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The Old Blue Laws of Maryland

By Staff | Feb 10, 2017

While researching in archives and repositories can be a tedious task, there are times that a piece of information (sometimes not related to your agenda) strikes a curious part of your brain and captures your interest.

I was recently performing a property history search for a client in Sharpsburg, Maryland when I came across an interesting account of “The Old Blue Laws” that were in force when Sharpsburg was first laid out.

For example, an Act to punish blasphemers, swearers, drunkards and Sabbath breakers (the hardened criminals of the time). Anyone who “willingly, maliciously, and advisedly, by writing or speaking blasphemed or cursed God or denythe Godhead” and was convicted through verdict or confession faced serious consequences!

The first offense merited boring through the tongue with a hot iron and a fine of 20 pounds sterling. If the fine could not be collected the offender suffered 6 months imprisonment without bail. The second offense (if you were not smart enough to learn from the first) found you stigmatized with the burning of the letter B in the forehead. Oh, and fined 40 pounds sterling or 12 months in jail if you could not pay. The third offense resulted in death without the benefit of the Clergy and maybe rightfully so if you could not learn your lesson from all of the previous excruciation!

Profane swearers were fined 2 shillings, 6 pence for the first offense and 5 shillings for every curse after (the birth of the “Swear Jar”). Drunkards were fined 5 shillings for every offense. Fines were paid to the county where the offense was committed and, by the way, non-payment of the fines for drunkards and swearers brought forth 39 lashes on the bare back or placement in the stocks for over three hours. Personally, I would choose the stocks.

Sabbath breakers were fined 200 pounds of Tobacco (It wasn’t a Puritanical “sin” yet to smoke the “golden weed”). Housekeepers selling strong liquor on Sunday were also punished with a 200 pound tobacco fine. No one was exempt from this retribution. Not even the Minister who was required to read the act four times a year to his parish or be fined 1000 pounds of tobacco!

Another Act encouraged the destroying of wolves, crows, foxes and squirrels. Every taxable person was required to produce annually 3 squirrel scalps or crow’s heads or forfeit 2 pounds of tobacco for every item not produced. On the flip side, for every such scalp produced over the required three, 2 pounds of tobacco were a credit to your taxes. The grand prize being a wolf’s head which yielded 200 pounds of tobacco.

It made me ponder two things: How much money did the Counties collect and acquire through tobacco sales (even then, government at its finest) and what happened if you were a farmer of corn and not tobacco? Oh yes EVERYONE grew tobacco.

Our ancestors believed in excessive and cruel punishment to effectively check crime. Misdemeanors produced punishments such as banishment, boring, slitting of the nose, and cutting off ears, whippings with cat-o-nine-tales, flogging at the cart tail (when the criminal was tied to the end of a cart and flogged while being driven around town), and brandings.

Brandings were in the hand or forehead with the initial letter of the offense: “S. L.” for seditious libeler (slander) on either cheek, “M” for manslaughter, “T” for thief on the left hand, “R” for rogue on the shoulder and “P” for perjury on the forehead.

Women did not escape punishment, though I must admit, they endured a less harsh penance. A gossip, mischief making, tale bearer (oops! That’s me!) was put on a dunking stool and given a cold bath for the first offense. Obviously created by a male law maker. For the second offense she was fined 3 pounds or confined to 36 days of jail, if she could not pay.

In Sharpsburg, the public whipping tree still stood on Mechanic Street at the turn of the 20th century, a testament to our country’s youth, mistakes and growing pains. It is undetermined whether the witness tree located just a half of block from where it is presumed the old jail stood, is one and the same.

In my previous article, The Return of the Penny Dreadful, published in the January 13 edition of The Shepherdstown Chronicle, I challenged the reader: Can you tell the difference between fact and fiction? Are these “Old Blue Laws of Maryland” tall tales or truth? Follow up with the answer and more details at facebook.com/ABHResearch.