When the Fox Movietone News production staff pulled up outside the home of Carl and Sadie Morlok on Lansing’s east side in September 1930 to film the couple’s quadruplet daughters, the event was featured on the front page of the Lansing State Journal.
The children’s birth four months earlier had become international news due to its rarity: four identical children born from a single egg. Scientists calculated the odds as 20 million to one.
From the day they were born, the Morlok quadruplets were bombarded with media coverage. Even the naming of the girls was a publicity stunt, with the State Journal sponsoring a naming contest. It received more than 12,000 entries, including the typical rhyming schemes, but the 10-year-old daughter of the doctor who delivered the babies ultimately won the honor of naming them Edna, Wilma, Sarah and Helen. The names were inspired by the initials of where they were born: E.W. Sparrow Hospital.
The Morlok family was immediately bombarded with presents from community members and businesses. The city of Lansing provided the family with a rent-free home for a year. They received cash gifts, food and handmade matching outfits for the girls, and a carriage company provided them with a four-seat stroller, which is in storage at the Michigan History Museum.
Based on the family’s fame, Carl Morlok would later be elected Lansing’s justice of the peace, a post he would hold for three decades.
In her memoir, “The Morlok Quadruplets: The Alphabet Sisters,” Sarah Morlok Cotton, 93, the only living quadruplet, writes that her parents put a sign on the front porch advertising that for 25 cents, visitors could view the children. It was a sideshow that would continue for years.
The birth of the quadruplets couldn’t have come at a better time, with the United States entering the depth of the Great Depression. Everyone needed cheering up.
The girls’ every move was documented by the media, from their first day of school to dance classes at the Virgiline Simmons School of Dance to “doing their bit for Uncle Sam” during World War II.
But not all was well behind the closed doors of the children’s home. Their father was an admirer of Adolph Hitler, a tyrant, a drunk and a womanizer.
Early on, two of the girls were circumcised to prevent excessive masturbation. As they entered puberty, their father would squeeze their breasts and buttocks to see how they would react, telling them this was what boys would do to them on dates. Their mother was passive and complicit in the abuse.
In today’s world, the parents would likely be facing a court case.
But how do we know all this?
As the girls aged, symptoms of schizophrenia began to emerge, and they were all diagnosed with the mental illness, of which little was known.
Because of their unique situation and schizophrenia diagnoses, the girls were selected by the National Institute of Mental Health for further study, especially relating to the nature-versus-nurture concept of personality, which explores the influence of both genetics and environment on a person’s development.
When he found out the girls, now 24 and still living at home, would be treated for free, Carl Morlok jumped at the opportunity to have them relocated to the institute’s campus in Baltimore. The girls resided on the campus for three years, from 1955 to 1958, where they were observed by more than 45 practitioners and staff members who recorded their every move and interaction. In addition, the institute sent researchers to Lansing to interview the girls’ parents, friends, teachers and other community members.
Each of the girls had different experiences during their three years at the institute. Only Sarah appeared to show signs of recovery. Afterward, she stayed in the Baltimore-Washington area, working various secretarial jobs. The other three sisters returned to Lansing to live with their mother but were soon institutionalized at Northville Psychiatric Hospital.
The lead researcher on the girls’ case, David Rosenthal, took great interest in the case study and would regularly visit the girls in Lansing and call them on the phone after the study had concluded.
In 1963, the landmark study “The Genain Quadruplets: A Case Study and Theoretical Analysis of Heredity and Environment in Schizophrenia” was published in book form, edited by Rosenthal. For privacy, Rosenthal chose the pseudonymous name Genain in place of Morlok, which came from the Greek words “genos” and “ainos” and means “dire birth.” The study was well received among insiders doing research on mental illness, but it mostly languished on the shelf until Pennsylvania author and educator Audrey Clare Farley discovered it in 2020.
Farley said her mother had just read “Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family,” by Robert Kolker, which details the research into a family of 10 boys, six with schizophrenia. The book mentions the National Institute of Mental Health study on the Morlok quadruplets, and Farley’s mother thought it would be a good idea for a novel.
Farley listened to her mother. She writes, “After hanging up, I googled ‘Genain quadruplets’ and … I was intrigued enough to spend $300 on Rosenthal’s now-out-of-print book, a few pages into which I knew that my mother had been right.”
“I was quickly sucked in and began working on a book proposal,” Farley said. “I assumed all the girls were dead, but when I began Googling, I discovered a birthday party had been held at Sarah’s retirement community. I knew about her son David and sent him a message on Facebook. When he got back to me, he was comfortable with the book idea and was on board right away. He wanted the truth to come out.”
Farley got Sarah’s blessing, too, and traveled to Michigan to visit her.
“I told her it was not going to be a book that repeats the puff pieces of previous work, and she agreed to cooperate,” Farley said. “Sarah was very forthright, and she trusted me, so we continued our conversations.”
Farley, who covers the intersections of religion, sexuality, eugenics and mental illness, has published extensive work in magazines and is the author of the true-crime novel “The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt.” Cooper Hewitt ended up suing her mother for a procedure that was done to her under the guise of being “oversexed,” Farley said. In reality, it may have been simply to secure a larger inheritance for her mother. Under the will, Cooper Hewitt would receive two-thirds of the estate only if she had children.
Undeniably, some of the topics in Farley’s books and articles are very dark.
“I got interested in these topics because I grew up in a traditional Catholic home that emphasized sexual purity,” she said. “This belief actually hypersexualized girls, reducing them to virginity. The purity culture also got caught up in the racial purity movement and the mixing of races.”
For the Morlok novel, Farley immediately began reviewing medical records and scientific reports, but she also began talking with David Cotton in Plymouth, Michigan. She later began having conversations with Sarah, and the two developed a friendship.
The information Farley has included in her new book, “Girls and Their Monsters: The Genain Quadruplets and the Making of Madness in America,” is frightening, to say the least. She writes that the National Institute of Mental Health study reveals “the little clapboard two-story to be a house of horrors.” (Farley will join me to discuss the book 7 p.m. Thursday (Oct. 12) at the Library of Michigan.)
As the Morlok quadruplets grew up, all four developed schizophrenia to varying degrees. They were in and out of institutions and halfway houses and, except for Sarah, they all required intensive care. Even though Sarah was the only one to marry and have children, she also had bouts of the illness that left her diminished for a time.
Farley said their vulnerability led them to be sexually attacked and harassed in their workplaces and neighborhood. She writes about the limitations of the National Institute of Mental Health study, saying, “For all their contributions to scientific literature, the NIMH researchers will leave some parts of the story untold. If the quadruplets’ home was a mire of threats, so was the wider society in which they lived. There was danger all around.”
Farley also believes the girls became limited by early expectations that they would become child stars. For a while, they toured as a group, singing and dancing in lookalike outfits. They often shared bills with black-faced minstrel groups at performance venues like the Chesaning Showboat.
The author said that when it came time to write the book, she faced a couple of challenges.
“I was always afraid that even if Sarah gave her blessing, the book would be hard for her to read,” she said. “Also, there’s not much of a happy ending — there’s no justice, but Sarah continues to have a beautiful relationship with her son David.”
Farley also uses her book to elucidate the disparity in how African Americans were treated by the mental health system. She details how Malcolm X, who shares a birthday with the quadruplets and whose time in Lansing overlapped with the Morloks, was given a preliminary diagnosis of pre-psychotic paranoid schizophrenia, and his mother, Louise Little, was institutionalized at what’s now the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital for 24 years under the guise of paranoia. Farley points out how different the treatment was for the two families.
Farley adds that for far too long, the mental health system saw family dysfunction as the mother’s problem and overlooked the role of the patriarch, which is obvious in the analysis of the Morlok family.
The National Institute of Mental Health report also disproved the myth of the “happy-go-lucky girls at school,” describing tales of bullying, fights and behavioral problems. The girls’ father was overly protective, often not allowing them to socialize or date. In middle school, as the girls’ mental health began to deteriorate, Helen was locked up in the house, the same year Sadie Morlok was named Lansing’s mother of the year.
Just before Edna turned 21, she quit her job at Lansing City Hall. She was the first quadruplet to be institutionalized, receiving numerous rounds of electro-shock therapy. A year later, Wilma was diagnosed with schizophrenia, then Sarah. In 1954, Helen was the last to be diagnosed.
“I lean toward the nurture concept of schizophrenia and believe that Sarah was the most resilient because she was the best treated and had extensive psychotherapy while at the National Institute of Mental Health,” Farley said.
The author also details how three of the quadruplets were sexually assaulted and all of them were sexually harassed in an era when family, workplaces and the legal system looked the other way.
In a recent episode of her podcast, “Violent Ends,” Jenn Carpenter, owner of Deadtime Stories in REO Town, graphically describes Carl Morlok’s aberrant activities with his spouse, children and hired nannies.
She says she was shocked that local newspapers didn’t print anything negative about the Morloks until the ‘90s.
Another lesson that can be taken from Farley’s history of the Morlok quadruplets is that history as we know it isn’t perfect, and it’s easy to become cheerleaders without knowing all the facts.
“The public’s admiration of them was conditional. ‘If we do this, expect us to drop by and see them’ was their attitude,” Farley said.
She also said she believes the local media was aware of the girls’ mental condition since the National Institute of Mental Health had requested all the newspaper clippings for review.
“However, the show went on,” she said. She writes, “From the day they were born, the Morlok quadruplets belonged to other people … It was as if they considered the family to be some sort of carnival show.”
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