Saturday, June 6, 2015

Police Regulations in Exeter in Former Days

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, June 5, 2015.

“Move along, move along. Nothing to see here.” This time honored command of local law enforcement echoes the directive your mother probably also offered up – “mind your own business.”

If anything is clear from the Police Regulations of the Town of Exeter of 1875, it is that streets are for traffic, sidewalks are for business and loafers are the enemy. Only two of the 15 regulations seem to be direct safety ordinances: awnings in front of shops needed to be a minimum of seven feet high (just in case the 6’ 4” Abraham Lincoln returned, no doubt), and smoking a cigar or pipe near a livery stable was forbidden, lest it start a fire. Everything else seems to involve bad behavior.

“No boxes, barrels, or any other article (seats for loafers), will be allowed to remain on any sidewalk on the Sabbath, within the limits of the village of Exeter.” Loafers were a problem. Our old Webster’s Dictionary at the Historical Society defines a loafer as, “a lazy lounger: hence one who has the bad habits typical of street loafers,” but doesn’t helpfully define what those bad habits might be. The police regulations seem to indicate that the problems included, “shouting, screaming and whistling, or making any other noise or disturbance in the street or on the commons, particularly in the evening or night time.” Whistling was also a particular problem during meetings at the Town Hall – “No person shall be allowed at any meeting at the Town Hall to whistle or make any other disturbance that is an annoyance to the audience, speakers, or performers.”

It appears that loafers might also get bored enough to get up a ball game, which, of course, was forbidden in the streets. “No person shall be allowed to play at ball, pitch quoits (a kind of ring-toss game), or make any disturbances whatever in any of the streets, lanes or alleys of this town.” It was also forbidden to idly slide along the streets for fun in icy weather, either by foot or on a sled. Laughing at someone who has just inadvertently taken a tumble, however, is not mentioned, unless you’re being disorderly about it.

If you didn’t have specific business in town, you weren’t welcome. “It shall be deemed rude and disorderly conduct and a violation of the Police Laws for three or more persons to be collected after sunset about any of the lamp posts in front of the Post Office, Town Hall, depots or corners of any of the streets in town, door or passageway and there remain after notice by a police officer to disperse.” Apparently two people standing under a lamp post was okay, three was just asking for trouble. You never know, they might start pitching quoits. Four people might break into harmony and start a barbershop quartet, and nobody wants that to happen.

But maybe we’re being a bit too flippant about this. It wasn’t just corners and lamp posts that were problematic, curbs and doorsteps were dangerous places as well. “Nor shall anyone be suffered to sit upon the steps or curbstones by the sidewalks; nor shall any one be suffered to push, or insult, or abuse, by words or otherwise, any person passing on the sidewalks or in the streets of this town.” Really? Were people so rude back then that they had to be told not to be jerks? Good thing we can FaceBook shame the miscreants today. It was also not okay to block the sidewalk. “If two or more persons shall stand on the sidewalks in a situation to interfere with those who wish to pass thereon, or shall pass on the sidewalks in such a manner as unnecessarily to come in contact with persons with whom they meet, they and each shall be punished.” Actually, this one seems acceptable, although it might be even more helpful to add not blocking doorways while having unnecessary conversations. I’m glad you’re back from the Cape, now get out of the way, I need to get into the Post Office. And as a side note, don’t touch me, I’m from New England.

Indecent exposure could also get one into trouble, particularly near the river. “No person shall, within the view of any dwelling house, or of any public road, street, or wharf, in the day time without necessity, bathe or swim, or expose his person indecently in dressing or undressing for the purpose of swimming, or bathing, or otherwise.” This was clearly aimed at boys, and perhaps a few men, who wanted to skinny dip on hot days. Keep it under cover guys, nobody wants to see that. River swimming was a male pastime, most likely because they could slip out of their clothes much quicker than the girls, who had multiple layers of skirts, petticoats, pantaloons and corsets to shed.

“Saloons, Restaurants, Billiard Halls, and Bar Rooms are Requested to close the Same at Eleven O’Clock Each Evening, and when Closed on Saturday Evenings, not to open them again till Monday Morning.” Business was business, but there was no call for late-night lingering. It might lead to more loafing or quoits or nude swimming. Never mentioned in the regulations were any prohibition on public drunkenness, which in an age when most Americans drank nearly two gallons of spirits a year, must have been a problem.

More important, apparently, was not driving on the sidewalk with any, “wheel carriage, sled or wheelbarrow,” certainly no alcohol involved there. Try to behave everyone. We all have to live together.

Photo: Some suspicious-looking people loitering on Water Street c. 1890. Under the 1875 police regulations, such behavior might be considered a criminal offense.

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