Wanted in 50 States: What You Can and Cannot Do in Alaska on a Thursday

Illustration by Eric Molinsky

“You’re not about to fish from the neck of that giraffe, are you, ma’am? Not in the great state of Idaho, you’re not.”

“Welcome to Ohio, sir. What brings you here this fine Sunday?”

“Whaling.”
“Take it someplace else, Ahab.”

“I hope to high heaven that you hunted that camel in Utah, son, because I cannot begin to tell you the trouble you are in if it came from Arizona.”

Anyone who had a Hotmail account in 1997 knows that you can’t hunt camels in Arizona or whales in Ohio on Sundays. Or can you? To hear the internet tell it, there are hundreds of these hyper-specific, unfounded laws still on the books at the national, state, and municipal levels. But do any of these legendary laws actually exist? For this article, I attempted to seek out and verify whether any of these laws are still in force—or if they ever were in the first place.

What I found was that the vast majority of these purportedly “real” laws fit into one of three
categories:

1) Laws that had long since been repealed but their legend had not yet faded from public memory. These can be difficult to confirm one way or the other, but suffice it to say that throughout the history of this country, the landscape of public thought and opinion has been a work in progress. It should surprise no one that there have been a number of laws that made seemingly good sense in the past but would raise many eyebrows today. Ironically, the public attention that the internet has brought to many of these outdated laws has actually resulted in many of them being repealed in the past decade.

2) Laws that have been grossly exaggerated or misrepresented. This would be the “It is illegal in Gumboville, Louisiana for a lumberjack to shoot his neighbor’s frog on Wednesday” –type laws. When you hear about a law like this, it is usually just a way of saying that it is illegal for anyone to shoot an animal belonging to someone else. In essence, broad laws are given narrow interpretations in order to appear less rational than they actually are.

3) Outright fabrications. As it turns out, many people on the internet lie.

I was mildly disappointed to learn that many of our most treasured local legends are not grounded in fact. For instance, we all know that bowling is illegal in Evanston, right? After all, there are no bowling alleys within the Evanston city limits. In truth, this appears to be more of a curious anomaly than an explicit prohibition, as there is no law in the city of Evanston stating that it is illegal to own or operate a bowling alley.

One oft-cited law claims that it is illegal to take a French poodle to the opera in Chicago. While there are laws prohibiting non-service animals in public buildings, allow me to assure French poodle owners that there is no such ordinance specifically targeting your pets.

Despite the vast number of dead-ends and half-truths that I turned up in my research, however, I am happy to report that there are enough bizarre laws still in force across the country to satisfy anyone nostalgic for 1990s chain emails. Here is a sampling of the oddities that you will find in various federal, state and municipal codes:

Chicago Municipal Code § 7-28-630

Vintage cans of tennis balls“No person shall sell, give away, or offer to sell or give away, or have in his possession any stink ball or fire ball, or any bomb, ball tube, vial, or bottle made of thin glass or other easily breakable material containing any of the above-mentioned substances.”

– Guess you can forget about utilizing all of those ball tubes you’ve been stockpiling.

Joliet Municipal Code § 2-8

Joliet Area Historical Museum Route 66 Sign

“The only official, correct and proper pronunciation and spelling of the name of this city shall be Jo-li-et; the accent on the first syllable, with the “o” in the first syllable pronounced in its long sound, as in the words “so,” “no” and “foe” and any other pronunciations to be discouraged as interfering with the desired uniformity in respect to the proper  pronunciation of the name of this city.”

– You can’t be too careful when the stakes are this high.

Sun Prairie, Wisconsin Municipal Code § 10.32.020

look ma, no hands“No bicycle shall be allowed to proceed in any street in the city by inertia or momentum with the feet of the rider removed from the bicycle pedals. No rider of a bicycle shall remove both hands from the handlebars or practice any trick or fancy riding in any street in the city nor shall any bicycle rider carry or ride any other person so that two persons are on the bicycle at one time, unless a seat is provided for a second person.”

I developed a crab-riding trick in the early nineties that would make your mother cry.
If I had grown up in Sun Prairie I would have been the next Jesse James.

Wis. Stat. Ann. § 97.18

Margarine“The serving of colored oleomargarine or margarine at a public eating place as a substitute for table butter is prohibited unless it is ordered by the customer.”

If I can believe it’s not butter, you just got fined not less than $100 nor more than $500 or imprisoned not more than 3 months or both.

Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 436.600

A Casual Atrocity“No person shall sell, exchange, offer to sell or exchange, display, or possess living baby chicks, ducklings, or other fowl or rabbits which have been dyed or colored; nor dye or  color any baby chicks, ducklings, or other fowl or rabbits; nor sell, exchange, offer to sell or exchange or to give away baby chicks, ducklings, or other fowl or rabbits, under two (2) months of age in any quantity less than six (6), except that any rabbit weighing three (3) pounds or more may be sold at an age of six (6) weeks. Any person who violates this section shall be fined not less than $100 nor more than $500.”

– OK, this one actually makes sense, for obvious reasons.

48 U.S.C.A. § 1411

Guano island off Ocean Beach“Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States.”

– What’s guano? You’ll know it when you smell it.

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