5 Insane Ways History's Screwed Over Disabled People
Very few demographics outside of straight white rich dudes have gotten a consistently good deal throughout history, so maybe it's not such a surprise to learn that we used to treat disabled people like garbage. But it might be surprising to learn how cartoonishly evil some people could be. It's ranged from turning "freaks" into tourist attractions to making disabled schoolchildren eat radioactive oatmeal to, well, all of this stuff.
It Was Literally Illegal To Be Deformed/Disabled In Some Major Cities
We're not going to sugarcoat this: Up until the 1970s, it was illegal for "unsightly" people to go outside in certain places, lest their hellish appearance cause a crash in local housing prices.
Back in the late 1800s, several major cities across the U.S. enacted "unsightly beggar ordinances" (which later became known as "ugly laws") to stop unpleasant-looking people from begging on city streets and corrupting unborn babies (seriously). One "ugly law" introduced in 1881 Chicago targeted anyone who was "diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object." And this wording was so popular (read: awful) that it was soon copy-pasted into similar ordinances in Omaha, Columbus, Cleveland, and Portland. The end result was that someone found flagrantly, um ... existing under these laws was fined or thrown in the poorhouse.
It's also worth noting that the guy responsible for passing the Chicago "ugly laws," a city alderman named James Peevey, hated disabled people with a vigor that would make even staunch eugenicists clutch their pearls. In an op-ed for The Chicago Tribune, he described the targets of his legislation as "street obstructions ... the one-legged individual who, with drooping eye and painfully lugubrious countenance, holds forth his hat for pennies [or] the woman with two sick children who was drawn through the carding-machine in a woolen mill."
Yeah, you tell 'em, Peevey. Those goddamn *checks notes* cripples and injured single mothers had it too good for too long, and we hope that this crusade against the disabled didn't take too much time away from hunting for the one-legged man who accidentally kicked your childhood dog.
By the 1910s, most states had stopped prosecuting the "ugly laws," but that doesn't mean they went away entirely. In 1974, one policeman in Omaha had a hate-on for a homeless man so strong that he combed through local ordinances looking for some reason, any reason, to arrest the guy. He stumbled on his local "ugly law," and the arrest was made. But the subsequent trial collapsed, not only because the key "evidence" was the fact that the guy had scars, but also because the judge asked how one could reasonably assess "ugliness," and oh good lord was he really the first person in all those decades to actually ask that question?
Unbelievably, it could've been worse for that homeless guy.
The Ancient Greeks Used To Sacrifice "Ugly" People
The ancient Greeks were obsessed with physical perfection, which made things ... not ideal if you weren't a walking benchmark for physical perfection.
Between the 8th and 5th centuries BCE, the Greeks would conduct a ritual known as pharmakos during times of plague or famine, wherein each town would nominate its fugliest resident to take one for the team, as it were. This person would be wined and dined with the best foods on offer, before a mob of locals beat them senseless and drove them out of town.
Those were the lucky ones. As with all local traditions, pharmakos was different from town to town. Some would merely drive their uggos out, while others would murder them via stoning, burning, or volcano (which is kind of both stoning and burning, come to think of it). It was a brutal ritual that targeted all equa- oh wait, the rich were exempt.
The ritual became more and more popular as time went on. While at first it would only be carried out if times were lean, it eventually became an annual ceremony that, like the Purge, worked to alleviate social tensions and "avoided the possibility of a chaotic and uncontrolled bloodshed among the members of the society." Well, the poor members of society. Nobody was bothered by a rich goblin, apparently.
A Nazi Eugenics Program Was Kick-Started By One Terrible Father
The Holocaust didn't solely target the Jewish populations of Europe. Its considerable brunt was also brought to bear on gay people, the Roma, POWs, communists, and the disabled -- the latter under a program known as Aktion T4.
So hey, funny story: We can blame a single shithead father for making that a reality.
The Nazis made no secret of their hatred for the disabled. After their rise to power in 1933, they implemented a variety of laws authorizing the mandatory sterilization of people suffering from hereditary conditions such as schizophrenia, epilepsy, and "imbecility," alongside other socially undesirable things like alcoholism. These laws maimed over 36,000 people between 1933 and 1939, and were also concurrent with a media campaign designed to turn the general populace against the disabled by highlighting how much it cost to "treat" them.
The thing is, Hitler badly wanted to push the button and flat out murder every disabled person he could find, but he couldn't because he was afraid of the public outcry, especially if it was implemented during peacetime -- "Such a problem could be more smoothly and easily carried out in war."
Enter, Gerhard Kretschmar. Gerhard was a five-month-old boy, born blind and with several deformities, including a missing leg. His father, Richard Kretschmar, wrote to Hitler to ask for permission to kill his son out of "mercy." Hitler, known for nothing so much as his mercy, sent his own personal doctor, Karl Brandt, to visit the boy and "take care" of him. Brandt quickly administered a barbiturate to shut down the baby's body.
Buoyed by the success of this mission, several leading German physiatrists convened at Hitler's Chancellery, and Aktion T4 was born. That program would go on to murder over 300,000 mentally and physically disabled people. In all subsequent correspondences, the doctors would refer to Gerhard via the codename "Case K," and credit him with the success of the program. During his appearance at Nuremberg, Brandt testified that Gerhard had provided Hitler with the excuse that he needed to start purifying those, direct quote, "unworthy of living."
So basically what we're saying is that Hitler was, objectively and provably, a total asshole.
Wealthy Baltimore Families Used Asylum Patients As Slaves
By the 1920s, the U.S. still considered black people subhuman, but not so subhuman that it was OK to enslave them. It's a low bar by which to measure progress, sure, but when those are basically the only bars you have, you take what you can get. But rich families in Baltimore had a problem: They still really wanted to own people. So they decided to take matters into their hands and burglarize the local asylum for housekeeping staff.
Somehow, the idea that this wasn't a temp agency was slow to sink in.
Known as the "Rosewood girls" scandal, the central figure was a shady lawyer with a shadier name: Harry B. Wolf. (As if you needed another hint to not trust an old-timey lawyer.) He represented a suspiciously large number of women "released" from Baltimore's Rosewood Asylum, who were then perused and bought by rich families like they were at a cattle market. It's estimated that between 1911 and 1933, over 166 patients left Rosewood under these circumstances, most of whom disappeared with little-to-no notice given to their real families -- provided their real families hadn't abandoned them to rot in the asylum in the first place.
The girls were then expected to be slaves for their benevolent saviors until the end of time, or until their masters grew tired of them. As the guy who busted this racket described, "Many of the women soon became dissatisfied with their maids and expressed great astonishment that the girls seemed 'stupid' and 'slow' ... this discovery, however, did not deter them from ordering another girl when they got rid of the one they had."
There was also widespread abuse of the girls. ("One girl placed in the home of a physician was so poorly supervised that she went through nine months of an illegitimate pregnancy and gave birth to a child without anyone noticing it; the 'supervising' wife of the doctor ... found the newborn baby in her cupboard.") One matron hired and fired 35+ girls, as if she was buying and dumping IKEA furniture on the street, not human beings. When someone tracked down 102 of the 166 enslaved patients, they found that 11 had died from neglect, 17 were suffering from some kind of infectious disease (e.g. syphilis, tuberculosis), 29 were forced into prostitution, six were in prison, and only eight had been re-institutionalized.
Southerners Are Stereotyped As Stupid Because Of Hookworm Infection
To this day, we'd estimate that half of all Southern characters in pop culture are inbred idiots. What's the deal with that?
Well, there are two deals: hookworms and general human shittiness.
For nearly 300 years, the American South was ravaged by a pandemic of hookworm, a parasite which causes abdominal pain, tiredness, severe weight loss, and serious impairment of both mental and physical abilities -- the latter symptom being why hookworm was nicknamed "the germ of laziness." At its peak, 40 percent of all people living between Texas and West Virginia were infected.
And so the stereotype of the "shiftless, lazy, good-for-nothing idiot" Southerner was born. There's evidence to suggest that hookworm is dying out these days, although it's thought that deeply rural holdout populations might still be living with it. Considering that it's taken pop culture up until, like, yesterday to realize that women are people too, we won't hold on for better depictions of Southerners anytime soon.
Adam Wears is on Twitter and Facebook, and has a newsletter dedicated to depressing history facts. It's not as heartbreakingly sad as it sounds, promise!
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