Northern Colony Resident

An interesting article appeared in the Wisconsin Magazine of History, Autumn 2013, that led me to recall the situation of grandfather Emil Borreson’s sister, Syverine Marie, who was a resident in Northern Colony from 1909 until her death in 1918.

The article entitled, “Placing the ‘Wayward Woman:’ Eugenics in Wisconsin’s Involuntary Sterilization Program,” deals with a subject of our state’s past that was a surprise to me. Men and women of so-called “defective morals” were institutionalized at the Wisconsin Home for the Feeble Minded (another name for N. Colony) and sometimes were sterilized to prevent reproduction of their kind. Supporters of this practice of eugenics included doctors, scientists, intellectuals and doctors, including members of the Progressive movement. People targeted for sterilization usually were deemed mentally deficient or mentally ill. Most came from the lower classes, some were criminals, other sexually promiscuous. People feared they would strain on the state’s finances and would overpopulate the world.

After Wisconsin passed its first involuntary sterilization law in 1913, Alfred A. Wilmarth, a strong advocate of sterilization, became the first superintendent of the Wisconsin Home for the Feeble Minded. From 1913 to 1933, 489 residents of this Home were sterilized, 451 women and 38 men. In Wilmarth’s years there, 61 of these operations were performed.

According to Clara Cook’s Homestead (33-34), Syverine died in 1918 from acute meningitis after suffering years from organic brain disease. Our cousin Albert and I have had conversations about Syverine, and I think there’s a chance that he is right, that her loss of hearing led to a misdiagnosis. Perhaps her mind was okay, but hearing little or nothing, her development was severely limited. Maybe we’ll never know for sure.

From the WMH article, it appears that some Northern Colony records have been deposited at the State Historical Society in Madison. One day I hope to get there and see if there still exist any records on Syverine. Since she was there when Wilmarth was superintendent, I even wonder if she was affected by the state’s eugenics law. She would have been 39 years old when she was admitted and 48 when she died. It would at least be interesting to learn more about her.

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