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10 Eccentric Historical Laws

Some of these shocking mandates are still on the books.

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  • Photo Credit: Tingey Injury Law Firm / Unsplash

There are plenty of weird—and sometimes ridiculous—laws that have been passed throughout the 50 states, many of them still on the books to this day. Some of these laws probably made good sense when they were first introduced, but have been rendered absurd by the passage of time. Others were just ludicrous from the get-go. Here are 10 of the weirdest, wackiest, and most unlikely laws in the United States, gleaned from throughout our nation’s history.

Beware Black Cats, at Least on Friday the 13th

In 1939, French Lick Springs, Indiana passed a particularly specific law requiring all black cats to wear bells on Friday the 13th. The reason for this wartime legislation was to “alleviate mental strain upon the populace.” Obviously, Friday the 13th was considered unlucky enough on its own that no one wanted a black cat crossing their path, to top it off, and the bells would help them avoid such an eventuality. Weirder still, a New York Times article from 1942 suggests that when the ordinance wasn’t enforced in 1941, “a number of minor mishaps occurred.”

Don’t Eat That Jumping Frog

The frog jumping contests of Calaveras County, California got their start thanks to Mark Twain’s 1865 short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” and they remain serious business to this day. In fact, there’s a law still on the books, originally passed in 1957, that allows any person to “possess any number of live frogs to use in frog-jumping contests.” However, if the frog dies, “it must be destroyed as soon as possible, and may not be eaten or otherwise used for any purpose.”

...Or Fried Chicken with a Fork

Gainesville, Georgia passed a proclamation in 1961 making it illegal to eat fried chicken any way but with your fingers. The law was part of a publicity gimmick for the town, which was positioning itself as a poultry center, and is basically never enforced—except for one instance in 2009, when a visitor to the town, who was celebrating her 91st birthday, was approached by the sheriff and informed that it was illegal to eat the “culinary delicacy sacred to this municipality, this county, this state, the Southland and this republic,” with a knife and fork. It turns out, her public chastisement (and subsequent pardon) was a practical joke arranged by a friend and longtime Gainesville resident.

Thou Shalt Not Milk Thy Neighbor’s Cow

Texas takes their cows seriously. In fact, from 1866 until 1974, if you tried milking your neighbor’s cow, you could get hit with a fine. The logic here was that the only reason to milk someone else’s cow was to steal the milk. While that specific law was repealed in 1974, it’s actually still illegal, the wording is just different. Today, milking your neighbor’s cow is treated the same as stealing any of their other property.

The Dead Don’t Dance

In parts of South Carolina, it is still illegal for a dance hall (not that we have many of those these days) to operate within a quarter of a mile of “a rural cemetery that is either maintained as a cemetery or has been used for the burial of the dead within five years.” While the reasoning behind this law, which dates back at least as far as 1942, is unknown, one reporter for the Post and Courier speculated that “at some point in our past there was a fear among lawmakers that all that evil rock and roll music might actually wake the dead.” More likely, it was simply considered disrespectful or sacrilegious, as the ordinance also prohibits dance halls near churches.

Snowball Fights Are Finally Legal in Severance, Colorado 

As far as anyone in the municipality of Severance was aware, the law had been on the books since the town was first founded in 1906. It specifically made it illegal to “throw or shoot any stone or any other missile upon or at any person, animal, building, tree or other public or private property.” That included snowballs. The law stayed on the books until 2019, when a third-grader went before the town board to appeal the law, arguing that, basically, kids wanted to have snowball fights.

Just Leave Bigfoot Alone

Does the cryptid known as bigfoot really haunt the wild places of western America? On the off chance he does, don’t try to bag a trophy in Skamania County, Washington, where a 1969 law made the “slaying of Bigfoot” a felony, punishable by up to 5 years in prison. These days, you won’t necessarily have a felony record if you happen to hit bigfoot with your car, but the cryptid is still listed as an endangered species in the county.

No Fortune Telling Allowed

“No person shall for hire or profit engage in the practice of occult arts, either public or private,” in the city of Yamhill, Oregon. For the purposes of the city’s municipal code, breaking this ordinance is an “unclassified misdemeanor.” As for what constitutes “occult arts,” the ordinance identifies them as “fortune telling, astrology, phrenology, palmistry, clairvoyance, mesmerism, spiritualism, or any other practice or practices generally recognized to be unsound and unscientific.”

Don’t Wrestle Bears in Louisiana

Historically, “bear baiting” was a relatively common practice in which dogs or other animals were pitted against bears for entertainment. Obviously, we would consider that animal cruelty today. Apparently in Louisiana, however, “other animals” must have included people, at one time or another, because there’s a state law that prohibits “bear wrestling.” What is bear wrestling? According to the statute, “a ‘bear wrestling match’ means a match or contest between one or more persons and a bear for the purpose of fighting or engaging in a physical altercation.” Assuming you survive your bear wrestling match, you can be “fined not more than five hundred dollars or imprisoned for not more than six months, or both.”

Outlawing Pi

We all learned about the value of pi in school, but Indiana schoolchildren almost learned something very different. This is a law that never actually went into effect, but not for lack of trying. In 1897, a local Indiana doctor believed he had figured out a new way to calculate the area of a circle, and pushed Indiana legislators to introduce a bill that would redefine pi to just 3.2—which is, admittedly, a lot easier to memorize. The bill passed the Indiana House and made it all the way to the Senate floor, where a mathematics professor from Purdue University managed to argue it out of passing into law. 

Featured image: Tingey Injury Law Firm / Unsplash