Baby John Bollinger and The Black Stork: One of the Worst Films I've Ever Seen
Updated: Feb 11
Unfortunately there was no way I felt I could put off talking about eugenics any longer. As much as I would love to stick to the stories of kick ass disabled people of the past, in order to fully appreciate how amazing those people were, we have to understand the forces they were fighting against. It'l get jollier next time I promise!
And there's a mini film review at the end which ends this whole thing on a slightly lighter note.
Also as a side note, throughout this post I refer to the child as "Baby Bollinger". I would much rather have used his given name, John, throughout, however there is another very well known John Bollinger, and none of the sources refer to him as John so I'm trying to keep it simple to keep track of.
‘Baby Bollinger’ (as he became known in the media; his parents named him John) was born on November 12th with some fairly obvious physical deformities. He was paralysed on the left side of his body, was missing his left ear and the eardrum of the right ear, his right hand side was connected to his shoulder, making it look like he had no neck and (probably related) he had a curved spine. This was in addition to a closed intestinal tract with no exit point, which would be the thing that would eventually kill him.
After many days of examinations, conversations with the parents and controversy in the newspapers Baby John Bollinger died on November 18th, after Haiselden resisted suggestions from other physicians to give him morphine to speed along his passage, at 6 days old, and by the 25th the LA Herald was serialising Dr Haiselden’s account of the incident. The baby had lived much longer than anticipated considering he was unable to eat, and the concern that the baby was suffering by lingering for so long made some of the medical students at the hospital uncomfortable.
However the extent of the ‘damage’ to a ‘normal life’ was very debatable. While in the initial hours before and after the baby’s death it seemed an inquest was unlikely, the outcry from fellow doctors and social workers who believed it wasn’t up to them to decide who should live or die and the public attention of the case meant that an official police investigation was opened, and a coroner’s jury was appointed. According to the records from the inquiry, two separate autopsies had been carried out on the baby, and the panel found that his physical defects were worse than Haiselden had originally diagnosed. However other people had very different views. The Commissioner of Health for the City of Chicago Dr John Dill Robertson testified that:
"When I visited the German-American Hospital eight hours before this baby died and made an examination of it and viewed the Roentgen-ray pictures, I was startled to observe that this was not the defective baby that I had expected to see... There was nothing to indicate that this child would have been mentally defective except that which would come from the absence of the sense of hearing on the right side.”
Haiselden wrote in his account of the incident published in the LA Chronicle newspaper that he first found out about the child when the female obstetrician (apparently that's pertinent information) turned up at his door very upset with the father of Baby Bollinger. The couple had previously had 3 healthy children but the new baby was described as being born “deformed” “half developed” and “like a little old man, all blue”.
The two doctors were chatting about whether they could let the baby die if it was “hopelessly defective” and the father looked at them with horror in his eyes. Dr Haiselden wrote that this was because he had looked into the eyes of his defective child, rather than because they were discussing the best way to kill the baby in front of his father.
Dr Serviss asked Dr Haiselden to come and examine the child at the hospital, as the senior surgeon. The mother had not looked at her child, and didn’t see him from the moment he was born until he died.
They very much saw this as sparing her from distress as “it could kill her” but as a result she had a level of hope that her son could be saved that her husband did not have. However, both parents had been spoken to about the issues and “they are agreed. If the child does not give promise of growing to healthy, normal manhood- they don’t want it to live. They prefer that death should have it now, before they begin to love it.”
But before even examining him, he was repeatedly describing the baby as “doomed”.
“At its birth it was doomed. Doom lurked in that dreadful eye. Doom filled the whole room. I saw doom. My ears rang with a sombre knell”. And yet in later parts of his description of the events writes that he spent a long time agonising over the decision and claiming that he hadn’t made up his mind and was “enduring [his] greatest suffering”.
“Upon them rested the question of whether or not I should precipitate a revolution of the greatest magnitude”.
“To incite not even pity or sympathy- but always loathing- is not that a terrible prospect?”
“A hopeless one! A defective! A fraction of life! A fragment of the human race! An inferior animal! A lower form! An imbecile!”
His examinations and X-rays confirmed that the digestion of his food simply stopped at a certain point in the digestive system. His intestines just stopped and he hadn’t developed a passage out of the body. Dr Haiselden knew he could prevent the death of the child with a surgery he had done many times before. The baby’s death would not be caused by an action but an inaction. His skeleton supposedly looked more like a monkey than a human, but all of these other reported ‘deformities’ would not hamper his survival in any way.
The newspapers and media had been contacted about this story by Dr Haiselden himself while the baby was still alive (ostensibly to ‘raise awareness’ but he is also believed to have just had that much of an ego, but we’ll get into that). It has been described as “one of the first cannon shots of the eugenics movement”. There was a very strong reaction from the public about this case, in both camps of opinion. There were threats to kidnap the baby and take him elsewhere for treatment, which led to the hospital stationing a guard by his bed.
Dr Haiselden said at the inquiry that he had told other doctors that if any of them wished to operate on the baby, he would not stop them. No-one took him up on that offer, until two hours before the baby died, when Haiselden denied the request because it was “against [his] ethics to operate on a dying person”, to which I assume he means when the baby was so close to dying that he would not be strong enough to survive surgery (like many doctors would argue now in certain situations), as according to him the baby had been dying its entire life. After he died, the controversy only intensified.
During the inquiry, Dr Haiselden stated that he’d consulted with 15 different doctors of whom 14 had agreed with him, but could only name two, one of which was the Chicago Health commissioner who testified against him.
The jury agreed that “morally and ethically, a surgeon is fully within his rights in refusing to perform any operation which his conscience will not sanction.” But they implied that the idea of one doctor alone making the decision about whether someone should live or die was something that made them very uncomfortable. It recommended that at least two doctors be consulted in such matters. In a very pointed criticism of Haiselden, the jury concluded, “We believe that the physician’s highest duty is to relieve suffering and to save or prolong life.”
His account in the newspapers featured much supplementary information about how Haiselden came to believe in eugenics, such as a healthy girl abandoned at the hospital, his town’s “Crazy Mary” and a previous patient when he was a much younger man who he wishes he hadn’t saved. (He writes that her family asked him to save her but “I now know that their sentiment was false and unnatural. Kind and sincere as they appeared, they were in fact hypocrites” and were clearly just pretending to want their daughter to survive.)
He also speaks of how he was criticised for performing an operation to sterilise a young ‘defective’ man, writing that “I should like to know how it is that policemen are given medals of honor when they shoot down a slobbering cur in the streets to prevent it from spreading its rabies among school children, and men of my profession are well-nigh crucified when they see a beast far more dangerous among their fellow-men”. This guy’s a charmer.
As a result of the Baby Bollinger case many more pretty extreme eugenic views became commonplace in newspapers, such as Dr Jean Zimmerman who suggested that ‘defective’ babies should be allowed to live and grow long enough to determine the level of their impairment, then be put before a jury of 12 doctors who would decide if their life is worthwhile or not, and if not be killed by chloroform and their parents sterilised.
As for Dr Haiselden, the response to his actions from all the different professional organisations was varied. Before the baby died the Medico-Legal Society of New York passed a resolution commending Haiselden for letting the baby die; “not only saving the child misery, but saving society the responsibility of caring for it.” But after a lot of consultation, the Chicago Medical Society expelled Haiselden. Despite this, they completely avoided the issue of whether or not they agreed with his actions, and instead settled their decision because he was “seeking newspaper notoriety and gaining financially” from it.
Most other organisations tried really really hard to ignore what was actually happening.
Despite being expelled by the Chicago Medical Society, he continued practicing at the same hospital where Baby Bollinger had been born and died, and he became known as a high profile advocate for eugenics where he “displayed the dying infants to reporters and allowed the still-hospitalised mothers to be photographed and interviewed” before eventually adding to his notoriety and finances by writing and making a film about the case, and other cases like it.
I watched it so that you don’t have to: it was called “The Black Swan”, also known as “Are You Fit To Marry”, and readers, it was atrocious.
I was struck by how, not only was the story horrifying and the actions it was recommending shocking, but it was also so boring. It was exactly as interesting as you would expect a film written by a surgeon to be. Haiselden himself ‘acts’ in the film, primarily as a ghostly apparition from the fire (despite being alive throughout) who comes from nowhere and shakes his head whenever the main couple in the film are going to make a decision.
The story revolves around what he imagines would have happened if Baby Bollinger were to live. In the film, a man takes his daughter’s new fiancé on a road trip to explain eugenics (including parading disabled people in front of the camera to demonstrate) and why he demands that he gets a full medical check and reveals any information about moral corruptions in his family’s history before the wedding. This is because of a couple he knew way back when (enter harp playing and wiggly lines indicating a flashback). Her mother had died of an epileptic fit when she was a child, and his grandfather had had an affair (yup. That’s it. That’s all it takes.) But they married anyway.
When she gave birth to their child he was ill and disabled but his life was saved and he grew up with a disability. Then he wasn’t allowed to sign up for the army and this annoyed him to the point that he drank a lot and was arrested. Then he decided to go and attack his mother, but couldn’t do it and so went to attack his doctor for saving his life and subjecting him to his horrible existence with a mild limp and small humpback.
This section between him deciding to pick up a gun and something else happening was 25 minutes.
So the moral of the story, disabled people won’t be able to join the army, but then they will be able to remember the doctor who treated them as a newborn and will be forced to go and kill them.
But then we’re back in the room when the child was born AND IT WAS ALL A DREAM.
Based on their mass dream, they decide to let the baby die peacefully.
So Jesus turns up (obviously) and he takes the baby and they both shoot off into the sky.
That sure showed us.
-The Short Life and Eugenic Death of Baby John Bollinger, Natalie Oveyssi- Psychology --Today October 2015
-The Black Stork Rises, Natalie Oveyssi- Psychology Today October 2015
-The Curious and Tragic Case of Dr. Haiselden and the Baby Bollinger, Matthew Archbold- National Catholic Register November 2014
-The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of "Defective" Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures Since 1915, Martin S. Pernick- Oxford University Press 1999
-Another Baby Dies As Did Bollinger Boy- The Chicago Daily Tribune, December 8th 1915 (accessed through Disability History Museum)
-Jury Clears, Yet Condemns Dr. Haiselden- The Chicago Daily Tribune, November 20th 1915 (accessed through Disability History Museum)
-The Case of the Bollinger Baby, a letter to the editor- John Dill Robertson MD, December 4th 1915
-Haiselden’s account of the incident, serialised in the Los Angeles Herald, 25th November 1915- December 11th 1915 (accessed via the California Digital Newspaper Collection)
- Are You Fit To Marry/The Black Stork, 1917, written by and starring Dr Harry J Haiselden