5 Things That Were Legal, Right Until Someone Died
Our system of laws is a work in progress. We get along just fine for a while with no laws at all, then one day, someone stabs the mailman in the lungs, and so, we pass a law saying, “Don’t murder.” And later, someone passes a law called “no bananas,” because legislator Smith only like grapes, but for the moment, let’s stick to the well-meaning type of law, which genuinely tries to address some problem.
Something goes wrong, and then comes a law. That’s how we get laws stamping out all kinds of stuff that you’d otherwise indulge in on a daily basis, stuff like...
Lightning tends to strike tall buildings. We’ve known this for longer than we’ve known exactly what lightning is. In the 17th century, when people in France saw how often lightning hit church towers, they didn’t realize it was a structure’s height that sparked all that lightning. They blamed the bells. Not the metal in the bells — again, they didn’t understand the “electricity” part of lightning — but the bells’ ringing.
It wasn’t the craziest idea. Church bells are loud (just about the loudest thing they had in those days), and thunder is loud, so what, were we supposed to believe it was just coincidence that the two intersected in this way? No, they surely had to be linked. It also seemed reasonable to conclude each thunderstorm had a finite number of lightning strikes to discharge, so if we could get those bells sucking lightning out of the clouds, the storm would end quicker, and everyone could get back to frolicking in meadows.
This gave rise to the practice of purposely ringing bells during thunderstorms, to improve the weather. As you know from Victor Hugo, this wasn’t done by someone pushing a button somewhere safe and dry but by a bell ringer up in the tower yanking a rope by hand. Three bell ringers were fatally electrocuted every year during this century-long period. Paris finally thought this was a bit much and banned the practice of ringing bells during storms, for the poor bell ringers’ sakes. As a result, storms became slightly safer, but a little less awesome.
Also in France, we have the surprisingly dangerous hobby of magnet fishing. Like the name suggests, this practice involves sticking a magnet on the end of your line instead of a wriggly worm and dropping it into the water. Maybe you’ll catch some discarded gold idol. Maybe you’ll catch some silver candlestick. Maybe you’ll catch a stainless steel fork, since iron, unlike most metals, actually is magnetic.
Maybe you’ll find some stuff best left alone. In 2019, a man in Nord, France (around where that whole Dunkirk thing happened) went magnet fishing and yanked out a shell from World War I (one war before when that whole Dunkirk thing happened). The shell popped open, and out came some mustard gas, still nice and toxic despite having spent a century in cold storage. Magnet fishing is now illegal in France without a license. You can do it if you’re on a quest for environmental cleanup but not so much if you want war booty.
You can still freely magnet fish elsewhere. Not everywhere is as dangerous as France. Last year, for example, a Florida man and his 11-year-old grandson went magnet fishing close to Miami, and they found something delightful: two shrink-wrapped sniper rifles.
When you hock up a big lump of spit on a baseball, its path becomes more unpredictable. The same thing happens when you smear the ball with any other body fluid you have handy, or mud, or some substance like Vaseline that you kept for precisely this purpose. It may become hard for the batter to even follow the sight of the moving ball. That’s great news for you, the pitcher, but it might not be the most honest way of playing the game.
Around 1919, managers started clamping down on spitballs. The new rule was that each team had to declare their spitballers in advance, so hitters could at least have some idea of when to expect this pitch. Outside of these designated players, no one was supposed to wield spitballs. This regulation, however, was not enough. On August 17, 1920, a pitcher threw a spitball at Cleveland Indian Ray Chapman. He couldn’t see it coming, and the ball hit him in the temple and killed him.
Now, the major leagues really banned spitballs — other than for a handful of pitchers who were so famous for spitballs that they got grandfathered in. There’s no changing the ways of old people. Of course, if the main issue here was the danger of head injury, you could mitigate that risk more effectively by just giving the batters helmets, but this was the 1920s, and everyone was much too manly to consider that.
We’re not going to blow anyone’s minds by revealing that Roman gladiator fights were a tad dangerous. In fact, we could even do the opposite and explain that these fights didn’t always kill combatants, since it really wasn’t in the owners’ interests to lose half their roster every game. Even condemned criminals and slaves were a limited resource and couldn’t be killed nightly.
The frequently-but-not-always-fatal games went on for years (possibly hundreds of years; we don’t know for sure), then suddenly ended right at the end of the fourth century. Emperor Honorius shut them down because someone died.
Not because a gladiator died. Gladiators died regularly. No, he was responding to how a Christian monk named Telemachus made his way into the arena and stepped between gladiators to try to stop them from fighting. Telemachus died that day, either because the gladiators found common ground and agreed to both stab this heckler or — according to another account — because the crowd got so angry at him that they stoned him to death.
Farewell, Telemachus. You failed at stopping that one fight, but you won in the end.
Bestiality laws were never traditionally about protecting animals. Bestiality was a crime against nature and against God, which was why, when someone was caught, the elders executed both the guilty human and the animal. If a community is instead laying out a legal code based on human welfare, they might not think about writing in anything about bestiality at all.
They might not even write that in if they’re thinking about animal welfare. Let’s say, for instance, that a man has sex with a horse. Let's further say the man is the receiving partner in this anal exchange. Many of those strange spectators cheering the two on would argue the horse is a willing participant in this endeavor — and anyway, our laws don’t recognize animal consent, only animal wellbeing, and the horse seems to emerge from the encounter unscathed.
The man, however, did not emerge unscathed. That’s right, we’re not talking hypotheticals here. We’re talking about the real, famous case of Washington man Kenneth Pinyan, who filmed himself having horse sex in 2005 and got himself a perforated colon. The horse wasn’t injured at all, but Pinyan died.
Lawmakers now took a look through their books to see which properly enforced law could have prevented this disaster. They were baffled to see no such law existed in Washington. So, they went and amended their animal cruelty rules. Now, if you have sex with a horse in Seattle and die, beware: You could be guilty of a felony.