America’s Ugly ‘Ugly Laws’

May 4, 2022 0 comments

In the 1880s, you could be fined for being ugly in public. Ordinances across the United States disallowed anyone who was “diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object” for appearing in public places. These ‘ugly laws’ were as real as the American Civil War, and in fact came into circulation just as the war came knocking on the country’s doorstep. And they were no joke either; the laws were not just about morning puffiness or acne breakouts. They came with stringent definitions of ugliness that cut across social classes and economic statuses.

Three grotesque old men. Image credit: Wellcome Collection

In 19th century America, it was no secret that class and appearance went hand in hand. Some time in 1867, one of the first statutes of the ugly law was passed in San Francisco “To Prohibit Street Begging, And To Refrain Certain Persons From Appearing In Streets And Public Places.” During time of war and terror, authorities believed that horrible looking urchins would only become one more thing to be scared of. The streets were cleared through this law so that “a lady in delicate health” could roam around free of fear from deformed monstrosities that hung out by the nooks. Words such as ‘disgusting’, ‘unsightly’, ‘deformity’ and others did find their way into most ordinances across the States, but each statute had its own version that prohibited acts of begging and loitering for such ugly looking panhandlers. Such strained versions of the ugly laws were welcomed by the public. An article in the Chicago Tribune called the removal of unsightly beggars from the streets as a public benefit. But on the other hand, the public was in love with freak artists that kept them entertained at circuses. As industrial accidents ascended, a man without a finger was discerned as a seasoned worker who may have been the victim of an occupational hazard. In such a complex social milieu, how would the public respond to discriminatory laws against the defaced and deformed?

In 1881, James Peevey passed an ordinance through the Chicago City Council as an anti-beggar law against those who posed their “infirmities” to encourage donations of alms. A fine of $1 to $50 was imposed on any poor person who matched the criteria, and he or she was sent off to the Cook County Poorhouse. But he also mandated an exemption for maimed soldiers out of respect for war veterans. Over time, Peevey’s memo was widely debated and revised to include meticulous definitions of ugliness and prohibition which were then implemented as one of the most inhuman ugly laws. This included bans of jobs as well social discrimination for various groups of physically deformed persons. But by then it was common understanding that the law was not a blanket law against the deformed, but one only against those who could not support themselves monetarily. This sweeping of the economically backward disabled persons became the strongest undertone of these ordinances. The origin of the ugly law in Chicago is murky, but many have since then attributed it to Peevey’s outcry against the poor.

The chasm between the rich and poor, accepted and unaccepted, thus began to deepen. While the soldiers and the contemporary artists had a place in society, the jobless were being pushed further to its edge. In those days, the city board refused to accept a difference between those who begged because they were too lazy to work and those who begged because they could not find work. The general understanding was that nine out of ten such deformed beggars were thieves and liars who used their looks to earn money. By that definition, even tramps were soon included in the same conversation with disabled non-workers. In answer, the City Council decided to close all doors for all people who matched the description; they were banned from holding certain jobs and shunned from entering certain places. The belief was that if you could hold a job, you were worthy. If not, you were ugly. Industrial workers too were exempted from the law as long as they could find work and support themselves. However, the belief that a worker could not retain a job without undergoing rehabilitation for their ailment was not prevalent at the time. As a result, no concrete support was offered to such people and they were left to fend for themselves. For how long could a blind woman continue her work as a seamstress? The lines between anti-beggar legislations and the ugly laws were thus allowed to blur.

The general public had begun taking note of the railroad workers who lost a limb on site and the Relief and Aid Society was seen providing aid to those who with temporary assistance could get back on their feet. The underlying notion remained that if you could support yourself, you were worthy. If not, you were ugly. The laws thus applied to the public more on economic grounds than on appearance.

Only by the end of the first World War were sensitivities triggered. As soldiers thronged back deaf and blind or missing a limb, mentalities shifted towards acceptance of the disabled. This had been a long time coming, for over the course of the years even Civil War veterans had fought hard to receive disability pensions. The term ‘ugly laws’ was awarded to the cruel ordinances in 1975, both for the subject of their matter and for the horribleness of their effect. By 1974 the law had already been repealed. Persons with disabilities were gradually offered more accessibility, and in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in a more woke United States.

References:
# Ugly Laws
# The Ugly History of Chicago’s Ugly Laws
# Diseased, Maimed, Mutilated: Categorizations Of Disability And An Ugly Law In Late Nineteenth-Century Chicago
# Chicago Tribune

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