A little more than a year ago, I wrote a really nice piece on this topic— on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the nation’s first eugenics law (in Indiana).
In 1888, a social reformer named Oscar McCulloch delivered a speech in Buffalo titled “The Tribe of Ishmael: A Study in Social Degradation.” Indianapolis, McCulloch declared, had been infected by a “pauper ganglion,” a depraved clan that survived “by stealing, begging, ash-gathering”…They also received “almost unlimited public and private aid,” which merely “encourag[ed] them in this idle, wandering life, and in the propagation of similarly disposed children.”
The speech had lasting implications for both the poor people of Indiana and the budding pseudoscience of eugenics. It also was largely untrue, reports the historian Nathaniel Deutsch in Inventing America’s “Worst” Family (University of California Press), an insightful new study of the Ishmaels and their interpreters….
McCulloch was an early advocate of both eugenics and the social gospel, a toxic combination that foreshadowed the pending Progressive Era….a self-proclaimed socialist—even as he increased his contempt for, and willingness to use the law against, paupers who preferred to remain outside the wage economy….
But his most influential contention was not that the Ishmaels were a social evil. It was that they were a social evil with a biological basis…
Such ideas had consequences. In 1905 Indiana restricted marriages by former inmates “of any county asylum or home for indigent persons.” In 1907, influenced by McCulloch’s studies, the state adopted what may be the world’s first compulsory sterilization law….
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