Legislation Aimed at
From Radiance Spring 1991
Judge Roy Bean, the cantankerous "hangin' judge" of the Old West, was fond of telling the story of a "smart alecky" young attorney who found himself pleading a case in the small Texas town of Sweetwater. After the lawyer's long and learned oration, Judge Bean swept the counsel's arguments aside with a peremptory wave of his hand. "What you say may be in all them there law books, all right," said Bean, "but it sure ain't the law of Sweetwater."
Many towns and cities in the United States harbor something akin to "the law of Sweetwater" in their statute books, and some of their laws focus on large women in puzzling ways. No one knows exactly how they got there. And certainly no one within living memory has been arrested under them. But there they are, eloquent testimonies to some poor judge's exasperation at having to settle a daily load of local disputes for which, in a judicial system dictated by the law of precedents, no precedents existed.
How else can we account for the origins of a law making it illegal for a large woman in Kenton, Tennessee, to wear a nightgown while cutting or arranging flowers in her backyard? Or an ordinance in Rosette, Utah, prohibiting a man from looking at a full-figured woman "in that way" while she's walking down a public street? (Caught a second time, the violator has to "wear horse blinders" for a twenty-four-hour period when out in public.) Or the fact that in Lawrence, Massachusetts, it's illegal for a passerby to "give the razzberries" to a large woman seen at a flea market!
Over the years, I have come to realize that whenever anyone feels inclined to say, There oughta be a law, there probably already is one, somewhere. For example, Longview, Texas, has a strange piece of antiquated legislation. The law says that no heavy woman who wears "any device or thing attached to her head, hair, headgear or hat, which device or thing is capable of lacerating the flesh of any other person with whom it may come in contact and which is not sufficiently guarded against the possibility of so doing, shall be adjudged a disorderly woman."
Laws having to do with Sunday were usually written and passed as the need arose, with the primary intent of simply keeping the Sabbath holy. The extremely fundamentalist attitudes of small-town religious leaders usually prevailed, and churches had enormous influence on laws pertaining to a multitude of things. For example, in Elmira, Michigan, it's against the law for a "fleshy" woman to ride a horse to church on Sunday. And Crawford, Nebraska, has an unusual law on the books regarding the Sabbath. Heavy women who happen to be single, widowed, or divorced are banned from parachuting on Sunday. Any large single woman who takes part in such outlandish activities can be arrested, fined, and given a jail term.
Politicos in Rock Springs, Wyoming, once passed this law regarding well-rounded females: No such female "between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one years shall appear in a bathing suit within this community unless she be escorted by at least two officers or unless she be armed with a club." This amendment was soon after added to the original ordinance: "The provisions of this statute shall not apply to females weighing less than 90 pounds nor exceeding 350 pounds nor shall it apply to female horses."
Author Samuel Johnson once said, "The law is the last result of human wisdom acting upon human experience for the benefit of the public." A noble philosophy, perhaps, but local officials who wrote some of these loony laws concerning women seem to have acted for no greater purpose than a good belly laugh.
Doctors practicing in Upperville, Virginia, seem to have an unusual social responsibility. An odd piece of legislation there says that every fat woman must "be found to be wearing a corset" when attending a public dance. A physician is required to inspect each large female appearing at the dance to ascertain that she is, in fact, complying with the law.
A strange law on the books in Hickory Plains, Arkansas, says that no large woman wearing lingerie can be rescued by a fireman. Such a woman must always get fully dressed before she can legally be assisted by a fireman during a fire. In the quiet little community of Redbush, Kentucky, it's illegal for a "large-busted" woman to be seen riding "an ugly horse" in a public place.
Let's hope thirst doesn't become a major problem if you're a large woman in Clearbrook, Minnesota. No woman over 200 pounds can expect to walk into a tavern and be graciously served. It's illegal for such a woman to stand within five feet of a bar when she takes a drink in any public establishment serving alcoholic beverages. And in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, it's against the law for a heavy woman to eat ice cream in public with a fork!
Large woman have also been pegged by loony laws regulating recreation. It's a violation of the law for a large woman to fish on the Sabbath in Burdoville, Vermont. Evidently large men can fish on the Sabbath since the law makes no mention of them. And no full-figured married woman in West Union, Ohio, can fish without her spouse along at any time unless she's been married for more than twelve months.
Grant's Pass, Oregon, won't allow large female acrobats to perform on a sidewalk. Why such an ordinance? The city fathers decreed that such activity might frighten some of the local horses. And for some unknown reason, heavy women are prohibited from walking a tightrope within the city limits of Tamarack, Idaho.
Are you a large woman who happens to weigh over 280 pounds? Like to wear shorts? Own a horse? If you've answered yes to these three questions, then beware of Pickens, Oklahoma. It's strictly a violation of the law for a woman over 280 pounds and attired in shorts to ride a horse in public.
Guyman, Oklahoma, certainly isn't a paradise for fat women who might enjoy shooting a game of pool. An old ordinance prohibits "hefty" women from patronizing a pool hall or a tavern with a pool table.
Large women can be penalized in Lowes Crossroads, Delaware, should they become boisterous and "laugh out loud" in a movie theater. And big women in Wakefield, Rhode Island, aren't even allowed to enter a movie theater within four hours after having eaten garlic!
Fairplay, Colorado, has a unique barefoot ordinance. No "meaty" divorced woman can ever be seen walking around in a public place while barefoot.
A full-bodied woman should never eat peanuts while attending church in Ryan Crossroads, Alabama. The pastor has the legal right to make offenders stand in a corner or leave the church until the service is finished.
Sutherland, Iowa, has an old piece of loony legislation that makes it illegal for a large woman to sleep in a bakery within the limits of the community.
A heavyset woman shouldn't try gargling in public anywhere in Colby, Kansas. It has a special law regulating this type of activity. And loud burping by a large woman while walking down a city street is strictly prohibited in the town of Callicoon, New York.
Hungry and feel like having a nice big bowl of hot soup on one of those chilly wintry days? A law in Leadwood, Missouri, makes it illegal for a large woman to slurp her soup in a restaurant.
Want to get married? Can't find a suitable mate? An old law in Sturgis, Michigan, states that a large woman isn't allowed to use "handbills" as a means of advertising for a spouse.
Laws about large women number but a scan't few compared to other loony legislation. Horse-and auto-related laws lead in numbers. (It is illegal to drive while asleep, and horses must not sleep in bathtubs!) But it seems nothing is beyond the reach of those who, once in public office, smother their fellow citizens with more and more silly laws. Laws written swiftly and then forgotten with time govern everything from ministers' behavior in the pulpits to their parishioners' sex lives. Ridiculous as these regulations are, they are still on the books. If contested, they would at the very least be laughed out of court, and most likely they would be ruled unconstitutional. �
ROBERT W. PELTON is an authority on old and unusual laws. He is the author of Loony Laws, published by Walker & Company, New York.
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