The Castrations of Carrington

Hiram Steele sterilized
Hiram Steele sterilized

The Castrations of Carrington

Eugenics Cover-Up at the Virginia State Penitentiary

by Dale M. Brumfield

From 1902 to 1910 – years before the 1924 passage of Virginia’s Eugenics Bill No. 96, to “provide for the sexual sterilization of inmates of or patients in State Institutions” – Virginia State Penitentiary Physician, Dr. Charles Venable Carrington, performed at least 12, and possibly up to 20, illegal, involuntary sterilizations on inmates inside that facility to, in his words, stop them from procreating and passing down inherited criminal tendencies.

Carrington 1895
Carrington 1895

“I have sterilized some 20-odd cases by vasectomy during the past 12 years,” he wrote in the March 10, 1910 edition of the Virginia Medical Semi-Monthly. “A majority of my cases were insane patients, all of them consistent masturbators, and more than half of them dangerously homicidal …”

The truth behind those sterilizations, however, may be much more sinister than previously considered. Evidence indicates that Carrington was not just performing simple vasectomies on prisoners to “calm them down” and stop them from procreating, but was secretly castrating chronic masturbators in some disturbed quest for eugenic purity.

Considered a rising young star, Carrington was appointed Penitentiary Physician by Governor James Tyler on September 11, 1900 after his predecessor, Dr. Benjamin Harrison, nephew of the late President, died of typhoid fever. A native of Charlotte County and a prominent University of Virginia graduate, Carrington was a respected figure in Richmond society, attending all the right balls and parties with his beautiful wife, the former Avis Walker, and their daughter, Frances.

Almost immediately after his appointment, Carrington became harshly critical of the wretched, overcrowded conditions at the penitentiary on Richmond’s Spring Street. In a March 26, 1901 speech at the Hotel Jefferson to the Virginia Academy of Medicine and Surgery, he decried the Virginia legislature’s decision to pack the insane with the healthy “like so many sardines” to reduce costs to the state mental hospitals. Cell number 135, for example, which was 22 feet by 25 feet and built for a maximum capacity of eight, contained 32 inmates. Other cells designed for one or two inmates held six.

The penitentiary had no kitchen or mess hall, so meals were prepared in what he described as “a former filthy dungeon.” Prisoners ate their frequently cold food in their cells, with no utensils. Sewage buckets had to be carried single file from the cells to be dumped in an open-air lagoon, where the stench was reportedly unbearable. Sleep was almost impossible, “with beds alive with bugs which have resisted efforts to destroy them.”

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously remarked in the 1928 eugenics case Buck v. Bell that “three generations of imbeciles were enough,” referring to his contention that mental disability, or “feeble-mindedness,” was hereditary. Dr. Carrington – remarking that an alarming number of “feeble-minded” inmates also had fathers and grandfathers who had been incarcerated – believed similarly that three generations of criminals were enough. Conflating habitual lawbreaking with sexual derangement, and concluding that criminal lineage had to be stopped, he instituted in 1902, with no administrative authority, a prototype program of involuntary prisoner sterilization.

In his 1908 paper “Sterilization of Habitual Criminals” Carrington wrote: “After ten years of investigation as prison surgeon, I am unreservedly of the opinion that in this enlightened age, this hideous reproduction of criminals, from father to son and to grandson, should be stopped; and it will be in time, if doctors of Virginia will awaken to the importance of this proposition as a crime preventer.” He claimed that with his proposal, “crime and degeneracy” in 50 years would be decreased by at least 50 per cent.

He first tested his theory in September 1902 and again in 1905 on two black prisoners. The first, Hiram Steele, was convicted of murder in February 1897 in Tazewell County. Sentenced to 20 years, he was considered cruelly deranged, even brutally attacking and biting the prisoner he was handcuffed to during his transport from Tazewell to Richmond. “This poor creature was most dangerously homicidal, and was the wildest, fiercest, most consistent masturbator I have ever seen; as strong as a bull, as cunning as a hyena, and more ferocious and quite as dangerous as a Bengal tiger,” Carrington wrote in the December 24, 1909 issue of the Virginia Medical Monthly. “I determined to tame him, and under general anesthesia, I sterilized him. Improvement with him was reasonably rapid, both physically and mentally, and now he is a sleek, fat, docile, intelligent fellow – a trusty [sic] about the yard – cured by sterilization.”

Steele’s penitentiary hospital record shows Carrington originally wrote “Testectomy” (removal of one or both testes) as the procedure, but marked it out and wrote “Vasectomy” beside it.

Carrington’s second case in 1905 was an unnamed “debased little negro, a degenerate with a heinous record as a masturbator and sodomist.” He went on to claim that his sterilization cured him of his vicious habits, and by 1909 he was “a strapping, healthy-looking young buck.” Carrington also specified that “when he completes his sentence and leaves, he cannot reproduce his species.”

Not confining his efforts to blacks, all of whom he described in similar animalistic terms, Carrington in October 1909 sterilized a white man named Moscow Savage, “one of the worst prisoners I had ever seen,” but after surgery “just laid in his bunk all day.” He was later transferred to Western State Hospital in Staunton.

The exact procedure Carrington was actually performing on these inmates is questionable. While the penitentiary hospital admitting records show he listed “vasectomy” (or “Dementia Vasectomy” in four cases) as the procedure, and he described a textbook vasectomy process at conferences as his established protocol, that procedure was well-known at that time to not interfere with sex drive or the sensation of orgasm. As early as 1913, Cincinnati Physician Dr. Benjamin Ricketts stated in the Medical Review of Reviews that “Vasectomy sterilizes a man without the slightest impairment of his sexual desire or pleasure.”

Conversely, Nick Neave and Daryl B. O’Connor of the British Psychological Society wrote in a 2009 paper titled “Testosterone and male behaviours” that “higher levels of circulating testosterone in men are associated with increases in male-typical behaviours, such as physical aggression and anger,” and that men with “low or no circulating testosterone (as attained by castration) … as a result exhibit impaired sexual functioning.”

Carrington said the ten known “habitual masturbators and sodomists” he sterilized stopped their “deviant behavior” immediately after surgery. It seems more likely, therefore, that he was not performing vasectomies at all, but castrating those men – and lying about it.

Carrington performed three sterilizations in a row on January 17, 1910, then a few days later sent to General Assembly Speaker Richard Byrd a draft of a bill advocating the sterilization of “vicious, diseased or depraved” felons “convicted of the more atrocious measures against morality,” and designed to “save future generations from a race of criminals and degenerates.”

The bill was a hard sell. Though similar legislation had already been enacted in Utah, Indiana, Connecticut and California, medical authorities and criminologists disagreed on its efficacy. In 1910, the American Bar Association, for example, denounced sterilization as “offensive, barbaric and objectionable because of the lack of safeguards for the victim. There was no provision for a legal hearing, and no notice was required to relatives.”

The bill was defeated in the House on February 18, 1910. Western State Hospital Director Joseph DeJarnette, considered Virginia’s father of compulsory sterilization and eugenics, declared “When [the House] voted against it, I really felt they ought to have been sterilized as unfit.”

Thumbing his nose at the defeat, Carrington continued to sterilize penitentiary felons through the end of 1910, claiming that “every case of masturbation has ceased [and] the patients have invariably improved mentally and physically.” Again, stopping what he considered deviant sexual behavior by stripping oblivious prisoners of their manhood seemed to take precedence over thwarting criminal tendencies.

And then, in July of 1911, just as he was up for re-appointment, Carrington inexplicably reported the mistreatment of inmates working for the Thacher Shoe Company, a contractor inside the penitentiary, to the Richmond Times-Dispatch rather than to his boss, Penitentiary Superintendent J. B. Wood.

Carrington may have done this because Wood possibly discovered the doctor was illegally castrating prisoners but recording the operations as medically-necessary vasectomies. Threatened with exposure, Carrington may have gone to the media about the mistreatment to ensure Wood’s silence.

Subsequent events support this speculation. In September 1911, Governor Horace Mann nominated his own nephew, Dr. Herbert Mann, as the new Penitentiary Physician. Governor Mann then made a revealing comment regarding Carrington in a September 30, 1911 Times-Dispatch article: “[I] assumed that if the Penitentiary Board did not re-elect Dr. Carrington it would be because they had knowledge of facts which in their judgment would make it for the interest of the State that they should not do so, and that in that event I considered it would be their duty to give to the public the facts upon which they had based their action.”

The Board voted Carrington out, but he appealed and was reinstated by a circuit court judge. On December 7 of that year, when he showed up for work, Superintendent Wood locked the penitentiary door in his face and refused him admission under threat of firing from Board member Luther L. Scherer. Scherer told the Times-Dispatch that he was “perfectly willing to go to jail in his efforts to operate the State prison according to his best judgment” – which included keeping Carrington out. Scherer also said that matters had “reached a critical stage” between the Board and Carrington, and that the Board would submit to no further dictation on the part of any outsiders, including judges.

It is unknown exactly how many prisoners Carrington sterilized while at the pen. He bragged in 1910 that he performed about 20 “vasectomies,” but the penitentiary Hospital Admission Register from October 1902 to June 28, 1933 lists only ten. And while it is academic to assume that the illegal castrations Carrington may have performed inside the penitentiary were all or part of the “facts” hinted by Governor Mann, it is curious to note also that according to Virginia State Library Senior State Records Archivist Roger Christman, none of Dr. Carrington’s penitentiary records or personal papers from 1900-1911 can be located, therefore none of the operations can be verified.

After the penitentiary debacle, Carrington settled into private practice, rarely making headlines but maintaining an interest in racial purity. On October 21, 1913 he gave a speech entitled “Eugenic Marriages” before the State Medical Society in Lynchburg in which he praised the state asylums and the efforts of Dr. DeJarnette, Dr. Aubrey Strode and Dr. Albert Priddy for establishing the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feeble-Minded in Madison Heights. “Before the [Civil] War, fifty years ago, an insane negro was an unknown quantity in Virginia,” he reminded the gathered physicians. “Now we have over 2,000 of these poor creatures in the colored asylum in Petersburg. And so we might almost unendingly enumerate the evidences of race impurity.”

His bad feelings toward the penitentiary never abated, however, and in April, 1919 he was refused admittance to a hearing with the State Board of Charities and Corrections into the charges of brutal prisoner treatment. He responded with a long article for several Virginia newspapers detailing “gruesome” cruelties administered against prisoners by guards at the facility, including one in which four guards held the prisoner “over a barrel” while another lashed his bare buttocks.

After 1919 Dr. Carrington faded from public view. He died of a heart attack at his home on 932 Park Avenue on July 22, 1927, taking his penitentiary secrets with him. He and his wife, Avis, who died April 13, 1929, are buried in Hollywood Cemetery.


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