Juvenile Instructor » “No Race Suicide in Utah:” Eugenics, Race, and a 1907 Postcard
 


“No Race Suicide in Utah:” Eugenics, Race, and a 1907 Postcard

By: Amanda - September 28, 2013

This is a guest post by Cassandra Clark, a PhD student at the University of Utah whose work focuses on how religious communities thought about religious discourse and race.  Cassandra is the mother two lovely daughters – both of whom bear the names of Presidents!.  She also attended the University of Northern Colorado where she earned a MA in history and teaches courses at the community college in Salt Lake.

Filed away in the archives of the Church History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are two copies of a 1907 postcard with the by-line, “No Race Suicide in Utah!”[1]  The scene printed on the postcard depicts an old bearded gentleman, decked out in a black suit and top hat, carrying a baby on each arm with eight children following him.  Each child is adorned in brightly colored dress, and several of them hold toys while two clutch balloon strings.   The artist, identified as C.R. Miller, printed “No Race Suicide in Utah!” in all capital letters on one fourth of the top right hand corner of the card.

As I held this postcard in my hands, I realized that this one piece of material culture provided a physical representation of the conclusions I drew about Mormon involvement in the American eugenics movement.  The eugenics movement, or the scientific program pioneered by Charles Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton, encompassed two main objectives. First, the promotion of “positive eugenics,” or the proliferation of the “white” race by emulating Victorian gender roles and large family sizes, and second, “negative eugenics,” or the sterilization of all people deemed “unfit” because of their lifestyles and economic status.[2] For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints living in the midst of the American West, eugenics became a vehicle that defined their identity as both devout members dedicated to upholding church doctrine, and a way to tie their community into national citizenry.

My initial research unveiled copious amounts of accessible materials relating to eugenics. I found evidence of eugenic teachings in LDS prescriptive literature, including the “Young Women’s Journal” and the “Relief Society Magazine.”  I discovered a record of family traits completed by George Albert Smith in 1917.  Smith sent the form to Charles Davenport, director of the Eugenics Record Office stationed at Cold Harbor Springs, New York, who proceeded to exchange letters with Smith discussing the results.  I uncovered correspondence between key eugenic scientists stationed at the Eugenic Records Office and prominent members of Church hierarchy, including the president of the Utah Agricultural College, now known as Utah State University, John A. Widtsoe.  I also discovered communication between church leaders and Widtsoe about interest in organizing a Utah-based eugenics society.  A quick search on the “Utah Digital Newspapers” website uncovered an abundant amount of brief newspaper articles and advertisements for local eugenic classes and editorials relating to national and local eugenical news.  I read the text for the Utah Sterilization Law (1925) and found references to court cases for people seeking to prevent sterilization. In summation, eugenics was an important part of northern Utah Mormon ideological thought in the early twentieth century, and this postcard provides tangible evidence of this conclusion.

How does this piece of material culture demonstrate the inundation of eugenical thinking in early twentieth-century Utah? Robert W. Rydell’s study of postcards sold at world’s fairs became “souvenirs of Imperialism” used to “propel images of race and empire to” to audiences beyond those in attendance at these fairs.[3] While his piece analyzes postcards depicting “nonwhite” peoples, we can take something away in regards to the “No Race Suicide in Utah!” postcard.  His explanation coincides with an argument offered later in the same volume of work dedicated to the interpretation of postcards. Howard Woody claims that postcard manufacturers produced cards that would appeal to local consumers.  If a particular card did not sell, manufacturers quickly replaced it with an image that they believed would.[4]  Based on these ideas, the presence of this “No Race Suicide in Utah!” card indicates a demand for material culture that represented the psyche of Utah consumers.  Not only did members of the church buy into eugenic teachings, they literally purchased products that advertised their support for the “positive eugenics” campaign supported by many national figures, including President Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt delivered a speech to the National Congress of Mothers emphasizing the importance of raising a “brood” of children rather than focusing on improving their economic situations.[5]  Roosevelt warned that limiting family size would “decrease” the population of outstanding individuals to near “extinction” within the time span of two to three generations.[6]  He claimed that any “race” that chose to practice the “doctrine” of limiting family size selfishly committed “race suicide,” and proved that they were “unfit to exist.”[7]

These words aligned with Mormon doctrinal teachings that stretched back to the mid nineteenth century.  In 1857, George Q. Cannon published an article in The Western Standard that defended polygamy by explaining the benefits of large families.  Cannon asserted that polygamy offered the chance for “improvement” for the “human species” who because of failure to observe the “natural laws” of better breeding practices, would eventually face the “inevitable consequence” of “race” degeneracy, “effeminacy” and “barrenness,” which he argued were already on the “increase.” [8]  Cannon’s mid nineteenth-century words were indeed eugenical in nature, yet they pre-dated Galton’s 1883 coinage of the term “eugenics.”  Thus, LDS leaders promoted “better breeding” before the scientific community adopted and studied it.  This allowed twentieth-century leaders to claim rights to divine revelation that provided instruction for better living before scientists uncovered the “benefits.

As indicated by George Albert Smith and John A. Widstoe’s participation in eugenic studies, interest in this practice extended beyond a need to prove Mormon’s monopoly on direct revelation to God.  Prominent church leader’s promotion of eugenic findings directed east coast eugenic scientists to turn their attention to this unique American West community with all the scientific data that this isolated and devote religious population offered.  Scientists found that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had something to offer eugenics racial studies.  At the same time, eugenics offered support to Mormon members’ faith-based doctrinal teachings.  This postcard visually represents how eugenics permeated Mormon ideological thought in the early twentieth century, and its colorful scene illustrates the construction of a dual Mormon identity that placed members of the LDS church as both a “unique” people and “ideal” American citizens.



[1] C.R. Miller, “No Race Suicide in Utah!”, Call Number: 225118, c1907, The Church History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

[2] Many scholars discuss the way that scientists interpreted Galton’s eugenical theories.  Two of these include, Alexandra Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America, (Berkeley: University of California Press), 2005, 10, and  Paul Lambardo, Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2008), 7.

[3] Robert W. Rydell, “Souvenirs of Imperialism: World’s Fair Postcards” in Christraud M. Geary and Virginia-Lee Webb’s edited volume, Delivering Views: Distant Cultures in Early Postcards, (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998), 47.

[4] Ibid., 29.

[5] Theodore Roosevelt, “On American Motherhood,” speech presented before the National Congress of Mothers in Washington D.C. on March 13, 1905. Accessed September 17, 2013, http://www.nationalcenter.org/TRooseveltMotherhood.html.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] George Q. Cannon, “The Improvement of Our Species” printed in The Western Standard, August 7, 1857,

Marriott Special Collections LVL 4: Special Collections Serials Analytics Pioneer [F825 .F62]

,Salt Lake City, Utah.  This quote is often used in eugenic discussions. See, for example, http://bycommonconsent.com/2006/08/02/eugenics/



19 Comments

  1. Such a fascinating topic. When doing some research in the Mesa, Arizona Family History Center, I came across some early 20th-century genealogical articles with some eugenic references. It made sense. Pedigrees and eugenics would go hand in hand. I think eugenics resonated with a farming culture where selective breeding methods were used to come up with with better strains of corn, cows that produced more milk, sheep with better wool, etc. I’d love to see how 19th-century Mormon statements about polygamy and the gospel creating a better race of people fit into early 20th century views on eugenics. I look forward to your continued research.

    Comment by Alan — September 28, 2013 @ 10:21 am

  2. Very interesting. This provides a fascinating angle for understanding Paul Reeve’s argument that the Saints sought to affirm their whiteness after it had been denied them. Much of the “polygamy-produces-a-better-race” discourse came as a response to the “polygamy-degrades-Mormons” rhetoric, and it seems the “better race” ideas became fruitful ways of thinking about eugenics. And I love your suggestions for how to understand the postcard as potentially a representation of how Saints wanted Utah to be seen–as key contributors to the “positive eugenics” movement. Thanks for the great post!

    Comment by David G. — September 28, 2013 @ 11:00 am

  3. My grandmother, a life-long Mormon, was also a practitioner and vociferous advocate of the science of Phrenology. It is readily apparent that not every principle ever taught or embraced by Latter-day Saints should be taken as Gospel.

    I see many interesting parallels in the contemporary scene.

    Comment by Jim Cobabe — September 28, 2013 @ 11:47 am

  4. This is a fascinating post! I was always struck by how both Susa Young Gates and Juanita Brooks’ writing (in addition to many others) have contained pro-eugenic sentiment. I remember reading somewhere (can’t remember) that once SYG said that Utah didn’t need eugenics because Mormons were already perfect in body (or something like that). Very interesting work!

    Comment by Natalie R — September 28, 2013 @ 12:46 pm

  5. Fascinating, Cassandra. Did you just happen upon the postcard in the course of your research or were you aware of its existence and trying to track it down? That must’ve been quite the find!

    Comment by Christopher — September 28, 2013 @ 1:38 pm

  6. Cassandra, this is really interesting. I was surprised to hear that Mormon leaders were in correspondence with eugenics leaders and sent them their genealogies. Have you noticed any eugenic language among the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers?

    Comment by Amanda — September 28, 2013 @ 6:01 pm

  7. Fantastic post, Cassandra. I’d be interested to see how this would fit in with pro-polygamist insistence that polygamous offspring were mentally and physically superior to other children. Thanks for sharing!

    Comment by J Stuart — September 28, 2013 @ 6:52 pm

  8. Fascinating Cassandra! I’ve actually looked at the same sources for a hopefully-soon-to-be-presented conference paper on Mormonism and twentieth-century eugenics. I’ve come to somewhat different conclusions so I’m excited to hear more from you and others on the topic.

    Comment by Bradley Kime — September 28, 2013 @ 7:52 pm

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  11. Amanda, if you want to know about “race suicide” postcards, write to Gail Bederman at the University of Notre Dame. [“Race and Civilization”] She has a substantial collection of them.

    Comment by David Harley — September 29, 2013 @ 7:15 pm

  12. Alan,

    There are definite connections to animal breeding and eugenics. In fact, during the turn of the century there were a number of articles published in the “Journal of Heredity,” formally known as “The American Breeder’s Magazine” written by eugenic scientists about LDS members. These articles ran alongside publications about the better breeding practices of livestock and genetic studies of crop improvements.

    Thank you for mentioning the references you found at the Arizona Family History Center! I need to make a trip there and look through these records and see how they add to or take away from my findings!

    Comment by Cassandra — September 29, 2013 @ 9:50 pm

  13. David G., Paul is a member of my graduate committee. I have had a few discussions with Paul about this topic. I am excited to read his book and see all of his findings!

    Comment by Cassandra — September 29, 2013 @ 10:04 pm

  14. Jim, Phrenology is definitely something that I need to look into. I have a list of sources at the Church History Library that discuss Phrenology. I will definitely check these out. Thanks for the comment!

    Comment by Cassandra — September 29, 2013 @ 10:05 pm

  15. Natalie, I found a lot of information written by Susa Young Gates, but only references to Juanita Brooks. I found a references suggesting that Juanita Brooks also completed a Record of Family traits for study at the Eugenics Records Office, but I did not find the actual form. This is something I need to develop further.

    Christopher, I actually found the post card as I searched for other materials relating to eugenics. It was an awesome find!

    Amanda, My research is infantile at this point, but thank you for the tip. I will definitely look into the Daughters of Utah Pioneers.

    J Stuart, There is actually an article in “The Journal of Heredity” that discusses the physical and mental superiority of polygamy offspring! I included a discussion of this article in a paper I wrote on this topic. You can access the article by going to the following link. http://jhered.oxfordjournals.org/content/15/2/55.full.pdf+html?sid=1321abc6-7c65-4bfc-a8e6-695eb1dece1e

    Bradley, I am interested to hear what you have come up with!

    Comment by Cassandra — September 29, 2013 @ 10:14 pm

  16. Well done, Cassandra! I’ve been hoping for years that someone would jump all over the eugenics articles in the YW Journal. I’m excited to see more of your research on this topic.

    And I just got done teaching in a college history course one of the leaflets distributed at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, demonstrating a hierarchy of races that was certainly used to reinforce America’s imperialist aims at the time. A “collection” of the cards and leaflets you describe would be so useful in demonstrating to students that racism wasn’t just an anomaly put forward by a handful of sinister southerners.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — September 30, 2013 @ 2:42 am

  17. I can’t imagine what you’d find in the collections of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers. That’s not the kind of materials they have. I just did a text search in a couple of long DUP publications and can’t find eugenics buzz words. For example, in all the cases I saw, “race” means a foot race, a mill race, or a few references to the generic human race. This is the closest example I found to eugenics language, and of course it’s from Brigham Young’s family:

    Captain Van Vliet Visits Utah
    On the 10th, as the Captain had expressed a desire to see the domestic workings of the “peculiar institution,” Governor Young showed him the finishing and furnishing of his Bee Hive and Lion Mansions, from garret to cellar, and introduced him to his numerous family of wives and children. Upon returning to the offices and being asked whether the children showed any degree of mental or physical degeneracy, the Captain promptly replied that he could discern nothing of that description, but on the contrary, so far as he could observe, he had never seen a family apparently more cheerful, happy and contented, nor any more comfortably sheltered, fed, and clothed.

    There are several more stories like that about the Young family.

    I would guess that most of the connections you’re going to find between eugenics and Mormonism are going to be limited to Susa Young Gates and John A. Widstoe (her son-in-law) and a very few others, since Susa tended to take certain of her father’s ideas (for example, the lack of degeneracy in his polygamous family) and run with them.

    By the way, is there any indication that the postcard you mention is actually connected to Utah, or is it an eastern production, making fun of the Mormons? I couldn’t tell from your description. The only C.R. Miller I could find from that time was a photographer working for the National Geographic Society in places like Haiti and Alaska.

    Best wishes with your research and studies, Cassandra!

    Comment by Amy T — September 30, 2013 @ 4:02 pm

  18. Hi Amy, Thanks for the references. The quote you included reminds me of Paul Reeve’s argument about polygamy and race during the nineteenth century, my work focuses more on the early twentieth century.

    I also appreciate your tips. I do know that Susa Young Gates and John A Widstoe are both well-known LDS members who discussed eugenics, but my findings uncovered many more sources speaking directly about eugenics, including other members of the church hierarchy and members who taught and conducted research at the Utah Agricultural College. A variety of Northern Utah newspapers included articles dedicated to eugenics classes and other discussions, which indicates that members of the community were attending these classes since they continued to hold them. I also found letters from various high-profile members exchanging communication with Widtsoe and attending a meeting to organize the Utah Eugenics Society. There are articles written by members published in the “Journal of Heredity” and a few articles and various references to eugenics in the “Relief Society Magazine.” All in all, my research has uncovered that many Utah members were discussing and thinking about eugenics, which makes this topic so interesting!

    In regards to the postcard, I have not made a direct connect to the card, something I need to research, but I do know that Theodore Roosevelt visited Idaho and mentioned that there was no race suicide practiced in certain towns.

    Once again, thank you for your feedback! I appreciate your comments so much!

    Comment by Cassandra — September 30, 2013 @ 9:58 pm

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