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Esau Walton's story: When state power, social science and the courts collide

Published March 31, 2014 6:07 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

By Brooke Adams

Esau Walton was barely into his 20s when Utah authorities sought to castrate him for engaging in sex with another man.

I read about Walton in the amicus brief supporting marriage equality filed by Howard University's School of Law Civil Rights Clinic at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The clinic mentioned Walton's case in a section describing eugenics and questionable social science claims made in the past about interracial relationships — now being repeated, it said, in the same-sex marriage debate.

Among them: claims that racial boundaries were based on natural, biological laws and God's will, which if violated would result in racial and social degeneration. It was once believed that people who choose to intermarry suffered from a deep-seated psychological sickness and neurotic self-hate or self-degradation, the clinic said. It cited a long history in which pseudoscience also led to gays and lesbians being viewed as "immutably defective both socially and physically."

One way to fix such an affliction was castration, which is where Esau Walton's story comes in.

After reading about Walton in the center's brief, I tracked down the 1929 Utah Supreme Court decision in his case. While the court spared Walton that fate, it echoing then prevalent views of homosexuality.

Here's what I learned.

Walton, an African American, was 19-years-old in 1925 when he was sent to the Utah State Prison after being convicted of robbery. He received a sentence of five years to life.

Esau Walton booking sheet from the Utah State Prison

The court described Walton's hard-luck background in simple sentences: "He was born in Georgia. His father left his mother when he was an infant. When a boy he served a term of 15 months in the reform school of Georgia for stealing silk shirts. He completed the fourth grade in school. He has not been married."

After his mother died in 1923, Walton "came North." He had been "picked up" a few times but had no criminal history as an adult until the robbery conviction.

The court noted Walton admitted to "frequently" having "illicit intercourse" with women.

About a year after arriving at the Utah State Prison, a guard reported that he saw Walton and another male inmate engaged in sex in their cell. The same guard also testified in court that Walton "frequently acted lovingly towards other boys" at the prison.

Walton and the other inmate both denied ever engaging in sodomy.

But after a hearing, the state Board of Corrections ordered that Walton be "asexualized."

The board said cited a 1925 law adopted by the Utah Legislature entitled, "An Act to Prevent the Procreation of Habitual Sexual Criminals, Idiots, Epileptics, Imbeciles and Insane and Providing Penalties for the Violation Thereof."

The prison board found that Walton was "afflicted with habitual sexual criminal tendencies, is a degenerate morally" because of his homosexual behavior. Asexualization would cure him, apparently.

The young man, understandably, objected.

A physician testified at a subsequent district court hearing that there were three ways to asexualize Walton: remove his testicles; cut the nerves controlling his penis; or, give him a vasectomy, thus severing "the sex germ-carrying ducts." He recommended one of the latter two options.

The district court gave the prison the go ahead, rejecting Walton's claim the law was unconstitutional and amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

Walton fought on.

The Utah Supreme Court first determined that the law was constitutional — at the time, there were similar laws in most states — and that ordering sterilization of "mental defectives" was not cruel or unusual punishment.

It noted that the purposes of the law were "eugenic and therapeutic" rather than "punishment for a crime."

"The Legislature, by the act, seeks to improve the race by preventing from being born persons who will probably become defectives or criminals," the court said in its ruling.

The court then said the issue before it was whether the evidence justified a finding, as required by the law, that Walton was the "probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring likewise afflicted" and would benefit from "his asexualization."

"We think not," the court said.

It expressed doubt that "even the most ardent advocate of the immutability of the law of heredity would wish to determine the probable nature of the offspring of Esau Walton without more facts than appear in the record before us."

And what about Walton's welfare? Would the operation of asexualization benefit him in any way or relieve him of "his abnormal sexual desire?"

Not that it could tell, the court said.

In a concurring opinion, one justice said that "as revolting as the charged offense is," there was no evidence Walton was "habitually sexually criminal" and there was conflicting testimony about whether he had engaged in sodomy.

The board did nothing to investigate what, if any disorder Walton had or whether the charged offense was "due to mere present environments and surroundings or to curable or incurable constitutional mental or physical disorders or perversions or abnormality."

The justice was aghast that the board had ordered such treatment of a "young healthy negro" who was in prison not for any sexual offense but for robbery.

Yes, Walton had admitted to having sex with women, the justice said.

"But all strong and healthy young men are not like Joseph, who fled from the flushed adulterous solicitations of Potiphar's wife, and because they are not is no reason why they should be castrated."

As for the alleged offense, "it may be said such a revolting act shows such moral depravity as to justify his asexualization, as Sodom and its inhabitants because of such vice practiced were destroyed."

But punishment was not the stated purpose of the law, the justice said.

The court reversed the district court ruling and sent the case back for reconsideration.

Luckily for Walton, an amendment to Utah's law adopted by the Legislature months earlier did not apply to his case. In that action, according to historian George Painter, lawmakers added the word "degenerate" to its description of criminal sexual activities that warranted "asexualization."

What became of Esau Walton? He was released from the prison in November 1930. I could find no trace of him beyond that date.

But his story lives on, at least in court briefs.




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