Two ways to look at the Jukes, America's most "degenerate" family

The Jukes are not a real family. Juke is a made-up surname, assigned to a sprawling, impoverished family by a Victorian scientist. That scientist wanted the family to get a hand up. The next scientist to study the Jukes wanted them eliminated entirely.

Max Juke was born in the first half of the 18th century. He lived in the mountains of New York state, and raised a family. By 1874, Max Juke's descendants had cost the state of New York over a million dollars. That's a lot of money to go through, but according to public record the Jukes, particularly the Juke line that sprang from Max's daughter, Ada, got a lot done.


Richard Dugdale, a sociological researcher, made a study of an anonymous family that he called the Jukes after he visited a jail and found out that, despite different surnames, many of the current inmates were related to each other. He looked through hospital records, jail records, and poorhouse records to find out how they did. He only found 709 of the total estimated 1200 extended Juke clan, but among those 700 people he found quite a few miscreants and dependents. Of the traced Jukes, 180 had received a combined 800 years of poverty relief in poorhouses or other programs. There were 18 brothel-keepers, 60 habitual thieves, between 50 and 120 "common" prostitutes, 40 women with venereal disease who had spread it to an estimated 440 other people, 30 prosecutions in bastardy, and 2 cases of feeble-mindedness. Dugdale proved that almost any crime sounds kind of charming when put in old-timey speak. Anything else he proved is up to interpretation.

Dugdale's interpretation was that the Jukes needed more help than was being given to them. A mid-19th century scientist who couldn't help but be influenced by the many utopian movements that proliferated at the time, Dugdale wanted to know how society could be organized to eliminate what seemed to him a generations-long cycle of poverty and criminality. He even stressed that about 200 of his chronicled "Jukes" were only related to the family by marriage, not by blood. Although he allowed there was a possibility that genetics played a role in the Jukes' misdeeds, he thought that their environment contributed more to their circumstances than anything else.

In the early 20th century, people had a less utopian outlook, particularly at the Eugenics Record Office* where Eugene Estabrook worked. Estabrook continued the study of the Jukes. Quite a few public programs had been put in place by then, and Dugdale might have been pleased. The Jukes had shown progress, with a lower proportion of them turning to crime or "harlotry." Estabrook, however, was not impressed. He declared the Jukes "undredeemed," and believed that they needed to be segregated and sterilized to spare future society. For a look at the historical evolution of that point of view, see the fate of the Eugenics Record Office.


Two scientists took a look at the same family, and prescribed totally different social programs for them. It's an interesting look at how the same data can spawn opposing social policies. An even more interesting twist is a more recent study. At least some of the Jukes family seem to have made good. Looking outside the poorhouses, modern researchers noticed that plenty of those wicked "Jukes" ran businesses, ran for office, and were perfectly respectable, by the standards of their times and the standards of ours.

Via Disability Museum, Learn To Question

* The Eugenics Record Office, by the way, closed in 1944, for reasons that should not surprise anyone with the least grasp of world history. The idea behind it wasn't entirely gone, though. It was only slightly reorganized into the Institute for the Promotion of Human Genetics, which closed in the early 1990s, and has given its records to various Genealogical Societies, which hopefully will see them solely as a source of historical information.


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