The Rich Fool and the Race Scientist
A Great American Story of Money, Guns, Sex, Racism, Divorce, and Horse Breeding
He is a very wealthy man, by reputation one of the wealthiest in all of Manhattan. His reputation is built on his lucrative real estate dealings and his properties pepper the island from Wall Street to the Upper West Side. His hotel, emblazoned with a proud family name, is synonymous with luxury, but some of the city’s residents complain that it is gaudy and gauche, overdone and self-insisting.
His real estate ventures are like his personality: loud, bold, crass, and arrogant. Emboldened by his financial successes, he frequently expresses opinions on topics of which is he ignorant, topics that require complex, careful treatment. He muses publicly, for example, about the similarities between the breeding of successful men and of great racing thoroughbreds. He confidently dismisses the expertise of the learned, though they do sometimes flock to him in hopes he will lavish their research from his fortune. He publishes a book heralding his own genius. The learned men who want his money praise the book, but the public and press are not impressed. The book is poorly received and leads to lawsuits. He is often the subject of lawsuits. His legal duels keep him in the headlines, but so too does his personal life. The public chatters about his multiple wives, messy divorces, and scandalous affairs. He has a taste, they say, for foreign beauties. He is known in New York City as a leading man of property and a leading womanizer.
His reputation for abusing women is well-earned, but his reputation as a genius of property is exaggerated. Although he prides himself on being a self-made man, he is the son of extraordinary wealth and privilege. A graduate of an ivy league university, he makes his start in the family business. When his father dies, he fights his siblings for the inheritance and cuts them out of the will. Having seized that fortune, only then does he strike out on his own. Because he spends opulently, people assume he is wealthier than he is and public speculation about his wealth often fails to account for the substantial debts he has accrued through his profligate spending and ill-advised business ventures.
When he will die—all men eventually die, so far—the truth will out and he will be disgraced. His debts counted, his estate picked over, his will dissected—he will leave far less to his many children than what he inherited from his father. And to the men of letters who dreamed he would feather their nests and endow their chairs? They will receive nothing.
[The Ansonia Hotel]
The man I am describing is the turn-of-the-century New York real estate mogul, William Earl Dodge Stokes (1852 - 1926), or W. E. D. Stokes as he styled himself. Stokes inherited a fortune upon the death of his father, the banker and merchant James Boulter Stokes, but only after boxing out his brother, the banker and copper mining magnate, Anson Phelps Stokes. (Both were, in turn, the grandsons of the Yankee blue-blood mogul Anson Green Phelps and the London merchant, Thomas Stokes.) W. E. D. Stokes took his father’s fortune and used it to develop Manhattan’s Upper West Side. His mark upon public memory is now faded by the century since his passing, but you may still recognize his legacy in the iconic Ansonia Hotel. He had it built in 1903, and he also resided in unprecedented luxury there for many years. It was the first hotel in Manhattan to be air-conditioned.
[Rita Hernandez de Alba de Acosta]
You may never have heard or read his name before, but, in his day, he was a fixture of New York City society and a ubiquitous presence in the city’s newspapers. His marriage to the beautiful socialite Rita Hernandez de Alba de Acosta was covered extensively. So too was their messy divorce. The same went for his second marriage to Helen Ellwood, though it differed in that the court refused to grant Stokes a divorce, perhaps fearing that he would inflict marriage on another victim.
In between, the headlines also tracked Stokes’s 1911 conflict with Lillian Graham, a vaudeville actress nearly four decades his junior, and her roommate Esther Conrad. Stokes appears to have either been either wooing or harassing Graham. Letters were issued. Stokes said Graham and Conrad had tried to use his letters to blackmail him. The conflict turned violent. The New York Times reported that three Japanese men held Stokes down while Graham and Conrad took turns shooting at him with a handgun, striking him in the leg with three bullets. A jury accepted Graham’s claim of self defense and found her not guilty in the trial that followed. Stokes survived the incident, but it was one of a series of public humiliations for this man of great means, a man armored by vast wealth but armed with little sense. You see, Stokes was an example of a great American type: the Rich Fool.
Someone ought to write a book about the Rich Fool in American history, for they are ubiquitous: men—and they are almost always men—who by virtue of their reputation for financial success believe they have very little left to learn and no need to exercise the caution or restraint you or I might deem wise. They wander into circumstances they cannot navigate and debates they are ill-prepared to conduct. They tender specious opinions, and, by the power their wealth gives them, they sway people, policies, and institutions, often to catastrophic effect.
It’s not that Rich Fools are stupid, for stupidity is merely the other side of the coin the Rich Fool spends: innate genius. That is, they overrate the concept of “inborn intelligence” and underrate the degree to which intelligence, however you define it, is necessarily a social good—produced, maintained, and valued never in isolation and only among and between persons. I do not want this to devolve into a debate on IQ or the biology of intelligence, so I will just keep it to this: irrespective of their cognitive prowess, Rich Fools are produced by the social contexts they inhabit, not by how quickly their brains process information. Their wealth insulates them from many of the material consequences of being wrong about anything not immediately related to their business dealings—and, even then, staying wealthy when you are already wealthy often just means avoiding catastrophic risk—while their economic power ensures that they are surrounded by people with incentives to agree with them on all but the most pressing topics. A Rich Fool is invariably surrounded by people who, by flattery and scheming, hope to make some use of him.
I am not writing a book about Rich Fools, but the book I am writing is filled with Rich Fools. I am writing a book about the historical entanglements of livestock breeding and the human eugenics movement. Many of the most enthusiastic supporters of eugenics were Rich Fools and they lavished extravagant sums of money on the organizations dedicated to it. Eugenics was—and is—a movement to “scientifically” manage human reproduction in ways that will produce fitter people. But who exactly was fit to reproduce? The particular content of “fitness” was quite plastic. As I noted recently in the Journal of American History:
Eugenicists argued for the technocratic management of human reproduction according to what they deemed scientific principles. Extolling vague concepts of fitness allowed eugenics to appeal to a broad and diverse constituency, and, indeed, some prominent African American and Jewish intellectuals were enthusiastic supporters of eugenics. In practice, eugenic concepts of fitness tended to reinforce the racial, class, and national prejudices of elites and lacquer them with a patina of scientism courtesy of Darwinian theory. Eugenicists agreed that the unfit should be prevented from reproducing, even when the particular eugenicists in question disagreed on who was unfit.
Eugenicists also hotly debated what constituted the best social policies, and they filed briefs for policies as varied as greater access to birth control, abortion, and family planning; incentives and support for the fittest to reproduce more prolifically; immigration and marriage restrictions; anti-miscegenation laws; coercive sterilizations and abortions; and, in the most extreme cases, the imprisonment and execution of people on the basis of biological inferiority or hereditary defect. German race scientists studied American eugenic policies, particularly California’s coercive sterilization law and a number of anti-miscegenation, in crafting the Third Reich’s laws with regard to race, social hygiene, and disability. Indeed, American eugenics directly inspired some of the most heinous offenses of the Nazi regime.
Eugenics appealed to Rich Fools, in part, because it was part of the faddish techno-utopianism of its day. It was a technical fix for human misery that had the odor of scientific wizardry but took no actual learning to grasp, “like breeds like” having already been part of the reproductive commonsense for most people for many centuries before the term eugenics was coined by Francis Galton in 1883. A Rich Fool could speak on matters of scientific import, his sentences greased with words of scientistic jargon, without needing to become an expert on the complicated mechanics of genetics and biological inheritance. Rich fools love the sort of easy and unequivocal authority that real study should deflate.
But eugenics also appealed because it was a narrative about human difference that shored up the Rich Fool’s sense of world-historical destiny and rarified social position. It told the Rich Fool not just the social facts that explained his fortune, but it transformed those social facts into the blood that flowed through his veins and transmuted the is of his station into a natural ought. Eugenics provided what the social theorist and poet Sylvia Wynter calls a “secular theodicy.” Theodicy is the genre of theological argument that seeks to resolve the paradox of the presence of evil in the world: if god is all loving, all knowing, and all powerful, why does he permit evil to happen? Wynter notes that, in modern societies, this question has been reformulated around the problem of social inequality: namely, if we live in a just society in which all receive their due, why do some receive so much pleasure and wealth and others receive so much misery and suffering? The answer offered by socialism, for what it’s worth, is that we do not live in a just society and that collective action is required to undo the injustice collective choice had made. But eugenics located the causes of human suffering not in collective choices but in hereditary human differences. People received precisely what they were due, because some people—perhaps many and most—were due poverty, deprivation, and suffering. Some few were fitted to be men of destiny; many others laborers, servants, and clerks; still others nothing more than paupers and dependents. The suffering of the pauper was still to be abjured and lamented, but it was, from this view, a confirmation of the very social order the Rich Fool sat atop rather than a refutation of it. And alleviating that suffering required not a political response—a redistribution of scarce resources so that the pauper might have more and the Rich Fool less—but, instead, a technical one: the way to truly alleviate the suffering of the pauper was to ensure that the pauper was never born in the first place.
As the saying goes, cream may rise to the top, but shit floats. Within the human eugenics movement, the Rich Fool had a powerful, enabling interdependency with another great American type: the Race Scientist. If the Rich Fool had a wealth of resources but little knowledge and less wisdom, the Race Scientist had an abundance of credentials and respectability as a man of learning, a ruthless obsession with biology as the basis for human inequalities, and an inexhaustible need for the wealth of others to finance his research. Once funded, it was that research, the Race Scientist cooed in the ear of the Rich Fool, that would produce the data to confirm what both men were already quite certain was true: it was their inborn destiny to be great men, as morally ordained by nature itself as the leaf’s green and the kitten’s purr.
W. E. D. Stokes’s Race Scientist was a man named Charles Davenport, or, we might say, Charles Davenport’s Rich Fool was W. E. D. Stokes. Like Stokes, Davenport was descended from an old line of Yankees, though the Stamford Davenports were of significantly less repute and wealth than the Phelpses, Stokeses, and Dodges of New York City. While Stokes was a Yale man, Davenport took an A.B. and a Ph.D. from Harvard, the latter in Zoology in 1892 at the age of 26. Whatever reality there was to Stokes’s reputation for brilliance in matters of property, Davenport matched and exceeded it in the biological sciences. His early work on experimental approaches to morphology, taxonomy, and embryology won him appointments at Harvard and the University of Chicago. He became interested as well in evolutionary thought and, then, notable as an early proponent of Mendelian inheritance. In 1904, Davenport resigned his tenure at Chicago to take a position as the Director of the Station in Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, part of the lavishly endowed Carnegie Institution of Washington. He continued at Cold Spring Harbor until his retirement in 1934.
Meanwhile, Davenport’s experimental interests in the evolution of non-human animals led him increasingly to ponder what evolution said of the human animal and the societies it made. He joined an organization of like-minded men called the American Breeders’ Association (ABA). Founded in 1903 by Willet Hays, an Iowa plant breeder, eugenicist, and the soon to be Undersecretary of Agriculture in the administration of Theodore Roosevelt. The ABA claimed as its domain of interest the scientific and systematic breeding of plants, animals, and humans, uniting in a single organization expert naturalists, agriculturalists, cattlemen, swine husbands, sociologists, psychologists, medical doctors, and countless others. In 1907, Davenport presented papers on chicken breeding and on genetic theory at the organization’s annual meeting in Columbus, Ohio. In the same year, he became an officer of the organization as Secretary and Editor of the “Animal Section.”
1907 was a turning point for Davenport. In that year he published his first article on human heredity, an article titled “Heredity of Eye-Color in Man” that appeared in Science. From that point forward, “research” on human heredity, genetics, and eugenics completely consumed his intellectual labors and was, explicitly or implicitly, the topic of virtually everything he published for the rest of his life. At Cold Spring Harbor, Davenport established the Eugenic Records Office (ERO) in 1910. With his assistant Harry Laughlin, a man who would be the central architect of California’s eugenic sterilization law, Davenport made the ERO an institutional center for eugenics research. Davenport switched from his position in the Animal Section of the ABA to the newly created Eugenics Committee of that organization. In 1910, with Davenport’s assistance, the ABA launched a publication, initially titled the American Breeders Magazine but renamed the Journal of Heredity in 1915, that would be the premier publication for eugenics research for decades to come. Also in 1910, Davenport first used the word “eugenics” in the title of one of his own publications: he published a booklet titled Eugenics—The Science of Human Improvement by Better Breeding.
Davenport would become a leading scholarly face of the American eugenics movement. He lent his credentialed academic heft to a movement’s filled with free-wheeling amateur generalists such as Madison Grant and Frederick Henry Osborn and a host of irrepressible cranks. One might say, however, that Davenport spent his scholarly reputation carelessly. The extravagant claims of eugenicists proved increasingly and obviously untenable in light of the evolutionary synthesis and the emergence of population genetics. Academic biology had, in fact, turned strongly against eugenics beginning in the 1910s, and, sensing that a tide might be turning, “reform eugenicists,” such as Paul Popenoe and Robert C. Cook, began to advocate for pronatalism, birth control, and family planning rather than the immigration restriction, coercive sterilization, and anti-miscegenation laws that Davenport supported. By the time Davenport published what he saw as his tour de force treatise on the “dysgenic” effects of interracial marriage, Race Crossing in Jamaica (1929), the public mood had shifted. The book was blasted as junk science. It drew specious conclusions from small, manipulated samples that favored the pre-ordained and bitterly racist conclusions of its author. To make matters worse, both Davenport and Laughlin continued collaborative work with German race scientists late into the 1930s. For example, in 1939, Davenport published an essay in a festschrift for Otto Reche, a proponent of Polish ethnic cleansing and a Nazi party member. Embarrassed by Davenport and Laughlin’s advocacy, the Carnegie Institute took the opportunity of Davenport’s retirement to suspend research at the ERO and, then, in 1939, to shutter it completely. By the time he died in 1944, Davenport was widely viewed, at best, as a Nazi apologist and, by his fellow travelers in the eugenics movement, a man whose imprudence and too explicit racism—the former led him to freely disclose the latter—had badly damaged the very movement he championed.
But four decades before his death, the sheen had not yet come off either Davenport or his race science. In those years, Davenport was still a rising star, a man on the make, a gleaming example of the white American intellect’s marvelous potential: what it could do if fortified with resources. And eugenic science was still a rising force, its wondrous potential not whispered, but cheered from lecterns and in the halls of power. The world of scientific research in the United States in 1910 was rather different than it is in the year 2021. The United States was not yet the global center of scientific research it is today—in the first two decades of the prize, for example, there were only two American Nobel laureates in all the sciences—and American universities and institutes had not the funding, reputation, or infrastructure to match their European counterparts. But the United States was a rising financial power, and its magnates and barons, still gorged from the excesses of the Gilded Age, sought to cement their historic legacies through philanthropic investment in research and education. Gilded Age plutocrats founded new universities and research institutes—Stanford, Chicago, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Carnegie—and they invested substantially in older ones. Davenport caught some of these funds when he landed at Cold Spring Harbor in 1904. He took another gulp of Carnegie money and some Rockefeller money besides when he founded the ERO in 1910, and he drew the deepest draught yet when he landed a great bequest in 1920 from Mary Harriman, the widow of a railroad tycoon. But all that time, as he sought the biological truth of race, he searched just as tirelessly for patrons to finance his genius. And it was in this context that Davenport would meet and come to court W. E. D. Stokes.
Like many rich fools, Stokes fancied himself a gentleman farmer. He held his settler colonial ancestors in the greatest esteem and considered their plunder of land for settlement and farming to be a noble accomplishment. “My ancestors fought the Indians, killed and robbed them of their country to acquire this land for themselves and for us, their descendants,” he wrote approvingly to the newspaper magnate Frank Munsey in 1915. His father had carried on the family tradition of agriculture, Stokes later recalled, and made him milk cows as a boy. If this happened at all, it would have happened on the family’s grand country estate—what people called a “family farm” in the nineteenth century—and not in the palatial Stokes residence in New York City. Regardless, as an adult, Stokes did garden and raise livestock on the rooftop on the Ansonia. The practice violated code and it summoned a raid from municipal authorities. Had it not been for the quick action of a butler who stowed the contraband animals in a basement, Stokes would have faced confiscation and a fine for his husbandry.
To this interest in urban farming, Stokes added an interest in the breeding of horses. It was a pursuit he shared with many other great men of property—Rockefellers, Belmonts, and Stanfords—a fact he reminded whoever was listening to him speak on the matter. Sometime in the late 1890s, he purchased a horse farm in Lexington, Kentucky, and, though he had no great training or experience with breeding, he began to style himself a breeder. He bought and sold a great number of fine horses, and he was the owner, for a period, of the prolific Standardbred stud, Peter the Great. He named himself a genius of breeding, a master elevated by his unique desire to breed horses along what he considered scientific lines.
It was Stokes’s extravagant pride in his scientific breeding that led him to correspond with and then befriend Davenport. Stokes first appeared in Charles Davenport’s archive in a 1910 letter in which he bragged on the scientific character of his horse pairings and included a copy of his horse farm’s catalogue. Stokes’s purpose in the letter, however, was to put his horse breeding endeavors into a context relevant to Davenport, a man by now famously interested primarily in the breeding of men. “I expect the day will not be far distant when every man and woman in the country will have his or her pedigree tabulated in just about the same system as we tabulate the breeding of horses and cattle,” wrote Stokes. “Then we may look forward to some scientific breeding and improvement in the human family.” Only three days later, Stokes carbon copied Davenport on a letter to John D. Rockefeller. Stokes applauded Rockefeller for his investments in the Institute for Medical Research (later called Rockefeller University) and revealing that that “should my boy die without issue, I have left some three millions of dollars for . . . . improvement of the human family . . . [through] a similar course of [scientific] breeding.” The claim was likely bullshit and, although it is impossible to know for certain, perhaps as much intended to impress and tantalize Davenport as it was to edify Rockefeller.
Davenport promptly responded. He thanked Stokes for news of his horse breeding and the catalogue, and he encouraged Stokes to submit to the Eugenic Records Office a copy of his own pedigree to be filed there. Davenport included a copy of the pre-printed pedigree form. In his next letter, Stokes brusquely declined Davenport’s request—“I am sorry to say that I am in business, otherwise I would be glad to be your office boy or your filing clerk”—and then, with characteristic self-assurance, disclosed a horrifying non-sequitur:
I have given orders in The Ansonia, where we have some 350 employees, to have every one of them examined medically, or bring a certificate of health from their doctor. I shall not allow anyone employed here who has consumption, cancer, skin disease, syphillis or kindred diseases. It has kicked up a terrible rumpus, but the results will be good.
How grand! His plans to root out and fire his sick employees stated plainly, so began a friendship that would continue until Stokes’s death a decade and a half later. Over that decade and a half, the two men exchanged letters, shared many meals, and publicly defended each other. Davenport wrote to Stokes following his shooting to wish him a fast recovery and responded patiently to Stokes’s many queries. And Stokes, for his part, championed Davenport among his network of monied friends to the latter’s considerable advantage. For example, in 1911, he wrote to Mary Harriman encouraging her to visit Davenport at Cold Spring Harbor; Harriman would later endow the ERO. In the meantime, Davenport soft-pedaled Stokes’s ever-intensifying quackery as the fresh insights of an enthusiastic outsider.
Bequests were a frequent topic of of their correspondence, though Stokes and Davenport had diverging ideas about how Stokes’s fortune might support Davenport’s research. Davenport frequently encouraged Stokes to fund a trust through the Carnegie Institute that would be exclusively dedicated to eugenic research and that would bear Stokes’s name. By contrast, Stokes preferred patronage that was more direct. He proposed to leave to Davenport personally a monthly allowance and, at another point, seemed to be plotting to have Davenport made a Professor of Eugenics at Yale. (Stokes was also trying to steer his nephew, Anson Phelps Stokes, into the Presidency at Yale, a scheme that failed when the Yale Trustees selected James Rowland Angell instead; both Anson Phelps Stokes and Angell were enthusiastic eugenicists.) Davenport, for his many faults, was an inveterate institution builder, and small personal allowances had less attraction than the robust funding of research bodies he could control in life and that would bolster his legacy in death. And, in any case, who would want to be bridled so tightly to a brash and combustible patron like W. E. D. Stokes when a gentler intermediary, such as the Carnegie Institute, was available? Davenport demurred the offer of allowances, and Stokes, in his final letter to Davenport in 1925, rebuked the demurral: “The little legacy that I propose to leaving you will come to you monthly as long as you live and will come to you personally and no one else.”
Stokes’s saw his support for Davenport as personal. In fact, he fancied himself as the bookish Davenport’s worldly champion, spreading Davenport’s eugenic wisdom in the language of the common man. He scolded Davenport in 1915 for writing in “terms often that uneducated people don’t understand, and then they pass the article over and don’t read it with the regard that they should.” To E. W. Paxton he complained that Davenport was “too scientific for you and me. If I could only get him to write a pamphlet on his wonderful discoveries, that ordinary people like you and I could read and profit by, it would be one of the greatest books of the age.” Stokes presented himself as a popular translator of Davenport’s obscurantism. As a gentleman breeder, after all, he adopted airs at once folksy and pretentious. In 1917, he wrote a letter chastising the geneticist and plant breeder, George Shull, for failing to make a more forceful case to the public about the merits of eugenics. He concluded his letter with a phrase oozing with false humility: “Don’t be fooled! Even I, a simple horsebreeder can see it.” Simple, indeed. He publicly maintained that his wisdom confirmed the science of men such as Davenport, but that he had arrived at it quite independently. “Only the vital importance of the subject to the permanency or ruin of our American institutions gives me courage to express these views,” Stokes wrote, “for I have avoided even reading books on heredity or breeding . . . . I determined to search out the truth of heredity, unbiased by other views.”
Stokes’s methods led him to some beliefs that were outlandish even among the band of cranks enamored of eugenics. He frequently wrote to Davenport about his theories. He wrote to Davenport about his belief that Abraham Lincoln was not, as the official history went, the son of “common white trash” Thomas Lincoln, but was actually the son of a man named Abraham Enloe and, through him, a descendent of John Marshall. He wrote excitedly to Davenport about a cure for consumption being peddled by a German physician staying in the Ansonia. He wrote to Davenport about his belief that the sex of foals and fillies was determined in-utero by the lunar cycle. He wrote to Davenport about his scientifically-determined certainty that his new stallion Thomas Stokes would be a prize-winning stud. When Thomas Stokes proved sterile, he wrote to Davenport about his scientifically-determined certainty that working the horse into a lather before breeding would cure sterility. Davenport, with polite condescension, responded that it was true that sweat sometimes purged the body of harmful pollutants. For the most part, Davenport said little to contradict Stokes’s outlandish beliefs—Stokes seemed to cycle through them with such alacrity, what could be the point?—though Davenport did pointedly caution Stokes against generalizing about human reproduction from the breeding of horses. Horses, after all, were bred for “a single, rather restricted, use . . . [H]uman beings are required for the most diverse uses. We need men to dig ditches and we need men to invent methods of destroying submarines and men capable of calculating without error the size of each element of a huge bridge.” It was a rare and extended correction from the Race Scientist to the Rich Fool.
Stokes took the wrong lesson from this correction. In 1917, Stokes published a book that made precisely the argument Davenport had attempted to discourage, titled The Right to Be Well Born, or Horse Breeding in Its Relation to Eugenics. It was a sprawling and tedious book stuffed with half-baked nonsense. Stokes confidently declared that scientists already had the knowledge to breed persons on average three feet tall or seven feet tall, sixty pounds in weight or four hundred; the human body was mere putty in the scientific breeder’s hands. To Davenport’s caution that humanity needed ditch diggers as well as engineers, Stokes proposed that men be scored on the basis of their capacities so that science, so armed, might breed classes of men just as classes of horses were bred, their physiques fitted to their designated functions. (Davenport had meant that scientific expertise should be used to restrict the reproduction of persons likely to have offspring who “are not able to take care of themselves or who are menaces to others,” a position that, nevertheless, laid the groundwork for countless barbarities and horrors.) Stokes maintained that the sex of horse and human offspring was determined by a combination of the fluctuating sexual “tendencies” of each parent. If both parents were in a heavily masculine phase at mating, the offspring would not only be male, but it would be tremendously masculine and fitted for great and bold deeds. If both parents were in a feminine phase at mating, the offspring would have glorious maternal, nurturing prowess. If these cycles were out of synch and the combined tendencies balanced between the masculine and feminine, the offspring would be “sissies and tom-boys,” the true source of degeneracy, perversion, defectives, and national decline. Mixed in with these assertions, Stokes also made pleas for temperance and universal education about breeding, marriage, and venereal diseases, his own well-honed reputation for promiscuity and intemperate drink notwithstanding.
Many or most of Stokes’s ideas were foolish, but the popular press seized on one of Stoke’s more bizarre and vivid claims. He asserted that poor breeding on the frontier had resulted in the women of Chicago having large, unsightly feet, but that recent more eugenic matings had resulted in pleasing feet and calves—trotters that were the envy of New York social girls, he claimed. Chicago’s Day Book glibly informed its readers that, in addition to being a horse breeder and Hotel owner, Stokes “is the gent who figured as a target for a couple of peeved showgirls a few years ago,” a contextualizing detail that appeared in numerous articles on the book. While Stokes had thought to make a learned and popular appeal on behalf of eugenics, most readers and reviewers treated the book as the joke it was and Stokes as a bon vivant Rich Fool. Stokes wrote angry letters to publications that printed unfavorable reviews (carbon copying Davenport). The book sold so poorly that Stokes’s publishers sued to recover the cost of its printing. Stokes claimed that he sent a copy to every member of Congress and that it had helped push the temperance amendment across the line. I believe the former and rather doubt the latter.
This all put Davenport in an extremely awkward position. On the one hand, he might have hoped to make some future use of Stokes’s ample wealth and, regardless, he was invested in Stokes's good will and social contacts. It appeared that Stokes had revised his work specifically in response to Davenport’s caution, though the revision made the work more controversial, not less as Davenport had intended. To blast the book publicly would surely earn Stokes’s ire and might even imperil Davenport’s access to the wealth of the New York society circle in which Stokes travelled. On the other hand, the book was undoubtedly an embarrassment—and not just for Stokes. Rather it made a caricature of eugenics in all the ways that Davenport’s allies sought to refute. What was Davenport to do? Perhaps Davenport thought that if he only quietly endorsed the book, or endorsed it only in the vaguest of terms, it could spare the movement embarrassment while reaping Stokes’s gratitude. Davenport had it gently reviewed in the ERO’s house publication, The Eugenical News, in 1917:
[Stokes] overflows with enthusiasm for his subject, his book is full of good ideas (often of a sort not found in more conventional works and which may be regarded as bold) . . . . Himself a scion of one of the New York’s most famous family complexes he has a clear appreciation of the value to this country of its best strains. The book will, we feel sure, influence for good a wide circle of readers.
A brief and favorable mention was also published in the Journal of Heredity, likely at Davenport’s instigation.
Stokes would land in the headlines repeatedly in his final decade of life, his dismal reputation sinking further still, with The Right to Be Well Born appearing in articles always as a brief mocking detail. Most of the drama surrounded his ugly divorce from Helen Ellwood. Stokes claimed she had cheated on him with a Texas oil man and had been in cahoots with Graham and Conrad. Ellwood alleged that he was a violent bully, a liar, an alcoholic, and prolifically unfaithful. Rita Hernandez de Alba Acosta took the stand for Ellwood to testify that Stokes had physically abused her during their brief marriage and that he was a liar and a philanderer. In the end, Stokes was denied the divorce he sought, and Ellwood was granted the separation she requested. Stokes was ordered to pay one million dollars in lawyer’s fees. In 1925, a prosecutor in Chicago charged Stokes with conspiracy to defame Ellwood, returning Stokes to the spotlight for a final ignominious turn. Ellwood produced as evidence a series of harassing postcards. The postcards had been sent to her, her mother, and to her children by Stokes, James and Muriel, and they alleged that she had engaged in constant marital infidelities, the details of which traded on the most vicious racist stereotypes. The judge refused to admit them as evidence and Stokes was acquitted, but the newspaper reports were decisively unflattering.
It was a publicity and financial disaster for Stokes. He died shortly after in May of 1926. Initial reports of his fortune placed it at $10 million, but his debtors and business partners came forward to pick at the estate. It was tied up in litigation for years, and, in the end, the New York Times estimated that as little as $200,000 remained to be disbursed to his heirs. It was still a substantial fortune for the age, to be sure, but it was a mere fraction of what Stokes had himself inherited and a sum far less than the public might have imagined. Stokes had promised Davenport some “little legacy” in the form of a monthly allowance, but if Davenport ever received it there is no record of it in his archives. There was, to be certain, no “W. E. D. Stokes Fund for Eugenical Research” as Davenport had proposed. It is more likely that, like so much of his life, Stokes’s promises amounted to nothing more than raging ego, bluff and bluster, posturing, and empty appearance.
[Stokes’s Great Stallion, Peter the Great]
What shall we make of these two men fecklessly exploiting each other, pursuing a friendship so empty of real affection or respect? What harm was done when the Race Scientist made to fleece the Rich Fool only to have the Rich Fool sully the Race Scientist’s credibility and reputation? Did they not deserve the misery of each other? Both men, I note, were awful racists. But it is worthwhile to compare how their different racisms were woven, like their friendship, into a wicked, thorny bramble.
Stokes’s racism was unapologetic, crass, vulgar, and hyperbolic and it was the foundation of a growing paranoid distrust of the political order. He saw himself as one of a dying breed—the last of the true Americans—who were being swamped by what he called “a foreign host with secret unions and their foreign customs, so this land and our country is governed by paddies, Italians, Poles. Russians, all of the lowest order, with their imported principles of chicanery, thievery, degeneracy—their polluted and rotten blood.” Corrupt politicians sought to lend the franchise to this degenerate host because they were demagogues. He split with his old family friend, Theodore Roosevelt, and his Bull-Moose Party in 1913 because he charged that Roosevelt accepted the political support of Mary Antin, a Russian-Jewish emigre, author, and immigration rights activism: “That cursed woman would dump on our shores hundreds of millions of the polluted blood, degenerate-bred thieves and robbers.” At best, he said, immigrants cared not a bit for the United States and sent their wages back home to the Old World, while, at worst, they were mostly criminals and the dissolute. To his anti-Semitism and hatred of Southern and Eastern European immigrants, Stokes added vicious anti-black racism. In the letter to Paxton, he shrugged off the “so-called Klu Klux Klan” as irrelevant, since “the [anti-black racial slur] here are more or less diseased, and if you or I could come back to America 200 years hence we would find very few colored people here, for they are breeding with the whites, especially the low down filthy alien Jews.” Against this tide of racial others, Stokes set himself. He fancied himself a great man of implacable will, and he attached his will, unapologetically and with obvious passionate interest, to his racist project. He set as the enemies of this project the masses, their leaders, and the entire corrupt political order. His only allies in this fight were the men he trusted—men like Davenport—and with regard to those men he would not remain objective or impartial; he was their partisan and champion. And, yet, precisely because of this Stokes made little mark, for he could not think beyond himself and his prowess into how he might make an institution of his prejudice.
In this regard, Stokes was completely unlike Davenport, for whom the appearance of objectivity was paramount, precisely because his life’s work was the transformation of his personal racism into a stain on the world his death could not scrub. Davenport sought always to express his racism first through bland statistics and numbers—to hide through the procedures of abstraction the hot venom that dripped from Stokes’s pen. He always marshaled carefully massaged evidence for conclusions he not only had never doubted, but that he simply could not conceive to be untrue. But more than anything, Davenport played the part of the respectable and sober man, the company man, the man of the existing order. He proposed to apply reason to the anarchy of sex, yes. In some hands, that might be a radical project. But Davenport proposed only policies, he promised, that would restrain society’s degenerate excesses, and never discipline its wholesome middle classes. It was always and only someone else’s freedom Davenport sought to curtail. Davenport was, after all, a man of the middle class, while Stokes saw a world populated entirely by magnates like himself and a horde of degenerate ditch-diggers and criminals.
Stokes’s plutocratic radicalism was his undoing within the eugenics movement and, perhaps, also what earned Davenport, through his association with Stokes, the animosity of his contemporaries. The project of eugenics was, in 1910, still protean enough to encompass a variety of political and ideological perspectives. There were chauvinistic blue bloods such as Roosevelt and Stokes along with monied magnates such as Stanford and Rockefeller. And there were also socialists, progressives, free thinkers, atheists, and a thousand other varieties of radicals drawn to Science. But American political culture narrowed profoundly—and violently—over the decade, ending with a moral panic about the looming threat of Bolshevism. By the early 1920s, elite eugenicists, increasingly affiliated with the American Eugenics Society, sought to distance themselves from the label of radicalism and, in particular, the alleged “anti-family” valences of socialist thought. That is, they sought to present themselves, like Davenport, as respectable champions of the American middle class and its great bulwark, heterosexual companionate marriage. They were not radicals or socialists. They were committed to Americanism, Christ, capitalist enterprise, and the institution of marriage. Stokes, whether he realized it or not, threatened this image and Davenport, by enabling Stokes, compounded the damage. Do not use the analogy of livestock, the respectable men of the American Eugenics Society begged, for every fool knows that, in breeding livestock, farmers systematize polygamy and incest; they will call us advocates of sex radicalism, and they will not be wrong! It was not Stokes’s racism alone that troubled; it was, rather, his passionate personal excesses and how his book unintentionally dramatized those excesses in ways that complicated the more sober and scientistic racism that elite eugenicists preferred.
Stokes’s problem was that he could not see what was probably clear to everyone else: he suffered an overweening identification with his stallions. In one of his final letters to Davenport, Stokes wrote that he “never let [his] love of horses overcome [his] horse judgement,” but about this too he was a fool and the last to see the truth. In another letter he laid out a fanciful claim, a fanciful as his speculation about sex control and cures for consumption, distinguished only by its unintentional autobiography:
A stallion may be bred to a hundred mares and it will leave very little or no impression on the stallions; but, at the first mating of a mare with a stallion, where she produces a colt by that stallion, that mare carries over a certain amount of the characteristics of the first stallion into the colt by the second stallion to which she is bred. What is true of the horse is true of the human!
The human? Perhaps Stokes meant the one human whose sexual past and many offspring he knew best: himself. Indeed, it is not hard to see why a man who identified with his stallions—who made his passion the study of the vigor and virility of their matings—would propose to remake the world in the image of a horse farm. On such a farm, Stokes imagined he would be the great stallion, and, once freed from a single woman, he would mate with dozens, perhaps hundreds, maybe thousands of fine-blooded mares. It was not entirely unlike his actual private life, to be sure, but to have his lusty ways recognized as a service to humanity—no Rich Fool could easily resist the lure of that fantasy, and most certainly William Earl Dodge Stokes did not. But though a fantasy may be indulged, it is seldom analyzed. Had he done so, Stokes might then have seen that in his fantasy the Rich Fool and the Race Scientist were bound, not as equals, nor as patron and dependent, but as the stallion and his breeder.