|"Jukes" ca 1910, by Arthur Estabrook|
In 1877, Richard L. Dugdale published a book called The Jukes: A Study of Crime, Pauperism, Disease and Heredity. He built on the work of his mentor, Elisha Harris, and in turn was cited by Francis Galton, in the 1883 book in which he coined the term eugenics.
Dugdale was a reformist, whose description of this degenerate clan pointed to their terrible environment as well as their familial relationship. But the story of the Jukes soon became a morality tale, often linked to Biblical verses (such as Exodus 20:5, Isaiah 65:7, and Jeremiah 16:11) about visiting the sins of the parents on future generations. The story was updated as The Jukes in 1915 by the eugenicist Arthur Estabrook, and became a staple of sermons around the country, often contrasted with the legend of the 18th-century theologian Jonathan Edwards. It influenced the promotion of involuntary state-sponsored sterilization in the U.S. and specifically the Supreme Court decision in Buck vs Bell, which legalized the practice.
Paul Lombardo recently published a masterful summary of this tale in the Journal of Legal Medicine. That's behind a paywall (abstract) but the essence is covered in a USA Today article by Dan Vergano:
"The story is incredibly hateful and lacking in compassion and false," says legal historian Paul Lombardo of Georgia State University in Atlanta. "The story of the Jukes is demonstrably false, and yet people keep repeating it, sometimes knowing it's false."
The standard narrative was debunked by Clarence Darrow in 1925, by Jacob Landman in 1932, and by others. For a start, the pseudonymous Jukes came from 42 families, not all connected. Said Darrow (quoted by Lombardo):
It is the story of the squalid section of every isolated, sterile, rural community and of every poverty-stricken city district.
But the myth of the Jukes would not disappear. In 1960 it remained so well known that the historian Theodore White could use it as shorthand for squalid corruption, and assume that his readers would know what he meant. And in 2000, the televangelist Marilyn Hickey helped to revive it again, and it's become a staple of many Christian websites, as Lombardo details. And this matters a lot, he explains:
Those who parrot the arguments of generational guilt and hereditary taint may be ignorant of their beginnings in eugenic mythologies formulated over a century ago and how they were used to support political campaigns that included the eugenic sterilization movement. But it is still true that contempt for the poor, the diseased, and the powerless remains a part of our current political landscape. And those who revive the parable of the Jukes today sound a clear echo of that most toxic strain of eugenic propaganda.
Lombardo has done us all a service by reminding us of this history. How important a service can be seen in the simplest and least argumentative comment on Vergano's USA Today piece:
Thanks for the article! I was totally unaware of any such laws. It's kind of frightening.
Previously on Biopolitical Times:
Posted in Eugenics, Human Rights, Media Coverage, Pete Shanks's Blog Posts, Reproductive Justice, Health & Rights, The States, US Federal
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