The defendant’s name was Mr. Scrub Bull. He entered Magistrate James McElroy Jameson’s makeshift courtroom in Pickens County, South Carolina, walking on four legs and escorted by rural and town policemen. There he stood, surely bewildered, as a court officer read the bill of indictments.

“The defendant works in a very underhand way,” the officer declared, “stealing the profits from every dairyman and butcher who has common cows, robbing the unsuspecting, the careless, and the ignorant alike, causing their innocent children to suffer for milk and working men to be in want of meat.”

The accused didn’t understand that he was facing criminal charges of genetic impurity. Bovine defendants never did understand. But this trial wasn’t for his benefit. It was for the education and entertainment of the many spectators who had gathered at the county fairgrounds in October 1922.

Across the country in the early twentieth century, cattle were routinely put on trial before crowds that reached into the thousands in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture called “Courts of Bovine Justice.” The criminal proceedings had real judges and real lawyers, who examined witnesses and addressed jurors. They were live courtroom dramas orchestrated by the department to teach Americans the value of purebred livestock, which were supposed to produce more food than their runty-looking “scrub,” or unpedigreed, peers.

The published account of the Pickens County trial is thin on details. But if it ran like the other trials, it followed a script written by a USDA employee to promote “the severe persecution of inferior breeding stock.” The text was packed with clever dialogue, to which presenters were encouraged to add “local color.”

Attorney: What is the difference between a scrub bull and a purebred?

Butcher: They are very much alike in some ways and different in others.

Attorney: Explain yourself.

Butcher: They are alike because they both multiply, but they are different because the scrub never gets the right answer.

What we do know is that the Pickens County prosecutor accused Mr. Scrub Bull of endowing his calves with “blood of unknown and poor quality.” His very existence, the indictment said, robbed local children of “the privilege of having fine purebred calves to care for.”

The defense attorney likely argued that his client, while “less aristocratic” than a purebred bull, nonetheless “gives his best and in return only asks that he be fed, housed, and have his tranquility undisturbed.” That argument carried no weight, though. Mr. Scrub Bull was convicted of all charges and sentenced to death, with local butchers serving as executioners. There’s no record of whether the spectators later ate him.

Ninety years later, Gabriel N. Rosenberg, an associate professor of gender, sexuality, and feminist studies and history at Duke, started researching these odd bovine inquisitions. Poring over newspaper accounts, he recognized that they were more than amusing spectacles. They had an ugly subtext, and it wasn’t about cattle at all.

While the USDA was promoting genetic purity in farm animals, the United States was witnessing the rise of a eugenics movement that aimed to limit the reproduction of people deemed unfit. Forced sterilization programs, which would continue through most of the century, came online in many states during this period.

This was also a heyday for “scientific racism,” the use of pseudoscience to measure and quantify the purported differences between the races. Shoddy science was used to justify both immigration quotas and the miscegenation laws that barred interracial marriages in some states until 1967.

“Scientific racists and eugenicists often cited livestock breeding as a model for what could be accomplished through the careful governance of reproduction,” Rosenberg wrote in an article published this fall in the Journal of American History. They weren’t cagey about their intentions. Henry Herbert Goddard, an Ohio State University psychologist and an early champion of intelligence testing, argued that some people are “scrubs” who should not receive higher education.

“The cattle raiser knows he must have the right breed of stock to begin with or he will fail,” Goddard told a reporter in 1923. “A scrub breed never produced a prize winner, no matter what fine environment was given it.” This applied to people, too, the psychologist said. “If you are a ‘scrub breed,’ the sooner you find it out the better.... A lot of useless energy would be saved if the ‘scrubs’ only realized their limitations and kept to the very important ‘scrub jobs,’ instead of making themselves drags on the universities of the countries.”

Post-trial funeral oration, to be delivered by a religious leader or livestock specialist: “In regard to the charge and conviction of highway robbery, it can be safely said that the scrub bull is one of the greatest evils along our country highways today.… The houses and barns of his owner are in poor repair, are badly in need of paint; the fences, if there are any, are down, and the weeds have grown thickly along the roadside. The scrub bull robs his owner of ambition and the money it takes to keep his place in repair and make a pleasant home for his family. We must get rid of all our scrub bulls and stop this thieving.”

Rosenberg’s cattle-trial research originated from a broader interest: the intersection of livestock breeding and human sexuality. These two phrases rarely get uttered in the same sentence—which, according to his colleagues, is what makes the Duke scholar’s work stand out.

“His research not only breaks apart firm distinctions between the making of human and animal life,” says Alex Blanchette, an anthropologist at Tufts University. “It helps us glimpse in new ways how modern corporate agribusiness’s seemingly rational productivity and profit-seeking is inseparable from deeper histories of race and sex.”

Rosenberg wasn’t raised on a farm. But he did grow up in Indiana, which exposed him to what he calls “agrarian tropes.” He attended the state fair, took school field trips to farms, and visited relatives who lived in the countryside.

He brought that agrarian lens to graduate school at Brown University. Reading the scholarship in his field, he noticed a blind spot. “The history of sexuality, at least from the perspective of American historians, was written almost exclusively from a metropolitan perspective,” he says. It focused primarily on gay men and lesbians in large cities, and relied on activist-group records, gay newspapers, and urban court cases. “Is the argument here,” Rosenberg wondered, “that there is no history of sexuality in rural spaces?”

That question was his jumping-off point. For his dissertation, Rosenberg looked at the USDA’s 4-H clubs, which teach leadership skills to rural youth. He discovered that, while teaching how to breed livestock, 4-H clubs also taught the principles of human breeding: gender roles, sexual morality, and the perils of sexually transmitted diseases.

Health and sex education borrowed the language of the farm. One North Carolina 4-H poster from 1929 depicted two young bulls, one weak and swaybacked, the other strong and straight-backed. Below them were photos of two swaybacked boys and one straight-backed man. “Grow a fine club member!” the headline said. “Train your muscles to carry your body well.”

Another illustration used by 4-H publications in the 1930s and ’40s compared five increasingly mature boys, each stripped down to his underwear and facing away from the camera, to five increasingly ripe ears of corn. Rosenberg reprinted both the cow and the corn graphics in his 2016 book The 4-H Harvest: Sexuality and the State in Rural America.

But farming principles weren’t just used to teach human reproduction. They were also used to teach how to control human reproduction.

Rosenberg’s home state of Indiana passed the nation’s first compulsory sterilization law, in 1907, “to prevent procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles, and rapists.” It followed on the heels of a 1905 state law barring the “mentally deficient” and “habitual drunkards” from marrying. By then, the American eugenics movement was getting under way, advocating that genetic science could be harnessed to craft a more physically, mentally, and morally fit nation. At least 60,000 people were sterilized in the United States without their consent (or sometimes knowledge) during the twentieth century.

Racial motives were never far below the surface. Harry Laughlin, a biologist at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and author of a model sterilization law borrowed by Germany’s Nazi regime, also championed the Immigration Act of 1924, which limited newcomers from Southern and Eastern Europe and virtually barred immigrants from Asia. The law’s purpose, says a U.S. State Department history, “was to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity.” Laughlin later advised USDA on livestock improvement.

Likewise, women of color bore the brunt of American eugenic policies, including in North Carolina, where forced sterilizations were performed until the 1970s. So many Southern women, many of them Black, endured the procedure that it became known as the “Mississippi appendectomy.”

While the practice has generally ended, a complaint filed with the federal government this fall alleged that women at an immigration detention center in Georgia had received hysterectomies in “high numbers” without informed consent.

The lines between eugenics and agriculture, Rosenberg says, were often blurred. One twentieth- century scientist who straddled the line was Hubert Goodale, a Massachusetts geneticist whose work involved dairy cattle and poultry. “He comes up with a fairly elaborate, baroque way to rate men on the basis of the quality of their offspring,” Rosenberg says—a system based on a certain type of livestock breeding. “His argument is that those are men who should be encouraged to have more children, and the government should subsidize their reproduction. Whereas if you do really, really badly, you should be coercively sterilized and you should be prevented from marrying.”

Not every eugenicist felt comfortable with this overlap. Among the members of the American Eugenics Society—“who tended to be WASP-y New England aristocrats,” Rosenberg says—there was something inherently radical about applying livestock science (which embraced polygamy and incest) to human beings.

Still, the comparisons persisted. In the 1920s, the American Eugenics Society offered $500 (equivalent to $7,000 today) to the preacher who delivered the best sermon on the theme of “Religion and Eugenics: Does the church have any responsibility for improving the human stock?” In those sermons, “they’re using the agricultural analogy all the time,” Rosenberg says. “If you want to explain that in a country that’s largely rural and composed of people who have regular contact with livestock, then we need that analogy to be able to translate to people why we know the technocratic management of reproduction works.”

The Courts of Bovine Justice provided a secular vehicle for that message. In the 1920s, Rosenberg says, “the hottest American pastime was gawking at great trials” like the Sacco and Vanzetti robbery-murder trial of 1921 and the Scopes “monkey trial” of 1925, which tested the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Americans rarely attended public executions anymore, as they did in the nineteenth century. But, he adds, they still loved the showdown between good and evil that a courtroom drama offered.

USDA capitalized on this public thirst. It recommended entertaining spectators with “band music and a barbecue” and injecting “levity” into the trials where appropriate. Along with the judge, attorneys, farmer, butcher, and auctioneer, there should be a witless housewife who confuses man and bull.

Attorney: Mrs. Brown, have you any views on the merits of this case? 

Mrs. B.: Indeed I have. I think he is guilty; I can tell it by his looks.

Attorney: Whom do you mean?

Mrs. B.: That man right there. (She points to the judge.)

But, the USDA said, there should also be a strong and consistent message about genetic purity, reinforced at the end during the bull’s eulogy: “Let us bury him so deep in history and seal his tomb so tight that both he and his posterity will be lost of this world forever.”

Was there a human subtext? “All the evidence suggests that people who were engaging with the bull trials understood it to be a dual commentary,” Rosenberg says. “There was no way to read the bull trials without understanding it also to be in the context of broader eugenic advocacies. Because it was fundamentally about testifying to the capacity of the American state to make definitive determinations about who could and could not breed.”

The ironic coda to these trials, says Rosenberg, is that they had a faulty premise. Breed distinctions in cattle are arbitrary and based on physical characteristics—which geneticists call “phenotypes.” But these traits don’t neatly track an animal’s genetic makeup. “The scrubbiest bull in the yard may produce offspring that are highly productive, because it’s not a function of phenotype,” he says. “It’s a function of genotype.”

By the time the trials were under way, scientists were coming to understand this. “Population genetics is surging over the course of the 1920s,” Rosenberg says. “Their read on the situation is this: Pure-breeding is based on junk nineteenth-century race science that fetishizes the appearance of animals. But it doesn’t tell you anything about that underlying genetic material that you’re actually trying to conserve for future stock.”

If pedigreed cattle were indeed more productive, studies pointed to another reason. “If you tell a farmer, ‘This purebred bull you bought, it’s way more expensive,’ the farmer is going to feed that bull better,” Rosenberg says. “He’s going to care for it. He’s going to make sure it’s not sick. He’s going to insert all of these environmental factors into the bull’s life. And that bull is going to be more productive because you treated it better.”

The bovine trials ended in 1933. But the social issues they raised endure—in modern debates over immigration, white supremacy, and even how to manage the pandemic. “These issues still resonate today,” says Rosenberg’s colleague Juno Salazar Parreñas, an anthropologist at Cornell University. “When people say, ‘Old people should just die from coronavirus,’ they have ideas of who is a society for. That is very much about eugenics.”

Given these resonances, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Rosenberg’s research has nudged its way into popular culture. Last year, WNYC’s popular Radiolab broadcast an episode of the podcast The Memory Palace that focused on the cattle trials. It didn’t mention Rosenberg by name, but linked to a talk by him in the show notes.

In the episode, host Nate DiMeo told the story of a bull who was convicted before 800 spectators in Neillsville, Wisconsin, in 1930, but escaped into the trees before he could be slaughtered.

“And I propose we let this one scrub bull stand in for all scrub bulls, though so few of them exist now well into the 2000s,” said DiMeo. “They have indeed been bred and engineered and eaten out of the population. But let’s let this one go, to run off into the trees. And let him keep on running: to find a pasture, some tall grass, and a life worth living, whatever that might mean.”

Yeoman teaches journalism at Duke’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy. He wrote about Duke researcher Barton Haynes and the quest for a global HIV vaccine in the Winter 2019 issue.

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