Posts Tagged ‘weird laws’

Delaware weird laws go to the movies

August 25th, 2016 No comments
1949 newspaper advertisement for Delaware's first drive-in theater.

1949 newspaper advertisement for Delaware’s first drive-in theater.

Weird law: “R” rated movies shall not be shown at drive-in theaters.

Status: true (but not enforced and probably unconstitutional)

This weird Delaware law is a perfect example of a law passed in response to what seemed like a pressing social problem at the time, that has since been rendered irrelevant by changes in technology and social norms.

Delaware’s first drive-in theater opened in 1949 on route 13 south of Wilmington. The Brandywine Drive-In promised affordable family entertainment in the privacy of your own car. Drive-ins were soon a success in Delaware and throughout the United States, reaching a peak of popularity in the 1950s. But by the 1970s drive-ins had fallen on hard times. Many drive-in theaters began showing adult films and low budget exploitation movies to stay in business. This led to complaints from people living near drive-ins that the movies were visible from public streets and homes where children could watch them.

The debate raged nationwide for several years. Some theaters tried to solve the problem by erecting fences, but this was expensive and unattractive. A special screen was even tested which prevented anyone not immediately in front of it from viewing the movie. (It does not seem to have been a success.)

Many municipalities and states passed laws to prevent drive-ins from showing offensive movies if they were visible from outside the theater. Delaware’s law, passed in 1974 (11 Del.C. § 1366) was fairly typical and banned any film “not suitable for minors,” specifically including those rated R. Of all the state laws still in force, it is the only one that specifically bans R-rated movies. Most other states banned X-rated or “obscene” movies, although some states and municipalities banned all movies with any nudity.

In 1975, a case involving a drive-in theater manager arrested for violating a Jacksonville, FL ordinance banning drive-ins from showing films containing nudity (the R-rated sexploitation film Class of ‘74) went to the United States Supreme Court. (Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville, 422 U.S. 205 (1975)) The court found the Jacksonville ordinance unconstitutionally overbroad and overturned it.

The R-rated slasher film Silent Night Evil Night showing at a Delaware Drive-In in 1975

The R-rated slasher film Silent Night Evil Night showing at a Delaware Drive-In in 1975.

After the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Delaware law remained in the state code, but the provision against R-rated movies doesn’t seem to have been enforced. In this 1975 ad, the Ellis Drive-In (the former Brandywine) is showing the R-rated slasher film Silent Night, Evil Night and in this 2000 photo the Diamond State Drive-In is showing two R-rated movies.

The ability to show R-rated movies didn’t save Delaware’s drive-ins, however. The Diamond State in Felton, the last drive-in theater in Delaware, closed in 2008.

Other states with laws regulating the content of movies shown at drive-in theaters include:

Me. Rev. Stat. Ann., tit. 17, § 2913

Neb. Rev. Stat. § 28-809

New Mexico
N.M. Stat. Ann. § 30-37-3.1

North Dakota
N.D. Cent. Code § 12.1-27.1-03.2

South Carolina
S.C. Code Ann. § 52-3-100

Vt. Stat. Ann., ch. 13, § 2804

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, pose for a photo 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.

Delaware weird laws are local

January 8th, 2013 No comments

Rehoboth Beach boardwalk 1931. Someone might be disrobing behind a beach chair.

This is going to be my last post on weird laws of Delaware. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed researching them. Today I’m going to look at a number of weird laws on disparate subjects that all have one thing in common. See if you can figure out what it is.

In Rehoboth Beach, Delaware:

No person shall change clothes in his or her vehicle.

status: mostly true [It’s only illegal if your car is in a public place. Feel free to change in your garage.]

§ 198-14. Disrobing in public. No person shall disrobe under the boardwalk, on the beach or in any vehicle while such vehicle is parked upon any public street or way or other public place in plain view of the public.

One may not whisper in church.

status: mostly true [It’s only illegal if you are disrupting or disturbing the congregation. If the congregation wants to have an all whispered service they can go ahead.]

§ 198-23. Disturbing religious worship and lawful assemblies. A. No person shall disrupt or disturb any congregation or assembly met for religious worship by noise, talking or whispering, or by rude or indecent behavior, or by profane language within their place of worship, or within 300 feet of the place of worship.

No person shall pretend to sleep on a bench on the boardwalk.

status: true [This is a perfectly normal law for a beach town, except for the “pretending” to sleep clause. I guess the local judges got tired of people using the “I wasn’t really asleep” defense.]

§ 198-30. Sleeping on boardwalk. No person shall sleep, lie or occupy as a sleeping quarter, or under the guise of pretending to sleep on the boardwalk, any bench located on the boardwalk in any pavilion located at the end of any street or on any bench located on any street.

Changing into or out of a bathing suit in a public restroom is prohibited.

status: true

§ 198-15. Changing clothes in comfort station prohibited. No person shall change his clothing from bathing suit to street clothes or otherwise within the comfort stations maintained by the City.

Six-year-old girls may not run around without being fully clothed.

status: true [But this is a deliberately obtuse reading of the law. Obviously 60 year old women are equally prohibited from topless bathing.]

§ 198-13. Topless bathing suits prohibited. No female over the age of five years shall wear a topless bathing suit or otherwise fail to cover her breasts with less than a full opaque covering of any portion thereof below the upper portion of the nipple.

Alcohol may not be served in nightclubs if dancing is occurring on the premises at the same time.

status: true [Actually nightclubs that allow dancing may not serve alcohol at all, no matter when the dancing is occurring.]

§ 134-13. Alcoholic beverages prohibited. No person shall sell, give, dispense, provide or keep or cause to be sold, given, dispensed, provided or kept any alcoholic beverage on the premises of any dance hall establishment.

In Lewes, Delaware:

It is illegal to wear pants that are “firm fitting” around the waist

status: not true [This is one of the most commonly cited weird Delaware laws on the internet. It is definitely not in the current Lewes code of ordinances. It is possible it used to be a law but I can’t check because we don’t have older city ordinance for Lewes in our library.]

Did you figure out what they all have in common? They are all local laws, municipal ordinances that have been passed by a town or city in Delaware. Many of the laws cited on weird laws websites are often local laws. Laws passed to deal with local problems do often seem strange when taken out of their local context. For instance, many of the laws from Rehoboth Beach were probably passed to deal with the problems of a beach town, by trying to discourage nightclubs, stop day trippers from changing out of their bathing suits on residential streets, and keep drunk college students from sleeping on the boardwalk. Many beach towns have similar laws.

Legal research classes don’t spend much, if any time teaching how to research local laws, but these laws can greatly affect your clients’ everyday lives, so it’s worthwhile taking the time to learn how to find them. The internet has made researching local laws easier than it used to be. Many cities and towns have their municipal codes available on their website. There are also two companies that specialize in creating municipal codes, Municipal Code Company and General Code and many local codes can be found free on their websites. For more information on researching local laws, I’d recommend reading this excellent article by Mary Whisner of the University of Washington.

Photo credit: Delaware Public Archives. Board of Agriculture Glass Negative Collection.,6621

For more information on local laws see: Mary Whisner. Enact Locally. 102 Law Library Journal 497 (2010)

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)


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.

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