Janet (left) and Sadie Ingram are finally living together again, after the state-sponsored sterilization program broke up their family decades ago. (Photo by Jay Paul)
Sadie Ingram was 5 and her younger sister, Janet, was 2 when an Army truck took them away from their home in Virginia’s Western Highlands more than 60 years ago.
Authorities had come for Sadie and Janet, for their mother, Renee, two other sisters and an aunt who occupied the house. Two older brothers somehow managed to avoid the roundup.
The officers ordered the women to get on the truck. The family would spend the night in the Amherst County Jail before being loaded into the truck again, bound for the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded near Lynchburg, about 100 miles from their Bath County home. Known as “the Colony,” it was the anchor institution for Virginia’s efforts to rid the state of those considered to be mentally defective.
Admitted to the Colony on March 21, 1949, the Ingram family became unwilling participants in a half-century-long eugenics program of sterilization that sought to protect the purity of the American race. It was an era when many in the medical, psychological and social welfare community believed that certain social problems, including poverty and prostitution, criminal behavior and even laziness and indolence, were inherited characteristics that could be eliminated through selective sterilization.
The Colony, now called the Central Virginia Training Center, was the state’s most productive laboratory for this social engineering experiment.
A state form documenting Sadie’s history offers this blunt assessment: “Patient has lived with her family in a rural area in Bath County, Virginia, under the worst type of home, financial and moral conditions.”
The Ingram sisters as children. (Photo courtesy Sadie and Janet Ingram)
Hope Wright, a close friend who has looked into the sisters’ background, believes that neighbors’ complaints about the family’s living situation prompted the action.
Sadie’s admission form states, “She is the daughter of Renee Ingram, who is also a patient at the Colony. Patient’s father is unknown. Further birth history is not available. Patient and seven other members of the family were admitted to the Colony on the same day as being feebleminded.”
Renee Ingram was pregnant when she was admitted to the Colony, and the two sisters wonder what happened to the baby. Their aunt also was pregnant and already had two children, who were quickly adopted, according to research that Wright has done.
Today, Sadie and Janet live in Brookneal, about 30 miles south of Lynchburg, with Wright, whose mother was a supervisory nurse at the Colony and bonded with Janet. When Wright was 5, Janet, then 19, came to live with her family and served as her nanny and caregiver.
“She would bathe me. She would read books to me till I fell asleep,” says Wright, a rehabilitation specialist. “She would sit on the floor, and if I wanted her to read it five times, she would read it over and over till I fell asleep. She made doll clothes, she rode bicycles with me. We colored together. We built forts together. She packed my lunch every morning to go to school.”
Sadie also came to live with Wright several years ago, after the elderly couple she was caring for died and she didn’t have anyplace to go.
The sisters are among the first recipients of the state’s recently instituted Virginia Eugenical Sterilization Act Compensation Program. Sadie, 72, and Janet, 68, each received checks in January for $25,000, the amount allocated under the program.
During a February interview, they were considering what to do with the money — maybe get a new golf cart to ride around in, perhaps a Jacuzzi.
They start laughing, thinking about it.
Sadie (left) and Janet Ingram in their new golf cart, with Hope Wright beside them. (Photo by Jay Paul)
By the time the Virginia-authorized eugenics sterilization program — which formally began with the Sterilization Act of 1924 — had run its course in the 1970s, as many as 8,300 women and men had been sterilized.
Records indicate that sterilizations were underway at state institutions even before they were legally permitted. For example, the Colony authorized 50 of them in 1917, and 12 inmates at the State Penitentiary were sterilized between 1902 and 1910, according to the book “Three Generations, No Imbeciles,” a meticulously researched study of Virginia’s sterilization program.
Altogether, 30 states adopted sterilization laws and more than 60,000 people were sterilized. Virginia was second only to California (20,000) in the number of sterilizations performed.
The Colony was not the only Virginia institution that performed sterilizations during the state’s eugenics era. Central State Hospital in Petersburg, Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg, Western State Hospital in Staunton and Southwestern State Hospital in Marion also were part of the far-reaching system. But the Colony was where the vast majority of sterilizations occurred — state officials have said that the sterilization count there exceeded 4,000.
Collections at the Library of Virginia hold archival records, including sterilization records, from the Colony/Central Virginia Training Center. However, Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act has restrictions for accessing medical and other confidential forms of information to protect individual privacy.
Sitting together in Wright’s kitchen, the Ingram sisters talk about their journey through this infamous period in Virginia’s history. Wright has helped the sisters navigate through interviews with legislators and reporters.
“I was scared. I didn’t say too much. Janet said a lot,” Sadie recalls.
But even Janet has had difficulty telling what happened to her. Wright remembers when a Roanoke television station wanted the sisters to revisit the Colony site where both were sterilized when they reached the age of 16.
“I was kind of nervous. Butterflies in my stomach,” Janet says.
Wright recalls the moment: “We met in the lobby of the hospital where they had their sterilizations and they froze.”
Janet’s sterilization, on Jan. 13, 1965, came when she was living in a foster home in Amherst County. A visiting social worker told her she would have to return to the hospital for a routine physical. When she arrived there, a nurse told her to change into a hospital gown and get in bed.
“Why do you want me to get in bed?” Janet recalls saying.
Later, a nurse came in with a needle and gave her a shot that put her to sleep. When Janet woke up, she remembers, “My stomach was hurting.”
Then she looked down at her stomach and saw stitches.
The nurse told her she had been sterilized so she couldn’t have babies, and she wouldn’t want them anyway.
“They’re nasty when they come out,” Janet recalls the nurse saying.
The procedure used to sterilize Janet is described in her records as “bilateral tubal ligation,” a surgical procedure that involves blocking the fallopian tubes to prevent the ovum from being fertilized.
Records also indicate that physicians removed Janet’s appendix, though no explanation was given.
Years earlier, as a child at the Colony, Janet was nearly adopted by a young couple who didn’t think they would be able to have children. They took her to their home, enrolled her in Bible school and gave her dancing lessons.
Then the couple learned they were going to have a child of their own. They brought Janet back to the Colony.
Janet and Sadie were subsequently assigned to a foster home, where they took care of infants assigned by the local welfare department.
That did not turn out well. Janet recalls that beatings were a regular part of discipline in that home.
“I had to buy my own switches,” she says.
When someone in the home began physically abusing Sadie, Janet called a social worker at the Colony to report it and the girls returned there.
“I had to do something,” Janet says.
The sisters have held a variety of jobs, both at the Colony and in the community. Janet once worked at the former Craddock-Terry shoe company in Lynchburg, and Sadie cared for elderly couples doing housework and other domestic chores.
A starting point for Virginia’s eugenics-based sterilization era might be 1910 when Albert Priddy, a well-regarded physician and surgeon and a former state legislator, was named superintendent of the new Virginia State Colony for Epileptics.
Four years earlier, Indiana had become the first state to pass a sterilization statute, and Priddy was a true believer in the merits of such a program.
In 1914, the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics became the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. In a 1915 report, Priddy described feeblemindedness as a “blight on mankind” and called for radical procedures to stem the growth of that population.
In 1916, at the request of the state legislature, the Rev. Joseph Martin, a Methodist minister and the superintendent of a Richmond orphanage, published a report on “Mental Defectives in Virginia,” which included a detailed study of all Richmond schoolchildren undertaken by investigators using intelligence tests.
One of Martin’s conclusions was that charity only encouraged people to have children irresponsibly.
That same year, 1916, the state legislature promulgated a legal definition for feeblemindedness: “The words feebleminded person … shall be construed to mean any person with mental defectiveness from birth … so pronounced that he is incapable of caring for himself or managing his affairs, or of being taught to do so, and is unsafe and dangerous to himself and to others.” Although the language did not mention sterilization, it gave wide discretion to physicians.
Priddy immediately petitioned the Colony’s board of directors to authorize sterilizations. By the end of the year, Priddy had sterilized 20 women, whose formal diagnoses included terms such as “nymphomania.” Informally, the women were variously described as having a “fondness for men” or being “man crazy.”
By the spring of 1917, the Colony’s board of directors had approved 50 sterilizations, although the state of Virginia still did not have a sterilization law on the books.
Priddy’s handling of one particular case involving a Richmond family nearly proved his undoing, according to Paul Lombardo, author of “Three Generations, No Imbeciles.”
The father, George Mallory, worked in a sawmill in a nearby town and returned to Richmond every other week to visit his wife, Willie, and their eight children.
When George was away during a period in 1916, two Richmond detectives came to the house and charged Mrs. Mallory with running a brothel and took her and her children away. She and two of her daughters were subsequently sent to the Colony at the urging of a Commission of Feeblemindedness that had been convened the day they were arrested. The other children were placed in the hands of the Children’s Home Society of Virginia.
A 15-year-old daughter, Jessie, was subsequently sterilized, and Priddy later had the mother sterilized as well. He was making preparations to sterilize a 13-year-old Mallory daughter (Nannie), too. That’s when the Mallory family closed ranks and filed a $5,000 suit against Priddy, with George Mallory saying that his wife and one of his children had been detained, diagnosed as feebleminded and committed to the Colony without due process.
In a handwritten letter to Priddy dated Nov. 5, 1917, a distraught Mallory demanded that his daughter be returned home and likened the breaking up of his family to white slavery. “Dr. what business did you have operating on my wife and daughter without my consent,” he wrote, with faulty spelling. “I am a hard-working man can take care of my family and can prove it and before I am finished you will find out that I am.”
Priddy responded by calling Mallory’s letter insulting and threatening. “If you dare write me another such communication I will have you arrested and brought here too,” he wrote on Nov. 13, 1917.
In 1918, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ordered the Mallory children returned from the Children’s Home Society and ordered the release of Nannie, the daughter who was at the Colony and had not been sterilized, but upheld Priddy’s sterilizations as a medical necessity. The suit sent a legal chill over Priddy and surgeons at other institutions, who abruptly stopped sterilization procedures until they could be performed on more solid legal ground.
Lombardo says that Priddy then went looking for a test case that would support sterilization in the state, giving him and others the freedom to sterilize virtually at will. He subsequently found Carrie Buck. She was chosen to be the first person sterilized under the 1924 sterilization law, which permitted the state-enforced sterilization of anyone judged to be genetically unfit for procreation.
State officials claimed that the 17-year-old Buck, who had a daughter after being raped by the nephew of her foster parents, was feebleminded. They also claimed that Buck’s mother, Emma, committed to the Colony in 1920 and labeled a low-grade moron, and Buck’s daughter, Vivian, were genetically unfit — in other words, three generations of feebleminded individuals in a single family.
All of those claims were brought into serious question later, especially when Vivian — who died soon after completing the second grade — made the honor roll in elementary school, with a Red Cross worker describing her as being very bright. Buck herself, a proficient letter writer, was later determined not to have any hereditary defects.
This reporter interviewed Buck — then Carrie Buck Detamore — in Charlottesville in 1980, when she was in her 70s, living in a small cinderblock home and tending to a sick husband. She died in 1983 and was buried next to Vivian.
When Buck was asked about her sterilization, she demurred. “I won’t get into trouble if I tell, will I? I don’t want no trouble,” she said. She said she knew she had been wronged, but said she didn’t have any grudges.
“I tried helping everybody all my life, and I tried to be good to everybody. It just don’t do no good to hold grudges,” she said.
Authorization for Buck’s sterilization for being feebleminded was supported by the lower courts and, on a final appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legality of the Virginia Sterilization Act in 1927. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes immortalized the case with his oft-repeated phrase “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” which was quoted in Nuremberg, Germany, when Nazi leaders were on trial for carrying out their own sterilization program.
The Virginia law was not repealed until 1974.
Sadie and Janet Ingram hope they can live out their lives peacefully now that they are together. Their closest family members have all died.
Sadie reads the local newspaper front to back every morning, and is well known in the community for her cooking skills.
Janet likes to sketch pictures and work crossword puzzles. Wright says both of the sisters are hard workers in the home, helping with chores when she is away.
The Ingram sisters with Hope Wright, a close friend. (Photo by Gary Robertson)
Sadie and Janet can only dream of how their lives might have unfolded had they not been sterilized, and had they been allowed to go to school beyond the sixth grade. Both believe they would have married and raised families.
The Ingram sisters aren’t bitter. But if they could say something to the legion of physicians, social scientists, lawmakers, judges and others who promoted eugenics-based sterilizations, they know exactly what it would be.
Janet: “Were y’all out of your minds?”
Sadie: “Shame on y’all.”
Virginia becomes the second state to compensate sterilization victims
The forced sterilization program in Virginia went virtually unnoticed by the general public and even lawmakers after it was set in motion with the 1924 legislative action authorizing it, and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court three years later.
It might never have received widespread public notice were it not for Ray Nelson, who became superintendent of the Lynchburg Training School and Hospital (formerly known as the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded) in 1973, one year after state officials have said that sterilizations stopped. He was aware that the institution had played a prominent role in the now-discredited eugenics movement in the United States and wanted to find out as much as he could. Nelson especially wanted to know what had happened to Carrie Buck, the central figure in the landmark Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, which upheld Virginia’s Sterilization Act. One of his first discoveries was that Buck’s daughter, Vivian, who was portrayed as being feebleminded, had been an honor student before dying of measles at age 7.
He began to get answers in the late 1970s. Carrie Buck’s younger sister, Doris Buck Figgins, had gone to the Social Security office with her husband to see about getting payments. Figgins had no birth certificate to show Social Security officials, but she mentioned that she had been at the Lynchburg Training School and Hospital, and they might have records of her.
When the request arrived on his desk, Nelson immediately sent Figgins a letter asking if he could interview her. I was a bureau reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Staunton then, and Nelson told me what happened next.
It was a hot day in July 1979 when he arrived at the Figgins home in Warren County. Nelson was reading through the records for the couple when a cry of anguish interrupted him. He looked up and found them sobbing. Until that moment, Figgins had not known that she had been sterilized. Doctors in Lynchburg told her that they were only taking out her appendix. The couple had tried for years to have children. After talking with them, Nelson first told the story publicly to a reporter for the Winchester Evening Star, whose articles about the sterilizations became a revelation for many Virginia lawmakers. Other state and national news media latched onto the story, causing legislators to express regret and alarm about the extent of the eugenics program, which officially ended when the Sterilization Act was repealed in 1974. Nelson eventually co-wrote a book, published in 1989, titled “The Sterilization of Carrie Buck: Was She Feebleminded or Society’s Pawn.”
In 1980, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit against Virginia seeking to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1927 ruling, saying that the Sterilization Act was unconstitutional, and to compel the state to inform all who had been sterilized and prohibit further sterilizations without informed consent.
The lawsuit was settled five years later, with the state agreeing to launch a media campaign to apprise persons who may not have known they were sterilized and to provide counseling to all victims.
In 2001, the Virginia General Assembly expressed “profound regret” for the incalculable human damage brought on by the state-sponsored eugenics program. The next year, then-Gov. Mark Warner issued a formal apology for Virginia’s participation in the eugenics movement.
The most tangible redress arrived within the past two years. In 2015, the General Assembly agreed to compensate sterilization victims with a $25,000 payment. The bipartisan effort was led by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, and resulted from long-term lobbying efforts by Mark Bold, executive director of the Christian Law Institute in Lynchburg, among others.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed emergency regulations last November to put the machinery in motion. The Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, which is in charge of screening survivors for proof of sterilization, began sending out $25,000 checks only a few months ago. Except for North Carolina, where sterilization victims are receiving $50,000, none of the other 30 states where sterilization laws were adopted have extended compensation.
It is unclear how many of the victims of Virginia’s sterilization program are still alive. Currently, there is no process for seeking them out or publicizing the compensation program.
According to a Behavioral Health and Developmental Services spokeswoman, the agency has $800,000 for compensation payments in fiscal year 2016, and half of that amount already has been paid out. Additional money will be available in 2017, if needed. By mid-March, the department had received 24 applications, and 17 had been approved. The seven remaining applications were under review.
Sterilization in Virginia
•1910: Three years after Indiana passed the nation’s first sterilization statute, Albert Priddy, a surgeon and former state legislator, is named superintendent of the new Virginia State Colony for Epileptics, later renamed the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded.
Dr. Albert Priddy became superintendent of the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feeblemided in 1910. (Photo courtesy Library of Virginia Special Collections)
•1916: Having earlier called for radical measures to curb the rapid growth of the feebleminded, Priddy petitions the Colony’s board of directors to authorize sterilizations immediately.
•1917: George Mallory of Richmond sues the Virginia State Colony for the detention and forced sterilization of his wife, Willie Mallory, and a daughter.
“Dr. what business did you have operating on my wife and daughter without my consent. I am a hard-working man can take care of my family and can prove it and before I am finished you will find out that I am.”
— Richmond resident George Mallory, writing to Dr. Albert
Priddy on Nov. 5, 1917 (spelling corrected)
•1918: The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals upholds the sterilization of Willie Mallory, but frees her and her daughter from the Colony. Sterilizations are put on hold throughout the state for fear of legal challenges. Eugenics supporters begin looking for a test case that will provide legal justification for sterilization.
•1920: Emma Buck, the mother of Carrie Buck, is diagnosed as being a “low grade moron” and for being promiscuous by having a child out of wedlock, and is committed to the Colony.
Emma Buck (right) with her daughter, Carrie. (Photo courtesy Arthur Estabrook Papers, Special Collections & Archives, University at Albany, SUNY)
•1924: The Virginia legislature passes the state’s Sterilization Act, which declares, “Whereas, the Commonwealth has in custodial care and is supporting in various State institutions many defective persons who ... if incapable of procreating might properly and safely be discharged or paroled and become self-supporting with benefit both to themselves and to society.”
•1924: Carrie Buck of Charlottesville, 17 and pregnant after being raped by the nephew of her foster parents, is admitted to the Colony. She ultimately becomes the test case for Virginia’s sterilization law.
•1927: The U.S. Supreme Court upholds Virginia’s Sterilization Act on an 8-1 decision, after taking Buck’s case, Buck v. Bell, on appeal. Bolstered by the court’s decision, widespread sterilizations are performed throughout Virginia and the nation.
•1945-46: At the Nuremberg Trials after World War II, numerous Nazi leaders accused of performing sterilizations at concentration camps cite in their own defense Buck v. Bell and the U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding Virginia’s Sterilization Act.
•1974: Virginia repeals its Sterilization Act.
•1980: The American Civil Liberties Union files a class-action lawsuit against Virginia seeking to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1927 ruling.
•1985: The ACLU lawsuit is settled with the state agreeing to launch a media campaign to apprise those who were sterilized and to offer counseling.
•2001: The Virginia General Assembly expresses “profound regret” for the “incalculable human damage” brought on by the state-sponsored sterilization program.
•2002: Gov. Mark Warner issues a formal apology for Virginia’s participation in the eugenics movement.
•2015: The General Assembly of Virginia agrees to compensate sterilization victims with a $25,000 payment.
•2016: Compensation payments begin to be issued to those still living who were sterilized during the Virginia eugenics movement.
Sources: Paul A. Lombardo, author of “Three Generations, No Imbeciles”; The Encyclopedia of Virginia; The Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia; Lutz Kaelber, associate professor of sociology, University of Vermont; Image Archive of the American Eugenics Movement at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory; the ACLU of Virginia.
The Ingram sisters, Sadie and Janet. (Photo courtesy of Sadie and Janet Ingram)