The Tribe of Ishmael is a biblically derived moniker for hundreds of impoverished late-19th-century immigrants in Indianapolis whose applications for unrestricted public relief during an era of organized charity reform brought them special attention from clergy, politicians, and social scientists. Rev. Oscar C. McCulloch, of Plymouth Congregational Church in Indianapolis, named the Tribe and made its members the focus of his campaign to reform charity and eradicate pauperism. McCulloch and other observers conflated the Tribe as a loosely organized, mixed-race band of vagrants whose lifestyles and intermarriages perpetuated crime, wanderlust, and dependence on charity. Records show, however, that many of the families migrated to the Midwest from eastern and southern states in search of freedom and opportunity, living in the city and holding jobs at least part of the year. A family pedigree study of the Tribe that McCulloch began in the 1880s eventually became valuable to civic leaders seeking public support for selective reproduction laws. Arthur H. Estabrook, a caseworker for the Eugenics Record Office 1910–1929 and a biologist with particular interest in mixed-race genetics, edited the Tribe of Ishmael materials after World War I for use in support of anti-miscegenation, compulsory sterilization, and other negative-eugenics-based legislation intended to prevent reproduction by individuals deemed degenerate, unfit, or feebleminded. This paper compares the rhetoric of Estabrook’s edited and expanded version of the notes with McCulloch’s original materials in order to demonstrate the ways both narratives were crafted to further social policy agendas.
And the angel of the Lord said unto her, Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael, because the Lord hath heard thy affliction. And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.
Rainy weather and muddy streets kept many of his flock home on Sunday morning, January 20, 1878, when Rev. Oscar C. McCulloch of Indianapolis’s Plymouth Congregational Church delivered a sermon on the problem of the city’s poor. Charity was not an unusual topic within his congregation, which practiced the Social Gospel of applied Christianity—“the alleviation, by physical and spiritual means,” as McCulloch’s daughter, Ruth, would later explain it, “of poverty, ignorance, misery, vice and crime.” This particular lecture, however, reflected a change in his approach to welfare, away from almsgiving and toward the exclusion of applicants deemed unworthy of relief.
It was coincidence that had brought about this key shift in the well-known minister’s attitude: According to McCulloch, his pastoral visits to the poor had acquainted him with the members of one family whose dire poverty so disturbed him that he sought to secure them emergency aid at the Center Township Trustee’s office. There he learned, instead, of the family’s—and their friends’ and relatives’—long history of relief applications. At about the same time, he read a book about “the Jukes,” a New York clan that reminded him of the family he visited in Indianapolis. The book’s author, Richard L. Dugdale, a researcher interested in the causes of poverty and crime, had become curious about the frequency of family ties among inmates he encountered while inspecting county jails for the New York Prison Association. Although Dugdale’s study of criminality among the Jukes (the fictitious surname by which he identified the clan) conceded that environmental factors were as influential as hereditary causes in “giving cumulative force to a career of debauch,” McCulloch concluded that charitable aid targeted only at alleviating deficits such as hunger and homelessness encouraged the proliferation of degenerate families such as the Indianapolis clan, whom he labeled the Ishmaelites. He began to argue for compulsory social controls designed to prevent the “idle, wandering life” and “the propagation of similarly disposed children,” and helped craft legislation to create the State Board of Charities and the Center Township Board of Children’s Guardians. The collaboration he created between public and private charities infused the former—which gave relief without regard to an applicant’s character—with the latter’s strategy of giving based on moral merit. He reorganized the Indianapolis Benevolent Society as the Charity Organization Society (COS) and combined its efforts with those of Center Township relief caseworkers in order to identify citizens perceived to be making poverty their profession. Notes from interviews conducted and other public records gathered by these visitors of the poor were ultimately collected in McCulloch’s family study, which was intended to provide evidence of “a constellation of degenerate behaviors—including alcoholism, pauperism, social dependency, shiftlessness, nomadism, and ‘lack of moral control’ ” caused by inherited genetic defects and exacerbated by current charitable practice. The solution, McCulloch believed, was to “close up official out-door relief… check private and indiscriminate benevolence, or charity, falsely so-called… [and] get hold of the children.”
McCulloch’s renowned career as a progressivist minister and charity reformer was cut short by his premature death, at age forty-eight, in 1891. Although he had succeeded, by at least some estimates, in reducing the number of Indianapolis citizens receiving public and private relief, he did not live to see the unanticipated impact of his Ishmael study on eugenics, the emerging science of race improvement through selective breeding. His work, intended to reduce dependence on public welfare, continued for many years to be cited, with other family studies, as evidence of a need for legislative measures to compel mandatory sterilization of “mental defectives” and criminals. For McCulloch and others of his day, pauperism had in itself implied an inherited moral problem. The scientists who revised his Ishmael family documents in subsequent decades would emphasize his casual observations of individual feeblemindedness to support a more comprehensive agenda for social reform, one that included the institutionalization of adult vagrants, the prevention of any possibility of their future reproduction, and the segregation of their existing children—all to protect the integrity of well-born society’s germ-plasm.10 McCulloch had sought to analyze and solve a social problem through historical narrative; his family studies were later presented as scientific data in support of a larger plan for genetically based social control. The transformation of the largely unscientific Ishmael study and its disparaging rhetoric into a tool in support of a Mendelian agenda for racial hygiene can be seen through a comparison of two sets of Ishmael notes. An examination of the first set, based on records gathered by McCulloch and his colleagues in the late nineteenth century, alongside the second, revised set prepared by biologist Arthur H. Estabrook at the Eugenics Research Office (ERO) of the Carnegie Institution at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, after World War I, reflects the changing social context in which the notes were first written and later edited and reveals the value of the concept of inbred deficiencies to civic leaders seeking public support for racial purity laws…
…Arthur Estabrook’s interest in McCulloch’s “three generations” of intermarried poor families originated during his term as an investigator for the Indiana State Committee on Mental Defectives (1916–18) and continued during his subsequent work on hereditable human traits at the Carnegie Institution’s Eugenics Record Office (ERO), an organization founded in 1910 as a clearinghouse for data on human traits and heredity. Estabrook was especially interested in the traits of mixed-race groups and in the sterilization of “mental defectives.” He presented reexaminations of the Jukes and the Ishmaels at the Second International Congress of Eugenics, held in 1921 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. His work for the ERO also included The Nam Family: A Study in Cacogenics (1912, with Charles B. Davenport) and Mongrel Virginians: The Win Tribe (1926, with Ivan E. McDougle), studies that involved bi-racial and tri-racial individuals respectively. He represented the ERO in Virginia from 1924 to 1926 during an analysis of the issues in the Carrie Buck sterilization lawsuit, and served as the president of the Eugenics Research Association 1925–1926.
Estabrook’s activities following his move to the ERO reflected the widening scientific acceptance of eugenics research and a consequent turn toward more aggressive advocacy, on the part of some scientists and social reformers, for strong measures such as sterilization. Such reformers typically presented compulsory sterilization and other eugenic programs as humanitarian in approach and economic in efficiency. Their studies correlated the increase in immigration to the United States (as well as the persistence of allegedly inferior, native-born descendants of families such as the Ishmaels) with statistics on crime and poverty. In their 1912 report on a rural Massachusetts family they called the Hill Folk, ERO biologists Florence H. Danielson and Charles B. Davenport asked: “Should the industrious, intelligent citizen continue in each generation to triple or quadruple his taxes for maintaining these defectives… or can steps be taken to… prevent the propagation of inevitable dependents?” Other scientists openly expressed concern about cacogenics, the deterioration of a specific genetic stock. British biologist and educator William E. Kellicott spoke on the scientific, ethical, and economic impacts of racial purity and implored his audience “to think of the future of our communities and nations and of our race, rather than contentedly to… parade with self-satisfied air through our glass houses of Anglo-Saxon supremacy.” Dr. H. E. Jordon was even more to the point: “Unless some eliminating mechanism be installed the Anglo-Saxon race surely is doomed to the fate of the Greeks and Romans.”…
Indiana’s 1842 prohibition against miscegenation was still in force in the late 1800s to prevent the “amalgamation of whites and blacks.” A person with one black great-grandparent was considered to be “colored” or “negro.” Marriage between a white person and a person of more than one-eighth “negro blood” remained illegal in Indiana and many other states but some of the married couples recorded in the Ishmael study had apparently skirted those laws. Center Township notetakers often included descriptions of individuals’ complexions in the charity records. The inclusion of these observations of hereditary makeup alongside information such as criminal background or marital history implied that race was somehow genetically linked to pauperism, a significant inference in a city where the “colored” population was growing rapidly. Some individuals are described as mulatto or octoroon while others have “a trace of Negro blood”; some are “very dark” or “swarthy.” One married couple, he with “a trace” and she a mulatto, had a “funny little yellow boy.” One woman who was “very white and possessed very regular features” had a sister whose “very fair white skin” struck the note taker as a strange thing to find in such a poor woman. Another woman, who lived with a mulatto man, “would have been a white woman had she used soap.” A married couple lived on “a dirt street, with houses approaching the shack type, negroes and whites living together.” One man was “a mulatto… born a slave in Virginia, but in some manner secured his freedom… His third and last wife was a very black woman. She had a little property and this was [his] motive for marrying her.” Another man “was a mulatto but seems to have owned a little property.” And another “was of much better mentality than his wife though not of average ability even for a mulatto.”
Although ad hominem comments on race were deleted in the ERO Notes, there is no question that Estabrook resumed study of the Ishmaels in 1915 because of their perceived value to eugenic arguments on racial integrity. The materials he crafted in support of his theories on feeblemindedness for his 1921 presentation to the Second International Congress of Eugenics were archived at the Eugenics Record Office not under “Criminality” or “Mendicancy” (begging or vagrancy) but with files on “Race,” listed between “Negro” and “American Indian–Negro.” Where the Indiana Notes had attempted to document a causal relationship between pauperism and inbred degeneracy at the end of the nineteenth century, the ERO Notes emphasized the social and economic costs to twentieth-century society of unregulated procreation by the “extremely prolific” lower classes. “The underlying condition of the whole Tribe is seen to be feeble-mindedness,” Estabrook asserted, which in poor conditions causes “the anti-social reaction of pauperism, crime, and prostitution.”…