Long before the Nazis implemented the ‘Final Solution,’ American and English eugenicists had talked often of the use of ‘lethal chambers’ to deal with the pressing problem of the ‘unfit.’ You can imagine Hitler’s surprise, when, after acting on precisely what elites in America and England had long been advocating for, he was perceived as the evil one. On this page we will reproduce quotes from eugenicists where lethal chambers were discussed. Many of these people, incidentally, offered their viewpoints in the spirit of progress, as Progressives. Edwin Black and the author of the ProgressiveAmerica blog site were important sources of information for this quote collection.
W.S. Main, Wisconsin state senator, speaking in 1890, as found in “Criminals and their Treatment”, in Proceedings of the Wisconsin Conference for 1890. Quoted in “Wisconsin Magazine of History, Spring 1960.
If all these [hereditary criminals] could be marshalled into one great camp and with a mill stone around each of their necks, cast into the midst of the sea the people would be relieved of their weightiest burden and the pathways of coming generations brightened with hope as never before.
DH Lawrence in a letter to Blanche Jennings, October 9, 1908. [Reference]
If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly; then I’d go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them in, all the sick, the halt, and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’.
“Murder by the State” Advocated for by George Bernard Shaw in a speech delivered to the Eugenics Education Society in 1910:
[‘Promiscuous selection’ (ie, the abolition of marriage)] would involve a revised view of the sacredness of human life. We should find ourselves committed to killing a great many people whom we now leave living, and to leave living a great many people whom we at present kill. We should have to get rid of all ideas about capital punishment. It is right if a man cannot be trusted to go about in society without injuring other people that he should be killed. But a man may commit murder and be a perfectly safe and desirable citizen afterwards. It might be that it was desirable to have removed the man he murdered.
A part of eugenic politics would finally land us in an extensive use of the lethal chamber. A great many people would have to be put out of existence simply because it wastes other people’s time to look after them.
Frank Taussig, in his economics textbook, Principles of Economics, Volume II, 1911. Pages 299-300
Among those who are incapable of work or but half capable of it, two classes may be distinguished: those who are helpless from cases irremediable for the individual, yet not cumulative as regards society, such as old age, infirmity, disabling accident; and those helpless from causes that tend to be cumulative, such as congenital feebleness of body and character, alcoholism, dissolute living. The first class may be dealt with charitably, or provided for by some system of insurance. The second class should be simply stamped out. Neither the feeble minded, nor those saturated by alcohol or tainted with hereditary disease, nor their retrievable criminals and tramps, should be allowed at large, still less should be allowed to breed. We have not reached the stage where we can proceed to chloroform them once for all; but at least they can be segregated, shut up in refuges and asylums, and prevented from propagating their kind. The opinion of civilized mankind is rapidly moving to the conclusion that so far at least we may apply the principle of eugenics, and thus dispose of what is the simplest phase of the problem of the unemployable.
George William Hunter – Civic Biology – 1914
Eugenics. When people marry there are certain things that the individual as well as the race should demand. The most important of these is freedom from germ diseases which might be handed down to the offspring. Tuberculosis, that dread white plague which is still responsible for almost one seventh of all deaths, epilepsy, and feeble-mindedness are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity. The science of being well born is called eugenics.
Studies have been made on a number of different families in this country, in which mental and moral defects were present in one or both of the original parents. [The Jukes] pg 261
Parasitism and its Cost to Society. Hundreds of families such as those described above exist to-day, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money. Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist. They take from society but give nothing in return. They are true parasites. Pg 263
The Remedy– If such people were lower animals we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity won’t allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and are now meeting with success in this country. [emphasis added] Pg 263
“The Committee of the Eugenic Section of the American Breeders Association to Study and to Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population” (1914) [Source]
Euthanasia. The ancient Spartans were a race of fighters. The business of the Spartan mothers was to grow soldiers for the State, and Spartan social life and customs appear to have been well directed toward this end. However much we deprecate Spartan ideals and her means of advancing them, we must admire her courage in so rigorously applying so practical a system of selection. According to history and tradition, Spartan officials exposed to the elements children who promised unfitness as adults for effective hand to hand combat. Sparta produced soldiers and she consumed them, and left but little of tales of personal valor to enhance the world’s culture. With euthanasia, as in the case of polygamy, an effective eugenical agency would be purchased at altogether too dear a moral price. Any individual once born should, in the opinion of the committee, be given every opportunity and aid for developing into a decent adulthood of maximum usefulness and happiness. Preventing the procreation of defectives rather than destroying them before birth, or in infancy, or in the later periods of life, must be the aim of modern eugenics.
Author Virginia Woolf, in a 1915 diary entry describing some people she saw while on a walk:
we met & had to pass a long line of imbeciles. the first was a very tall young man, just queer enough to look at twice, but no more; the second shuffled, & looked aside; and then one realised that everyone in that long line was a miserable ineffective shuffling idiotic creature, with no forehead, or no chin, & an imbecile grin, or a wild suspicious stare. It was perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed.
Helen Keller: Physicians Juries for Defective Babies published in New Republic (1915)
… It is the possibilities of happiness, intelligence and power that give life its sanctity, and they are absent in the case of a poor, misshapen, paralyzed, unthinking creature. I think there are many more clear cases of such hopeless death-in-life than the critics of Dr. Haiselden realize. The toleration of such anomalies tends to lessen the sacredness in which normal life is held.
It seems to me that the simplest, wisest thing to do would be to submit cases like that of the malformed idiot baby to a jury of expert physicians. An ordinary jury decides matters of life and death on the evidence of untrained and often prejudiced observers. Their own verdict is not based on a knowledge of criminology, and they are often swayed by obscure prejudices or the eloquence of a prosecutor. Even if the accused before them is guilty, there is often no way of knowing that he would commit new crimes, that he would not become a useful and productive member of society. A mental defective, on the other hand, is almost sure to be a potential criminal. The evidence before a jury of physicians considering the case of an idiot would be exact and scientific. Their findings would be free from the prejudice and inaccuracy of untrained observation. The would act only in cases of true idiocy, where there could be no hope of mental development.
It is true, the physicians’ court might be liable to abuse like other courts. The powerful of the earth might use it to decide cases to suit themselves. But if the evidence were presented openly and the decisions made public before the death of the child, there would be little danger of mistakes or abuses. Anyone interested in the case who did not believe the child ought to die might be permitted to provide for its care and maintenance. It would be humanly impossible to give absolute guarantees for every baby worth saving, but a similar condition prevails throughout our lives. Conservatives ask too much perfection of these new methods and institutions, although they know how far the old ones have fallen short of what they were expected to accomplish. We can only wait and hope for better results as the average of human intelligence, trustworthiness and justice arises. Meanwhile we must decide between a fine humanity like Dr. Haiselden’s and a cowardly sentimentalism.
The Lethal Chamber Proposal (1930)
To the Editor, Eugenics Review
SIR,-I observe in your issue of April 1930, page 6, that you attribute to me, probably through some misunderstanding, not my own view and words, but those of a newspaper reporter, on the question of a National Lethal Chamber for the grosser types of our mental defectives. I have never, at any time or anywhere, “seriously suggested” such a procedure, though I did say in The Times that I thought, when all had seen what I have, that there would be many who would agree with me that such an act of extinction would be the kindest, wisest, and best thing we could do for all concerned.
Until I read your April number I was unaware that even this mild opinion had aroused either support or a “storm of protest.” Certainly none such appeared in The Times, but in any case I do not share your views as to the “sanctity of human life” or “the almost insuperable legal and practical difficulties” which a lethal chamber would involve. There was surely little or no sanctity of human life in the War, and there do not seem to be any legal difficulties involved in judicial murder by hanging. By a stroke of the pen the politician condemns hundreds of thousands of his fellow-men to death as fodder for cannon, and the law can always take away the “sanctified” life of the murderer. Why, then, should we be so anxious to preserve the life of the almost brainless, senseless, speechless idiots and imbeciles when it seems almost pathetic to condemn them to live their lives as helpless automata? Why spend, as I am informed England actually does, £93 per annum per head on such human refuse, and only £12 per annum per head on the normal, healthy child? And we seek the reply in the “sanctity of human life'” and the sentimentality of a national ignorance which seems to believe that a human mind can exist without a human brain.
Every living animal, man included, conforms and must conform, whether he wills it or not, to the two great Laws of Nature-the Law of Self-preservation and the Law of the Reproduction of the Species and Nature takes no risk in her ample provision for both. Sterilization cuts across-in more senses of the word than one-the second of these laws. Segregation appears to interfere with both; whilst a lethal chamber attacks the first of these laws, and incidentally the second as well. If Professor E. W. MacBride be correct-and there can be none familiar with the facts who would differ from him-that unless the birth rate of the mentally defective be restricted, “the British Nation as a virile people, is doomed,” it appears probable that politicians and people will both have to face all three-Sterilization, Segregation, and the Lethal Chamber. […]
RICHARD J. A. BERRY, M.D., F.R.C.S., F.R.S.E.R
Stoke Park Colony, Stapleton, Bristol.
Margaret Sanger, 1922. The Pivot of Civilization pages 38-39.
The problem of the dependent, delinquent and defective elements in modern society, we must repeat, cannot be minimized because of their alleged small numerical proportion to the rest of the population. The proportion seems small only because we accustom ourselves to the habit of looking upon feeble-mindedness as a separate and distinct calamity to the race, as a chance phenomenon unrelated to the sexual and biological customs not only condoned but even encouraged by our so-called civilization. The actual dangers can only be fully realized when we have acquired definite information concerning the financial and cultural cost of these classes to the community, when we become fully cognizant of the burden of the imbecile upon the whole human race; when we see the funds that should be available for human development, for scientific, artistic and philosophic research, being diverted annually, by hundreds of millions of dollars, to the care and segregation of men, women, and children who never should have been born. The advocate of Birth Control realizes as well as all intelligent thinkers the dangers of interfering with personal liberty. Our whole philosophy is, in fact, based upon the fundamental assumption that man is a self-conscious, self-governing creature, that he should not be treated as a domestic animal; that he must be left free, at least within certain wide limits, to follow his own wishes in the matter of mating and in the procreation of children. Nor do we believe that the community could or should send to the lethal chamber the defective progeny resulting from irresponsible and unintelligent breeding.
But modern society, which has respected the personal liberty of the individual only in regard to the unrestricted and irresponsible bringing into the world of filth and poverty an overcrowding procession of infants foredoomed to death or hereditable disease, is now confronted with the problem of protecting itself and its future generations against the inevitable consequences of this long-practised policy of laisser-faire.
The emergency problem of segregation and sterilization must be faced immediately. Every feeble-minded girl or woman of the hereditary type, especially of the moron class, should be segregated during the reproductive period. Otherwise, she is almost certain to bear imbecile children, who in turn are just as certain to breed other defectives. The male defectives are no less dangerous. Segregation carried out for one or two generations would give us only partial control of the problem. Moreover, when we realize that each feeble-minded person is a potential source of an endless progeny of defect, we prefer the policy of immediate sterilization, of making sure that parenthood is absolutely prohibited to the feeble-minded.
W. Duncan McKim, Heredity and Human Progress, 1900. (page 188-193)
The surest, the simplest, the kindest, and most humane means for preventing reproduction among those whom we deem unworthy of this high privilege [reproduction], is a gentle, painless death. and this should be administered not as a punishment, but as an expression of enlightened pity for the victims–too defective by nature to find true happiness in life–and as a duty toward the community and toward our own offspring.
The roll, then, of those whom our plan would eliminate consists of the following classes of individuals coming under the absolute control of the State: idiots, imbeciles, epileptics, habitual drunkards, and insane criminals; the larger number of murderers; nocturnal house-breakers; such criminals, whatever their offence, as might through their constitutional organization appear very dangerous; and, finally, criminals who might be adjuged incorrigible. Each individual of these classes would undergo thorough examination, and only by due process of law would his life be taken from him.
The painless extinction of these lives would present no practical difficulty: In carbonic acid gas, we have an agent which would instantaneously fulfill the need.
It is quite possible that the actual application of the plan here suggested–more especially as affecting individuals other than criminal–might necessitate a change in existing State and Federal Constitutions, but the essential idea here broached having met with quite general acceptance, any necessary Constitutional changes would be mere matter of detail.
The number of individuals to whom the plan would apply is large, and that all of these should be put out of life by judicial process appears very appalling. But let us consider. In the United States, “we have gone up from 1449 murders in 1886 to 14,000 murders in 1896”, an average of 38 murders a day. Do we not, then, live in the shambles, and is not the taking of human life an every-day affair to which we have become very nearly callous? It appears certain that there is a steady increase among us, not only actual, but proportional, year by year, in the quantity of human slaughter; it would surely be a gain were we able to change the place of such slaughter from our streets and homes to our penal institutions, and could we substitute as victims the worst of our criminals and “defectives” for the respectable and useful citizens now so often selected. Such a judicial taking of life, although at first extensive, would do away more and more, generation after generation, with its own necessity. If we are so little stirred by the annual violent death, brutally inflicted, of 14,000 of our fellow-citizens, why should we suppose that the painless and merciful death of even a large number of worthless or dangerous individuals might prove unbearable?