New England’s curious customs entertained John Bernard during his travels in America from 1797 to 1811. Of all those customs, he found the Connecticut Blue Laws among the strangest.
While returning to Boston through Connecticut he found himself marooned in New Haven one Saturday. He had nothing to do but wait out a silent Sunday under laws held over from the Puritan days. Even then, he noted in his Retrospections of America, 1797-1811, not everyone appreciated their strict enforcement.
The Connecticut Blue Laws
Bernard wrote that it was criminal “to violate Sabbath rest by putting one’s self in motion.” So he and his party had to abide by an inn until Monday morning.
He described the innkeeper as communicative, humorous, and “not all of a piece with the inhabitants in general.” Though obliged to submit to the law, he was “by no means backward in expressing his opinion of them to his customers.”
The innkeeper — Bernard called him “this oracle” — told him more about the famous Connecticut Blue Laws.
“[T]hey entirely forbade trade or travelling upon the Sabbath,” wrote Bernard. “So that by the letter of the law all goods bought or sold upon that day were forfeited to the state.”
Nor could an animal be permitted to “click his profane hoof upon the Sabbatical stones of New Haven.” However, the increase in commercial activity made Connecticut the thoroughfare for business. So every seventh day, Bernard wrote, it grew more difficult to enforce the Connecticut blue laws.
“Accordingly a multitude of peace officers under the various titles of beadles, constables, and street-keepers, were posted all day in the streets and avenues, to enforce strict maintenance of that quietude which the statutes enjoined,” he wrote. “It was their business to take care that no person appeared without-doors during “meeting time.”
On the entry of a traveler into the town, the constable would immediately to stop him. Then he would lead his horse to a stable and himself to the “meeting.”
“Thus a sense of duty induced them to violate the law themselves in order to compel its observance by others,” wrote Bernard. A “deathlike dullness and absolute privation of sound” prevailed throughout the day.
The people of Connecticut viewed eating dinner, prepared a day earlier, “a lamentable necessity.” wrote Bernard. They thought of coughing and sneezing as excusable if spontaneous. However, noted Bernard, the Connecticut Blue Laws forbade people from inducing such noises by taking snuff or letting liquor go down the wrong way. Bernard didn’t know if they considered the chattering of a man’s teeth in an ague fit as reprehensible. But if one’s hands got dirty, Bernard believed it would have been viewed as more correct to let them stay dirty than use soap, water and towel.
“Under the influence of this mournful contrast to the pleasurable tranquility or the light-hearted, innocent gayety of a European Sunday I really conceived myself abstracted from the world,” he wrote. He felt like a character in one of the Arabian Tales who “wandered into a petrified city and in the midst of human habitations beheld no sign of life.”
Bernard then asked his reader what he supposed he would see or hear out on the streets? “For the most part he would hear nothing,” wrote Bernard. If people went outside “they stole about the highways like so many sprites or like the mysterious heroes in Mrs. Radcliff’s romances.”
Guardians of the Peace
Bernard described the guardians of the peace as “looking like a detachment of Cromwell’s bodyguards.” They marched to and from with the “utmost precision and solemnity,” he wrote.
Then some “luckless pig would waddle forth from an avenue upon a muddy research.” As soon as he lighted upon some spoil, one of the guardians of the peace would capture him and drive him home to his sty. Then he would “execute retributive justice for his pagan disregard of sacred ordinances by forthwith dispatching him.”
If a careless dog or thoughtless puppy began barking and frolicking in the road, the guardians shot him.
Or perhaps some gentleman cat, amorously disposed, would commence an ill-timed feline serenade under the gutter of his adored tabby. “The vigilant street-keepers, attracted by the sound, would rush to the place. At the moment, perhaps, when a tender response was awakening in the bosom and the throat of Grimalkin, and the passionate duet of the hapless pair rising to a climax, both would be assailed with a battery of staff and stones, to the interruption of their loves and great peril of their lives.
“The plea was manifest that “love’s labor” could no more be permitted than any other worker’s,” concluded Bernard.
These “careful conservators of the public tranquility” watched people going to and from Sunday meeting. They had to “take cognizance of young and old, and prevent any stoppages or chattering on the way.” They viewed a nod as indecorous, and a shake of the hand a tangible impropriety.
Making a Profit From Connecticut Blue Laws
“In later years, when beginning to find it impossible to restrain altogether the current of intercourse which flowed through their state, these puritanical worthies resolved to convert the restriction into a source of pecuniary profit, and accordingly permitted a man to pursue his journey on payment of a fine, proportioned, I believe, either to the number of his horses or of his family.
Bernard then told the story of a sharp-witted Yankee returning home through Connecticut. The local authorities stopped him in a little village and asked him to pay the fine. He said he’d do it if they took him to the magistrate who would receive the fine.
He came before the magistrate, a man of great property and mercantile connections. The Yankee tore a leaf from his pocketbook and wrote a few words. He then presented it to the magistrate with his money. He asked the magistrate to sign a receipt for the few shillings so he wouldn’t have to pay it again.
“So reasonable a request being unhesitatingly complied with, the traveler put the paper in his pocket and departed,” wrote Bernard. The interruption did not put him in a worse humor, he wrote.
Then about 10 days afterwards, the magistrate’s business took him to Boston. He stepped into his banker’s to look over his account. His banker then told him they had honored his last week’s draft for $100.
“He stared in surprise,” wrote Bernard. “They produced it for him, and he immediately recognized the handwriting of the Yankee, with his signature plainly attached.”
This story last updated in 2023.
Images: Oliver White Tavern By Sphilbrick – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11800704