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The great Delaware blue laws crackdown of 1941

January 21st, 2015 No comments
Just a few of the nearly 500 people arrested on one Sunday in 1941 for breaking Delaware's blue laws, at the Wilmington police station.

Just a few of the nearly 500 people arrested on one Sunday in 1941 for breaking Delaware’s blue laws, at the Wilmington police station.

I’ve previously posted about the blue laws, or Sunday closing laws, of Delaware. Originally passed in 1795, Delaware’s strict blue laws, prohibiting “any worldly employment, labor or business” on Sunday were still in effect in the first half of the 20th century, although they were rarely enforced. In 1911, Delaware’s blue laws made the news when Arden residents, including the writer Sinclair Lewis, were arrested for playing baseball and tennis on Sunday. There were calls for reform of the blue laws, but the Delaware General Assembly couldn’t agree to pass a bill repealing them. In 1941, a crusading attorney general named James R. Morford declared war on the state’s blue laws.

James R. Morford, Attorney General of Delaware from 1938 to 1943

James R. Morford, Attorney General of Delaware from 1938 to 1943

James R. Morford was elected Delaware’s attorney general in 1938, fresh from a stint as Wilmington’s city solicitor. While city solicitor, he was part of a successful campaign to clean up corruption in the Wilmington police department. Morford strongly felt that having laws on the books that were only occasionally enforced, caused disrespect for the law and contributed to corruption of public officials. Frustrated by the General Assembly’s failure to enact reforms, he threatened to begin enforcing the blue laws strictly. In 1939, he asked the State Police to conduct a survey of the number of people breaking the blue laws, but no actual arrests were made. In 1940 he made a speech strongly stating his opposition to any laws that were not uniformly enforced, including the blue laws.

We have thereby created uncertainty as to what an honest citizen may or may not do, but we have created a situation where he may do an act one day and be apparently a law abiding citizen while the same act next day may subject him to arrest… But the worse feature is that by substituting the discretion of a man for the mandate of the law we have gone far to destroy respect for all law and have opened a door for graft and corruption in public office.

In 1941, when the Delaware General Assembly once again failed to pass a proposed bill reforming the blue laws, Morford decided to force them into action. Delaware papers carried the news that starting on Sunday, March 2nd, the blue laws would be strictly enforced. State and local police forces received orders from the Attorney General to arrest everyone found violating the law. All over the state police arrested taxi drivers, bus drivers, newspaper vendors, restaurant workers, gas station attendants, even the general manager of WDEL radio. Around 500 arrests were made that Sunday, swamping police stations and the courts.

Lena Blatman, owner of Wilmington's Blatman's Bakery at the police station after being arrested for violating the blue laws.

Lena Blatman, owner of a Wilmington bakery, at the police station after being arrested for violating the blue laws.

Morford’s ploy worked, as the General Assembly finally passed a reformed blue laws bill on Friday, March 7th (it was approved by the governor on the 14th), narrowly avoiding another Sunday crackdown. State prosecutors dropped all of the pending cases against blue law violators.

 

Photos from the Delaware Public Archives. There are more photos of people arrested on March 2nd at the Delaware Public Archives digital collections page.

Weird laws, blue laws, Delaware laws

November 18th, 2012 No comments
Horse and Jockey

Horse and jockey at Delaware Park in the 1940s, not on a Sunday.

It’s time for another look at the weird laws of Delaware. This time I’m taking a look at what you can and cannot do on Sunday in Delaware. You may have seen this cited on the internet as a weird Delaware law:

Delaware prohibits horse racing of any kind on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Status: True

Yes it’s true, Title 28, section 906 of the Delaware Code reads, “There shall be no horse racing of any kind on Good Friday or Easter Sunday.” You might think that this is just an old law that was accidentally left on the books, but it was only passed in 1973 (59 Del. Laws 1973, ch. 25, § 1), and is actually a liberalization of the state’s earlier law which banned horse racing every Sunday.

Horse racing was just one of the many activities that used to be banned in Delaware on Sundays. Laws reserving Sunday as the Sabbath and a day of rest were brought to the American colonies from England and existed in all of the original colonies. They were commonly called “blue laws.” Interestingly, no one seems to agree on why, it may have been because they were originally printed on blue paper, or possibly, because the Puritans and their strong religious scruples were often called “blue” as in “bluenose.”

Delaware’s early Sunday laws were strict but typical of their time. The 1852 Delaware Code prohibited the performance of “any worldly employment, labor, or business, on the Sabbath day (works of necessity and charity excepted)…” Delaware law also prohibited leisure activities such as “fishing, fowling, horse-racing, cock-fighting, or hunting game” on Sundays, as well as assembling to “game, play or dance.” (Revised Statutes of the State of Delaware chap. 131, sec. 4 (1852))

A 1939 petition to the Governor of Delaware, asking him to support a referendum allowing movies to be shown in Wilmington on Sundays.

By 1953 the Delaware Code no longer banned all work on Sundays, but still banned horse racing, along with auctions, dances, theatrical performances and motion pictures, at least in unincorporated areas. Incorporated areas were permitted to make their own rules, but these activities could not be held before noon or between 6 PM and 8 PM. Also banned on Sunday was barbering (24 Del.C. (1953) § 415) but, curiously, not ladies hairdressing, which eventually led to a Delaware Supreme Court case which held that the law was “… an unjust and unreasonable attempt to discriminate against this class of persons [barbers]; that its effect is not to benefit the interests of the public; and that it constitutes an arbitrary interference with private business.” Rogers v. State, 57 Del. 334, 339, 199 A.2d 895, 897 (1964)

Sunday closing laws as a whole were never found unconstitutional and have been upheld by the United States Supreme Court. (McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420 (1961), Gallagher v. Crown Kosher Super Mkt. Inc., 366 U.S. 617 (1961), Two Guys v. McGinley, 366 U.S. 582 (1961), Braunfeld v. Brown, 366 U.S. 599 (1961)) Many states in the U.S. still have restrictions on Sunday activities.

Currently in Delaware besides the ban on horse racing on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, liquor can only be sold on Sundays between 12:00 noon and 8:00 p.m. (4 Del. Code § 709) (with some exceptions for small wineries, distilleries and breweries), hunting is prohibited on Sunday (except fox hunting with dogs) (7 Del. Code § 712), taking shellfish for commercial purposes (with some exceptions) is prohibited (7 Del. Code § 1904), “adult establishments” must be closed, (24 Del. Code § 1625), and you can’t use drifting gill nets until after 4 p.m. on Sunday (7 Del. Code § 923). Luckily for me it’s not illegal to write blog posts on Sundays.

UPDATE: The story of how 500 people were arrested in one day and the Delaware blue laws were finally repealed.

Photo credits:

Delaware Public Archives. Delaware in World War II Collection. http://cdm15323.contentdm.oclc.org/u?/p15323coll6,10024

For more information on blue laws see:

Neil J. Dilloff, Never on Sunday: the Blue Laws Controversy, 39 Md. L. Rev. 679 (1980)

Lesley Lawrence-Hammer, Red, White, but Mostly Blue: The Validity of Modern Sunday Closing Laws Under the Establishment Clause, 60 Vand. L. Rev. 1273  (2007)