Obscure Laws Blog #1
This is the first in a two part series on obscure laws in some states that are actually still on the books
July 25, 2022
By: Joseph H. Bucci and Brontë Arreola
If you venture online, you will easily discover a plethora of lists containing “weird” , “odd” or obsolete state laws, many of which are longstanding myths that have been circulated so many times even law firms routinely repost the uncited “laws” as if they were binding legislation. While a few of these obscure laws are legitimate and still on the books, for the most part they are no longer enforced ---whether this be because of the modernization of society, difficulty to regulate, or because they are so bizarre that highly unlikely to catch someone in the act.
I. Obscure Pennsylvania Laws That Remain On The Books But Are Not Enforced.
- It is illegal to play baseball or football on Sundays: ACT 33 –April 25, 1933.
Pennsylvania’s Sunday Blue Laws were created to encourage keeping Sunday, the Lord’s Day, holy. These Blue Laws included an Act from 1794 that criminalized participating in business, game, hunting, shooting, sport, or diversion whatsoever on Sundays.[i] The Blue Laws have been increasingly disregarded over time as Pennsylvania has moved away from its religious roots, resulting in most of Pennsylvania’s old Blue Laws being repealed. Eventually, in 1933, a law passed that permitted baseball and football on Sunday afternoons between 2:00p.m. and 6:00 p.m., if local voters approved a referendum.[ii] Starting almost immediately the week after it was enacted, Pennsylvania sports teams have been dancing all around those restrictions, to the point that today we see football games kicked off between 1p.m. and 8 p.m., and baseball games starting as early as noon.[iii] Though Act 33 is not enforced, there is a proposed bill, House Bill 391, which would repeal the act of April 25, 1933, thereby completely legalizing baseball and football on Sundays.[iv]
- You may not catch a fish with your bare hands: 58 Pa. Code §63.5 and 58 Pa. Code §63.6.
Pennsylvania’s Code has a chapter on general fishing regulations that states it is unlawful to take fish from the waters by means other than those authorized in the Code,[v] and the only methods described in the Code are by rod, line, or hook.[vi] As you might expect, enforcement is difficult, and there is no specific reason why this antiquated law is still on the books, although one might argue that it promotes safety while fishing.[vii]
- Fortune-telling is illegal: 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §7104.
The basis for this antiquated law most likely lays in fundamentalist Christian ideology. Today we see astrology and palm reading and other methods of fortune-telling prevalent throughout our society: astrology columns appear in newspapers, “psychic” advertisements are beamed to us by eye catching neon signs, and television programs such as “Long Island Medium” are just a few examples. Even when this obscure law it is enforced, it is not prosecuted: Matt McClenahen Esq. writes that prosecutions are so rare that there are no reported appellate cases in Pennsylvania.[viii] The prevalence of this type of insignificant conduct in mainstream culture, the lack of prosecution, as well as the general unawareness of the law contribute as reasons why it is not enforcedi[ix].
- In Morrisville, PA, women wearing cosmetics must have the appropriate permit: Appendix D of the Borough of Morrisville, PA Code: D-346.
Here is an archaic law that could easily start a massive protest movement were it to be suddenly brought back into the public’s attention! The actual language of the Code states: “Resolving that throughout the Bicentennial Year, those men who shave and those women who wear cosmetics, desiring to participate in the event, may be placed in THE STOCKS for not displaying their shaving and cosmetic buttons. [12-15-2003 by Res. No. 737]”. The Bicentennial Year was 2004.[x] This is in part not enforced because makeup has become a cultural norm, and even the Amish---who have a heavy presence in Morrisville--- may opt to wear makeup during Rumspringa.[xi] Mayor Rita Ledger acknowledges the statute and argues that it is challenging to clean up the antiquated laws as a small borough. As well, she admits that enforcing the makeup restrictions would also require the borough to impose its rules on men’s shaving where the cosmetic buttons are not prominently displayed![xii]
- An individual may not become Governor if they have participated in a duel: Pa. Const. art. II, § 7.
According to George Pike, former Pitt Law Professor and Director of the Law School Library, this obscure law once existed to help criminalize the “horrid practice of dueling”. Over the years however it has been updated to create a broader umbrella of crimes[xiii], especially as dueling has died out all but in the oldest of black and white television programs . As the rule exists today, “No person hereafter convicted of embezzlement of public moneys, bribery, perjury or other infamous crime, shall be eligible to the General Assembly, or capable of holding any office of trust or profit in this Commonwealth.” While dueling could fall under the catchall of “other infamous crime”, it is unlikely to give reason to be enforced because people today do not regularly participate in duels anymore.
II. Obscure Pennsylvania laws that are real and enforced.
- Liquor store must be run by the state: 47 P.S. §1-104.
Alcoholic beverage control stores (ABC stores) are exclusively controlled by the state when it comes to the sale of alcohol. Pennsylvania is one of 7 states in which the state owns all the liquor stores, though there are 17 ABC states in total.[xiv] Governor Pinchot, the 28th governor of Pennsylvania, disagreed with the repeal of the 18th amendment that ended Prohibition. Governor Pinchot was considered a Progressive Republican, who did not want to ban alcohol completely but wanted it heavily regulated.[xv] He believed the competition between private retailers would play into the hands of corrupt politicians and distillers, and low prices would discourage bootlegging. Tax revenue from the state system of alcohol distribution partially funded state social programs for the unemployed, care for the elderly, and schools.[xvi]
- Fireworks stores cannot sell fireworks to residents of Pennsylvania: Fireworks Act of 1939.
This was enforced until House Bill 542 was signed into law on October 30, 2017. Under the new law, the Fireworks Act of 1939 was repealed and replaced in its entirety, allowing Pennsylvania residents to now purchase and use “Class C” or “consumer-grade” fireworks.[xvii]Anything that you would see at a sporting event or a public festival are still off-limits to the average consumer and require special licensing or permits.[xviii]
III. Obscure Pennsylvania laws that are not real.
- No more than 5 or 8 or 16 (depending on the source) women may live together under one roof, or it will be considered a brothel.
This is nothing more than a rumor that has been circulating since at least the mid-20th century that is likely a misremembrance of “blue laws” mixed with misinterpreted zoning laws[xix], and general rumor spreading, especially around college sororities.
- If a motorist sees a horse coming down the road, the driver must pull off to the side of the road and cover the vehicle with canvas. If the horse is still scared the driver must get out of his car and take it apart until the horse is not scared anymore.
This was a proposed law by the Farmer’s Anti Automobile Society (FAAS) around 1910, but this proposal was never passed into law .[xx]
- Any motorist driving along a country road at night must stop every mile and send up a rocket signal, wait 10 minutes for the road to be cleared of livestock, and continue.
This so called “law” comes from the Rules of the Road by the FAAS. While it was passed by the legislature, it was then promptly rejected by the governor.[xxi]
Hopefully, we will begin to see more of these bygone laws repealed and replaced to help clean up the legislative books. Until then, approach “dumb law” posts with caution, be careful when playing baseball on Sundays, and remember that you are in the clear when you pass a horse on the road.
[i] John A. Lucas, The Unholy Experiment—Professional Baseball’s Struggle Against Pennsylvania’s Sunday Blue Laws 1926-1934, 38 Pennsylvania History, 163, 163-67 (1971).
[ii] Paul Mushick, Pennsylvania blue laws remains, AP NEWS (Jan. 28, 2020) https://apnews.com/article/business-sports-football-baseball-crime-33d6ac3650274cf4a4ccc684552a0830
[iii]George Stockburger, PA bill would allow baseball, football games to be played on Sundays, ABC 27 News (May. 25, 2022 at 5:45 p.m.) https://www.abc27.com/pennsylvania/pa-bill-would-allow-baseball-football-games-to-be-played-on-sundays/
[iv] H.B. 39, 2021-2022 Reg. Sess. (Pa. 2021).
[v] 58 Pa. Code §63.5
[vi] 58 Pa. Code §63.6
[vii]Jayne Ann Bugda, Are You Kidding Me? Title 58 of the State Code. Chapter 63, PA Homepage (Nov. 12, 2018 at 2:25 p.m.) https://www.pahomepage.com/news/are-you-kidding-me-title-58-of-the-state-code-chapter-63/.
[viii] Matt M. McClenahen, Obscure Crimes: Fortune Telling is Illegal in Pennsylvania, McClenahen Law Firm P.C. (Oct. 22, 2013) https://www.mattmlaw.com/blog/2013/10/obscure-crimes-fortune-telling-is-illegal-in-pennsylvania/#:~:text=Few%20people%20are%20aware%20that,or%20negative%20spells%20or%20hexes.
[ix] Matt M. McClenahen, Pennsylvania Psychics Brazenly Flaunt the Law, McClenahen Law Firm P.C. (Apr. 25, 2014) https://www.mattmlaw.com/blog/2014/04/pennsylvania-psychics-brazenly-flaunt-the-law/.
[xi] Do Amish women wear makeup? Amish America, https://amishamerica.com/do-amish-women-wear-makeup/ (last visited Jul. 13, 2022).
[xii] Craig Smith, Quirky old laws clutter state’s books, TRIB LIVE (Nov. 26, 2010 at 12:00 a.m.) https://archive.triblive.com/news/quirky-old-laws-clutter-states-books/.
[xiii]Angela Hays, Confused, complicated complex and just plain crazy, The Pitt News (Sept. 28, 2005) https://pittnews.com/article/31665/archives/confused-complicated-complex-and-just-plain-crazy/.
[xiv] Nicholas Mancall-Bitel, State Owned Liquor Stores, Explained, Thrillist (Apr. 26,2018 at 4:41 p.m.) https://www.thrillist.com/culture/state-owned-liquor-stores.
[xv] Pinchot’s Legacy: Pennsylvania’s Liquor Control System, WFMZ-TV (Jul. 2 2016), https://www.wfmz.com/features/historys-headlines/pinchots-legacy-pennsylvanias-liquor-control-system/article_7550c145-3a2b-5768-8e69-423d36c77dad.html.
[xvi] Carrie Hadley, Prohibition’s Legacy in Pennsylvania, Smithsonian Institution (Jun. 4, 2018), https://www.heinzhistorycenter.org/blog/western-pennsylvania-history/prohibitions-legacy-pennsylvania#_ftn2.
[xviii] Pa.’s fireworks laws have changed. Here’s what you need to know before the Fourth, Penn Live (Jul.1, 2019 at 3:19 p.m.) https://www.pennlive.com/life/2019/07/pas-fireworks-laws-have-changed-heres-what-you-need-to-know-before-the-fourth.html.
[xix] David Mikkelson, Do Brothel Laws Outlaw College Sororities? Snopes (Aug. 6, 2002) https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/brothel-laws-sororities/.
[xx] Karen Dingle Kendus, History Unlocked—August 2017, Early Auto Laws, Concord Township Historical Society, https://concordhist.org/history-unlocked-august-2017-early-auto-laws/.
[xxi] Owen Bellwood, Off-Roading In The ‘20s Called For Camouflage Blankets, Fireworks and A Gun, Jalopnik (Nov. 11, 2021 at 10:30 a.m.) https://jalopnik.com/off-roading-in-the-20s-called-for-camouflage-blankets-1848105998