Jukes family

Pseudonym for the family involved in a psychological study of antisocial behavior.

One of the goals of nineteenth-century American scientists was to determine why some people engaged in undesirable or antisocial behavior. A family from Ulster County in upstate New York provided a great deal of material for speculation about the origins of such behavior. The family was referred to as the Jukes family (the actual family name was kept anonymous).

One of the initial researchers of the Jukes family was Elisha Harris (1824–1884), a New York City physician. He identified a family that, for six generations, had included large numbers of paupers, criminals, and vagrants. He traced the family to a woman he referred to as “Margaret, mother of criminals.” Margaret and her two sisters produced 600 descendants over an 85-year period, many of whom lived on the fringes of society. For example, in one generation that produced 14 children, nine served a total of 50 years in state prison, and the other five were frequently jailed for petty crimes or spent time in poorhouses.

After Harris's discovery, Richard Dugale (1841– 1883) studied the family history intensively. He concluded that the repeated appearance of undesirable behaviors could be traced to environmental rather than hereditary factors. Dugale advocated for decent housing and education for people from damaging environments.

After Dugale's death, some of his contemporaries reinterpreted his research in light of hereditary influences. Instead of advancing the idea that environment influenced the behavior of the Jukes, the notion that antisocial behavior was passed from one generation to the next like any other biological trait was favored. Proponents of this idea included the widely respected physician and author Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809– 1894). Holmes's son later became a United States Supreme Court Justice and issued a famous ruling that allowed legal, involuntary sterilization of people deemed to be genetically “unfit.”

Later research has revealed that the original settlers in Ulster County, like the Jukes, included people who could not adapt to the urban life in nineteenth-century New York City and moved north, living an itinerant life of trapping and hunting. (The name “Jukes” came from the slang term “to juke,” which described the behavior of chickens who did not deposit their eggs in nests, but rather laid them in any convenient spot.) When the area became more densely populated, such individuals lost most of their hunting and trapping land and their way of life. They were looked down upon by later settlers, who preferred to live in houses within a community. The earlier inhabitants, including the Jukes, were forced to live a marginal existence, which foreshadowed their troubles with society. Thus, the understanding of this family shifted from biological to more environmental explanations.

See also Kallikak family ; Nature-nurture controversy .



Bashford, Alison, and Levine, Philippa. The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Dugdale, Richard. “The Jukes” A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease, and Heredity, Also Further Studies of Criminals. New York: AMS Press, 1975.

Gould, S. J. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W. W. Norton, 1981.

Stern, Alexandra. Eugenics Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America, 2nd edition. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2016.