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From the mid-1700s until the 1970s, countries and individual cities had unsightly beggar ordinances known colloquially as ugly laws.[1] These laws deemed it illegal for "any person, who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or deformed in any way, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, to expose himself or herself to public view."[1] Exceptions to public exposure were acceptable only if the people were subjects of demonstration, to illustrate the separation of disabled from nondisabled and their need for reformation.[2]

The Charity Organization Society suggested that the best charity relief would be to investigate and counsel the people needing assistance instead of provide them with material relief.[3] This created conflict in people between their desire to be good Christians and good citizens when seeing people in need of assistance.[2] It was suggested that the beggars imposed guilt upon people in this way.[2] "Pauperism is a disease upon the community, a sore upon the body politic, and being a disease, it must be, as far as possible, removed, and the curative purpose must be behind all our thought and effort for the pauper class."[3] Similar to what Slocum said, other authors suggested that giving charity to beggars without knowing what was to be done with the funds, was as "culpable as one who fires a gun into a crowd".[4]

In the mid-1970s, disability activists and authors, Marcia Pearce Burgdorf and Robert Burgdorf, Jr. created the term ugly laws.[2] While the wording of the laws and ordinances did not contain the term 'ugly', this term encompasses the essence of the laws and ordinances and is used to identify this type of law or ordinance.[2]

YouTube Encyclopedic

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  • ✪ Why Was It Illegal to be “Ugly”?


Thanks to CuriosityStream for supporting PBS Digital Studios. Did you know it used to be illegal to be “ugly”? And that these laws help lead to Freak Shows? From the 1860s and into the 20th century many cities across the US had so called “Ugly Laws” and if you were accused of violating them then you could, in fact, be arrested for “ugliness.” But these codes weren’t intended to judge people based on attractiveness (like a 19th century Tinder), but actually a method of legal discrimination designed to keep people who were differently abled, injured, destitute, or any combination of these categories off of the streets and out of sight. And although we think we’ve come a long way, the last case involving an ugly law was in 1974, only 16 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law. Yikes. So how did this all arise? Well our first question needs to be: What are “Ugly Laws” and when were they first passed? In her book, The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public, Susan Schweik traces the earliest history of these laws in the US to 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War. In San Francisco, a former Union soldier named Martin Oates was arrested, and then written about in the San Francisco Morning Call which reported him as "a half demented fellow, named Martin Oates,” who had “been stricken down with paralysis, leaving him a perfect wreck.” Schweik then notes that Oates was arrested and taken into custody while San Francisco awaited the completion of its almshouse, or a place designed to charitably take in the poor and destitute. The law that was used to arrest Oates had been passed a few weeks earlier and called for people who were “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed” to be removed from the streets or to be otherwise kept from public view and prohibited from begging. But if you’re not allowed to be seen outside, then how can you get a job? And if you can’t get a job, then how could you survive? This was essentially the equivalent of a legal catch 22. So that brings us to our second question: Was there any way around this employment discrimination? One of the weird loopholes of the ugly laws employment restrictions was that a person could get around them if they had a disability and were shown in public as part of a “demonstration.” In her article “Disability and the Circus” Professor Rachel Adams notes that while “ugly laws” prevented people with signs of visible difference from being seen in public, which limited the kinds of jobs they could hold, sideshows were often ways for people to make money to survive in the absence of a well sustained and corruption-free social safety net. But these shows were frequently dehumanizing for the performers, and not every performer was treated well or fairly compensated in the 19th century or early 20th century. So we have a basic rundown on when these laws started to spring up and how they affected people but our next question is: Why were they getting passed? Although the law made its first appearances in the US in 1867, Schweik traces these instances all over the country, and each one seems to have language that is worse than the last. And between 1880 and the 19 teens, cities and states across the country passed similar laws, including Chicago, Portland, Denver, Lincoln, Omaha, Reno, Columbus Ohio, and the state of Pennsylvania. And New York and Los Angeles both attempted to pass ugly laws, even though they were ultimately unsuccessful. The period when we seek the spike in Ugly Laws and anti-beggary laws overlaps closely with the period in US history known as the Progressive Era, which spanned from around 1890 through the 1920s. And Ugly Laws arise as the result of local governments trying to force people into newly constructed almshouses and sanitariums. The Progressive Era was a marked by a push for greater social reform and anti-corruption laws to combat the down sides of the Industrial Revolution, including poor health, urban poverty, and rapid overpopulation in big cities. Sounds almost too good to be true, right? Well that’s because in a lot of ways it was. Even though many Progressives wanted to fight government corruptions, many of the almshouses and sanitariums that sprung up around this time were also rife with corruption of their own. And lots of Ugly Laws sprung up as an excuse to arrest people and then move them into almshouses or to barr those who wouldn’t or couldn’t go to almshouses and sanitariums from going outside. And although enactment of these laws appears to have waned around World War I, the last time an ugly law was used as a reason to arrest someone came in 1974 in Omaha, Nebraska, when a police officer wanted to arrest a homeless man and found the old law was still on the books. Unsurprisingly this didn’t go down too well with the prosecutors who declined to throw the metaphorical book at someone for an outdated law. But, after decades of political pressure and organization by disability rights activists, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was signed into law by former President George H.W. Bush. Modelled after other laws that sought to guarantee the right to public space and access to equal opportunity to all citizens (such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964) the ADA’s purpose is to ensure that citizens with disabilities can have equal employment opportunities, fair access to government services and programs, and that public spaces provide them with reasonable accommodations. And even after the ADA was passed in 1990, there’s still valuable work being done by disability rights activists today to guarantee that all Americans continue to have increased access to civil rights and all forms of public space. So how does it all add up? Well although the ugly laws have a colloquial name that makes them sound more like fiction than fact to a modern viewers, they existed not so long ago and were designed as a form of discrimination against a pretty wide range of people in the late 19th and early 20th century. And although new “ugly laws” stopped getting written around World War 1, and were rarely enforced after that point, they remained on the books in US cities like Omaha and Chicago until 1974 before they were officially repealed. So while this may seem like very far back history it’s actually more recent than you’d think. So ugly laws: kind of funny name, not so funny history. So what do you think? Anything to add on why these relatively widespread laws aren’t well-known today? Let me know down in the comments, be sure to follow Origin of Everything on Facebook, Youtube, and Instagram, and we’ll see you next week! Thank you to CuriosityStream for supporting PBS Digital Studios. CuriosityStream is a subscription streaming service that offers documentaries and non-fiction titles from a variety of filmmakers, including CuriosityStream originals. For instance, CuriosityStream has “Viruses: Destruction and Creation” a short documentary on the science behind viruses and how they spread. You can learn more at slash origin and use the code origin during the sign-up process. Hey guys! Thanks for all of your comments and questions on our episode on the Jesus’ name being a transliteration of Joshua! Here’s what a few of you had to say! David Shi on Youtube pointed out that Henry Liddell (the classics scholar from the 19th century whose work I cited last week) was also the father of Alice Liddell. Alice is probably most famously known as the namesake of Lewis Carroll’s children’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Thanks for the fun fact David! Lizette Pasohondo on Facebook pointed out that while she never thought that Christ was Jesus’ last name, she did used to think that it was his middle name when she was a child. That’s pretty funny since when I was younger, I only heard people say “Jesus H. Christ” when they were annoyed and assumed that his middle name was “H”. Thanks for watching and for sharing in the middle name debate Lizette! Hoop Jeanne on Youtube has another fan pick for an episode on why the creation of peanut butter is (maybe falsely) attributed to George Washington Carver. This is also a good topic since I love peanut butter and researching stuff, and this may give me the chance to unite my two greatest loves. Thanks Hoop Jeanne aka “Hoop Jeanne it is” (just throwing out a new username suggestion for ya)! So that’s it for now and we’ll see you next week!


Ugly Laws of the Philippines

In 1902, an ugly law similar to that of the United States was enacted in the City of Manila in the Philippines.[2] This law was similar to those of the United States, being written in English and during a time when Manila was under American control, and included the common phrasing "no person who is diseased".[2] This was one of the first ordinances to be written under American control.[2] Other ordinances dealt with hygiene reform and considered unsightly beggars part of this indicative.[2]

Ugly Laws of the United Kingdom

In 1729 punishment was recommended for people with physical disabilities, whether they were born with disabilities or acquired later in life, who appeared in public.[2] These concepts were covered by what were colloquially known as unsightly beggar ordinances.

As recently as 2004 in Camden, a beggar with a wound on his neck was charged with an Anti-Social Behavior Order. This barred him from re-entering the town.[2]

Ugly Laws of the United States

From the late 1800s until the 1970s, some American cities had unsightly beggar ordinances known colloquially as ugly laws.[1] These laws deemed it illegal for "any person, who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or deformed in any way, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, to expose himself or herself to public view."[1]


Americans' sense of individualism places the responsibility for personal needs with each individual.[2] American individualism coupled with the assumption that disability is associated with lower socioeconomic status and race plus the failure of the Americans to develop a comprehensive universal healthcare and welfare system led to the development of the ugly laws.[2]

Ugly laws arose in the late nineteenth century in the United States. During this period, urban spaces underwent an influx of new residents, which placed strain on the existing communities. The new residents were sometimes impoverished. This meant large numbers of people who were strangers to each other now occupied closer quarters than they had in small towns, where such local institutions as schools, families, and churches helped moderate social relations.[5][6] As a reaction to this influx of people who were impoverished, ministers, charitable organizers, city planners, and city officials across the United States worked to create ugly laws for their community.[1]

The language of the unsightly beggar ordinances pertained to hiding the parts of the person that may appear disabled or diseased.[2] This includes any movements that would indicate a disability or disease, like limping.[2]

The first American ordinance pertaining to preventing people with disabilities from appearing in public was one passed in 1867 in San Francisco, California.[2] This ordinance had to do with the broader topic of begging.[2] It is noted that people who were perhaps in need of money traveled to California to "strike it rich" during the California Gold Rush.[2] When they did not find themselves wealthy, they remained in California. Letters and documents from the period just after the California Gold Rush note the large number of "insane" people wandering the streets.[2][7][8] Helper (1948) even refers to the "insane" people as "pitible nuisance" and remarked that they were allowed in public with no one to care for them.[8]

New Orleans, Louisiana had a similar law police were strictly enforcing in 1883.[2] A New Orleans newspaper reported on the City adopting a tough stance on begging as other cities in the United States had.[2]

Portland, Oregon enacted an ugly law in 1881.[9]

The Chicago ordinance of 1881 read as follows:

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 to be allowed in or on the streets, highways, thoroughfares, or public places in the city, shall not therein or thereon expose himself or herself to public view, under the penalty of a fine of $1 for each offense (Chicago City Code 1881)[2]

The fine of $1 equates to more than $20 in 2018. In most cities, punishments for violating an ugly law ranged from incarceration to fines of up to $50 for each offense.

In May 1881, the unsightly beggar ordinance went into effect in Chicago, Illinois. It was created by Chicago alderman James Peevey.[2] Peevey is quoted in the Chicago Tribune from May 19, 1881 saying of the ordinance, "Its object is to abolish all street obstructions."[2] Ugly laws identified groups of people as disturbing the flow of public life and banned them from public spaces. Such people, deemed "unsightly" or "unseemly," were usually impoverished and often beggars. Thus ugly laws were methods by which lawmakers attempted to remove the poor from sight.[2]

Laws similar to the one in Chicago followed in Denver, Colorado and Lincoln, Nebraska in 1889. At some time from 1881 to 1890 an ugly law was enacted in Omaha, Nebraska.[9] Additionally, ugly laws were sparked by the Panic of 1893.[2] These included Columbus, Ohio in 1894, and in 1891 for the entire state of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania's was different as it contained language applying to cognitive disability as well as physical disability.[2] An attempt was made at introducing ugly laws in New York, but it failed in 1895. Initial drafts in New York were similar to those in Pennsylvania as to include cognitive disabilities.[2] Reno, Nevada instituted an ordinance before 1905.[2] Los Angeles, California attempted to pass an ordinance in 1913.

Historically, ugly laws can be found under the headings of unsightly beggar law or unsightly beggar ordinance.[1]


People charged under the ugly law were either charged a fine or held in jail until they could be sent to the poor house or work farm.[2] The wording in the San Francisco ordinance indicates violators will be sent to the almshouse.[2] This connects with the Victorian Era poor law policy.[2]

Historian Brad Byrom noted ugly laws have been unevenly and rarely enforced, being disregarded by police.[1][2] The first recorded arrest pertaining to ugly laws was Martin Oates in San Francisco, California in July 1867.[2] Oates was a former Union soldier during the American Civil War.[2]

The ugly laws did not restrict performances of people with disabilities for the purpose of entertainment or eliciting disgust, but rather restricted people with disabilities from mingling with the general public.[2]

Use of the ugly laws to control the use of public spaces by people with disabilities was still occurring after the signing of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.[2]

Racism also played a role in the enforcement of ugly laws. In San Francisco, Chinese immigrants and their descendants were unlawfully quarantined to prevent spread of disease and epidemics.[2]

The last recorded arrest related to an ugly law was in 1974, in regard to an Omaha, Nebraska ordinance.[10][11][1][2] In that instance, the man arrested was homeless and the officer arresting him did so under the guise of the ugly law as the man had visible scars and marks on his body.[2] The judge, Walter Cropper, and assistant prosecutor, Richard Epstein, in this case noted there was no legal definition for ugly and criminal prosecution would demand proving someone is ugly.[2] The end result was the city prosecutor, Gary Bucchino, did not file charges noting while the law was still active, just this person did not meet the definition.[2]


Many ugly laws were not repealed until the mid-1970s.[12] Omaha, Nebraska repealed its ugly law in 1967, yet had an arrest of a person for violating the unsightly beggar ordinance documented in 1974.[1] Columbus, Ohio withdrew its in 1972. Chicago was the last to repeal its ugly law in 1974.[13]

Americans with Disabilities Act

The recantation of ugly laws preceded the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 where certain rights were granted to people with disabilities:

Individuals with disabilities are a discrete and insular minority who have been faced with restrictions and limitations, subjected to a history of purposeful unequal treatment, and relegated to a position of political powerlessness in our society, based on characteristics that are beyond the control of such individuals and resulting from stereotypic assumptions not truly indicative of the individual ability of such individuals to participate in, and contribute to, society.[14]


Ugly laws prevented people with physical disabilities from going out in public at all.[2] Scholar Stuart Murray notes that displays of the human condition affect Americans in such a way as it is the nature of Americans to conform.[2]

Jacobus tenBroek wrote in 1966 that the limitations imposed on a person with a disability had little to do with actual disability, but rather society's imagined thoughts of disability difficulties and risks.[15]

In 1975, Marcia Pearce Burgdorf and Robert Burgdorf, Jr. wrote about the unsightly beggar ordinances in their newspaper article, "A History of Unequal Treatment: The Qualifications of Handicapped Persons as a 'Suspect Class' under the Equal Protection Clause".[1][12] In this article, the term "ugly laws" was created and used, having been inspired by the newspaper article title regarding the Omaha arrest in 1974. It was an act of advocacy.

A librarian in Chicago considered ugly laws and other associated ordinances to be urban legends.[2]

Representation in the Arts

John Belluso's play The Body of Bourne has a scene in which Randolph Bourne was confronted in Chicago due to an ugly law.[2] While this is a fictional occurrence, the depiction of the law indicates the impact on disability history.[2]

In 1980, while on tour in Europe, performer with the San Francisco-based Lilith Women's Theatre, Victoria Ann Lewis, delivered a monologue about the difficulty of people with disabilities finding work due to the social idea that people with disabilities should hide or be in the circus.[2] She had polio as a child and in the monologue demonstrated how, if she concentrates, can walk without a limp.[2] She finished with a somersault, say and signs, "Did you notice? Did you notice my limp? But why should I hide it. I am disabled ... The cripples are coming out of hiding!"[2] Lewis believed herself to be denied admission to a theater school in New York City due to her limp.[2] She noted they tried to persuade her to take a position behind the scenes.[2] She felt this was due to the ugly laws and that she would not be able to perform in some cities.[2]

Impact on legislation and policy

Scholars have argued these ugly laws laid a foundation for future legislation, policy, and practice.[2] This includes segregation, eugenics, institutionalization, organized charity, and classification of people by their physical appearance rather than their actual abilities.[2][16][17]

This period of time lent to what is considered modern social work. Charitiable organizations as a practice during this period would provide people with disabilities with support and a friend to advocate for their needs and guide them.[2]

The ugly laws had a great impact on what society considers rehabilitation. People with disabilities were not allowed to beg for food or money to support their needs as a person, but it was acceptable to display themselves in order to beg for a cure or salvation from their disability. A cure from their disability would mean being able to assimilate into able-bodied society.[2]

Relationships, reproductive rights and individual right to life were also impacted by the ugly laws and charitable philosophy during this period. Policy makers discussed preventing people with disabilities from marrying and having children. The policy makers suggested this was to prevent the children their union would produce from tainting society's heredity pool.[2] Charity must "do what it can to check the spreading curse of race degeneration".[2] People involved with charitable policy suggested that while euthanasia would be a release for the person struggling with their disabilities, it also went against the moral principles taught by religion.[2]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Albrecht, general ed. Gary L. (2006). Encyclopedia of disability. Thousand Oaks [u.a.]: SAGE Publ. pp. 1575–1576. ISBN 9780761925651.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar as at au av aw ax ay az ba bb bc bd be bf bg bh Schweik, Susan M. (2009). The ugly laws : disability in public ([Online-Ausg.]. ed.). New York: New York University Press. ISBN 9780814740576.
  3. ^ a b Slocum, Jr., William Frederick (1886). The Relation of Public and Private to Organized Charity. Baltimore: Charity Organization Society. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  4. ^ Henderson, Charles (1910). Introduction to the Study of the Dependent, Defective and Delinquent Classes and of their Social Treatment. Chicago: Speech Recorded in the City Club Bulletin. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  5. ^ Ryan, Mary (1992). Women in Public: Between Banners and Ballots 1825-1880. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  6. ^ Duis, Perry (Spring 1983). "Whose City? Public and Private Spaces in Nineteenth-Century Chicago". Chicago History: The Manual of the Chicago Historical Society.
  7. ^ Royce, Josiah (1948) [1886]. California. New York: Knopf. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  8. ^ a b Helper, Hilton (1948). DreadfulCalifornia. The Bobbs-Merrill Company. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  9. ^ a b Susan M. Schweik (30 August 2010). The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public. NYU Press. pp. 3–. ISBN 978-0-8147-8361-0.
  10. ^ Susan M. Schweik (1 May 2009). The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public. NYU Press. pp. 6–. ISBN 978-0-8147-4088-0.
  11. ^ "Why I wrote the Americans with Disabilities Act". The Washington Post. 2015-07-24. Retrieved 2018-10-22.
  12. ^ a b Marcia Pearce Burgdorf and Robert Burgdorf, Jr., "A History of Unequal Treatment: The Qualifications of Handicapped Persons as a Suspect Class Under the Equal Protection Clause," Santa Clara Lawyer 15:4 (1975) 855-910.
  13. ^ "Disability History: Timeline". 1939-07-04. Retrieved 2015-02-13.
  14. ^ Fredman, Sandra (2011). Discrimination Law (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 96. ISBN 0199584427.
  15. ^ tenBroek, Jacobus (1966). "The Right to Live in the World: The Disabled and the Law of Torts". California Law Review. 54 (2). Retrieved 15 February 2018.
  16. ^ Snyder, Sharon; Mitchell, David T. (2002). "Out of the Ashes of Eugenics: Diagnostic Regimes in the United States and the Making of a Disability Minority". Patterns of Prejudice. 36 (1).
  17. ^ Gilman, Sander (2000). Making the Body Beautiful: A cultural history of aesthetic surgery. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
This page was last edited on 3 May 2019, at 03:35
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