Posts Tagged ‘delaware history’

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.,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)


Play recreating trial of abolitionists Garrett and Hunn to be performed at New Castle County courthouse museum

August 7th, 2012 No comments

New Castle Courthouse Museum

A new play based on the 1848 trial of Delaware abolitionists Thomas Garrett and John Hunn will be performed at the New Castle County Courthouse Museum, the scene of the original trial. In 1848 the two men were tried for violating federal law by helping the Hawkins family escape from slavery in Maryland. They were found guilty and heavily fined.

The interactive play is one of a series written by local playwright Colin Adams-Toomey There will be three performances of the play, August  18th, 19th and 21st. See the News Journal for more information.

Woolley on Delaware Practice

July 22nd, 2012 No comments
Victor B. Woolley

Victor B. Woolley, author of “Practice in Civil Actions and Proceedings in the Law Courts of the State of Delaware”

Currently before the Delaware Supreme Court is Eastern Savings Bank v. CACH  (Docket # 88, 2012). In a case reflecting today’s troubled economy, involving a dispute over a lien on a  foreclosed property sold at sheriff’s sale, the opinions of the Court of Common Pleas and Superior Court (and again) both cite a 106 year old treatise,  Practice in Civil Actions and Proceedings in the Law Courts of the State of Delaware by Victor B. Woolley. Often referred to as Woolley on Delaware Practice or simply, Woolley, this venerable treatise is still cited in Delaware courts. Who was Woolley and why is his treatise still so important?

Born in 1867, Victor Baynard Woolley was a Wilmington attorney. Besides his law practice, he taught Delaware practice at the University of Pennsylvania. As there was no law school in Delaware at that time, he was probably the first person to teach Delaware practice in any law school. He stated in the introduction to his treatise that at that time a “large portion of the practice of the law courts of the State of Delaware … is unwritten law,” so he wrote the treatise for the benefit of young lawyers as well as seasoned practitioners in Delaware.

Woolley was Prothonotary of Superior Court in New Castle County from 1895-1901 and an associate judge on the Supreme Court of Delaware from 1900 to 1914. In 1914 he became a Judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. He continued in that position until his death in 1945.

Delaware’s small size means that few other treatises on Delaware practice have ever been published. In 1994 David L. and Louis J. Finger published Delaware Trial Handbook, which is now out of print. An online version is available from the Finger & Slanina website. For corporation law, Donald J. Wolfe and Michael A. Pittenger’s Corporate and Commercial Practice in the Delaware Court of Chancery is available.

You can still buy a copy of Woolley in a reprint edition from Gaunt or download a free scan from Google Books, volume one and volume two.

Delaware Legal History on Pinterest

June 14th, 2012 No comments

I love looking at historic photos. If you’d like to look at a collection of historic photos of Delaware attorneys and other legal subjects gathered from all over the internet, I’ve started a Pinterest page on Delaware legal history. These are mostly photos from the Delaware Public Archives which has a great online photo collection. There are also some from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Bloody Bloody Louis McLane

Louis McLane, Delaware lawyer, politician, and member of Andrew Jackson's Cabinet

In which I bring together two of my favorite topics, local history and local theater

I saw a fun production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson this past weekend at Wilmington’s City Theater Company. I’d recommend catching it if you can take a break from finals. It has everything: rock and roll, men in tight pants, dancing, fake blood, obscenities, and the entertaining but historically and politically incorrect story of Andrew Jackson.

There’s only one thing missing from this fine production and that is Delaware’s own member of Jackson’s cabinet, Louis McLane! He was left out of the play, probably “in the interest of narrative economy” as the play says. Also probably because he really wasn’t very funny.

Louis McLane was born in 1784 in Delaware. His father, Allen McLane, was a Revolutionary War hero and Collector of the Customs for the District of Delaware, which basically means he was chief tax collector at the port of Wilmington. Wilmington was a major port at the time so he made good money. At 15 Louis became a Navy midshipman and went to sea, but after one voyage he resigned, possibly because he was terribly seasick.

After he left the Navy, Louis went to school at the Newark Academy and then read law with James A. Bayard. While studying to be a lawyer he fought a duel with a fellow law clerk and was shot in the groin. He later had 13 children so it couldn’t have been too serious. He volunteered for an Artillery Company during the War of 1812 but never saw any action.

Louis McLane lived in this house at 606 Market St in Wilmington. It has been remodeled so many times there is probably little left of the original house.

McLane started a law practice and went into politics. He was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1817, where he served for 10 years and became Chairman of the influential House Ways and Means Committee. He left the House when he was elected to the Senate in 1827.

McLane belonged to the Federalist Party, one of the original political parties which had pretty much died out in the rest of the country but was still popular in Delaware, which has always been a bit slow to change. McLane became a friend of Martin Van Buren and admirer of Andrew Jackson and led his wing of the Delaware Federalists into Jackson’s party. In return for his support McLane hoped for a cabinet position or to be named to the Supreme Court. He was disappointed however to be made Minister Plenipotentiary to Great Britain. This may sound like a great position but it didn’t pay all that well and involved a lot of expense as he had to bring his whole family over to Britain in a boat and they still didn’t have steamships so it wasn’t a fun crossing. Then you had to live in London, one of the world’s most expensive cities and entertain lavishly, so it wasn’t a profitable job.

Luckily for McLane, Andrew Jackson got mad at his entire cabinet because their wives were rude to somebody and decided to replace them. McLane was made Secretary of the Treasury which would have been great, except for one big problem. The Bank of the United States. I have never understood the whole Bank of the United States thing, but the important point is that Andrew Jackson was against the Bank of the United States and McLane was for it. McLane refused to withdraw the federal treasury money from the Bank so Jackson replaced him and made him Secretary of State instead. McLane didn’t have much better luck as Secretary of State. He was trying to resolve the French Spoliation claims (which involved the French owing us money and not paying it back) when Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s Vice President and McLane’s old friend, went behind his back and solved the problem himself. McLane was so mad he resigned from the Cabinet and never spoke to Van Buren again.

McLane retired from politics, left Delaware and moved to Baltimore where he became president of the Morris Canal & Banking Company and later the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. He made a further brief foray into national politics when he was named Minister Plenipotentiary to Great Britain again by James K. Polk. But he never got to be a Supreme Court Justice. Louis McLane died in Baltimore in 1857. From what I’ve read about McLane it’s hard to tell whether he would have been relieved to not be portrayed as a prancing aristocrat in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson or angry that he was left out. One way or the other he probably would have challenged somebody to a duel.

Photo credits:  Wikimedia Commons and

A much less silly and more scholarly version of Louis McLane’s life can be found in: John A. Munroe. Louis McLane: Federalist and Jacksonian. Rutgers University Press, 1973.


Delaware’s silent sentinels, Delaware women in the fight for women’s suffrage

March 23rd, 2012 No comments

Delaware's Mabel Vernon marches to the White House

In a previous post, I covered the role of Delaware women in the struggle to ratify the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote. Women from Delaware also played an important part in the long and difficult struggle to get the amendment proposed and passed by Congress. The National Woman’s Party, founded in 1916, was a women’s rights group that used more militant tactics to get the attention of politicians and the public.

One of the leaders of the NWP was Delawarean Mabel Vernon. Born in Wilmington in 1883, her father was a newspaper editor. She attended Swarthmore College, where she met Alice Paul, who would become the leader of the NWP. After college Vernon worked as a teacher until Paul asked her to work as an organizer for the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage and NWP. She organized local protests and nationwide tours and became an accomplished speaker. In 1916 she led a group of activists who unfurled a banner and heckled President Wilson during a speech to Congress.

A policewoman (in white) arrests Delawarean Annie Arniel (center left) for picketing the White House

In 1917, the NWP decided to step up pressure on President Wilson and organized pickets in front of the White House. Calling themselves “silent sentinels” the women picketed the White House, in Lafayette Park and at other government buildings. In June 1917 the police began arresting picketers. Initially they were usually released without charge, but when the protests continued the penalties became more serious. Alice Paul and other women were sentenced to up to 6 months in Occoquan Workhouse. Some prisoners held hunger strikes and were force-fed by prison authorities. Released prisoners were sent on nationwide tours by the NWP and spoke to crowds wearing their prison uniforms.

Catherine Boyle, of New Castle, Delaware, holds a suffrage flag

A number of Delaware women were among the protesters. Seven served jail time: Mabel Vernon, Florence Bayard Hilles, Annie J. Magee, Naomi Barrett, Annie Arniel, Catherine Boyle, and Mary Brown. Annie Arniel of Wilmington, who had worked in a munitions factory, spent the most time in jail. She was arrested 8 times and spent a total of 103 days in jail. After one of her arrests Arniel told the Sunday Star, a Wilmington paper, “We were good enough to work in the steel plant and help load shells for the battle-fields of France, but we are still not good enough to vote, it seems. Can anyone see justice in this?”

The National Woman’s Party continued the protests until 1919 when Congress passed the 19th Amendment.

Photo credits: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party. Library of Congress and Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

For more information see:

Annie L. Arniel, the Iron-Jawed Suffragette. Webpage by Ken Menard.

Ford, Linda G. Iron-Jawed Angels: The Suffrage Militancy of the National Woman’s Party, 1912-1920. University Press of America, 1991.

Mabel Vernon: Speaker for  Suffrage and Petitioner for Peace. Interview by Amelia R. Fry. Bancroft Library. Suffragists Oral History Project.

Stevens, Doris. Jailed for Freedom. Boni and Liveright, 1920.

The Suffrage Movement in Delaware. Historical Society of Delaware

Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party. Library of Congress.


The 19th Amendment in Delaware

March 19th, 2012 No comments

Delaware suffragist Florence Bayard Hilles speaks to a crowd

After years of struggle by women’s movement advocates to gain the vote for women, the United States Congress passed the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote in 1919. However, the amendment would not become part of the Constitution until it had been ratified by 36 states. Ten months later 35 states had ratified the amendment and only one more state was needed. The leaders of the women’s suffrage movement looked to the Delaware General Assembly to cast the decisive vote at a special session in March 1920.

The suffrage and anti-suffrage forces descended on Dover to encourage the General Assembly to vote their way, marching through town wearing distinctive flowers, yellow for the suffragists and red for the anti-suffragists. Both sides were led by charismatic women.

The leaders of the suffrage forces were Florence Bayard Hilles of the National Woman’s Party and Mabel Lloyd Ridgely of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association. Florence Bayard Hilles was the daughter of the American ambassador to Great Britain and was descended from Delaware’s politically prominent Bayard family. Mabel Lloyd Ridgely was the leader of the Kent County suffragists and also came from a prominent Delaware family.

Mary Wilson Thompson, leader of the Delaware anti-suffragists

The anti-suffrage leaders were two equally prominent Delaware women. Mary Wilson Thompson was active in many civic causes and was an expert lobbyist. She was eventually known in Delaware for, among other things, founding the Delaware Mosquito Control Corp which worked to reduce mosquitoes in Sussex County. Emily Bissell was a social reformer who founded what is today West End Neighborhood House  and is best known for introducing Christmas Seals to America.

Both sides lobbied and protested in Dover. The suffragists brought Eamon de Valera, president of the Irish Free State to Delaware to convince Irish-American representatives and at one point resorted to kidnapping the chairman of a House committee so that he couldn’t present the amendment for a vote the suffragists were sure to lose.

On May 5th the Delaware Senate ratified the amendment. Only the House remained to be convinced. After months of lobbying and rallying by both sides the Delaware House on June 2nd voted to adjourn without passing the amendment. The anti-suffragists had won.

But their victory was short-lived. Delaware had lost its chance to make history and the lobbying and marching passed to the next state, Tennessee, which ratified the amendment by one vote. The Nineteenth Amendment and votes for women became part of the Constitution.

Photo sources:

Florence Bayard Hilles. Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party. Library of Congress.

Mary Wilson Thompson. Historical Society of Delaware.

For more information see:

de Vou, Mary R., “The Woman Suffrage Movement in Delaware,” in H. Clay Reed, ed., Delaware: A History of the First State (New York: 1947), 1:349-70

Delaware,” in Ida Husted Harper, ed., The History of Woman Suffrage (National American Woman Suffrage Association: 1922) 6: 86-103

Higgins, Anthony, ed., “Mary Wilson Thompson Memoir,” Delaware History 18 (1978-79): 43-62, 126-152, 194-218, 238-266.

Hoffecker, Carol E., “Delaware’s Woman Suffrage Campaign,” Delaware History 20 (1982-83): 149-167.

The Suffrage Movement in Delaware. Historical Society of Delaware.

Local legal historic sites – Midtown Parking Center and Eagle Coffee Shoppe

February 8th, 2012 No comments
Midtown Parking Center

Midtown Parking Center

This ordinary mid-century parking garage once played an important part in the struggle to end segregation in Delaware. In 1958, William H. Burton, an African American and member of the Wilmington City Council, entered the Eagle Coffee Shoppe, a restaurant on the ground floor of the parking garage and was refused service. The restaurant, like most restaurants and theaters in Wilmington at that time would not serve African Americans.  The parking garage was built and maintained by the Wilmington Parking Authority, which had leased space to shops and a restaurant in order to defray the cost of the garage. Burton, represented by Louis L. Redding, filed suit in the Delaware Court of Chancery against the restaurant and Parking Authority. The case was eventually appealed to the United States Supreme Court which found in Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority 365 US 715 (1961) that because the restaurant was in a government owned building, refusing service to Burton on the basis of his race violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Eagle Restaurant menu

Eagle Restaurant menu from 1956. The restaurant moved to the Parking Authority garage in 1958.

In a 1998 interview, attorney Frank H. Hollis remembered how the case started. Seven African-American Chrysler workers had been arrested and charged with trespassing for trying to eat in the Eagle Coffee Shoppe. Hollis represented the seven. After conferring with Louis Redding and the NAACP, councilman Burton was asked to be a test case. When Burton was also denied service, Redding filed the suit against the Wilmington Parking Authority and the restaurant.

Burton’s attorney Louis L. Redding, was the first African American attorney in Delaware. He had a long legal career in Delaware and argued many important civil rights cases. Besides Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority he was also the attorney for the plaintiffs in Gebhart v. Belton which eventually was heard as part of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

The parking garage is now closed, though it still stands at the corner of 9th and Shipley. The Eagle Coffee Shoppe has been gone for many years and is currently the location of the Ninth Street Book Shop.

UPDATE: The Midtown Parking Center was demolished in 2013 to be replaced by an apartment complex.


Frank H. Hollis. My Memories of Law Practice in Wilmington, Delaware. Del. Law., SUMMER 1998, at 22

Carolyn D. Mack. The Other Side of Equity: The Court of Chancery and Civil Rights. 5 Del. Law. FALL 1986 at 20 (1986)

Harvey Bernard Rubenstein. Delaware Controversies That Have Shaped the Constitution. 6 Del. Law. 122 (1987-1988)

Robert E. Whiteside. Parking Facilities Developed in Merchant-City Programs. 13 Traffic Quarterly 294 (1959)

and thanks to Jack Buckley, Ninth Street Book Shop

Mary Ann Shadd Cary video

January 20th, 2012 No comments

Here’s an interesting brief video on the life of Mary Ann Shadd Cary, African-American educator, journalist and lawyer who was born in Delaware.

Local legal historic sites — grave of Richard Bassett

January 4th, 2012 No comments

Richard_bassettI’ve reached the end of my short series of local legal historic sites associated with Delaware’s signers of the Constitution. Previously we’ve covered Gunning Bedford Jr., Jacob Broom, George Read, and John Dickinson. Our final Delaware signer is Richard Bassett. One of the biggest difficulties in writing this profile is coming up with a physical historic site related to Bassett. Bassett was once one of the richest men in Delaware, owning estates in Maryland and Delaware and a house in Wilmington. None of these houses remain. The only remaining site is his burial place, in the Bayard-Bassett vault in the Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery.

Richard Bassett was born in Bohemia Ferry in Cecil County Maryland. His parents ran the Bohemia Ferry Tavern. Bassett’s father left his family. Luckily for Bassett his mother was an heir to Bohemia Manor, a huge estate in Cecil County. Bassett was adopted by Peter Lawson, a lawyer, who was also an heir to Bohemia Manor, which Bassett eventually inherited. Lawson trained his adopted son as a lawyer. Bassett became a member of the Delaware Bar in 1770 and began his practice in Dover, Delaware.

During and after the Revolution, Bassett served at the Delaware State constitutional convention and was a member of the state Legislative Council and House of Assembly and the captain of a troop of cavalry. In 1787 he was chosen as a member of Delaware’s delegation to the Constitutional Convention. He never spoke at the convention but voted in favor of the new Constitution.

He was elected to the United States Senate in 1788 where he supported a strong judiciary. He was governor of Delaware in 1798, resigning in 1801 when he was named a judge of the Third Circuit by John Adams. He was one of the “midnight judges” whose position was eliminated in 1802 by the repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801 by the new administration of Thomas Jefferson. Bassett published a pamphlet arguing against the elimination of the judges and in favor of judicial independence.

Besides his political and legal activities Bassett was also a strong supporter of the Methodist Church. He converted to Methodism in the 1780s and supported  Francis Asbury and other Methodist ministers. He invited Methodist preachers to Bohemia Manor and held camp meetings there. His religious scruples led him to oppose slavery, freeing his own slaves and trying to convince Delaware to abolish slavery.

Bassett was married twice. He had no sons, but one of his daughters, Ann, married James A. Bayard, who became a U.S. Senator for Delaware and founded a dynasty of Delaware Senators including Richard H. Bayard, James A. Bayard, Jr., Thomas F. Bayard, Sr. and Thomas F. Bayard, Jr. Bassett died in 1815 at Bohemia Manor.

Photo credit: Engraving, by Charles B. J. Fevret de Saint-Memin (1802). From Wikimedia

For more information on Richard Bassett  see:

Robert E. Pattison. “The Life and Character of Richard Bassett.” Papers of the Historical Society of Delaware (1900)

Gaspare J. Saladino. Bassett, Richard. American National Biography. Oxford University Press, 1999, v. 2

Local legal historic sites — burial place of John Dickinson

December 14th, 2011 No comments

John Dickinson markerA small, unassuming stone in the Wilmington Friends Meeting Burial Ground marks the grave of John Dickinson, lawyer and statesman, known for his political writings as “The Penman of the Revolution.” Dickinson was born in Talbot County, Maryland, the son of a wealthy landowner and was raised at Poplar Hall, his father’s plantation in Kent County, Delaware. Dickinson studied law in Philadelphia with John Moland and then went to England to study law at the Middle Temple. He returned to America and began his career as an attorney in Philadelphia. During his lifetime he lived in both Pennsylvania and Delaware.

In the 1760s he wrote his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, arguing against the Townshend Acts and for the rights of the colonists. These pamphlets made him famous throughout the American colonies. He was a Pennsylvania delegate to the Continental Congress where he urged moderation and refused to sign the Declaration of Independence. This refusal made him unpopular for a time. He did however, serve  in the Revolution as an officer in the Pennsylvania Militia and a private in the Delaware Militia. During the Revolution he was Delaware’s delegate to the Continental Congress and in 1781 was elected president of Delaware and in 1783 president of Pennsylvania. He wrote the first draft of the Articles of Confederation.

John_Dickinson_portraitIn 1787 Dickinson was chosen as one of Delaware’s representatives to the Constitutional Convention and also was president of the committee that revised Delaware’s constitution in 1791. Although he never formally joined the Friends Meeting, most of his family were Quakers and he was influenced by Quaker ideas. He became an abolitionist and freed the slaves on his plantation in 1777. When he died in 1808, he was buried in the Wilmington Friends Meeting Burial Ground.

Poplar Hall, John Dickinson’s boyhood home and plantation in Kent County is still standing. It is now a museum and is open to the public.

Photo credits: Nate Davidson, the Historical Marker Database and Wikimedia Commons

For more information on John Dickinson see:

Charles Janeway Stillé. The Life and Times of John Dickinson, 1732-1808. Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1891.

Milton E. Flower. John Dickinson, Conservative Revolutionary. University Press of Virginia, 1983. E302.6.D5 F57 1983

The Political Writings of John Dickinson, esquire. Wilmington, 1801.

Weird laws of Delaware – dead bodies and wooden legs

December 8th, 2011 No comments

skeletonIt’s time for another edition of weird laws of Delaware. This time we’re featuring laws on pawning artificial limbs and selling dead bodies. Our first weird law is:

In Delaware it is against the law to sell a wooden leg at a pawn broker. Status: mostly true.

The law actually says “No pawnbroker … shall take or receive as a pledge or pawn any artificial limb or wheelchair.” 24 Del. C. § 2307(b) So it isn’t illegal for someone to pawn their wooden leg, it is illegal for the pawnbroker to take it. When this law was originally passed in 1907 (24 Del. L. 162) it also prohibited pawnbrokers from accepting workman’s tools, but that provision has been dropped. This is the first law I’ve looked at that is truly an unusual law; as far as I’ve been able to tell Delaware is the only state that prohibits pawnbrokers from taking artificial limbs.

Weird law #2 this week is:

In Delaware you may not sell dead people for money without a license. status: Not true

I have to confess this one has me kind of stumped. It is cited all over the internet but I can’t find any Delaware law, current or old, that comes close to saying this.

There is 11 Del. C. § 1333 Trading in Human Remains and Associated Funerary Objects, which makes it illegal to trade in “unlawfully removed human remains,” but it doesn’t mention licenses, except to say that the law does not apply to “A licensed mortician or other professional who transports human remains in the course of carrying out the individual’s professional duties and responsibilities.” There is also 16 Del. C. § 2701, et seq. which regulates obtaining dead bodies for anatomical studies but there is no mention of sales or licenses.

So for now, I’m declaring this weird law not true. If anybody has any idea where this comes from please let me know.

Photo from The Powerhouse Museum Collection on Flickr.

Local legal historic sites: Stonum, country home of George Read

November 4th, 2011 No comments

Stonum in 1936

Delaware attorney George Read was a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. Born in Cecil County, Maryland in 1733, his family moved to New Castle, Delaware shortly after his birth. He attended schools in Pennsylvania and studied law in Philadelphia with John Moland. Another of Moland’s students was John Dickinson, another future delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Dickinson and Read were lifelong friends.

After his admission to the bar, Read returned to New Castle, where he started a law practice and lived for the rest of his life. In 1763 Read was appointed attorney general for the three lower colonies (as Delaware was known at the time). He was a representative to the Continental Congress for Delaware. He was initially in favor of reconciliation with Britain and voted against the Declaration of Independence, but when the Declaration was eventually adopted he signed it. During the Revolution, he was a member of Delaware’s Legislative Council and president of Delaware from 1777 to 1778. He was named Judge of the Court of Appeals in admiralty cases in 1782.

George ReadRead represented Delaware at the Constitutional Convention. Like the other Delaware delegates he was concerned with protecting the rights of the smaller states. He was also a U.S. Senator and was Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court until his death in 1798.

He had a town house on the Strand in New Castle, which was destroyed by a fire in 1824. It was on a site next door to the George Read II house, built by Read’s son. The George Read II house is still standing and is open for tours. Stonum (or Stoneham), at Ninth and Washington Streets in New Castle, was his country house and is the only house associated with Read still standing. Stonum is privately owned and not open to the public.

For more information on George Read see: William Thompson Read. Life and Correspondence of George Read. Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1870.

Photos from: Wikimedia Commons.

Weird laws of Delaware – marriage on a dare

October 24th, 2011 No comments
couple in an automobile

These two are on the road to an annulment

Here’s another look at the weird laws of Delaware. Another commonly cited weird law is:

In Delaware getting married on a dare is grounds for an annulment. Status: True

This is sometimes given as “In Delaware it’s illegal to get married on a dare,” which is not true.

Among the grounds for annulment of a marriage given in 13 Del.C. § 1506 is: “One or both parties entered into the marriage as a jest or dare.” Go to the Delaware Courts’ website, download the Petition For Divorce/Annulment Form and there it is on page 4, “describe how and when you learned of the jest or dare.”

This is actually not an unusual law. There is only one other state, Colorado, (Colo. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 14-10-111) that specifically mentions “jest or dare” as grounds for annulment in its statutes. However many states have case law allowing jest or dare as grounds for an annulment: New Jersey, McClurg v. Terry, 21 N.J. Eq. 225 (Ch. 1870); West Virginia, Meredith v. Shakespeare, 96 W. Va. 229, 122 S.E. 520 (1924); Connecticut, Davis v. Davis, 119 Conn. 194, 175 A. 574 (1934)  It was common enough at one time that there was an ALR article about it published in 1950. (Validity of Marriage As Affected By Intention of the Parties That It Should Be Only a Matter of Form or Jest. 14 A.L.R.2d 624)

The facts in Davis v. Davis seem to be typical, including the automobile ride:

The plaintiff and the defendant went on an automobile ride with several young people. It was a joyous occasion, and to add to the excitement the defendant dared the plaintiff to marry her. The plaintiff accepted the dare, a license for the marriage was procured in New York state, and the ceremony was at once performed by a justice of the peace there. Neither party intended at the time to enter into the marriage status. They returned to their respective homes after the ceremony and have never cohabited. Each was nineteen years old at the time. Davis v. Davis, 119 Conn. 194, 175 A. 574, 574-75 (1934)

With the lessening of the stigma and increased ease of divorce, these laws have mostly become superfluous. Nowadays, people who wake up after a joyous automobile ride, and realize they’ve married someone on a dare, probably just get divorced.

Photo from Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

Weird laws of Delaware – aircraft food supplies

October 19th, 2011 No comments
charles lindbergh

Charles Lindbergh took 5 sandwiches and water on his 1927 flight, thus meeting Delaware’s “adequate supply of food and potable water” requirement

Reading this recent blog post on weird English laws at the Law Library Congress blog got me thinking about some of the weird Delaware laws commonly posted on websites like or (Warning: obnoxious pop up ads!) Do these laws really exist in Delaware or are they just endlessly cut and pasted filler for content farm websites? I set out to do a little research to find out if any of them are true. Here is the first of my results.

It is illegal to fly over any body of water, unless one is carrying sufficient supplies of food and drink. Status: Once mostly true. Repealed.

This is the most commonly given example of a “weird law” in Delaware and yes, it really did exist. Originally passed in 1929, 2 Del. Code § 506, 36 Del. Laws Ch. 248, § 6 actually read: Aircraft flying over large bodies of water shall be provided with an adequate supply of food and potable water and if engaged in carrying passengers for hire, must be equipped with a Very’s pistol or a signal device the equivalent thereof, and life preservers or other flotation devices of the nature and character approved by the Secretary of Commerce of the United States.

The “large” part is usually not quoted making it sound as though Delaware had banned foodless flights over Lums Pond. In 1929 it perhaps didn’t seem unlikely for the passengers of a hypothetical Ford Trimotor that ditched in the Delaware Bay to survive by bobbing in their flotation devices, eating their adequate supply of food, and firing their Very’s pistol until help arrived.

The language of the law was taken from the then current “Air Commerce Regulations” of the United States. (7 Information Bulletin. Dept of Commerce. Aeronautics Branch 17 (eff. June 1, 1928)) At the time it was passed it was neither weird nor unusual and was in fact the regulation in effect everywhere in the United States. But as early as 1939 the Delaware law was mocked in the Minnesota Law Review as “a fine example of a superfluous effort…” (Newman F. Baker, Legislative Crimes, 23 Minn. L. Rev. 135 at 162 (1938-1939)) The food and drink provision was no longer a federal requirement by the time of the first Code of Federal Regulations in 1938. The law lingered on in Delaware until it was finally eliminated in a revision of the state’s aviation laws in 1996. (70 Del. Laws ch. 575 § 16)

Photograph from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division