Sep. 4—Over the course of 175 years and more than 2 million pages of newsprint, it's no surprise the Lewiston Falls Journal and its successors have on occasion gotten some things wrong, sometimes egregiously so.
For instance, consider the Lewiston Evening Journal's August 1972 take on Watergate: "An incident that must be rated as trivial compared to the major issues that should be the focal point of attention during the 1972 presidential campaign."
When Richard Nixon, who won the race, resigned in disgrace from the presidency two years later, the Journal's editorial stood out as notably off the mark.
But shortsighted is one thing. Unforgiveable is quite another.
From 1900 through the 1930s, the Journal backed a movement mired in the pseudo-science of eugenics, which led followers to conclude that bettering the human race required active steps to prevent some people from having children.
The newspaper at times endorsed involuntary sterilization and flirted with the notion of having the government murder people to prevent them from having sex and potentially bring children into the world who might share qualities the movement frowned on, such as intellectual disabilities or addiction to liquor.
The Lewiston newspaper wasn't alone in its support for the real-life application of eugenics theory.
The ideas pushed by eugenics adherents proved so popular that many states passed laws allowing forced sterilizations, including Maine, and many prominent men and women, from Winston Churchill to Helen Keller, endorsed it.
The embrace of eugenics became common enough to be taught in many schools, touted in international conferences and endorsed by such diverse organizations as the U.S. Supreme Court and Germany's Nazi Party.
Nazi leader Adolf Hiter once told comrades, "I have studied with interest the laws of several American states concerning prevention of reproduction by people whose progeny would, in all probability, be of no value or be injurious to the racial stock," according to the former head of his economic policy office, cited in Stefan Kuhl's 1984 book "The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism and German National Socialism."
The American eugenics movement began to fade in the 1930s and fell into disfavor nearly everywhere after Hitler carried its ideas so far that his minions slaughtered millions in a bid to snuff out people seen as unfit, including Jews, homosexuals, communists and people with mental and physical challenges.
Academics who have since delved into the eugenics push in America cite it as one of the intellectual foundations for Hitler's concentration camps.
Arthur Staples, who worked at the Journal for 57 years and edited it for two decades, laid out how he saw the problem in a 1925 column in which he complained, "We have bred from the worst to the worst in the most foolish way."
As a result, Staples wrote, "We are striving to lug along incompetents and feeble persons in the march of progress."
He pointed out how potato farmers "throw away the small potatoes" while society, coping with far more important choices, was "attempting to raise the culls" when it comes to people who are "idiots, imbeciles and sub-normals."
Then Staples took an even greater leap.
He said men of conscience and courage — no doubt including himself among them — "wonder if a certain form of peaceful extermination were not better."
Though Staples immediately said he wasn't advocating any such thing, merely pondering it, he proceeded to compare "these poor travesties of human beings" with demon-possessed swine.
Staples concluded society "must take care that imbeciles and sub-normals do not reproduce," urging the state to sterilize them to improve the overall quality of Mainers.
The state, he said, "must stop the growing rot in the seed of the race" and "not be squeamish about telling things as they are."
At the time, Staples and the Journal were hardly alone in their calls for government to sterilize people they regarded as lesser beings.
The Supreme Court, in the never-overturned 1927 case of Buck v. Bell, widely noted as one of its most dreadful rulings, agreed with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. when he insisted "three generations of imbeciles are enough," in a ruling granting the right for states to sterilize residents to prevent "feebleminded and socially inadequate" people from having children.
It was a decision, and a movement, which led to the forcible sterilization of at least 60,000 Americans, many of them Black women. Maine was among the states to do so.
Not surprisingly, Nazi defendants at the war crimes trials at Nuremberg after World War II sought to justify their crimes by citing the precedent set in the United States for sterilization and extermination.
The judges didn't buy it. But there was some truth to their finger-pointing.
On March 2, 1900, the Journal carried a news story under the headline "By Painless Extermination."
Beneath it was a lengthy account of a new book by Dr. Duncan McKim of New York who proposed "the betterment of society and the abolition of the evils of heredity by the gentle removal from this life of incorrigible criminals, idiots, imbeciles, epileptics and habitual drunkards."
He said they could be led into "a lethal chamber" where they could be gassed to death.
"The painless extinction of these lives would present no practical difficulty," McKim said.
"The number of individuals to whom the plan would apply is large," McKim wrote in his book.
The Journal's story did not question either the idea motivating McKim's proposal or his suggestion for implementing it.
McKim's "Heredity and Progress," published by G.P. Putnam, was part of a movement promoting the notion that people should, in effect, be bred like livestock or pedigreed dogs, aiming to improve the overall quality of humanity by culling the least fit.
"It is not the mere wearing of a human form which truly indicates a man," McKim wrote. "The idiot and the low-grade imbecile are not true men, for certain essential human elements have never entered into them, and never can; nor is the moral idiot truly a man, nor, while the sad condition lasts, the lunatic.
He wrote they are no more human than "beasts of prey."
Once dismissed as mere animals, it wasn't hard for some in the movement to embrace the suggestion that involuntary sterilization or death was a reasonable solution to the "problem" McKim identified.
It's an idea the Journal found attractive.
In its Book Chat column on Feb. 24, 1900, the Journal's illustrated magazine praised the volume and hailed McKim's call for "a gentle and painless death to those who are very weak and very vicious degenerates who are under the absolute control of the state," including murderers, habitual drunkards, "nocturnal house-breakers" and people with epilepsy, who were seen by some as a uniquely criminal class in those days.
"Dr. McKim has brought the darker side of life before us in a clear and forceful manner and his arguments are logical and convincing," the Journal said.
It was a theme repeated now and again, with only occasional hesitation, in many of the paper's stories and some of its opinion columns in the following decades.
In a 1904 front-page news story headlined "Minds Mislaid And Minds Lost By Heredity And Vice," the Journal noted how Auburn schools had reported having 14 "mentally incapacitated children."
The next sentences said, "Criminal re-enforcement of decadents and imbeciles is a grave menace to the State. There are many cases where the reproduction of dangerous imbeciles has proved a fruitful source of municipal expenditure and moral waste. To prevent the breeding and intermarriage of decadent classes is essential to the well-being of the commonwealth."
It said "feeble-mindedness" is typically hereditary and that "to descend from a long line of paupers is to descend further into pauperism."
In ancient Sparta, the story said, the answer would have been to lop the heads off the people it viewed as problematic, but the Journal noted with a tinge of regret that modern morality would not allow such barbarism.
In 1914, the paper reported favorably on the views of Gertrude MacDonald, principal of the State School for Girls in Hallowell, who told the Maine Federation of Women's Clubs that because "defects" are passed on in family lines, "government should see to it that the continued pollution of its bloodstream must be checked by such means that have the approval of sane, far-seeing men."
"Reproduction of the feeble-minded, the insane, the grossly immoral, the physically imperfect must be cut off, and it should lie within the power of the state to bring this to pass by segregation, for the most part, and more drastic means when absolutely necessary," MacDonald said.
In the same year, after a judge threw out a eugenics law in Wisconsin he deemed unconstitutional, the Journal wrote an editorial fretting that "damaged goods" would multiply as what it viewed as feeble-minded people reproduced until society's views on the issue change.
With better education, it said, "we can climb the hill of the Capitol and get into written constitutions the better things" needed by the nation — namely a constitutional amendment to ease the way for the practical application of eugenics.
The push for forced sterilizations appears to have peaked in the Journal in 1925, the year Staples mused in his column about "peaceful extermination" of unfortunate Americans.
In June, the daily spotlighted an honor thesis by Bates College student Priscilla Frew that insisted "defectives should be controlled so they cannot multiply, which means strict segregation or sterilization."
The following month, the Journal covered a talk to the Lewiston and Auburn Rotarians by Dr. Stephen Vosburgh, head of the Maine School of the Feeble Minded in Pownal. He told the group that segregation and sterilization were the only ways to stop the growth of feeble-minded Mainers.
Vosburgh told the Rotarians that tests given to new arrivals at his school determine with ease whether the newcomer is an idiot, with the mental capacity of a 2-year-old, or an imbecile who has the mental abilities of a typical child between the ages of 3 and 7, or a moron, whose mind is equivalent to a 7- to 12-year-old.
He said a state law prevented all of them from getting married but town clerks failed to enforce it, so the state passed a law "that permits sterilization" of the so-called feeble-minded under some circumstances.
Vosburgh also said there were "many sub-normal (people) in alms houses" and "attractive women of child-bearing age who should be cared for and segregated in institutions" until they were too old to have children. Otherwise, he said, the state would have too many "morons."
In November 1925, the Journal wrote an editorial about the state's insane asylum discussing "a delicate subject" that requires "a lot of common sense."
The paper said Maine ought "to extend the sterilization law for idiots and imbeciles" in order to sterilize "these people by the authorities without having to get so many permissions."
After all, it said, society would never allow "unnecessary operations of this sort" — only those approved after a proper hearing.
"The chances of the idiot or the imbecile or even the moron or subnormal reproducing like to like are almost certain," the paper said. "The chances are small that these people will produce normals."
"Nobody likes to discuss this subject," the editorial noted. "Nobody likes to sponsor these profoundly personal laws. But what is to be done? Is society through a mawkish sentimentality to be permitted to go on doing what we do not permit cattle to do? Are we going to overload society with fools?"
It went on to detail a misinterpreted and often mistaken 1877 study of an American family published by Richard Louis Dugdale as "The Jukes: a Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease, and Heredity, Also Further Studies of Criminals."
Comparing the Juke family to the successful descendants of famed colonial-era preacher Jonathan Edwards, the Journal used their example to prove "idiots produce idiots" when allowed to have children and should not be allowed to reproduce.
It was a theme pushed repeatedly over the years by the Lewiston paper, until the scale of the eugenics-inspired horror unleashed by the Nazis became clear.
The Journal printed hundreds of news stories during and after World War II detailing German crimes. It wrote about the international tribunals prosecuting Nazi criminals. It published stories about concentration camp survivors and about the reality of the Holocaust they witnessed.
But it doesn't appear the Journal ever took note in later years of its own role in promoting eugenics or its complicity in the spread of a doctrine leading directly to the crimes against humanity laid out at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.
That the Journal chose to push eugenics is made clear by comparing its coverage in those years to its morning counterpart, the Lewiston Daily Sun, which rarely mentioned eugenics and doesn't appear to have hailed it at all.
There is no apology possible for having played any role at all in laying the foundation for the Holocaust. But the paper can, at last, recognize its failure.
This was perhaps the worst thing the Journal and its successors ever did in 175 years of news coverage.