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The Blue Laws of Connecticut, 1781

The term 'Blue Laws' describes harsh, puritanical laws that regulate public morality. Such laws supposedly existed in colonial America, making it illegal to do such things as kiss a child or shave on Sunday. But in fact, such laws probably never formally existed. The claim that they did was a hoax perpetrated by a writer in the late eighteenth century, the Reverend Samuel Peters.

The phrase 'blue laws' was first used in an anonymous pamphlet published in 1762 titled The Real Advantages Which Ministers and People May Enjoy, Especially in the Colonies, by Conforming to the Church of England. But Peters was the first person to list examples of such laws in a book he published in 1781 titled A General History of Connecticut.

In this work, Peters (who was living in London at the time) described various blue laws that had once existed in Connecticut. He claimed that it had once been the law that "every male should have his hair cut round, according to a cap," that "married persons must live together, or be imprisoned," and that "no one shall run on the Sabbath-day, walk in his garden or elsewhere, except to and from meeting [church]." The punishments for breaking these laws included excommunication, confiscation of property, fines, banishment, whipping, cutting off of the ears, burning of the tongue, or death. Moreover, Peters claimed that many of these laws still remained on the books in Connecticut.

Peters's history caused a sensation in England, where readers felt that his account of these bizarre blue laws confirmed their view that Americans were a backwards, overly fanatical lot. But New Englanders who read the book were outraged, and rightly so. Because Peters had simply made up these blue laws.

Why did Peters invent this fanciful legal history of Connecticut? There are two reasons.

First, he was a wealthy Anglican who had been forced to leave America during the Revolution. Therefore, he had no love for the Connecticut society he had left behind. He wanted to make it look as uptight and repressive as possible.

Second, Peters was dabbling in a literary genre that was only beginning to make its way into print at that time: the tall tale. Sprinkled throughout his history of Connecticut were bizarre claims, such as the assertion that the Connecticut River flowed so fast in places that it could carry a crowbar downstream. He also described a procession of frogs, four miles in length, that once descended upon the town of Windham. Clearly these 'facts' about Connecticut played fast and loose with the truth.

Peters's scheme to darken the history of his former home worked. Even today numerous references can still be found to the infamous Blue Laws of Connecticut.

Links and References
  • Wonham, Henry B. "In the Name of Wonder: The Emergence of Tall Narrative in American Writing," American Quarterly, Vol. 41, Issue 2 (June 1989): 284-307.
  • Kingsley, William L. "The Blue Laws." The New Englander and Yale Review. April 1871, 243-304.
LegalLiterary Hoaxes18th-Century Hoaxes


this is very interesting. i grew up in harwinton, conn. back in the late 60's-70's. on sundays, my grandmother always would comment on the"blue law" meaning you couldn't purchase alcohol until noon.sure enough you couldn't. in the stores, it was always covered,until noon.
Posted by kathy mahoney  in  canoga park ca  on  Fri Jul 09, 2004  at  12:25 AM
You can't buy liquor on a Sunday in Ct at all. CT and mass both have many,many blue laws. One massacussetts blue law makes it illegal for a horse to graze on the front lawn on a Sunday. The only time and pace I saw this was in Mass on a Sunday! Needless to say these laws are generally forgotten or ignored by most.
Posted by pfd  in  ct  on  Sun Feb 13, 2005  at  07:53 AM
Alex, I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss claims of water moving a crowbar. You are welcome to visit my home on the Pike Creek, where you can watch a small east coast creek (~8' wide in the narrows) push Victorian-era cast-iron steam radiators down stream whenever it floods. The rains that followed hurricane Jeanne (?) recently pushed one about 40 feet!

I've never visited the Connecticut River personally, though, so I can't testify to the volume or speed of the water. However, some fairly respectable authorities claim it to be a rather large river that runs over 400 miles and crosses the fall line of the east coast, and that it normally moves quite a few multi-ton objects (called hydroelectric generators) without a lot of fuss.

That whapperknocker, though, I think that's a hoax.
Posted by CHarlie  on  Fri Mar 04, 2005  at  04:57 PM
On Wensdays and Friday we couldn't bark at dogs or we would be fined $100
Posted by Tasha McKenna  in  Torrington CT  on  Wed Apr 27, 2005  at  10:39 AM
I grew up in CT. The one blue law I remember was that it was illegal to drive a car barefoot. It was still illegal when I moved in 1980, though they may have repealed it since then. Maybe this is why I like to drive barefoot on long road trips!
Posted by Chris  on  Thu Apr 06, 2006  at  02:58 PM
I have a book from the late sixteen hundreds.
It is called Connecticut Blue Laws.It lists all sorts of strange crazy laws I bet you would like to see it .Very very fragile....
Posted by John  in  Blackstone Ma.  on  Mon Dec 18, 2006  at  06:49 PM
We sure would like to see it!

SCAN THAT BABY!

You may have the last surviving copy of that book, so you ought to put it on the web where others can see it without physically handling it.
Posted by CHarlie  on  Tue Dec 19, 2006  at  09:41 AM
Although I am certainly no authoritative source, I remember a discussion of this as a sociological phenomenon, exploited to varying degrees. For instance, saying that it is illegal to walk a squirrel on a leash down Main Street in Little Rock, Arkansas may have a basis in fact: it may be against local health codes to expose your pet rodent in public under any circumstances. Citing an odd specific instance gives the impression that persons walking their squirrels in Little Rock became such a problem that it required legislation. Fundamentally, anything that sounds remotely believable and tends to support a bias or prejudice becomes accepted.
Posted by Mike Burtner  in  Indianapolis, Indiana, USA  on  Sat Jul 14, 2007  at  07:49 PM
As someone who grew up on Connecticut during the 40's and 50's I have witnessed that long line of frogs on the road. Perhaps not 4 miles in length but assuredly considerably longer than one mile.
Posted by Paul Millette  in  St Augustine, Fl  on  Tue Mar 04, 2008  at  08:31 AM
One Blue Law I would like to see repealed is the ban on Sunday hunting. There are few weekends that hunters are allowed to hunt (pheasant from mid Oct to Dec) and most everything ends in Feb. Most people only have the weekend to hunt since they work during the week. If it rains on Saturday, they're out of luck for the week. If they want to calm down the woods for a day as some claim, make it a weekday. There's no one out there anyway. Hunting is also restricted to very few locations in CT, so it would not impact most hikers and non-hunters. It might even get some kids away from their video games for a few hours. I see no legitimate reason for this law to still be on the books.
Posted by BR  in  Hartford, CT  on  Fri Mar 12, 2010  at  06:46 AM
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