February 1996

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Sunday Travel

Blue Laws


Robert V. Anderson

The term "Blue Laws" may puzzle members of the younger generations. The object of such laws was to reinforce the tenets of Christian religion, with special application to Sunday. Older generations can remember when there could not be Sunday baseball games or Sunday movies. The application of law for religious purposes is generally no longer tolerated. Still, in my community do not try to buy a can of beer before 12 o'clock on Sunday, not much of a limitation but one of the lingering traces of blue-law-type thought.

The blue laws must have been the butt of millions of statements over the years. Much time and effort seems to have been spent circumventing them. This was especially true of that relic of Judaism, the restriction on Sunday travel. People were expected to travel to church on Sunday, and necessarily to return home again, but no other travel except for an emergency was permitted. Doctors could exempt themselves by visiting patients, but ordinary mortals had to work up a reason that would hold up with the authorities, and square with the individual's conscience as well.

In the days just after the Revolution when the New York frontier was being settled there was, particularly in this newly-settled region, a footloose generation. They moved freely across the landscape, and a restriction on Sunday travel oppressed their spirits and cramped their style. Therefore, as free-born frontiersmen, many of them traveled anyway, whenever they could get away with it. The choices which faced them were to conform and stay put, or resort to subterfuges, or try to turn the ban to profit.

There is very little drama to quiet conformity but the other choices created a number of incidents which were retold for years. The language in which they were told is antique now, but the flavor is lost if they are modernized too much. One of these stories was about a certain Mr. Gilbert and how he resorted to a subterfuge when he had, by his own reasoning, a good excuse for Sabbath travel.

It seems that Mr. Gilbert, having become well established in a new house on the frontier, decided one winter to go with his wife back the hundred and fifty miles or so to Connecticut to visit their old home and friends, neighbors and relatives. They went by sleigh and dallied till spring. Aside from the pleasure of making a visit, the Connecticut winter climate was relatively balmy compared to that of the place where they had settled so they stayed and stayed. Finally a thaw unexpectedly set in and a cousin dashed in to where they were staying to alert them that the ice on the river was becoming hourly more dangerous as it threatened to break up. Since there was no bridge, and the ferry would not start to run until the river moderated, there was no time to lose if they were to cross on the ice. In hopes of avoiding a delay which might run into weeks and get them home too late for the spring work, they tossed possessions into the sleigh and dashed off. They traveled all day and pushed on the next day, although it was Sunday and they knew Sunday travel was banned in Connecticut.

As they came to one village where he feared he would be arrested, he arranged his wife on the straw in the sleigh in a reclining position and covered her tenderly with blankets as if she were ill, giving her the cue as what to do, and, taking his position standing in the front end of the sleigh, dashed full speed into the village where, just as he anticipated, he was soon halted and surrounded by the selectmen of the town.

He pulled up and glanced back at his wife, who just then made a feint of raising the blanket over her head. He shouted to her in an alarmed tone not to uncover her face, as perhaps some of these gentlemen had never had the smallpox, and it would be a sin to expose them to it. At the word, smallpox, there was a general scramble to rush away from the sleigh and the selectmen with frantic gestures shouted to him to drive on, run his horses, anything, anywhere, just not to tarry in the village street. He whipped up the horses, reached and crossed the river safely and continued on toward home.

A New York State version of an adventure with the blue laws had a local fame for many years. It went by the title of "The Yankee Pass." It typifies the other mode of proceeding by showing how the ban on Sunday travel could be met head on and turned to a profit. Perhaps it also illuminates the New York-Yankee conflict in its appraisal of Yankee character.

There was a locally well-known character, Judge Staring, who one Sunday morning saw a man on horseback coming along the highway from the west. As a justice of the peace he had a special duty to uphold the law and, as a religious man, he had a second spur to duty. Accordingly, he went out to perform that duty by asking for an explanation, even though the presumption was that no one would venture to openly violate the law unless he was justified by the exceptions named in the statute.

Judge Staring waved and shouted for the man to stop, discovered that he was a stranger, and inquired of him what his reasons were for disregarding his duty and the requirements of the law. The stranger, who the report said was a New England Yankee, could not excuse his conduct to the judge's satisfaction and upon his declining to stop over until the next day, the judge sat in judgment on him.

It should be explained that the judge had probably never heard of the due process idea that a man should not function in all the capacities of policeman, prosecutor and judge. He probably would have thought poorly of it as a limitation on the duty of a citizen to always enforce the law, if he had known. So he went ahead and exacted a fine of six shillings as specified by the statute for this infringement of the law. The traveler promptly paid his fine and then asked the judge to give him a certificate to that effect, urging that since he proposed to continue it was a necessity to protect him against being again called to account by some other magistrate. The judge had from one source or another heard of such things as dispensations and indulgences and was persuaded to think that the request was a reasonable one, so he told the traveler to write one out to his own liking. The judge signed it with a flourish, without reading the note, and the stranger traveled on eastward.

Several months later the judge visited the mercantile establishment of the Messrs. Kanes with whom he did business at Canajoharie. They requested that he pay an order (cashed check) of twenty five dollars which the date showed he had drawn on them some months before. This demand on his purse caused him much surprise and he indignantly denied having given the order. But the signature was in his handwriting and as he probed into the matter making particular inquiries in respect to the presentation of the order and the individual who brought it to the store, he came to the reluctant conclusion that the paper presented to him for payment was the one he had signed to allow the traveler to continue his journey on the Sabbath.

This was told as an example of the cunning and audacity of the natives of New England who had had their wits sharpened by generations of circumventing the blue laws.

But there is another version of the story whispered around.

The judge was pretty tight with his money and kept his children in financial dependence upon him, even taking their wages, as the law of the time allowed a father to do with underage children, when they worked out. One of his sons was almost twenty-one and desired to get married. The Judge did not approve of either the possible loss of funds or the girl, so the boy cooked up the above strategy with a friend his father did not know, in order to get funds to marry the girl.

The idea of buying a pass for Sunday travel is reported to have appealed to some judges (not Judge Staring) as a means to augment their incomes—we mention no names. Perhaps New Englanders may find this version an example of the audacity and cunning of the natives of New York. In any event, our current free mass movement over highways on Sundays owes much to these pioneers.

© 1996, Robert V. Anderson
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