Dr. Stanley, chief surgeon at San Quentin Prison for almost 40 years and a follower of eugenics, conducted bizarre medical experiments, transplants and plastic surgeries on the inmates

In Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein—and the countless horror films spawned by it—a doctor (Victor Frankenstein) conducts experiments with human body parts to create new forms of “sapient” life. The “monster” created is not named Frankenstein. In the novel, “it” is alternately called “creature,” “demon,” “wretch” and even “abortion.” Never Frankenstein. Indeed, the real monster is the doctor.

             Dr. Leo Leonidas Stanley was chief surgeon at San Quentin State Prison in California from 1913 to 1951. During those years, San Quentin was the world’s largest prison, with a peak population of 6,000 men (some women prisoners were also housed there until 1932). It was (still is) a small city located on a picturesque peninsula in the eastern part of San Francisco Bay. What do prisons have that would tempt someone of a Frankenstein-ian bent of mind? You guessed it. Captive “specimens.”

Dr. Leo Stanley in his uniform - from Marin County Free Library collection
Dr. Leo Stanley in his uniform – from Marin County Free Library collection

Obsessed with disease and what he called “abnormalities” and believing they were “crime indicators,” Dr. Stanley felt that if he could control a prisoner’s “abnormalities,” he could send him back into the world cured of the disease of crime. It was all so simple to him. If history has taught us anything it is to beware the “expert” who reduces everything to a simple equation to which only he has the solution.

For nearly forty years, Dr. Stanley used his office as a research lab, collecting data on “disease and its relationship to crime,” and conducting bizarre medical experiments on the “abnormalities” of the inmates. He went to great lengths to study the scars, bumps, birthmarks and other anomalies of each new inmate who entered the prison gates. He charted these abnormalities, monitored them and then devised ways to make them “normal”.

By all accounts, Dr. Stanley was well-liked, even admired, by the prisoners, many of whom felt (as he did) that this experimentation was for the betterment of the incarcerated and for society at large. They, in fact, felt he was doing it for their own good.

And, to be fair, much of the activity that he promoted was benign and therapeutic: exercise, healthy eating, healthy competition, and entertainment. In addition, any inmates who went under Dr. Stanley’s scalpel agreed to the experiment ahead of time. Though not coerced, the inmates were likely attracted by the extra attention, food and care, not to mention the break from the monotony of prison routine. And, besides, with a nice doctor like Leo Stanley, what could possibly go wrong?

Stating the obvious, Dr. Stanley noted, “The research we have done here would have been impossible in private practice.”

Men At Their Worst

            That “research” will be covered in more detail below, but first it’s important to mention that Dr. Stanley was no isolated “monster.” He was a product of the eugenics movement, which held sway in the medical community at the beginning of the 20th century. Partly a reaction to the increasing waves of immigrants from southern and central Europe, the movement made inroads in the American medical community by promoting “selective breeding,” the end goal of which was to produce pedigree stock—just as was done with farm animals and dogs.

            The best human “pedigree” was, of course, any genetics that included Nordic, Germanic or Anglo-Saxon blood. One of the top priorities of the eugenics movement was the forcible sterilization of the poor, disabled and “immoral” (which would include anyone convicted of a crime). The eugenics movement was largely underwritten by such blue-blood organizations as the Carnegie Institute, Rockefeller Foundation and the cereal magnate J.H. Kellogg, who set up the “Race Betterment Foundation” in Battle Creek, Mich.

Eugenics poster published by Galton Institute
Eugenics poster published by Galton Institute

In his book Men At Their Worst (1940), Stanley wrote, “The proper thing to do with a criminal is to sterilize him so he will not reproduce his kind.”  He also determined that 20 percent of the prisoners at San Quentin were “feeble minded,” and they should, therefore, all be sterilized. “Sterilization, when given its chance, will do much to stamp out crime,” he wrote. “The right to bear children will in time be reserved to the fit.”

Again, it should be noted that this was not some isolated fringe belief. It was pervasive and, in 1940 (when he wrote this), Germany had more or less made it national policy. Those deemed “unfit” there were Jews, gypsies (Romani, Sinti), Negroes, Poles, homosexuals, etc. And, of course, the Germans didn’t stop at sterilization. They exterminated the “unfit,” as we all know from the undeniable evidence on the Holocaust.

A more polite word for extermination is “euthanasia.”  To wit: Of one prisoner, Dr. Stanley wrote, “He is a perfect specimen for any proponent of euthanasia, or painless elimination of the socially unfit.”

Though Stanley may or may not have believed in euthanasia, any impulses in this direction were constrained by state and federal law in America and so we never actually got to learn if he would have put such beliefs into action. However, any medical professional who held such beliefs about sterilization, medical experimentation and euthanasia would have fit right in with Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz, Albert Heim at Mauthausen and Carl Vaernet at Buchenwald.

All of these doctors had what Stanley had at his disposal: captive specimens.

Caryl Chessman

            The work of Leo Stanley came to my notice while I was working on a biography of Caryl Chessman, When You Read This, They Will Have Killed Me”: The Life and Redemption of Caryl Chessman, Whose Execution Shook America.

Chessman was the so-called “red-light bandit” who served two sentences at San Quentin for robberies in the early 1940s and then, from 1948 until his execution in 1960, resided on Death Row there. During those 12 years on Death Row, Chessman became an international cause celebre and a bestselling author as well as a thorn in the side of the State of California and a pin prick at America’s conscience about the cruel and unusual nature of capital punishment.

In his earlier stays at San Quentin, Chessman was a beneficiary of health policies put in place by Stanley, though he never had any personal encounters with the doctor, at least none mentioned in his books, manuscripts, letters and journals, all of which I had access to while writing my book. When Chessman first came to San Quentin, he was a scrawny, asthmatic, adenoidal and sickly “specimen.” Bouts of encephalitis and pneumonia had kept him bedridden for months at a time as a child and limited his interactions with other kids his age. But, under the programs put in place by wardens James Holohan and Clinton Duffy and partly overseen by Stanley, Chessman thrived, developing his mind and body. He took part in the annual Little Olympics Meet, which included such bizarre events as the 50-yard crawl and such entertainments as female impersonators. Lots of female impersonators, all from Leo Stanley’s person photo collection.

San Quentin crawl race
San Quentin crawl race
San Quentin drag show
San Quentin drag show
San Quentin drag show
San Quentin drag show

In addition to lifting weights, swimming, boxing, baseball and football, Chessman spent time helping around the Garden Beautiful. This verdant oasis, located in front of the hospital, was the prison’s showpiece and the pride and joy of Dr. Stanley, who was as renowned for his dahlias and roses in the old Garden Beautiful as he was for his nasal reconstruction surgery—nose jobs on the inmates.

Garden Beautiful. Courtesy of Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library
Garden Beautiful photo from ‘Men At Their Worst’ by Dr. Leo Stanley. Courtesy of Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library

Indeed, Stanley felt that a man’s perception of his own physical ugliness would lead to crime; thus he wanted to help remake their faces. He had some unusual theories about criminal pathology, insisting that syphilis, tuberculosis, cancer and “portwine stains” caused crime. He believed VD was the “chief contributor to mental disturbances” and called syphilis—which was rampant in the prison population—“Public Enemy Number One.” He conducted his experiments at the prison hospital, an impressive structure that, when built in 1885, was the first of its kind in an American prison. He also set up a TB ward, which had unfortunate consequences; his first wife contracted TB at the prison and died there.

The Clinic. Photo from ‘Men At Their Worst’ by Dr. Leo Stanley. Courtesy of Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library

In Men At Their Worst, Stanley describes the case of an inmate named “Wolf” whose face he changed: “I trimmed down the misshapen ears, readjusted the nasal bones, and smoothed the deep lines from the grotesque face…he was no longer the Wolf but the man he had been intended to be.”

After Wolf’s surgery produced such life-changing results, prisoners begged to be next on the operating table. Thus, Dr. Stanley’s role as Frankenstein-in-residence began with these seemingly benign plastic surgeries—operations paid for by California taxpayers, operations that these men would have otherwise never received. Word about Stanley’s surgeries got out beyond the prison walls, inspiring Jimmy Hatlo, in his widely syndicated comic strip They’ll Do It Every Time, to write, “Old Gyp the Blood was a hard-boiled Thug / With a face that was decidedly zero. / But he went to a jug where they ‘lifted’ his mug, / And now he’s a silver screen hero.”

From cosmetic surgeries, Stanley moved on to the body’s inner mechanisms. He was particularly enamored of “ductless” glands, such as the thyroid, pituitary, adrenal, ovaries, prostate and testes. One of his earliest successful gland operations was on a rage-aholic named Joe Stevens, who possessed an “overdeveloped thyroid gland.” Stanley removed the gland and Stevens, at least according to Stanley, became a model prisoner, no longer at the mercy of his sudden rages.

Likewise, Stanley promoted sterilization to the prisoners as a means to deter their criminal urges (never mentioning his real desire to take them out of the gene pool). The legal term for sterilization, according to the California statutes, was “asexualization,” a misnomer. He simply administered vasectomies, which do not “asexualize” recipients and are now common procedures. If a prisoner requested sterilization, Stanley happily obliged. He cites the case of “Bluebeard” Watson, one of the most notorious serial killers in California history. Watson, convicted of murdering seven of his alleged 22 wives, was physically deformed. As Stanley wrote, “The true hermaphrodite is rare in medical history, but Bluebeard Watson came close to being a bisexual monster.”

Dr. Stanley conducted an experiment on Watson that included sterilization (and probably castration). As a result, Watson was reportedly meek enough to become one of Stanley’s most trusted medical assistants for years at San Quentin (this, mind you, was a serial killer of women, an American Jack the Ripper). Watson was not executed, dying of natural causes at the prison.

Bluebeard Watson with a tame Linnet. Courtesy of Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library. Photo from ‘Men At Their Worst’ by Dr. Leo Stanley.

            The turning point for Stanley, however, was the case of Clarence “Buck” Kelly. Kelly was sent to San Quentin’s “Condemned Row” in 1928 for a series of murders he and two cronies committed in San Francisco under the sway of strong Prohibition liquor—earning them the nickname of the “terror bandits.” After his conviction, the 23-year-old Kelly was examined by Dr. Stanley, who deemed him “a perfect physical specimen.”

Perfect physical specimens were hard to come by at San Quentin. Starting in 1918, there were, on average, three hangings per year at the prison. The bodies not claimed by next of kin—a fairly common occurrence—were given to science. 

The Gallows.Courtesy of Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library
The Gallows. Courtesy of Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library. Photo from ‘Men At Their Worst’ by Dr. Leo Stanley.

After Buck Kelly learned he was to be executed for his crimes, he told Dr. Stanley he could take any part of his body he wanted, including his brain. Autopsies were routinely conducted on all executed prisoners at San Quentin and, since Stanley was also the prison coroner, he did the surgeries.

While performing the autopsy on Kelly, Stanley took him up on his offer…by surgically removing his testicles. For some reason, the autopsy of Kelly was turned into a public press event, and the journalists became curious about Kelly’s missing parts. One reporter discovered (by simply asking a few questions of the attention-loving Dr. Stanley), that he had been removing the testicles of every executed prisoner for as long as records dated back during his tenure at San Quentin. He believed that removing the testes was part of a great tradition dating back to ancient Greece, or as he put it in Men At Their Worst, “long before Biblical times.”

When the story about the mutilations appeared in the newspaper, the backlash against Dr. Stanley and San Quentin was swift and strong. Kelly’s family filed a lawsuit against the doctor and the prison. Stanley feared losing his job and his medical license. However, because of the goodwill he’d sewn over the years, Stanley was allowed to stay on and the lawsuit was dropped. But he learned a valuable lesson: Do not provide too much information to the press.

Clarence Buck Kelly. Courtesy of Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library. Photo from ‘Men At Their Worst’ by Dr. Leo Stanley.

What did Stanley do with all these severed parts?

He transplanted them into other prisoners, that’s what!

The first prisoner to receive the gift of a new set of nuts was a 72-year-old man who was thought to be senile. In 1918, Stanley implanted the testes of “a young Negro” into gramps’ nether regions, and the old feller was up and about in days, said to be “as lively as a young colt.”

Between 1918 and 1927, Dr. Stanley performed thirty similar operations, which he called “testicular implantations”. When he ran out of human testes, he began using the testes of rams, and he estimated that between the years 1918 and 1940, he had done 10,000 of these operations as well as a variation on the original operation that he called “glandular rejuvenation.”  

San Quentin operating room. Courtesy of Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library. Photo from ‘Men At Their Worst’ by Dr. Leo Stanley.

The latter was a procedure by which he hypodermically injected prisoners with ground up testicles. Joseph T. Hallinan described the procedure in Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation: “The exact procedure varied over time. In the early days testicles were removed from the scrotums of men who had just been executed—some of them so recently executed that their bodies were still warm. The testicles were then ground into a substance the consistency of toothpaste and injected with a syringe beneath the skin of the abdomen…. Demand for the testicular treatments at San Quentin soon outstripped supply. Typically, no more than five or six inmates a year were executed at the prison, yielding, on average, a testicle a month. Owing to this shortage of human material, Dr. Stanley began using the testes of rams, and later those of goats, boars, and even deer. Like the human testicles, these were shredded and injected into the abdomen wall of inmates.”

Stanley claimed that inmates benefited greatly from the treatments. They slept and ate better and became “toned up” and “more active and energetic.” Partly as a consequence, many inmates experienced a rejuvenated interest in and capacity for sexual relations. Stanley also claimed that his procedures had positive results with acne, diabetes, asthma and “general systemic weakness.”

Dr. Stanley’s work in this regard grew out of research by, among others, Dr. George Frank Lydston of Chicago, who claimed such treatments “negated criminal urges.” Stanley was also influenced by the experiments of Charles-Edouard Brown-Sequard, who in the mid-19th century worked out of the University of Virginia where he developed a technique for hypodermically injecting a fluid containing the testicle tissue of guinea pigs and dogs into men, to rejuvenate them. Stanley also kept up with the research of a quack named Serge Voronoff, a French surgeon renowned for a practice of grafting monkey testicles onto the testicles of men.

Serge Voronoff in 1920

After World War II, the eugenics movement lost all steam, largely because Hitler had taken it to its extremes. Stanley retired from San Quentin in 1951. He spent his remaining years as a doctor on cruise ships and riding horses on his large Marin County ranch. He died in 1976.

Largely ridiculed by medical historians, Dr. Stanley and his work nonetheless blazed the trail for one of the widest selling drugs in the world: Viagra. Indeed, without his work on the power of testosterone to rejuvenate the libidos of men, the breakthrough that has led to permanent erections may never have been found.