5. Illinois once recognized American as the officially recognized language in the state
Another oft-repeated myth is that of an Illinois law which recognizes American, rather than English, as the official language recognized by the state. Illinois did enact such a law, in 1923, but after 46 years of the state’s residents continuing to speak and be taught English the law was amended in 1969. Still, the myth persists and is repeated in numerous websites which claim the law as being in force on the books. The myth is one of several laws in the state which gain credence through repetition but have no basis of fact. Another is a law in Chicago which prohibits fishing while wearing pajamas, which was first reported in 1964 by the Chicago Tribune.
Chicago also prohibits giving whiskey to dogs, flying kites within the limits of the city, and spitting on the sidewalk. Throughout the state of Illinois, barbers are prohibited by law from applying shaving lather to the faces of their customers using their fingers. Bars in Chicago are banned from selling alcoholic beverages to anyone deemed mentally unfit. It is a misdemeanor in the town of Joliet to mispronounce the town’s name, and the miscreant who does so is subject to a fine. Moline, Illinois makes it illegal to ice skate on an outdoor pond from June to August, a law which is likely seldom broken.
In 1924, smoking in public was proscribed in the state of Indiana, and in the city of South Bend a performing chimpanzee, as part of a show, lit and smoked a cigarette. The story was recounted in an article in the Notre Dame Law Review in 1927, which also reported that the chimpanzee was prosecuted for the offense, under the law which was meant to prevent humans from smoking in public. According to the author, Joseph P. McNamara, in an article entitled Animal Prisoner at the Bar, the chimpanzee was “arrested, tried, and fined five dollars”. Obviously, the animal didn’t have five dollars and it is believed that his owner paid his fine.
Indiana has other laws which can be regarded as, shall we say, somewhat pointless. One cannot purchase a drink at an Indiana bar and carry it to a table. A server must carry it instead. An automobile may not be purchased or traded on Sunday in Indiana (and several other states) as a result of Blue Laws, which were enacted and upheld in courts many times due to their causing, according to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Stephen Johnson Field, “periodical cessation of labor”. Because most Blue Laws are in effect on Sundays they are also known as Sunday Laws. Indiana also makes particularly vicious gossip illegal, though how it enforces that particular law and detects violations is a mystery.
Alaska is known for its wildlife, and in particular for its bears, which are often encountered by hikers and campers, as well as wildlife photographers. For some reason, the legislature in Alaska deemed it necessary to pass a law which prohibits the awakening of sleeping bears for the purpose of photographing them. Whether this was passed for the purpose of protecting the image of the bear, since few look their best immediately after awakening, or another reason is questionable. Likely it was intended to protect less than intelligent visitors to the woods desirous of a photograph of a bear, unaware of the potential ferocity of a recently startled bear.
Across the American frontier bear wrestling was a popular diversion (as was alligator wrestling in the coastal south) and as recently as 1996 was a legal activity in Oklahoma, when legislation was passed barring wrestling between humans and bears. Bear wrestling remained popular in the section of the country known as the Sun Belt, and the animals were frequently declawed and defanged. Many of the human wrestlers who engaged in matches with bears were well lubricated with alcohol (it was a popular activity in bars) and to help even the odds the bears were often sedated prior to the match.
8. In this Virginia town trick or treating over the age of 12 can lead to jail time
The city of Chesapeake, Virginia passed a law which restricts the Halloween tradition of trick or treating to children below the age of twelve and limits the activity to a specified time period of two hours, with penalties for continuing to collect candy after eight o’clock at night. The law states that anyone over the age of twelve engaging in the activity is “guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be punished by a fine of not less than $25.00 nor more than $100.00 or by confinement in jail for not more than six months or both”. Continuing to trick or treat after the allotted time leads to lesser penalties, with not more than thirty days in jail and a fine ranging from ten to one hundred dollars.
Surrounding communities adopted similar ordinances, with Portsmouth, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Virginia Beach restricting children over the age of 12 from participating in the Halloween tradition, though they allow older children to escort their younger siblings, while not wearing masks. Other communities around the country also limit the age at which children may solicit free candy on Halloween. In Charleston, South Carolina, children may trick or treat until the age of sixteen, for example. All of the communities which restrict the activity to younger children claim that their chief motivation for doing so is safety, apparently attempting to protect them from predatory older children.
9. Strange laws regarding the use of the automobile abound in the United States
As with other purported strange laws, many claimed to be directed at the automobile are myths and urban legends. One such is an often repeated assertion that driving a black car in the city of Denver, Colorado, is against an archaic law, though no evidence of the law ever existing has been found. The city of Youngstown, Ohio, did make it illegal to run out of gas within the downtown district, subject to a fine of up to $100 if caught in violation, guilty of a minor misdemeanor. Hilton Head in South Carolina has a law which prohibits storing trash in an automobile, enacted as part of a rat control initiative. North Dakota banned parking meters after a farmer was ticketed and started a campaign to have meters removed. He was successful in getting them banned.
For reasons which pass all understanding, Alabama enacted a law which bans driving while blindfolded. The widely disseminated myth that Massachusetts has a law specifically addressing the transportation of a gorilla in the back seat is false. Massachusetts has a law addressing the transportation of animals in the back of vehicles, and a humorous writer substituted the word gorilla for animals (gorillas of course being animals) in a magazine article, which was repeated by others. An earlier Massachusetts law addressed the transportation of “dangerous wild animals” but it did not mention gorillas either. Nonetheless, other Massachusetts statutes would pertain which makes transporting a gorilla in the back seat illegal in the Commonwealth.
10. Strange laws in North Carolina cover a variety of human foibles
In Dunn, North Carolina, driving through a cemetery is against the law unless the driver is there to bury someone or to prepare a grave. The same town passed laws which make it illegal to play in traffic and to drive on the sidewalk, which would seem to indicate the town leaders perceived a lack of common sense among the good people of Dunn. Across the state, an unmarried man and woman who register in a hotel together as married are legally in that happy state henceforth. An archaic law in Forest City required the driver of an automobile to stop at the city limits before entering and notify city hall of his automobile entering the city.
A Charlotte city ordinance passed in an earlier and more modest age requires women to be enveloped in not less than 16 yards of cloth before appearing outside of their homes. The city leaders of Barber, North Carolina defied centuries of nature and passed a law which prohibited dogs from chasing cats and the two fighting at any time. Stifling a sneeze is a necessary skill in Asheville, where sneezing on a public street is illegal. Finally, a state law prohibits the use of elephants by farmers to plow their fields, which dates back to the traveling circus days when elephants were used as beasts of burden when not performing with their handlers.
11. Pennsylvania has some unusual laws which affect explosives
In Pennsylvania, a law has been on the books since colonial days regarding the celebration of weddings. It is against the law to fire a gun, a cannon, or cause any other form of explosion at a wedding, either in celebration or otherwise. By the way, ministers are not allowed to go forward with a wedding ceremony if the groom is in their opinion drunk. A more recent Pennsylvania law allows merchants of the state to sell fireworks, but not to residents of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Another law still in effect requires motorists to stop at intervals of one mile when on rural roads, fire signal flares, and wait ten minutes for livestock along the road ahead to be cleared out of the way.
If the same motorist, or any other driving along the road, saw a horse or horses coming towards him he not only had to yield the right of way but disguise his vehicle with a tarp or other cloth which concealed it completely in a manner which allowed it to blend with the environment. Pennsylvania is one of several states which outlaws the catching of fish using only the hands (Indiana is another). However, Pennsylvania also outlaws the use of dynamite or other submerged explosives to catch fish. The use of explosives in fishing often led to many dead fish of all sizes, those undesired left in the water, and thus the state took action against the depth-bombers.
This law actually made some sense when it was enacted, though there aren’t that many camels roaming the American Southwest today. During the 19th century, the US Army experimented with a camel corps, intended to supplement the horses of the cavalry in desert conditions. The experiment failed, and several dozen camels were transferred into private hands, where they proved useful in many circumstances. They were still fairly common when the automobile came into being and was banned from the public roads because they were notoriously skittish and dangerous when an automobile approached. The law remains in effect.
In Elko, Nevada, a law requires people walking on the streets of the city wear a mask at all times. The law was borne of the 1918-20 Spanish Flu pandemic that caused a huge number of deaths around the world in the aftermath of the great conflagration known as World War One. Masks were believed to be effective against the spread of influenza. A century later, walking the streets of Elko while wearing a mask is more likely to draw the attention of the constabulary than appearing without one, but the law remains on the books. Eureka, Nevada has a law which prohibits a man with a mustache from kissing a woman.
13. It’s not better with Blue Bonnet on it in Wisconsin
In 1925 the State of Wisconsin, known for its dairy industry, passed a law which made the sale, possession, or use of margarine in the state illegal. It was partially rescinded in 1967, but state-operated hospitals, asylums, prisons, and other institutions still make the serving of butter rather than margarine mandatory, except for medical reasons. It remained and still remains illegal to serve margarine rather than butter in restaurants unless the customer either requested the former or was informed of the use of the product which a former Wisconsin governor called the “yellow stick from Satan himself”. Obviously, Wisconsin intended to protect its dairy industry.
Wauwatosa Wisconsin has a strange regulation that when pondered gives pause. The public library, which in virtually every community in America is one of its most valuable institutions, like all libraries frowns on late return of borrowed materials. The Wauwatosa library requires those holding materials past their return date to turn in their library card until such time as the materials in question are returned. Why trading the library card for an extended possession of the borrowed materials is the preferred manner of dealing with a problem all libraries deal with is unexplained.
14. Many jurisdictions made it illegal to dye ducks on Sunday
One of the commonly recounted strange laws in the United States discussed on websites, magazine articles, and books are those which prohibited the dyeing of ducks on Sundays. Often tied to the Easter holiday, most of these descriptions of the laws banning the practice are examples of circular research and reporting. The idea that cities and states had to enact laws to keep ducks and ducklings from being dyed in unnatural colors is mostly false. Jurisdictions did enact laws proscribing the dyeing of ducks at certain times and under certain conditions, but they had nothing to do with fowl. They were another of the Blue Laws, ironically.
The ducks referred to by the laws were duck cloth, a heavy cotton fabric, and duck canvas. Both were popular materials for clothes, especially work clothes, in the days before denim replaced them in popularity. As part of the Blue Laws which were enabled in part to provide a cessation of labor, usually on Sunday, laws were passed outlawing the dyeing of duck cloth, which was commonly called ducks, part of the process of turning bolts of cloth into clothing. There was no need to pass laws prohibiting the dyeing of aquatic birds, though the practice of dyeing fowl later spread to chicks and ducklings as Easter gifts in the late 20th century.
15. Jumping frogs may be celebrated, but not eaten in California
The short story which launched the writing career of Samuel Clemens under the pen name Mark Twain was The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, set in Angels Camp, California. Frog jumping contests were popular pastimes in logging and mining camps, backwater towns, and even in the larger river towns, before and after Twain’s short story. As with all amusements, the popularity drew the attention of the government, and steps to regulate fun in the land of the free were taken by the elected representatives of the people. Frog jumping contests were no exception, as the California legislature made clear.
In 1957 the State of California legislature passed and enacted a law which reads, “Any person may possess any number of live frogs to use in frog-jumping contests, but if such a frog dies or is killed, it must be destroyed as soon as possible, and may not be eaten or otherwise used for any purpose”. As it is the legs of the frog which are most commonly eaten by humans, and as the legs of a celebrated jumping frog are likely well developed the California legislature thus denied the treat (for those who like frog legs) to the owner who presumably raised and trained the frog. But, the law is the law, and jumping frogs are not allowed to be served at tables in California.
16. Gainesville, Georgia forbade eating fried chicken with a fork in 1961
Eating fried chicken with one’s hands is as American as hot dogs, a picnic favorite, where the use of tableware is often ignored. One of America’s earliest fast food chains used the phrase “finger-lickin’ good” as its tag line for decades when referring to its fried chicken. But Gainesville took it a step further when in 1961 it made it illegal to eat fried chicken in any manner other than by the consumer eating it by hand. The law was enacted as part of a publicity campaign extolling the Georgia community as the premier fried chicken eating community in the United States, but it remains on the books and was even enforced as part of a prank on a vistor’s birthday in 2009.
The town of Quitman, Georgia has a law which forbids chickens to cross the road, according to several legal websites. Though the law appears on many sites which promote the existence of laws that are provably false, it also appears on sites touting the services of law firms. Quitman’s official website does not mention the law, possibly because chickens are unlikely to avail themselves of the internet. As an aside Quitman is also the birthplace of James Pierpont, who was the uncle of financier J. P. Morgan and the writer of the song Jingle Bells, created when he served as a church organist in the town.
17. Arizona allows the selling of horse meat in restaurants if the customer is warned
A law which no doubt goes back to the days of the Earps in Tombstone allows restaurants to sell horse meat, but only if the fact that it is horsemeat is noted clearly on the menu, printed in green ink. Why diners would opt for the horsemeat is anybody’s guess. Another law cited but provably false in Arizona elevates the commission of a misdemeanor into a felony of the committer of the crime is wearing a red ski mask at the time. Still another law prohibits six adult women from living in the same house at the same time and is likely in place as part of the crackdown on brothels as the state tamed itself from its more open wild west days. Other states have similar laws, though the number of women allowed varies.
Stealing soap in Arizona is often reported as being punished, in part, with a law which requires the thief to use up the entire bar. The law is reported in some media as being active in Mohave County. As with many of the strange laws so often reported there is little to verify them other than the circular reporting which drives many urban legends and myths. Mohave County doesn’t list it. Another often reported Arizona law, this one a city law in Tucson, Arizona, prohibits women from wearing pants within city limits. The existence of that law has been completely debunked by the state historian, yet it continues to appear on websites and in magazine articles as if it wer factually correct.
18. Some strange Oregon laws, and the truth behind them
Numerous sites which list purported strange laws claim that in Oregon it is illegal to use corn as bait when fishing. That statement is false. It is legal to use corn as bait, but a fisherman cannot empty a can of corn, or corn in some other form, over the side of his boat or into the water if bank fishing, in the form of chum to attract fish. Another reported law in Oregon requires anyone juggling in Hood River to have a license. That one is true, more or less, the city doesn’t enforce the regulation but it remains on the books. Another Oregon community, Salem, bans slingshots and bean shooters from its streets and public places, such as parks.
In Sheridan, Oregon, an ordinance literally bans spitting on the sidewalk, a term often used as a reference to the least possible crime a person can be charged with. It includes streets, alleys, public buildings, and parks unless there are vessels designed as receptacles for the purpose of being used by those who expectorate. Yamhill, Oregon bans fortune tellers, seers, astrologers, tarot readers, and the rest of what the community refers to as the occult arts. Throughout the state riding in the back of a pickup truck is illegal except under special circumstances, as is riding on the outside of an automobile, as on the hood or fenders.
19. Some so-called strange laws which simply don’t exist
One of the popular dumb laws cited by many of the websites and magazine articles which specialize in disseminating them regards a law in Arkansas which makes it illegal to pronounce the state’s name incorrectly by sounding the final letter. According to the story, the legislature made it illegal to pronounce the state’s name in any manner other than Ar’-kan-saw. The claim that those who mispronounce the name is subject to fines or even jail time is false, has always been false and is linked to an act of the legislature in 1881, where after years of dispute they adopted the above pronunciation as official. However, they attached no penalty for mispronunciation.
Another law which is claimed to be on the books in Arkansas is one which bans flirtation between men and women, with some attributing it to the state generically and others citing that it is in effect in Little Rock. It too is mostly false. Little Rock does have a statute that makes certain gestures and actions between men and women illegal, and it includes the word flirt, but it was written with the intent of preventing solicitation for the purpose of prostitution, “along any of the sidewalks, streets, or public ways of the City of Little Rock” and is no longer in effect.
20. Most so-called strange laws aren’t laws at all
The vast majority of the reported strange or archaic laws said to be still in effect in the American states are urban myths, misinterpretations, or simply made up. Some are deliberate distortions of existing laws, as in the Massachusetts law which bans transporting wild animals in the back of vehicles. Since a gorilla is a wild animal and the law bans their transportation, some imaginative soul decided that Massachusetts had a law banning gorillas from the back seat and an urban legend was born. It could just as easily have been a wolf, or a bear, or some other animal which was at one time indigenous to the region, which would have led to yet another strange law which in reality doesn’t exist.
One strange law that does exist comes from the State of Tennessee and addresses the disposal of what is commonly called roadkill; dead animals in or alongside the roadways of the state. If the animal is a game animal a driver happening upon it (the law doesn’t say he has to be the one which struck the animal) is allowed to “possess it for your personal use and consumption”. If the animal happens to be a deer the law specifies whoever takes it must notify the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) within 24 hours, providing them the possessor’s name and address. Bears are also available to the finder, but with a permit issued from the TWRA. Good dining.
Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources: