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The Ugly Laws

Disability in Public

Susan Schweik

Publication Year: 2009

In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, municipallaws targeting "unsightly beggars" sprang up in cities across America. Seeming to criminalize disability and thus offering a visceral example of discrimination, these “ugly laws” have become a sort of shorthand for oppression in disability studies, law, and the arts.

In this watershed study of the ugly laws, Susan M. Schweik uncovers the murky history behind the laws, situating the varied legislation in its historical context and exploring in detail what the laws meant. Illustrating how the laws join the history of the disabled and the poor, Schweik not only gives the reader a deeper understanding of the ugly laws and the cities where they were generated, she locates the laws at a crucial intersection of evolving and unstable concepts of race, nation, sex, class, and gender. Moreover, she explores the history of resistance to the ordinances, using the often harrowing life stories of those most affected by their passage. Moving to the laws' more recent history, Schweik analyzes the shifting cultural memory of the ugly laws, examining how they have been used—and misused—by academics, activists, artists, lawyers, and legislators.

Published by: NYU Press


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p. v

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pp. vii-viii

This book had its start during a talk at UC Berkeley by Tobin Siebers, the well-known scholar in (among other things) literary disability studies. I work as an English professor at Berkeley, where I have been one of a group of scholars actively involved in developing an interdisciplinary disability studies program. We had invited Tobin to speak, and during...

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pp. ix-xii

My first thanks go to Carolyn Dinshaw and Janet Adelman, both of whom gave me encouragement at the earliest stages of this book. Lennard Davis and Simi Linton introduced me to disability studies when I came upon the bibliography they compiled for Radical Teacher in 1995, and they have been teaching me ever since. I owe Rosemarie...

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pp. 1-20

In Cleveland, Ohio, sometime before 1916, the man whose photograph is on the facing page lost his job. He stands smiling in the photo, wearing white tie and newsboy’s cap, holding a stack of papers, a young man with clubbed hands and feet and a steady, confident gaze into the camera’s eye. A 1916 report by the “Committee on Cripples...


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1. Producing the Unsightly

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pp. 23-39

The choice of “ugly law” stemmed, that is, not only from a deliberate political, rhetorical strategy but also from an analytic principle: some versions of the law, understood as ur versions of the core of the law, “were not limited to beggars.” “Ugly” was therefore “an accurate characterization.” And yet, at the same time, for at least some of the...

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2. Getting Ugly

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pp. 40-62

The ugly laws, as San Francisco’s example shows, predated “charity organization,” but Charity Organization Society activities led to a proliferation of unsightly beggar ordinances in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. To a significant extent, it is where the charity organizer meets the tramp that the seeds of the ugly law...

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3. The Law in Context

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pp. 63-84

Most if not all of the problems that civic leaders associated with unsightly persons—begging, vagrancy, contagion, sidewalk obstruction, and so on—were already forbidden by other laws in these cities (laws often used, even after the advent of the ugly laws, to arrest disabled people on the street). Supplementing those existing...

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4. The Law in Language

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pp. 85-107

“Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, or an improper person”: this person is made out of words. To start with, this person is made out of the word “person” (with the “any” signaling the broad and arbitrary reach of the law in question): a legal word, rich...

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5. Dissimulations

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pp. 108-137

The above illustration by Thomas Knox from Helen Campbell’s Darkness and Daylight; Lights and Shadows of New York Life is meant to clinch the case. Like other chroniclers of contrast, “sunlight and shadow,” “daylight and gaslight” in the large American cities of the 1890s, these two muck-and- salvation-mongers paint a picture...


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6. Gender, Sexuality, and the Ugly Law

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pp. 141-164

The figure that was policed by the ugly law begged at many intersections.1 In the story of the unsightly beggar ordinances the relation between something we now call “disability” and something we call “class” was not additive but deeply connective; identities and experiences of unsightly beggars took shape within a complex web...

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7. Immigration, Ethnicity, and the Ugly Law

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pp. 165-183

Manifest deformity posed a supposed threat not only to notions of gender and conventional sexuality but also to notions of American national integrity. Massive immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries meant an upsurge in the ranks of people who, as Welke puts it, “had nowhere to turn when they found...

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8. Race, Segregation, and the Ugly Law

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pp. 184-204

Three strands of legal discourse defining forms of what Anthony Paul Farley has called “nobodyness” intertwine with the ragged edges of ugly law. The first concerns prohibition of prostitution and indecency. The second involves control of immigration. The third we traditionally associate with race. The ugly laws are part of the story...


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9. The Right to the City

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pp. 207-229

At the dramatic climax of Belluso’s biographical play The Body of Bourne (2003), Belluso’s forebear, disabled writer Randolph Bourne, openly challenges Chicago’s ugly law. From the outset of Belluso’s play, Bourne has grappled with his relation to the categories policed by the unsightly beggar ordinance. The actual historical figure...

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10. Rehabilitating the Unsightly

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pp. 230-254

In this drawing, “designed and executed,” we are told in an accompanying note, “by a professional cartoonist and advertising expert who has had no use of his right arm,” disability literally meets the world. A well-dressed white man on crutches, on his way uphill to the mountains of Success, is greeted by a natty, beaming globe with a...

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11. All about Ugly Laws (for Ten Cents)

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pp. 255-278

Long before the Burgdorfs remembered the unsightly beggar ordinances for the disability rights movement in their landmark 1975 essay, unsightly beggars themselves wrote and printed their own histories of unequal treatment. You can find a cache of these forgotten texts (collected by Marc Selvaggio) at Harvard’s Countway Library...

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pp. 279-290

On October 18, 1973, after nearly a century, the Chicago Tribune once again turned its attention to the ugly law. The article was titled in no uncertain terms: “A Law That’s an Offense.” “Repeal was urged yesterday,” reported Edward Schreiber...

Appendix: The Ugly Laws

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pp. 291-296


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pp. 297-350


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pp. 351-404


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pp. 405-429

About the Author

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p. 431

E-ISBN-13: 9780814708873
E-ISBN-10: 0814708870
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814740576
Print-ISBN-10: 081474057X

Page Count: 448
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 646824799
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Ugly Laws

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Discrimination against people with disabilities -- Law and legislation -- United States -- History.
  • Beggars -- United States -- History.
  • People with disabilities -- United States -- History.
  • Beggars -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- United States -- History.
  • People with disabilities -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- United States -- History.
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