Number of Victims
The eugenics project in
Mississippi resulted in a total of 683 sterilizations. Of these
sterilizations, 160 were performed on males, while 523 were performed
on females. Through 1944 women made up seventy three percent of the
total individuals sterilized in Mississippi (Cahn, p. 160). Individuals
considered mentally ill made up approximately nine tenths of the
sterilization victims; those deemed “mentally deficient” made up close
to one tenth of the sterilized victims. A small percentage did
not fall into either category. Mississippi ranks number eighteen, when
ranking the states by total number of sterilizations.
Period during which sterilizations occurred
Sterilizations took place in Mississippi between the early 1930s and 1963.
Temporal pattern of sterilizations and rate of sterilization
After the passing of Mississippi’s sterilization law in 1928, the
number of sterilizations remained very small until the mid 1930s. In
the second half of the 1930s sterilizations were performed at a much
higher rate, followed by the war and post-war years’ decline in
operations (Paul, p. 399). It seems that the last sterilization
in Mississippi was performed in 1963. The rate of sterilization
per 100,000 residents was about three per year during the peak years of
1938 to 1941.
Passage of laws
Mississippi passed a sterilization law in 1928 that was very
similar to Virginia’s sterilization law. The sterilization statute
passed in Mississippi right before the onset of the Great Depression.
Consequently “the state did not even have the money to distribute
printed copies of the law” (Larson, p. 121). The first sterilizations
were performed in the early 1930s. Mississippi was the twenty-sixth
state to pass a sterilization law.
Groups identified in the law
In the sterilization law that Mississippi adopted and passed,
the following groups are identified: “persons who are afflicted with
hereditary forms of insanity that are recurrent, idiocy, imbecility,
feeble-mindedness or epilepsy” (Landman, p. 91).
Process of the law
The superintendent of one of Mississippi’s institutions for the
mentally ill or disabled could recommend to the board of the
institution that an inmate be sterilized. Notice would be given to the
inmate and a hearing had to be held within 30 days after notice. The
inmate, legal guardian, or counsel could be present at the hearing,
seeking to dispute the charges and dissuade the board from a
recommendation for sterilization (Landman, p. 91). Appeal of an order
for sterilization all the way to the state Supreme Court was allowed
(Paul, p. 399). The law was compulsory, although an early report stated
that it was carried out only on a “voluntary” basis (Paul, p. 399).
The procedural safeguards of the Mississippi sterilization law caused
H. H. Ramsey, superintendent of the Mississippi School and Colony for
the Feebleminded, “to proceed cautiously under [the law’s] provisions
and sterilize only such cases as consent from parents or guardians can
be secured” (Larson, p. 121). The necessity of family consent to
perform sterilizations frustrated those interested in sterilizing as
many patients as possible as later superintendents “[stressed] the
importance of a simplified Sterilization Law”—wanting the freedom to
sterilize whomever they pleased.
In Mississippi commitment procedures began with application to
chancery courts. Judges were allowed to give jurisdictions to clerk of
court in many cases. The feeble minded person in question or his or her
family was allowed to demand a trial by jury if necessary (Noll,
, p. 34).
Unlike most states in the United States “Mississippi[…]showed little
faith in medical judgments, instead relying on a jury to determine the
necessity of commitment” (Noll, Feeble-minded
, p. 33). Mental
deficiency verification was not required by any medical doctor in order
to commit the feeble-minded to an institution in Mississippi. Patients
of these institutions would often never see a physician before being
admitted; many would not leave without first being sterilized.
Precipitating factors and processes
Mississippi had in common with other states in the Deep South
certain conditions that mitigated against the adoption of eugenic
policies: concerns for the integrity of the family, the reliance on the
family (instead of state agencies) to provide for the welfare of
individuals, little concern for immigration, religion’s universalistic
views, and the relatively weak impact of progressivism (see, for
example, Alabama on this web site).
Eugenic sterilization in Mississippi came on the heels of progressive
reform efforts, specifically, the eugenic surveys of the
“feeble-minded” carried out by the National Committee for Mental
Hygiene in the 1910s (see Larson, 61-71; Noll, Feebleminded
16-17). The discovery of a putative social problem consequently led to
the establishment of segregated but under-funded facilities for the
mentally disabled, who would subsequently not be released back into the
community without sterilization.
The Southern Sociological Congress, also known as the SSC, was
organized in 1912 and “provided a regional forum for much of [the]
urban-based [social] reform movement[s]” (Noll, Feeble-minded
, p. 13).
The SSC was established with the goal of “tackl[ing] the South’s social
problems, ‘admittedly more difficult than those in other sections of
the Nation’” (Noll, Feeble-minded
, p. 13). The SSC provided a forum via
which many eugenic ideas were expostulated. “[The] SSC operated as a
clearinghouse for reform thought” during a time in which most reforms
involved institutionalizing and sterilizing as many second-rate
citizens as possible in order to eradicate social problems like extreme
poverty and feeble-mindedness (Noll, Feeble-minded
, p. 13).
Many state governments, even those with passed sterilization laws,
documented as many sterilizations as they could as therapeutic so to
avoid the safe guards of the Mississippi sterilization laws. “State
governments […] misrepresented the number of mandated sterilizations
they performed by labeling a significant number of them ‘therapeutic’
rather than ‘eugenic’” (Cahn, p. 173.) Many physicians who supported
eugenic sterilization would use “the event of childbirth or
nongynecological surgeries, like appendectomies, to perform a tubal
ligation” and “these operations had become so common in Mississippi
that they were nicknamed ‘Mississippi appendectomies’” (Cahn, p. 174).
Groups targeted and victimized
In Mississippi, those targeted for sterilization were the same
as elsewhere in the Deep South: those considered unfit to produce,
particularly those with mental illnesses and mental disabilities.
Women were particularly targeted in the typical eugenic fashion in
Mississippi. Haines described to the Mississippi Mental Hygiene
Commission an “imbecile white woman […] who has more children than she
can count, both white and black” as a perfect example of why
Mississippi needed houses for the mentally retarded so that
sterilizations could be performed (Larson, p. 61).
In Mississippi, the higher likelihood of a legal challenge and
compliance of family members at institutions for the mentally ill meant
that many sterilizations were carried out on such patients, especially
in the late 1930s. In the 1940s, most victims of sterilization policies
were mentally disabled. The rate and number of eugenic sterilizations
dropped at the institutions for the mentally ill because of a shortage
Other restrictions placed on those identified in the law or with disabilities in general
Mississippi followed a regional trend, in that with the
exception of miscegenation, “southern states traditionally imposed
fewer restrictions on marriage than did northern states” (Larson, p.
98). Marriage contracts of “Idiots” or “lunatics” were invalidated on
the basis of the argument that a lack of legal capacity prevented them
from executing such contracts (Larson, p. 98).
H.H. Ramsey, superintendent of the Mississippi School and Colony
for the Feebleminded, originally advocated against sterilization in
favor of permanent segregation and control—“sterilization [is not] a
safe and effective substitute for permanent segregation and control”
(Trent, p. 200). However, by 1931, he, like so many others, had
changed his mind. He stated that “selective sterilization [should
become] an ally to the parole system of the institution” (quoted in
Trent, p. 200). Ramsey suggested “traveling clinics,” which would
be composed of psychiatric experts and would travel around Mississippi
to all the schools every four years. They would test all of the
children for feeblemindedness or other “undesirable” traits.
According to Ramsey, this system would “enable the state to assume
charge of its defectives during the formative period, before they have
become a menace and social liability” (Larson, p. 95), where presumably
they could be sterilized more easily.
Some other superintendents also supported sterilization, particularly
C. D. Mitchell, of the large Mississippi State Hospital, who, as Edward
Larson notes, “wanted to sterilize every patient” (p. 121).
“Feeder institutions” and institutions where sterilizations were performed
Institutions for the mentally
impaired were advocated for by well-educated, upper-class women—usually
members of the State Federation of Women’s Clubs in the second part of
the second decade of the twentieth century across the Deep South;
Mississippi established such a facility in 1920 (Larson, p. 75): the
Mississippi School and Colony for the Feebleminded, near Jackson.
History of Ellisville State School (originally the Mississippi School and Colony for the Feebleminded)
The Mississippi School and Colony for the Feeble-Minded opened
in rural and remote Jones County (Trent, p. 200). A remote location
allowed the Colony to operate under its own rules, away from the
scrutiny of mainstream society.
In 1920, Governor Lee Russell signed the “Law of Mental Deficiency”
that established the institution. The Colony opened in 1921 and
originally consisted of eight individuals who were transferred from
Mississippi State Hospital.
For much of the first decade only males were admitted. There was no
facility for African Americans until 1968 (Larson, pp. 91-92, pp.
122-23). By 1923 the population was up to one hundred and two but was
all male. The first female dormitory was constructed in 1928 and by
1929 the Colony’s population consisted of fifty-one males and
eighty-eight females. The fact that only a year after the construction
of the female dormitory there were more females than males at The
Mississippi School and Colony for the Feebleminded reflects the manner
by which eugenicists vigorously pursued female
institutionalization—based on the popular “girl problem” ideas at the
Despite efforts by Ramsey and his successor in the 1920s and 1930s,
compulsory sterilization was never implemented there on a large scale,
largely due to the lack of funds to address potential legal review that
was part of the procedural safeguards of Mississippi’s sterilization
law. It did carry out a significant number of sterilizations in the
1940s, apparently largely due to the efforts of then superintendent T.
Paul Haney (Larson, p. 153).
The facility was renamed Ellisville State School in 1929, which is
still its present name. Unlike many institutions with similar
history who attempt to deny their past altogether, Ellisville State
School “addresses its history[…]by the creative rehabilitation and
reuse of some of its older buildings” (Noll, “Public Face,” pp. 29,
39-40). The attempt to blend the old with the new through the reuse of
old buildings reflects Ellisville’s attempt to “appreciate the
structures without accepting the treatment philosophy that went along
with them” (Noll, “Public Face”, pp. 39-40). The Ellisville State
School does not mention its past except for its founding in its
literature available to the public (Ellisville State School).
Picture of Mississippi State Hospital
(Photo origin: Mississippi State Hospital; available at http://www.msh.state.ms.us/tour/history.htm)
History of The Mississippi State Hospital
Mississippi’s State Hospital was able to sterilize more patients
than the Mississippi School and Colony for the Feeble-Minded apparently
because fewer patients’ families objected to sterilization procedures
(Larson, p. 121).
C. D. Mitchell, superintendent of the large Mississippi State Hospital,
“announced an ambitious program under which ‘it is to be hoped that […]
every patient who comes to the institution […] will be sterilized”
(Larson, p. 121). Mitchell wanted to sterilize every patient who came
to the Mississippi State Hospital.
The large Mississippi State Hospital for those with mental illness,
which moved from Jackson to a newer facility in Whitfield, sterilized
larger number of patients in the mid-to-the late 1930s, including
African Americans, apparently in part due to the fact that fewer
families objected and legal challenges were not anticipated as often
(Larson, p. 121). Surprisingly, “although Black patients […] received
significantly worse treatment than […] White patients and suffered
appalling death rates, no evidence exists of a different sterilization
rate for the two groups (Larson, p. 123).
Between 1933 and 1935 the Mississippi State Hospital and the East
Mississippi State Hospital together performed 163 sterilizations
(Larson, p. 121).
Picture of East Mississippi State Hospital
(Photo origin: Rootsweb.com; available at http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~asylums/meridian_ms/index.html)
History of the East Mississippi State Hospital
The East Mississippi State Hospital was able to sterilize more
patients than the Mississippi School and Colony for the Feeble-Minded
apparently because fewer patients’ families objected to sterilization
procedures (Larson, p. 121).
Between 1933 and 1935 the Mississippi State Hospital and the East
Mississippi State Hospital together performed 163 sterilizations. This
small hospital lost its only surgeon during World War II, causing
sterilizations to not be able to be performed at the Hospital anymore
(Larson, p. 121).
As far as racism goes, the sterilization program at the
all-White East Mississippi State Hospital “paralleled the program at
the racially mixed Mississippi State Hospital”—though Mississippi
eugenicists were likely racist, for whatever reason they do not seem to
have pursued the sterilization of blacks more vigorously than whites
(Larson, p. 123). During that period, the East Mississippi State Hospital, an all-white
facility for the mentally ill, also sterilized higher numbers of
patients than the Colony. It now has a museum.
The websites of these facilities today either do not address the
institutions’ past at all (Mississippi State Hospital) or do not refer
to sterilizations in their institutional history (East Mississippi
Very little is known about opposition to Mississippi’s program beyond the general opposition by the Catholic Church.
Cahn, Susan K. 2007. Sexual Reckonings: Southern Girls in a Troubling Age
. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
East Mississippi State Hospital. “History of ESMH.” Available at <http://www.emsh.state.ms.us/index_files/Page1134.htm>.
Ellisville State School. “Ellisville State School.” Available at
Landman, J. H. 1932. Human Sterilization: The History of the Sexual Sterilization Movement
. New York: MacMillan.
Larson, Edward. 1995. Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South
. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Mississippi State Hospital. “Mississippi State Hospital.” Available at <http://www.msh.state.ms.us/index.htm>.
Noll, Steven. 2005. “The Public Face of Southern Institutions for the ‘Feeble-Minded.’” The Public Historian
27, 2: 25-42.
Noll, Steven. 1995. Feeble-Minded in Our Midst:
Institutions for the Mentally Retarded in the South, 1900-1940
Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Paul, Julius. 1965. "'Three Generations of Imbeciles Are Enough': State
Eugenic Sterilization Laws in American Thought and Practice."
Washington, D.C.: Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.
Trent, James W. 1994. Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States
. Berkeley: University of California Press.