Historical essay
From Mooktie to Juan: The Eugenic Origins of the “Defective Immigrant”

From Mooktie to Juan: The Eugenic Origins of the “Defective Immigrant”

On a Monday in November 1905, a “little deaf and dumb … 10-year old Eurasian girl” called Mooktie Wood arrived in the US on the steamship Canopic. An orphan with no known relatives, Mooktie had been “picked up” by an American Pentecostal missionary, Lillian Sprague, in the wake of one of the many devastating famines that swept through British India.1 Sprague had made public appeals to educate Mooktie in a US school for the deaf; arrangements had eventually been made for her to attend  Edgewood Park in Pittsburgh.2

Copy of a newspaper article from 1905 titled "Little East Indian Girl Comes to 'Heaven'," including a black and white photo of a young girl with the caption: Mooktie Wood, East Indian deaf mute, to become missionary.
An article from the 1950 Boston Journal reporting on Mookti Wood’s arrival in the US. (Boston Journal, November 14, 1905.)

However, when Mooktie arrived, immigration officials detained “the little Hindoo maiden,” refusing her the right to land on the basis of her disabilities and subsequently ordered her to be deported. Newspapers picked up the story and reported that petitions were to be sent to the President himself to allow her entry into the country.

Despite the brief flutter of stories about her, however, Mooktie’s fate is unclear. The very newspapers that reported about Mooktie’s arrival were silent on whether the public petitions worked, or if Mooktie was deported. What we do know is that Mooktie’s story is neither unique nor the last of its kind.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, deaf and disabled potential immigrants were routinely sent away from American ports of entry because they were deemed “defective.”3 Take the case of Moische Fischmann, a deaf Jewish blacksmith who arrived at Ellis Island in December 1913. Although he was fleeing Russian pogroms and faced “possibl(e) destruction” if deported, Fischmann, like Mooktie, was denied permission to enter the country.4

More than a century later, the disabled immigrant has again become a lightning rod for public discourse around immigration in the twenty-first century.5 Their bodies are metaphorically dissected and weighed as their stories are tossed around on social media. One example is Juan Gaspar-Garcia, who was arrested by the US Department of Homeland Security at the tent-raising company where he worked on April 17, 2018.

A Guatemalan immigrant, he had graduated from a special needs program in Florida and became the focus of an online petition set up by his sister and family, who said that he needed care because he had Down’s syndrome. Gaspar-Garcia was eventually released from detention and his case is now pending.

In the same month, Charles Mukherjee, who was seeking asylum in the UK with his parents from Pakistan, was detained during a routine sign-in at the Home Office and separated from his parents. Charles has learning disabilities along with epilepsy and has had seizures since being detained by authorities. Separated as they are by the decades, the stories of Mooktie and Moische, Juan and Charles all illustrate the continuing legacies of eugenics in shaping immigration discourse and policy.

Eugenics (meaning “well-born”) was first coined in the work of statistician and geographer Francis Galton in 1883 “to express the science of improving stock, which is by no means confined to questions of judicious mating but which, especially in the case of man, takes cognisance of all influences that however remote a degree to give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had.”6

Proponents of eugenics advocated “positive eugenics” (encouraging physically and intellectually “fit” classes of society to marry and have more children) and “negative eugenics” — or policies intended to limit the nuptiality and fertility of “eugenically unfit” classes (including sterilization and euthanasia). By the end of the nineteenth century, eugenics was a transnational discourse which translated into policies in spaces as diverse as the Ottoman Empire, Brazil, China, Puerto Rico, and Germany.7 Certainly, public discourse and policy on immigration in the US, Canada, and Australia were indelibly shaped by eugenics.

Black and white illustrated cartoon depicting a man with what meant to be read as a ragged coat and hat and unkempt beard and mustache bragging that he is the "undesirable immigrant ... a dirty, lousy bum, fill of disease, racial weakness, ignorance and hatreds." The cartoon ends with the man conspiratorily saying that "This gov'ment is a cinch! Soon me and my kind'll run this dump! Then we won't let nobody take a bath!"
Political cartoon from 1921 titled, “Civilization builders. I am the undesirable immigrant.” (Associated Newspapers/US Library of Congress)

Francis Galton himself claimed that the “ablest race” — the ancient Greeks — maintained their fitness because “Athens opened her arms to immigrants, but not indiscriminately. For her social life was such that none but very able men could take any pleasure in it.”8 Eventually, eugenics provided what appeared to be a “scientific rationale” for justifying and amplifying anti-immigrant sentiment.

Contemporary newspaper articles drew explicitly on eugenic categories to frame the immigrant as “undesirable.”

Robert DeCourcy Ward, professor of climatology at Harvard and co-founder of the Immigration Restriction League, claimed in 1913 that the US:

[gblockquote]is taking more pains today to see that a Hereford bull or a southdown ewe, imported for the improvement of our cattle, are sound and free from disease than it takes in the admission of an alien man or women who will be the father and mother of American children. How far do our present immigration laws enable us to exclude those aliens who are mentally, physically and morally undesirable for parenthood; those whose coming here will tend to produce an inferior rather than a superior American race; those who, in other words, are eugenically unit for race culture.9[/gblockquote]

For DeCourcy and many in academia and politics, the disabled immigrant was therefore doubly undesirable and condemned frequently in newspapers.

The US Immigration Act of 1917 further reified the sense that the immigrant was both a threat to the eugenic fitness of the nation-state and that the disabled or chronically ill immigrant was even more of a threat. Even after the passage of the 1917 act, key figures in US eugenics became anti-immigration lobbyists, notably Harry Laughlin, who testified three times before the House of Representatives on Immigration and Naturalization between 1920 and 1924.

First, he argued that the failure to “sort immigrants” was a “serious national menace,” resulting in a disproportionate number of inmates in asylums being from southern and eastern Europe (despite his own evidence suggesting otherwise).10 Appointed as an “expert eugenics agent” Laughlin continued to use problematic data to argue that the new immigrants were “eugenically unfit” in varying ways and (perhaps most important) “dependent.” Laughlin’s testimonies gave a “scientific” weight to the anti-immigration sentiment that eventually crystallized in the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924.

Photograph shows immigrants gathered in small room, two with shirts off being examined by physicians; eye chart written in Hebrew hangs on wall.
Physicians examining a group of Jewish immigrants, c. 1907, at Ellis Island, NY. (Underwood & Underwood/US Library of Congress)

Eugenics also shaped the policies implemented at ports of entry — including intelligence testing and physical examinations. Disabled people like Mooktie and Moische who sought entry were therefore considered not just dependents, but also as carriers of a “defective heredity,” which could infect the body of the US nation-state.

More than a century later, the legacies of eugenics are unmistakable in public discourse and immigration policy. The metaphors still used to describe the immigrant (legal or illegal) often refer to the corporeal threats they supposedly pose: they are sources of contagion, harbingers of “filth,” and of other physical dangers ranging from rape to murder. Disabled immigrants are still perceived and discussed only as “costs” and “drains.”

Disabled immigrants are constructed as neither capable of the “extraordinary” nor of ordinary acts to earn them a place in society. They are stripped of nuance and depth, reduced to their diagnosis, and judged as wanting on the basis of that condition. Unsurprisingly, disabled and chronically ill individuals continue to be extraordinarily vulnerable within increasingly hostile immigration systems.

Moische Fleischmann did not have the opportunity to be a blacksmith in the US, and Mooktie Wood was likely sent home to an unknown fate. But the story of George Tait serves as a fitting conclusion to this story. Born in Scotland, Tait immigrated to the US in 1851.11 Knowing that his “infirmities” could lead to his deportation at the port of entry, Tait concealed his deafness from customs officers and managed to enter the US. He worked in a shipyard in Maine but later migrated to Canada, where he would go on to establish the first school for the “deaf-mute” in Halifax with William Gray, another “deaf-mute” Scotsman.

Tait’s life was certainly shaped by his deafness, but his contributions to the land he settled in were undeniable. Maybe it is time to understand disabled immigrants as more than “burdens” and to see them as the complex bundle of possibilities and potentials that they are.


  1. Immigrant Laws Halt Poor Child, Trenton Times, 20 November, 1905, p.5; Springfield Republican, 31 December, 1905, p.21. Return to text.
  2. “Little East Indian Girl Comes to ‘Heaven’: Deaf Pittsburg Printer Finds Child Afflicted Like Himself,” Boston Journal, 14 November 1905, p. 12. Return to text.
  3. Douglas C. Baynton, Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016). Return to text.
  4. Baynton, Defectives in the Land. Return to text.
  5. See Jay Timothy Dolmage, Disabled Upon Arrival: Eugenics, Immigration and the Construction of Race and Disability (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2018); Baynton, Defectives in the Land. Return to text.
  6. Francis Galton, Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development (London: Macmillan and Co., 1883), pp.24-25. https://books.google.com/books?id=F9UnAAAAYAAJ Return to text.
  7. Just as a start, see Christian Promitzer, Sevasti Trubeta and Marius Turda, eds. Health, Hygiene and Eugenics in Southeastern Europe to 1945, Budapest: Central European University Press, 2011; Ayca Alemdaroglu, “Eugenics, modernity and nationalism,” in David M. Tuner and Kevin Stagg, eds. Social Histories of Disability and Deformity, London: Routledge, 2006, 126-42. Return to text.
  8. Francis Galton, Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into its Laws and Consequences, 340. Return to text.
  9. Robert DeCourcy Ward, “National Eugenics in Relation to Immigration,” The North American Review (1821-1940); Boston Vol. 192, Iss. 656, (Jul 1910): 56; Plain Dealer, December 25, 1913, p.4. Return to text.
  10. Biological Aspects of Immigration Hearings Before The Committee on Immigration and Naturalization House of Representatives Sixty-Sixth Congress Second Session April 16-17, 1920 Statement of Harry H. Laughlin [graphic] Washington Government Printing Office. Return to text.
  11. George Tait, Autobiography of George Tait: A deaf-mute who first gave instructions to the Deaf and Dumb in the City of Halifax, Halifax: James Bowes and Sons, 1890. https://collections.nlm.nih.gov/bookviewer?PID=nlm:nlmuid-56310030R-bkReturn to text.

Aparna Nair is currently Assistant Professor in the History of Science Department at the University of Oklahoma-Norman. Her work focuses on disability history, disability studies, colonial medicine and popular culture. She can be reached at aparna.nair@ou.edu.