The article places Chicago's "ugly" law—an 1881 municipal ordinance that fined "any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object" for appearing in public—within the context of late nineteenth-century imaginings of disability. Drawing on the framework of disability studies, this paper demonstrates that nineteenth-century understandings of disability had little to do with the impairments of individuals but instead were tied to the status of the person with the disability. Examining the role of disabled people as workers, as bodies and as charity recipients reveals the hierarchies of disability in late nineteenth-century Chicago and demonstrates who the ugly law intended to restrict and, just as importantly, who it did not. While the law appears to be a blanket indictment of all physically disabled people, multiple sources indicate that the public expected disabled veterans, workers, and freak show performers to occupy the public realm; they therefore cannot be the intended objects of the ordinance. Instead, Chicago's ugly law was one of many pieces of legislation enacted in the wake of the panic of 1873 that attempted to eradicate street begging in general by specifically targeting beggars with disabilities.


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 23-37
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.