Bad Girls at Samarcand - Cover
Goodreads Icon

Bad Girls at Samarcand

Sexuality and Sterilization in a Southern Juvenile Reformatory

Jules and Frances Landry Award

280 pages / 6.00 x 9.00 inches / 28 halftones

ebook available

Southern History | Gender Studies

  Hardcover / 9780807162491 / April 2016

Winner of the Ragan Old North State Award for Nonfiction

Of the many consequences advanced by the rise of the eugenics movement in the early twentieth century, North Carolina forcibly sterilized more than 2,000 women and girls in between 1929 and 1950. This extreme measure reflects how pseudoscience justified widespread gender, race, and class discrimination in the Jim Crow South.
In Bad Girls at Samarcand Karin L. Zipf dissects a dark episode in North Carolina’s eugenics campaign through a detailed study of the State Home and Industrial School in Eagle Springs, referred to as Samarcand Manor, and the school’s infamous 1931 arson case. The people and events surrounding both the institution and the court case sparked a public debate about the expectations of white womanhood, the nature of contemporary science and medicine, and the role of the juvenile justice system that resonated throughout the succeeding decades.
Designed to reform and educate unwed poor white girls who were suspected of deviant behavior or victims of sexual abuse, Samarcand Manor allowed for strict disciplinary measures—including corporal punishment—in an attempt to instill Victorian ideals of female purity. The harsh treatment fostered a hostile environment and tensions boiled over when several girls set Samarcand on fire, destroying two residence halls. Zipf argues that the subsequent arson trial, which carried the possibility of the death penalty, represented an important turning point in the public characterizations of poor white women; aided by the lobbying efforts of eugenics advocates, the trial helped usher in dramatic policy changes, including the forced sterilization of female juvenile delinquents.
In addition to the interplay between gender ideals and the eugenics movement, Zipf also investigates the girls who were housed at Samarcand and those specifically charged in the 1931 trial. She explores their negotiation of Jazz Age stereotypes, their strategies of resistance, and their relationship with defense attorney Nell Battle Lewis during the trial. The resultant policy changes—intelligence testing, sterilization, and parole—are also explored, providing further insight into why these young women preferred prison to reformatories.
A fascinating story that grapples with gender bias, sexuality, science, and the justice system all within the context of the Great Depression–era South, Bad Girls at Samarcand makes a compelling contribution to multiple fields of study.
1. A Place for White Girls
The Tricky Politics of Juvenile Reform
2. In Defense of the Nation
Syphilis, North Carolina’s “Girl Problem,” and World War I
3. How to Make Bad Girls Good
Discipline and Resistance Inside a Girls’ Reformatory, 1918–1925
4. Suddenly Proclaimed Unfit
The Eugenics Agenda of Kate Burr Johnson
5. A Modern Girl’s Dilemma
Girl Runaways and Sexual Anxieties in Jazz-Age North Carolina
6. Not Penitent Yet
The Strategy of the Defense in the Samarcand Arson Case
7. Classifying “Subnormal”
Parole and Sterilization at the State Home and Industrial School for Girls, 1933–1950
8. “A Mystery to Me”
The Problem of Incarcerating Female Delinquents in World War II-Era North Carolina

Karin L. Zipf is associate professor of history at East Carolina University and author of Labor of Innocents: Forced Apprenticeship in North Carolina, 1715–1919.

Praise for Bad Girls at Samarcand

“An enlightening book, but also a frightening one. . . . Poignant and moving.”—Raleigh News & Observer

Found an Error? Tell us about it.