The Ugly Laws:

CW: Ableism & Eugenics

Several American communities had ugly beggar ordinances. These lasted from the 1860s until the 1970s in some places. These regulations were later referred to as ugly laws. Poor and disabled individuals were the targets of these policies.

For instance, a law from 1867 in San Francisco stated that it was unlawful for “any person, who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or deformed in any way, so as to be an unsightly or unpleasant object, to expose himself or herself to public view.” Exceptions to public exposure were only permissible if the subjects were being used as demonstrations of the difference between disabled and non-disabled individuals and their need for reformation.

In Chicago, alderman James Peevey objected to people exposing their disabilities on the street for alms or change, so he took action. Peevey pushed through a City Council ordinance in May of 1881 that forbade anyone from being in the “public view” if they were “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any other way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object.” In the 1880s, beggars faced severe fines of $1 to $50 or were sent to the Cook County Poorhouse.

Many of the “ugly laws” were eventually eliminated. Few remained by the middle of the 20th century. But they were never abandoned in spirit. Instead, they were replaced by a flurry of new laws intended to criminalize poverty and homelessness, such as those that forbid lying down or sitting in public places or those that make it illegal to give food to the hungry. And where they did endure, the ugly laws punished the impoverished into the 1960s and 1970s. Disability rights advocates have used the tale of the ugly laws as a rallying cry and demand for inclusion.


Coco, Adrienne Phelps. “Diseased, maimed, mutilated: categorizations of disability and an ugly law in late nineteenth-century Chicago.” Journal of social history vol. 44,1 (2010): 23-37. doi:10.1353/jsh.2010.0025

Greiwe, Elizabeth. “How an ‘Ugly Law’ Stayed on Chicago’s Books for 93 Years.” Chicago Tribune, Chicago Tribune, 11 May 2019,

Schweik, Susan M. The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public. New York University Press, 2009.

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