Auer Ave. Honors Eugenics Champion
Louis Auer did all he could to promote more births by the “superior” races.
Louis Auer, Jr. was born in Milwaukee in 1857 to immigrants from Baden, Germany. His father, Louis Sr., was an alderman, a county supervisor, and school commissioner before his death in 1882. Father and son were in a very successful insurance and real estate business that Louis Jr. took over when his father died. Auer was later a general in the Wisconsin National Guard and a member of the Park Commission. He bought only Milwaukee-made products if there was a choice and he encouraged others to do the same.
Auer’s name was linked romantically to a New York actress in the press in 1894, however she married someone else. In 1896, he married another New York actress, Jane Stuart, whose real name was Jane Holohan, the daughter of wealthy parents. Eighteen years younger than Auer, she was described as a typical Irish beauty with black hair and blue eyes.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, eugenics became an issue internationally. In the United States, the belief that certain groups or populations had better genes than others was accepted by some members of the dominant Anglo-Saxon citizenry. Of course, in their eyes, they were the ones with the superior DNA. President Theodore Roosevelt was afraid this group was eventually going to lose its grip on the country due to “race suicide.” He felt that as the number of children born to descendants of English immigrants declined, that “race” would eventually die out, in part due to birth control. The other part was the massive increase in immigration to the United States. The incoming Italians, Polish, Slovaks, Hungarians, and others were considered people with lower quality DNA and the fear was that they would eventually outnumber those who had better genes. To make matters worse, the newcomers were mostly Catholics and did not use birth control, resulting in larger families.
So to rectify the situation, in 1905 Auer built apartments in what was then a German neighborhood in a block bordered by W. State Street and W. Highland Avenue and N. 14th and N. 15th Streets. The apartment floors were soundproofed so neighbors would not complain of children making too much noise. The complex included courtyards and playgrounds for the children and Auer advertised his desire to rent to families. He also promised free rent during the month a baby was born in one of his flats, earning him the title “The Baby Flat Landlord.”
A year later, Auer had given seven months free rent for the seven babies born in his nearly 200-apartment complex, his contribution to preventing “race suicide.” Auer was so pleased with the results that he decided he could do even more by playing matchmaker. He announced plans to increase the birth rate even more by building a huge apartment that would help to promote matrimony among those of the proper “racial” background. The apartments in one wing would be rented to bachelors and the other wing to what he called “bachelor maids.” The wings would be separated by apartments occupied by married couples and they would act as chaperones to prevent any hanky-panky in the singles’ wings. Auer hoped that marriages would ensue and he promised that he would give a month’s free rent to any couple from his building who tied the knot.
The wealthy Auer and his wife had five children, but to the average urban wage earner, siring five to seven offspring was the road to poverty and its related social ills. Consequently, Auer had very little effect on combating “race suicide” before his death in 1910. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery.
Auer’s flats have since been replaced by newer buildings including the more recent Auer Court Apartments.
Auer named Auer Avenue as part of Auer and Richter’s Subdivision in the Riverwest neighborhood in 1888. Today the predominantly residential street crosses the city, with interruptions, from N. Gordon Place in Riverwest on the east to N. Menomonee River Parkway on the west, a stretch of some 12 miles. It’s safe to say there’s a wide variety of genetic types and family sizes living along the street named after Auer.
Carl Baehr, a Milwaukee native, is the author of Milwaukee Streets: The Stories Behind their Names, and articles on local history topics. He has done extensive historic research for his upcoming book, Dreams and Disasters: A History of the Irish in Milwaukee. Baehr, a professional genealogist and historical researcher, gives talks on these subjects and on researching Catholic sacramental record