While researching a story for an unusual name (Purkaple), I came across an article in the Chanute Daily Tribune (19 Feb 1912). It seems Dudley L. Purkaple of Denver was in a St. Joseph, Missouri restaurant when he spilled a hot cup of coffee in his lap. He was arrested and hauled before a judge. Was it illegal to spill hot coffee in one’s lap (ouch!)?
No, but it was illegal to swear. Purkaple admitted to using bad language, “but, your honor, I could not help it. I spilled a cup of steaming hot coffee all over my trousers and under the stress of great pain and much embarrassment I swore I begged the pardon of the restaurant man, but a policeman arrested me.”
In today’s increasingly coarse culture, that kind of law would be hard to enforce, eh? As a matter of fact laws against profanity and blasphemy are still on the books in some states:
Michigan Blasphemy Law: “Any person who shall willfully blaspheme the holy name of God, by cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.”
Mississippi Profanity Law: “If any person shall profanely swear or curse, or use vulgar and indecent language, or be drunk in any public place, in the presence of two (2) or more persons, he shall, on conviction thereof, be fined not more than one hundred dollars ($100.00) or be imprisoned in the county jail not more than thirty (30) days each.”
North Carolina (no swearing on public highways law): “If any person shall, on any public road or highway and in the hearing of two or more persons, in a loud and boisterous manner, use indecent or profane language, he shall be guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor.”
Michigan Profanity Law: “Any person who shall utter or speak any obscene or lascivious language or word in any public place, or in the presence of females, or in the presence of children under ten (10) years of age, he shall be liable to a fine of not more than One Hundred Dollars ($100.00), or imprisonment for not more than thirty (30) days, or both.”
Rhode Island Profanity Law (wrist-slap): “Every person who shall be guilty of profane swearing and cursing shall be fined not exceeding five dollars ($5.00).
Can these laws be enforced? In 1912, the judge replied, “Of course you did wrong to swear, but I believe you were almost justified and that you have suffered enough. Your case is dismissed.” In 2007, a federal district court in North Carolina (United States v. Flowers) upheld the North Carolina law noted above, with a bit of a twist. The court used a broad interpretation to uphold the law, but only as it applied to an imminent breach of peace. In other words, if the words were leading to an altercation of some sort.
A Michigan man won his appeal, however, after being convicted of cussing a three-minute-long blue streak in hearing range of a family with young children. He was canoeing down the Rifle River, hit a rock, went under, resurfaced, and let loose. Even with the appeals win, Timothy Boomer would forever be known as the “cussing canoeist”.
I suppose it’s highly debatable whether these laws could be enforced universally given the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. There are so many, many laws on the books of our country (national, state, local) I can’t imagine them all being enforced … and, of course, we know many – even important ones – aren’t.
Today when you see a reference to these antiquated laws (in the sense they’ve been on the books a significantly long time), more often than not they are mocked. Personally, I’m not at all sure we should be in the business of “legislating morality” although, please understand, I’m not advocating crude language, abortion or other hot-button issues of the day. Human nature being what it is, some laws must be enacted to address moral depravity.
I wonder what our ancestors would think of the laws we have on the books these days? A full-time Congress? A four trillion (plus!) dollar annual budget, which by the way is in serious need of reining in and balancing?
Speaking of legislation . . . I don’t think the citizenry has ever been real enamored with Congress. In 1880, the good sensible people of Missouri sure weren’t:
Congress adjourned during the holidays. Now the wisest thing that body can do both for itself and the country is to remain adjourned until the 1st of March, then pocket its pay and go home. Weekly Graphic (Kirksville, Missouri), 31 Dec 1880.
Or, consider the problem of presidential “graft”. It was a fact of life that presidents, upon taking office, could expect a constant stream of folks wanting so-called patronage jobs – and when I say “constant stream” I mean they came to the White House and waited to be seen. Also known as the “spoils system” (“to the victor go the spoils”), a president had the right to appoint persons to government positions purely on the basis of their political support – not whether they were the best qualified.
The whole system was totally out of control by the 1880’s – in fact, the assassination of President James Garfield was attributed to a disgruntled patronage seeker who didn’t get his political appointment. The guy was seriously crazy – if you’d like to read an excellent book about it, check out this review). Congress was moved to act by passing the Civil Service or Pendleton Act of 1883 (more laws came later).
Garfield would have been much better off if more folks had been like this:
Some of the presents which the President-elect receives are as quaint and amusing as are some of the applications for office. Recently an honest German, of Pennsylvania, who is engaged in the manufacture of rustic chairs, came here, bringing with him a specimen of his handiwork for General Garfield’s use. It is a rustic chair made entirely of hickory withes, very curiously and ingeniously wrought together. In the center of the back is a representation of a canal boat, made of the same material as the rest of the chair. In its way, it is an elaborate and artistic piece of work, and the maker was very proud of it. When he arrived with this chair at the railway station he was met by the ubiquitous interviewer, who said: “You want an office of course?” “Mein Gott, no!” replied the chairmaker. “I shust vant to see Sheneral Garfieldt – und advertise mein shairs!” (Weekly Graphic, 31 Dec 1880).
Or how about Garfield’s predecessor, Rutherford Hayes, who before winning the presidency had experienced some financial setbacks during the Panic of 1873. He was being urged to run for governor of Ohio but was of the conviction he should take care of his own private affairs. Hayes had been in partnership with an uncle, whose death was caused from the stress of their losses, leaving him with all the debt (about $65,000).
He agreed to run for governor, his party believing him to be the only one who could successfully represent them, at great personal sacrifice. Eventually it led to his nomination and election as President of the United States, but his personal affairs were still in disarray. He decided to take out a personal loan to avoid the annoyance of the overhanging debt during his term as president. His salary was $50,000 per year as President, and by the time his term was completed he had paid approximately $75,000 of his personal indebtedness.
As the Weekly Graphic pointed out, it was a “showing of which the president has no reason to be ashamed, and in which the American people may properly feel considerable pride.” In addition, records showed that Hayes had taken about $30,000 more out his “private purse” than his predecessors.
Wouldn’t that be refreshing to see a little (okay a lot) more integrity today? I know, I know . . . but I can hope and dream can’t I?
Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!