On Reflection, a Family Long Seen as Congenital Misfits Were Victims of Skewed Data
By SCOTT CHRISTIANSON
BINNEWATER, N.Y. — For more than a century, the Jukes clan has been presented as America's most despised family. Social science researchers long believed they were a case study of dysfunction, a bunch of genetically linked paupers, criminals, harlots, epileptics and mental defectives, whose care had placed a huge financial burden on taxpayers. The family's pedigree was used for decades as a textbook example of how heredity shaped human behavior and helped lead to calls for compulsory sterilization, segregation, lobotomies and even euthanasia against the "unfit."
Over the years, several historians and biologists have criticized the methodology of two Jukes studies as flawed and have said that many of their conclusions were fabricated. But the true identity of the family — who were dubbed the "Jukeses" by researchers — has remained a mystery, their names hidden by a code devised by the original investigators.
But now new information about the Jukeses has been found in archives at the State University of New York at Albany and in records of a forgotten Ulster County poorhouse. It turns out that many family members were neither criminals nor misfits, and that quite a few were even prominent members of Ulster County society.
This is a "major discovery because it provides closure to a badly flawed error in the interpretation of human behavior," said Elof Axel Carlson, professor of biochemistry and cell biology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, who is an expert on the Jukes case. "In fact, they were not biologically flawed and doomed — they were simply poor scapegoats."
Studies of the Jukes clan fueled the ideas of eugenicists.
Investigations into the records began after a poorhouse graveyard the size of a football field was discovered in 2001 beneath a new fairground and swimming pool in New Paltz, which is in Ulster County. Some of the 2,300 unmarked graves from the poorhouse turned out to belong to members of the so-called Jukes family.
Garland E. Allen III, a professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, said that the Jukes episode was an example of how scientists have distorted research results for ideological and political reasons. "The whole study was done to bolster the eugenicists' preconceived notions," he said.
The Jukes story started in July 1874, when Richard L. Dugdale, a gentleman-sociologist, visited the Ulster County jail as a volunteer inspector for the New York Prison Association. He learned that six people being held there under four family names were blood relatives. Digging further, he found that of 29 males who were their 'immediate blood relations," 17 had been arrested and 15 convicted of crimes. After culling data from the records of local poorhouses, courts and jails, Dugdale produced a book, "The Jukes: A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease and Heredity," in 1877.
bad seed 1 a.jpg (7637 bytes)
Photograps from The Arthur Estabrook Papers, SUNY
In it he claimed to have traced the family's Hudson Valley roots back seven generations to a colonial frontiersman named Max, whom he described as having been born between 1720 and 1740, a descendant of early Dutch settlers, who lived in the backwoods as a "hunter and fisher, a hard drinker, jolly and companionable, averse to steady toil." He traced the branch that had produced so many criminals back to a woman he called "Margaret, the Mother of Criminals," who had married one of Max's sons.
Presenting detailed genealogical charts with capsule descriptions of each member, whom he identified only by first name or code, Dugdale concluded that the family was chronically beset with all kinds of social ills. He estimated that their care had cost the taxpayers, through relief, medical care, police arrests and imprisonment, a total of $1.3 million (about $20.9 million in today's dollars).
In his analysis, he pondered whether heredity or environment was responsible for the family's habitually degraded state.
His study was hailed as a landmark work in social science, in part because it employed extensive field research to try to address the question of whether hereditary or environmental factors were more responsible for crime, poverty and other social ills.
For decades, many scholars overlooked the study's faults, for example, the fact that Dugdale didn't adequately specify his sources or explain his methodology.
Nicole Hahn Rafter, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University and an expert on the eugenics movement, pointed out in an interview that, to be fair, Dugdale himself had acknowledged in his book that the Jukeses were not a single clan, but rather a composite of 42 families. He had also noted that only 540 of his 709 subjects were apparently related by blood. Advertisement
Professor Carlson contended in his book "The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea" (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2001), that Dugdale had "really claimed that what was inherited was a bad environment rather than a bad physiology."
Nevertheless, Dugdale's work was often misrepresented as being solidly hereditary. Eventually, it helped furnish some of the basis for the new scientific and social movement of eugenics that started in 1880's and achieved the status of a craze in the early 20th century.
In 1911, some eugenicists discovered Dugdale's original charts and notes, including the actual names of the Jukeses. They rushed the records to the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor, the leading eugenics research facility operated by the Carnegie Institution, where a field worker, Arthur H. Estabrook, was assigned the task of reviewing the records and updating the study.
The family's real names were kept hidden, but Estabrook said he had confirmed Dugdale's study and used the records to trace 2,111 Jukeses in addition to the 709 that Dugdale had described, bringing the total number of people studied to 2,820. His book, "The Jukes in 1915," reported that 1,258 Jukeses were still alive and reproducing — at a cost to the public of at least $2 million (about $35.2 million today).
Although Estabrook's own data indicated that the family had actually shown fewer problems over time, the Eugenics Record Office pronounced the latter-day Jukeses to be as "unredeemed" and as plagued by "feeblemindedness, indolence, licentiousness and dishonesty" as they had ever been.
Pedigrees of some branches of the Jukes family and anonymous photographs of them and their homes were displayed at the Second International Congress of Eugenics, held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 1921. "The Jukes" and "The Jukes in 1915" joined a growing list of sociological studies claiming to investigate other defective American families.
Jan Witkowski, director of the Bamburg Center of Cold Spring Laboratory, said the Jukes studies assumed an iconic status in eugenics before World War II.
But the published studies could not be verified or challenged because the subjects were not identified by surname or location.
Today, however, some of Estabrook's papers are available to researchers at the M. E. Grenander department of special collections and archives at SUNY Albany. One of the documents included is an 88-page typewritten code book — titled "Jukes Data" and labeled "Classified" — that lists the surnames used in Dugdale's and Estabrook's studies.
Some of those listed, which number in the hundreds, include Sloughter, Plough, Miller, DuBois, Clearwater, Bank and Bush.
On the basis of Estabrook's code book, Max, the "founder," was identified as Max Keyser.
Neither study identified any of Max's antecedents, but local records show that Dirck Corneliesen Keyser, one of the area's earliest Dutch settlers, had built the first house in Rosendale, in 1680. Also (unnoted by Dugdale and Estabrook), some later Keysers became lawyers, real estate brokers and other respected Ulster County citizens.
Estabrook's code book also identified Max's daughter Ada, or "Margaret, the Mother of Criminals," as Margaret Robinson Sloughter, born about 1755. Estabrook said Ada's husband, Lem, "is commonly reputed to be a lineal, although illegitimate descendant of a colonial governor of New York," but he didn't identify the governor, citing a need for confidentiality.
Nowadays, many biologists and historians are more critical of Estabrook's work than they are of Dugdale's.
"It's not that we're looking back and judging people according to criteria of today that didn't apply earlier," Professor Allen said in an interview. "Estabrook and others like him knew at the time that they were doing wrong, but they did it anyway, because they were caught up in the movement of their day."
Scientists since Dugdale and Estabrook have learned more about genetic familial disorders and the molecular biology of physical birth defects, but debates still rage about the dominance of environmental or hereditary factors in shaping human behavioral traits.
Despite their limitations, the Jukes studies and some of their implications live on. "The mythology of so-called `genetically problematic families' is still with us," said Paul A. Lombardo of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Virginia. "Even today, the Jukeses seem to be getting a third life on the Internet as we see some religious and political groups invoking them as examples of inherited immorality."Category: Eugenics