Q. I’ve been told that it used to be a crime in New York to be ugly in public. Sometimes it feels that way, but was it literally true?
A. Practically. In many cities in the 1880s and 1890s, groups dedicated to separating the “worthy” from the “unworthy” poor tried to suppress begging by passing “ugly laws.” Their special targets were disabled mendicants who attracted public sympathy.
About 1895, one Charles Kellogg drafted an extreme version of the law for New York, working with the Charity Organization Society in New York.
The draft read: “It shall be unlawful for any person, whose body is deformed, mutilated, imperfect or has been reduced by amputations, or who is idiotic or imbecile, to exhibit him or herself” in a public place for money, or to seek charity door to door.
Susan Schweik, professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, describes the state of affairs in “The Ugly Laws,” to be published this spring by New York University Press. “The disability movement is really the sole place where it’s been remembered in American culture,” Professor Schweik said in an interview.
While New York did not pass the law, the police often acted as if it had, with some people being arrested or run out of town as late as the 1920s, she said.
In truth, she noted, there were Bowery bars with names like “the Cripple’s Home” that catered to disabled people and fakers, some of whom rented crutches. But she added, “In the culture of ugly law, there was absolutely no distinction, because everyone was a faker.”
Before social welfare laws, some disabled people had no choice but to beg, Professor Schweik said. “It was a status system,” she said of the law’s enforcement. “Unsightliness was illegal for people without means.”