I was first alerted to the Jukes clan by reading Christine Ferguson’s Determined Spirits: Eugenics, Heredity, and Racial Regeneration in Anglo-American Spiritualist Writing, 1848-1930 (2012). This is SUCH an interesting story about how academic research can help to inform public policy, for better or worse. Ferguson only makes passing reference to the Jukes clan, but this article from the NY Times has supplemented my understanding of what happened.
In 1874, a gentleman-sociologist (sociology being an up-and-coming field of study at the time) named Richard L. Dugdale volunteered to inspect prisons for the New York Prison Association. When he visited the Ulster County jail, he discovered that six of the current inmates were blood relatives (despite them not having the same last name).
He then dug a little deeper and investigated the 29 immediate male blood relations of these six men. Of the 29 immediate male members of their family, 17 of them had also been arrested, with 15 of them being convicted of crimes. So, in short, 66% of all men in this immediate family had been arrested, and 60% had been convicted of a crime, with 17% currently in jail. This is not including any of the women of the family, so I don’t know how that would change the numbers.
Dugdale decided to publish his findings. Since he wanted to preserve the anonymity of the people discussed, and since they had different surnames despite being closely related, he made up the last name “Juke” to apply to the whole group of extended relatives.
“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.
Now I’m just going to copy/paste this shit from the article, because it’s super interesting:
“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.”
What’s really interesting is that radically different movements have cited the Jukes family as proof of the need for their own policies. Given the wide-spread social reform and series of utopian movements over the course of the nineteenth century, many people used the Jukes to illustrate that stronger social welfare programs (i.e., the nurture side of the nature vs. nurture debate) would break the cycle of uneducated poverty that led to criminality.
Around the same time, on the waaaaay other side of the spectrum, was the rise of various eugenics movements that believed that good or bad heredity and genetics are solely responsible for a person’s character (i.e., the nature side of the nature vs. nurture debate). When various proposers of eugenics or hard hereditarian discourses got wind of the Jukes clan, they also proposed what they deemed a social welfare program: complete and total execution and/or sterilization of the entire family, and of any other family like them.
What’s horrifying is just how prevalent the eugenics movement was in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, leading into, of course, the atrocities of WWII. There were a depressing number of eugenics programs across North America and Europe (and I’m sure many other places, but these are the only ones I know of as specifically arising from these late nineteenth-century movements).
If nothing else, Dugdale’s study shows us just how important it is to do rigorous research with a stringently laid-out methodology and very clearly stated results. Even then, this can show how easily correlation can be misinterpreted as causation.
As far as I’m aware, the identity of the Jukes family/families has never been officially revealed, although there is an awful lot of speculation in Ulster County, NY, and Dugdale’s study has been pretty firmly discredited by pretty much all scholars in the sciences and social sciences.