The American Plan - The Trials of Nina McCall
In late October 1918, the sheriff of the small town of St. Louis, Michigan detained 18-year-old Nina McCall and delivered her to the local health officer, Thomas Carney. Carney examined McCall, invasively and against her will, and pronounced her infected with syphilis and gonorrhea. He then coerced McCall into signing a commitment order to the Bay City Detention Hospital, where she would reside and be forcibly treated for venereal disease for nearly three months. At the Detention Hospital, the matron, Mary Corrigan, and others forced McCall to take injections of mercury, which caused her considerable pain and made her hair and teeth fall out. After her release, social worker Ida Peck stalked McCall, telling her she would have to continue taking injections of mercury or she would be put in jail. To avoid the injections, McCall fled and hid under an assumed name in towns across the state. Yet Peck threatened her mother, and, eventually, McCall returned. McCall filed suit against Carney, Corrigan, and Peck, and—though she lost at the trial level—she triumphed in the Michigan Supreme Court.
This is, so far as I can tell, the most complete transcript from any lawsuit involving a woman incarcerated under the American Plan. It contains over 40 pages of her direct testimony. This statement comprises the most complete record of one woman’s incarceration—in her own words.
[I was able to obtain this trial transcript with the assistance of David Gary and use of funds generously provided by the Yale University Library.]
This is the only known photograph of the institution in which Nina McCall was incarcerated. It is an imperfect representation of her circumstances, as the top floors burned in 1920 and were subsequently rebuilt. Nonetheless, it gives some sense of how imposing and stark a structure it would have been. It was bordered by farmlands and a Greek Orthodox cemetery.
This is the courthouse in which McCall’s suit against the state played out. For four days in June 1920, she and her attorneys battled against her former captors. In the end, they triumphed. The judge ordered McCall to pay their legal fees. In the end, though, the Michigan Supreme Court rejected the verdict and repudiated the ability of a health officer to detain and examine a woman without “reasonable suspicion.” It also ruled that McCall would not have to pay her opponents’ legal fees.
This is a poster printed by the Michigan State Board of Health in an attempt to combat the spread of syphilis and gonorrhea. Unlike many posters of the era—which perpetuated the stereotype that women disproportionately spread venereal disease—this poster instead attempts to play on the viewer’s sympathies for VD’s “innocent victims” (i.e. children borne to infected mothers).