They're bad. Each and every one one of them, bad seeds, an inevitable inheritance handed down across generations due to their tainted genes.
"The story is incredibly hateful and lacking in compassion and false," says legal historian Paul Lombardo of Georgia State University in Atlanta. "The story of the Jukes is demonstrably false, and yet people keep repeating it, sometimes knowing it's false."
In the current edition of The Journal of Legal Medicine, Lombardo looks at the modern-day manifestations of the bad idea behind "the infamous Jukes family," as scientist Sir Francis Galton, founder of the "eugenics" movement, described them in 1876.
A historically awful episode of pseudo-science, eugenics aimed at breeding "better" humans, a movement eventually embraced by dozens of states, from Virginia to California, leading to more than 60,000 forced sterilizations by the 1960s. Lombardo worries that in our modern age of genomics, people have forgotten the cautionary tale behind the lies about the Jukes, and the tragedies of the eugenics movement they spawned.
A few states, most recently North Carolina, have repudiated that past, which started with an 1871 public health investigation of the so-called Jukes — a family name that was made up and used to refer to a group of poor white farmers in a "clan" that was mostly not even related. "But a lot of people today seem to have forgotten the lesson," Lombardo says. Forcible sterilizations no longer occur nationwide, but only a few states (North Carolina, South Carolina, Oregon, Georgia, Virginia and Indiana) have acknowledged or apologized for them happening, he notes. In 25 other states they remain unrecognized tragedies.
Where did it start? With a 19th-century "philanthropic physician" named Elisha Harris, a one-time president of the American Public Health Association, who first mentioned the Jukes. He published reports that an impoverished poor woman named Margaret was the "mother of criminals" and gave birth to "a race of criminals, paupers and harlots," in Upstate New York.
His mantle was taken up by a New York Prison Association colleague, Richard Dugdale, who in 1877 published a lengthy study of the clan he pseudonymously described as the "Jukes," noting thieves, rapists and roughnecks among their members filling a local jail. He renamed Margaret, "Ada Jukes," who he claimed was related (dubiously) to some 700 descendants, trapped by a "social Hades" into lives of criminal destitution.
Dugdale died in 1883, and observers quickly forgot the role of poverty he had pointed to in his study of the family, turning it into a "genetic morality tale," Lombardo writes, one that rested on a combination of religious imagery — the Ten Commandments' warning of God "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and the fourth generations" — and the pseudoscience of eugenics, which saw traits such as poverty or criminality as solely resulting from heredity in the same manner as hair color or height. In his obituary, The New York Times summarized Dugdale's conclusion as "the whole question of crime and pauperism rests strictly upon a physiological basis," an idea endorsed by "the best informed scientists."
Not just scientists, but doctors, judges, politicians and clergy, urged "eugenic marriage laws" to wipe out folks like the Jukes, people seen as a threat to the gene pool. The most famous preacher of the day, Billy Sunday, who had denounced eugenics in other settings, warned of the dangerous powers of "one God-forsaken, vicious, corrupt man and woman to breed and propagate and damn the world by their offspring," in 1915 sermons.
Lawyers liked the Jukes story as well, and it was instrumental in testimony in the 1927 case of Buck v. Bell, which made forced sterilizations legal nationwide. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, "Three generations of imbeciles is enough," in that opinion, which has still never been overturned.
Geneticists widely disavowed eugenics in the 1930s, and after World War II's Nazi horrors became known, its popularity died out. Historical research in the 1960s showed that the Jukes story was bunk: "They weren't one family, but a bunch of different groups, and it's not clear they were related at all," Lombardo says. Eugenics researchers just picked and chose the occupants of local jails and designated them Jukes, more or less, in their studies. Moreover, their genetics studies looking to tie complicated character traits, such as poverty, to genes, regardless of environment or family wealth, look "totally discredited" to genetics researchers today, as Annals of Human Genetics editor Andrés Ruiz Linares of University College London, noted last year in an editorial exploring the eugenics-based past of that journal.
"The startling thing is that this mythology keeps bubbling along today," Lombardo says. "It's a simple story, 'like begets like' or 'the apple doesn't fall far from the tree,' that has run through eugenics thinking for a century. And that you still hear today in debates about crime, education, race and welfare, everything."
In 2006, a Charleston, S.C., city council member, Larry Shirley, said, "mothers need to be spayed" if their children are criminals, for example. A Louisiana state legislator, John LaBruzzo, called more recently for paying poor women $1,000 to be sterilized. Just this month, the Casper Journal in Wyoming published an opinion piece titled "Like begets like," that uncritically recounts the story of the Jukes. In religious circles today, titles of books and sermons with names such as Breaking Generational Curses, "The Sins of the Fathers" and "Generational Impact" also cite the story of the Jukes, Lombardo notes.
"The irony is that many religious figures reject eugenics, associating it with contraception and abortion, but some are buying into its same line of thinking now about generational curses, even using the same phrases that defined eugenics a century ago," he says.
In an era when genetic medicine is hurtling toward an era of personalized medicine defined by each individual's genes, the cautionary tale of the Jukes needs to be remembered, concludes Lombardo, who has documented the history of eugenics for decades. "We're just scratching the surface with our science today. The real lesson of the Jukes is that we need to have a little humility before we start demonizing people," he says.