Friday, December 10, 2010

Ugly Laws, Drug Laws, Marriage and More in the Journal of Social History

Perusing the Fall 2010 issue of the Journal of Social History, I noticed a number of articles that might be of interest to legal historians. Titles and abstracts are below.

Adrienne Phelps Coco (University of Illinois at Chicago), "Diseased, Maimed, Mutilated: Categorizations of Disability and an Ugly Law in Late Nineteenth-Century Chicago."
The article places Chicago's "ugly" law—an 1881 municipal ordinance that fined "any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object" for appearing in public—within the context of late nineteenth-century imaginings of disability. Drawing on the framework of disability studies, this paper demonstrates that nineteenth-century understandings of disability had little to do with the impairments of individuals but instead were tied to the status of the person with the disability. Examining the role of disabled people as workers, as bodies and as charity recipients reveals the hierarchies of disability in late nineteenth-century Chicago and demonstrates who the ugly law intended to restrict and, just as importantly, who it did not. While the law appears to be a blanket indictment of all physically disabled people, multiple sources indicate that the public expected disabled veterans, workers, and freak show performers to occupy the public realm; they therefore cannot be the intended objects of the ordinance. Instead, Chicago's ugly law was one of many pieces of legislation enacted in the wake of the panic of 1873 that attempted to eradicate street begging in general by specifically targeting beggars with disabilities.
Julilly Kohler-Hausmann (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign), "'The Attila the Hun Law': New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Making of a Punitive State."

In 1973, New York's Governor Nelson Rockefeller responded to panic about soaring heroin use by renouncing his aggressive treatment programs and enacting the most punitive drug policy in the United States. His "Rockefeller Drug Laws" mandated sentences up to life in prison for selling any narcotics. These punishments, comparable to the penalties for murder, served as models for subsequent "War on Drugs" policies enacted across the nation.

This article explores the ideological and political work accomplished by this high profile legislation—for policy makers, for members of the general public who clamored for "get tough" strategies, and for the drug users targeted by the statutes. The laws were a repudiation of liberal treatment programs and specialists' expertise, and provided a forum to remake the much-maligned welfare state into a stern, macho vehicle for establishing order in society. Increasingly punitive policies constricted the rights of drug users by rhetorically constructing "addicts" and "pushers" as outside of the polity and as the antithesis of full citizens. Therefore, the Rockefeller Drug Laws not only had devastating effects on drug offenders, but also were instrumental in the profound renegotiation of the state's role and responsibilities.

Jeffrey S. Adler (University of Florida), "'Bessie Done Cut Her Old Man': Race, Common-Law Marriage, and Homicide in New Orleans, 1925-1945."

This essay examines domestic homicide in early twentieth-century New Orleans. African-American residents killed their domestic partners at eight times the rate of white New Orleanians, and these homicides were most often committed by women, who killed their partners at fifteen times the rate of white women. Common-law marriages proved to be especially violent among African-American residents. Based on nearly two hundred cases identified in police records and other sources as partner killings between 1925 and 1945, this analysis compares lethal violence in legal marriages and in common-law unions. It also explores the social and institutional forces that buffeted common-law marriages, making this the most violent domestic arrangement and contributing to the remarkably high rate of spousal homicide by African-American women in early twentieth-century New Orleans.

Simone Caron (Wake Forest), "'Killed by its Mother': Infanticide in Providence County, Rhode Island, 1870 to 1938."
This article analyzes infanticide based on the Coroners' Records for Providence County, Rhode Island, from the 1870s to 1938 to determine doctors' and coroners' attitudes toward mothers who killed. The nineteenth century witnessed a medical discourse on the possibility of postpartum insanity as a cause of infanticide. While some women claimed temporary insanity, and some doctors and coroners legitimated this defense, its application to mothers who killed was arbitrary. They determined who deserved this diagnosis based on the woman's character, her forthrightness, and extenuating circumstances. Infanticide divided the profession nationally and at the local level and prevented doctors or coroners from speaking in a united voice on the issue. This article does not attempt to follow cases of infanticide through to jury verdicts. Instead, it provides an opportunity to analyze the circumstances women faced that led them to kill their newborns, and to analyze the responses of doctors and coroners to these mothers who killed. Unlike the findings of other studies, neither physicians nor coroners in Rhode Island were united in a claim of ignorance to save these women from guilty verdicts.