The Ugly Laws: Disability In Public

Picture of a woman with a sign saying "blind" hanging from her neck
The Ugly Laws

The Ugly Laws: Disability In Public, by Susan M. Schweik is, according to the author herself in the book’s introduction, “about American ways of identifying, representing, knowing, correcting, and disciplining the ‘unsightly beggar.'” More specifically, this is a thoroughly researched examination of the history, politics and consequences of the “unsightly beggar” laws passed by many American cities during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These municipal laws essentially made it illegal for a person to profit from exposing their “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or…deformed” body in public. Schweik refers to these prohibitions as “ugly laws,” a phrase she borrows from disability law expert Robert Burgdorf Jr. to both explain what the “unsightly beggar” laws did (criminalized “ugliness”, or disability, in public) and for what the laws are (an ugly part of American history).

Schweik traces the first ugly law to San Francisco in 1867. San Francisco’s ordinance, which was contained in a larger prohibition on begging in general, stated that “[a]ny person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, or an improper person to be allowed in or on the streets, highways, thoroughfares or public places in the City or County of San Francisco” was not allowed to “expose himself or herself to public view” or would “be deemed guilty of a misdemeanour; and…punished by a fine…or by imprisonment in the county jail.”

In the ensuing years, cities across the country, and even some U.S. territories abroad, passed almost identically worded ordinances. Schweik discusses in detail several factors which combined to create the perfect storm for the emergence of ugly law in America at this time. These include: the formation of Charity Organization Societies, the rise or eugenics and state institutions, an increasing focus on using urban planning to create beautiful cities, increasing immigration at a time when there were few restrictions placed on immigration, the large number of soldiers injured in the Civil War which had ended just a few years earlier, temperance and prohibition, and the increasing industrialization of society with resulting industrial-related injuries.

Municipalities stopped passing ugly laws by the start of World War I, but these laws stayed on the books for decades after. Schweik found that the last known arrest under an ugly law occurred in Omaha, NE in 1974 when a policeman wanted to arrest a homeless man but had no basis for arrest. After searching the city code and finding that Omaha’s Ugly Law was still on the books he was able to take the man into custody on the basis that the man had “marks and scars on his body.” Prosecutors refused to press charges in this case. Schweik recounts one prosecutor pointing out that “criminal prosecution under this law would require the impossible: courtroom proof “that someone is ugly.”

The depth into which Schweik goes in probing the causes and consequences of these ordinances is impressive. For example, in one section of her book where she examines the idea of the “sham cripple”, she notes that advocates of ugly law all seemed to share the erroneous idea that every unsightly beggar was faking their disability. Rather than simply pointing out the obvious error of this belief she goes deeper, spending an entire section of the book taking “imposter beggars seriously, writing a history of their presence on the streets of major U.S. cities…, tracing their specific impact on urban geography, and speculating on their relations to the “real cripples” who also performed unsightly disability as a begging ritual.” Another example of the depth of Schweik’s probing can be found in the fact that she devotes the entire middle section of her book to the discussion of the intersection of ugly law with gender, sexuality, immigration, ethnicity, race and segregation. As she points out ugly laws cannot be read in isolation, but rather should be examined in “their historical relation to the policing of gender and sexual transgression; to nativism, anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant legislation; and to state-imposed racial segregation.” While tedious to read at times, her in depth discussion of these topics provides the reader a much broader understanding of ugly laws.

Overall, I am glad I read this book though I would not describe it as an easy or always enjoyable read. It is so dense, each paragraph packed with information and references to the work of other authors, that I often had to put it down after reading a few pages in order to digest what I had just read. I also had to keep a dictionary handy while reading to look up the many unfamiliar words I encountered. All of this to say that reading this book felt like quite an undertaking. However, in the end, it felt like a very worthwhile undertaking. It is impossible to read this book and not be impressed with what Schweik has accomplished. I was blown away by the amount of research that must have gone into writing this book. Her sources are many and varied and it is hard not to think about the hours and hours she must have spent finding and combing obscure sources and then synthesizing this information for the reader. While not necessarily for the casual reader, I think disability historians, lawyers and activists will likely all be appreciative of what Schweik has put together in one place in Ugly Laws: Disability in Public.