In 1907, Indiana became the first state to pass a law permitting the sterilization of “confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists.” The Ishmaels were invoked in the drafting of the legislation, under which over 2,300 people were sterilized.
Meet the Ishmaels, America’s ‘worst’ family
Eugenicists studied this band of ‘paupers, beggars and thieves, criminals, prostitutes, wanderers.’
The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair was christened “A Century of Progress.” A lot had changed since the first world’s fair in 1893: zeppelins soared, Ford’s assembly line had brought automobiles to the masses, and pre-fabricated homes were the wave of the future.
And eugenics was now considered by many to be a legitimate science. As such, it received its own exhibit at the fair. One panel in the eugenics exhibit showed the genealogy of the best family in America: the Roosevelts. Juxtaposed to that was another panel, showing the genealogy of the worst family in America: the Ishmaels.
“Among certain charity workers and eugenicists at the time,” says Nathaniel Deutsch, a history professor at UC Santa Cruz and author of Inventing America’s “Worst” Family, “any poor white Upland Southerner living in or around Indianapolis could just be called an Ishmaelite or a member of the Tribe of Ishmael as a way of stigmatizing them.”
By the 1930s, the term “Tribe of Ishmael” had come to designate thousands of people who were not all part of the biological same family — though eugenicists sought to prove hereditary connections between them. They were “a group of degenerates found in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and Iowa,” claimed a leaflet from roughly 1921, which tallied 10,000 so-called Ishmaelites. They were “paupers, beggars and thieves, criminals, prostitutes, wanderers.” The leaflet conceded that “some have become good citizens,” but “the great majority are still mating like to like and producing unsocial offspring.”