Wednesday, May 20, 2020

How an 'Ugly Law' stayed on Chicago's books for 93 years.

In 1881, Chicago Alderman James Peevey had a mission: to rid the city of "all street obstructions."

By street obstructions, Peevey didn't mean food carts, construction materials, roadblocks, or potholes.

He meant beggars, such as the ones described in the Tribune as "the one-legged individual who, with drooping eye and painfully lugubrious countenance, holds forth his hat for pennies" or "the fellows who yell 'ba-na-naas'" and "the woman with two sick children who were drawn through the carding-machine in a woolen mill, and who grinds 'Mollie Darling' incessantly on a hurdy-gurdy on a street corner."

The alderman took issue with people displaying their disabilities on the street for alms or change — so he took action. In May of that year, Peevey pushed an ordinance through the City Council that banned anyone who was "diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, to be an unsightly or disgusting object" from being in the "public view." Beggars were fined $1 to $50 — a hefty sum in the 1880s — or shipped off to the Cook County Poorhouse.

Peevey wasn't completely heartless, though: He tried to carve out an exemption for a one-legged, one-armed soldier. But overall, his ordinance made the streets of Chicago unfriendly to those who were blind, deaf, or disfigured.

Chicago was just one of several cities to pass an "unsightly beggar" ordinance — what came to be dubbed an "ugly law." The trend started in San Francisco in 1867, only two years after the end of the Civil War, and spread throughout cities in the West and Midwest from 1870 to 1880.

At the time, reformers viewed these laws as ways to better their communities. In his book "The Welfare Debate," Illinois Wesleyan University professor Greg Shaw explains that the county poorhouse model (think: Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist") that was supposed to keep the poor off the streets and in work turned out to be too expensive and too corrupt to maintain.

In 1872, the Cook County Poorhouse — which shared the land with Dunning Insane Asylum, the county's psychiatric hospital — was dysfunctional enough to warrant a complete overhaul. Within 20 years, the place was labeled a "festering mass of moral corruption and official fraud" — again.

It isn't a surprise that the poor sometimes preferred the streets.

But fear spurred civic leaders to keep the streets clear. They worried that disfigured beggars would scare women. They were wary of the tensions between the lower and upper classes. They felt a sense of religious obligation to help the poor. Community leaders settled on an idiomatic solution: out of sight, out of mind.

The ugliest part of these laws came from the underlying mistrust of those who were poor and disabled. Throughout the 19th century, there was an ongoing debate over who was worthy of charity. According to Shaw, most felt that widows and orphans — victims of circumstances — warranted help from the state and the wealthy. At the same time, able-bodied paupers "were seen as chronically irresponsible and thus much less deserving of assistance."
Those with disabilities, however, were caught between "worthy" and "unworthy," and news stories gave people little reason to trust them. During an interview from 1880, the general superintendent of the Relief and Aid Society offered this advice to Tribune readers: "The fact is that nine out of ten of these street-beggars are either impostors or thieves, who come to spy out the houses and give 'pointers' to burglars. Nobody ought to give it unless the applicant is known to be worthy of relief."

When the ugly law was in its heyday, the Tribune featured reports of blind beggars who, when brought to court, could suddenly see and deaf beggars who could hear. Case in point this snippet is from a 1908 Tribune story about a deaf and blind beggar who had a hearing before a judge: "As if by magic the man's hearing and eyesight were restored, and he took $80 from one of his pockets and counted out the amount of his fine."

There were stories like the one of a blind organ grinder who, when arrested, was found with $710 on him and was said to treat his "lady friends" to car rides and cafe luncheons. Or the double-jointed 18-year-old who was put on probation for pretending to be disabled and begging for money. In 1902, the Tribune reported that the Chicago Police Department even declared war against a "beggar fraternity" that poured acid on their bodies so they'd cut a more pitiful figure.

Then came the first World War. Soldiers came home from battle, and their bodies were torn, limbs missing, minds addled. Attitudes toward people who were disabled started to change. In 1911, the CPD issued its edict "prohibiting blind mendicants, legless unfortunates and other seekers of alms from exhibiting their misfortunes to the public view." Still, no new ugly laws were passed after World War I ended in 1918. Instead, plans were made to help manage veterans' physical and mental care.

It was a slow process. The end of each subsequent war — World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War — and the work of activists on behalf of all people with disabilities shifted sentiments. Bans on jobs that were previously barred to disabled people — such as hotel clerks — were lifted. Mentions of Chicago police officers fining and arresting "ugly" beggars dropped off in the 1950s. The 1960s and 1970s saw laws drafted to protect the rights of the disabled and cities remade to be more accessible — and in 1990, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act was passed.
Policeman Stephen Schumack left and led a crippled man to a police wagon on July 22, 1954, from the skid row area in Chicago. (Photo: Luigi Mendicino / Chicago Tribune)
Somehow, Peevey's 1881 ordinance stayed on the books throughout that history. When the City Council finally voted to repeal it in 1974, a co-sponsor of the repeal, Ald. Paul T. Wigoda said simply, "It is cruel and insensitive. It is a throwback to the Dark Ages."

Chicago Tribune June 23, 2016
By Elizabeth Greiwe
Edited by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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