Ugly law

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From the mid-1700s until the 1970s, countries and individuals 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 to public view."[1] 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]

Ugly Laws of Eritrea

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, 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 Germany

Ugly Laws of North Korea

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 early 1880s until the 1970s, 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 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.[3][4] 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 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][5][6] 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.[6]

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]

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 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. Additionally, ugly laws were sparked by 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] This banned the discrimination of people with disabilities.

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.[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 has 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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9]


These 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.[10]

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][7] 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 is 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][11][12]

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 Schweik, Susan M. (2009). The ugly laws : disability in public ([Online-Ausg.]. ed.). New York: New York University Press. ISBN 9780814740576. 
  3. ^ Ryan, Mary (1992). Women in Public: Between Banners and Ballots 1825-1880. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 
  4. ^ Duis, Perry (Spring 1983). "Whose City? Public and Private Spaces in Nineteenth-Century Chicago". Chicago History: The Manual of the Chicago Historical Society. 
  5. ^ Royce, Josiah (1948) [1886]. California. New York: Knopf. 
  6. ^ a b Helper, Hilton (1948). DreadfulCalifornia. The Bobbs-Merrill Company. 
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ "Disability History: Timeline". 1939-07-04. Retrieved 2015-02-13. 
  9. ^ Fredman, Sandra (2011). Discrimination Law (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 96. ISBN 0199584427. 
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ 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). 
  12. ^ Gilman, Sander (2000). Making the Body Beautiful: A cultural history of aesthetic surgery. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 
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