- Forgotten Stories of the Eugenic Age #1: How "Better Babies" Became "Fitter Families"
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons