Reverend Oscar Carleton Mcculloch, became interested in the poor of Indianapolis and how society could provide relief for them. McCulloch served both as pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church and president of the Indianapolis Benevolent Society. He encountered a group that he labeled “the Ishmaelites” and described in his diary on January 20, 1878: “They are a wandering lot of beings, marrying, intermarrying, cohabiting, etc. They live mostly out of doors, in the river bottoms, in old houses, etc. They are largely illegitimate, subject to fits…. They are hardly human beings.” McCulloch described a large extended family over several generations and concluded that immorality, feeble-mindedness, and poverty were hereditary.

McCulloch was influenced by The Jukes (1878) by Richard L. Dugdale, a study for the New York Prison Association, who became convinced that Eugenics (improving hereditary qualities through selective “breeding”) might prevent the group’s undesirable social behavior. He recommended rescuing the children from poor families and discontinuing public and private relief to prevent the perpetuation of poverty.

McCulloch’s coauthor was the colorful character James Frank Wright as chief investigator for the Township Trustee’s office. During his reporting days with the Indiana State Sentinel, he compiled reams of vivid colloquialisms and lists of slum names, shanties, and dive bars, and captured them for posterity, including “Happy Hollow,” “Cockroach Row,” and “The Nest.” 

Wright viewed the poor with voyeuristic curiosity and composed sketches of individuals and families, which he used to prepare the diagram contained in the “Tribe of Ishmael.” His years of reporting and investigating led him to conclude that poor laws should not interfere with nature’s intent for the poor or disabled to die young. Wright and McCulloch worked for 10 years compiling histories on 250 families and 5,000 individuals.

Wright and McCulloch presented their findings at the 1890 National Conference of Charities and Correction. They used diagrams of the interrelations of 30 families (1, 692 individuals) over six generations, concluding that heredity contributed to the perpetuation of this “pauper class” and that public relief and benevolence if distributed indiscriminately, contributed to “their idle and wandering life.”

It appears that McCulloch and Wright saw largely what they wanted to see. Dismissing educational, social, and economic factors, they decided that restricting the poor’s ability of those economically lacking to reproduce would be advantageous to the larger society. This idea was well received in Indiana, where the state government led the nation in passing eugenics legislation and mandating the sterilization of the “unfit.”

Some historians consider McCulloch’s study to be his greatest legacy. Recent scholarship reveals the study’s flaws. Jewish Studies scholar Nathaniel Deutsch’s Inventing America’s “Worst” Family (2009) includes a complete analysis to reveal inaccuracies in the study’s findings. Anthropologist Brian Siegel’s research concisely summarizes the inconsistencies in accounts of the alleged Ishmael family. His conclusion is that the family existed, the “tribe” did not, and the publications reveal more about the times and its social history than the subjects themselves.

Revised March 2021

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