Photographs and Memories: In 1888, some found a back door way around the ‘Sunday law’
The “Enterprise Saloon,” advertising in the Houma Courier in the 1880s, was among the merchants affected by strict enforcement of the Sunday law.
By Bill Ellzey Contributing Columnist
Sunday Posted Nov 26, 2017 at 1:45 PM
In Louisiana’s coastal sugar cane region, “grinding” season in November 1888 curiously brought attention to the enforcement of what was called the “Sunday law,” which forbade the sale of most commercial retail goods on Sunday.
The state law had been enacted several years earlier, but until the fall of 1888, not uniformly enforced.
References to and explanations of reactions to strict enforcement appear in November 1888 in parish-by-parish columns published in the weekly specialty newspaper, “The Louisiana Planter and Sugar Manufacturer”:
“District court continues in session with a considerable docket; the most important features being the large number of Sunday law prosecutions,” wrote the columnist who called himself “Murdock,” in the “Terrebonne Letter.”
“Merchants here and in New Orleans are greatly interested in the issue. The case is being tried to-day and the jury is a good one.”
“Lafourche Letter” reported, “District court, with Judge Taylor Beattie presiding, opened here last Monday for the October term.
“The charge to the grand jury was able and very clear. Special reference was made to the Sunday law, which is violated by saloon-keepers by keeping their back doors open.
“The judge charged that no citizen had a right to set up his own opinion against a positive statute, but that every one was bound to obey the laws until they were repealed in the proper mode.”
Further, “a prominent and intelligent planter of this parish told your correspondent that he was at first opposed to the law on the ground mainly that it was a matter possibly beyond legislative interference, but that since the law has been in force in this parish a great and beneficial change has come over his plantation hands.
“He says he called their attention to the fact that, while their wages had not been increased, yet that they received more money on payday than formerly, for the reason that not having the temptation of Sunday whisky to demoralize them and unfit them for work, they were able to report for duty on Monday morning bright and early, and they thus made better time.
“The largest store in this town reports a steady increase in its sales since the Sunday law has been in operation. The colored laborers, who are the best customers of the town stores, now find that they have more money to spend for legitimate purposes, since they are debarred from spending their hard earnings in riotous living, as formerly.
“When it was feared that the last general assembly might tamper with the Sunday law, a petition was circulated in this town which was signed by every merchant to whom it was presented, without a single dissenting voice, praying the legislature to leave well enough alone.
“The president of the police jury informs your correspondent that under the operation of the Sunday law the criminal expenses of the parish have materially diminished. The ladies who formerly were unable to pass through the streets of the town without being liable to find the sidewalks obstructed by noisy and drunken Negroes, are now able to enjoy the the freedom of the streets.”
In Terrebonne, enforcement was not so well received:
“District court is in session, and one all absorbing feature of the proceedings of this term is the rigid enforcement of the Sunday law,” Murdock wrote. “Yesterday thirteen merchants were arraigned, pleaded guilty and were fined $25 each for selling goods on Sunday.
“The law is obnoxious to the great majority of our people and inimical to every business and planting interest, particularly at this season, when the plantation laborers must leave their work Saturday evenings in order to make their necessary purchases of rations.
“Its influence upon the trade of Houma is more decidedly hurtful, and merchants are loud and vehement in their protests. Since the enactment of the law it has been greatly ignored or evaded through the back door, and this sudden descent upon them by the officers of the law was like a bolt out of a clear sky.
“However, every one recognizes that it is the office of the court to enforce the law as it is found upon the statute books, and those thirteen guilty merchants acted very sensibly in paying the penalty of their wrongdoing without any protest.”
In the last “Lafourche Letter” of 1888, the correspondent wrote:
“Had it not been for the great blessing of the Sunday law, which is strictly observed in this parish, our overworked merchants and clerks would not have been in a happy frame of mind and body to resume their active duties behind the counter this morning.
“As it is, both employers and employees commence another week with recuperated energies from the Sunday rest.
“The Sunday law has not injured business; one of our oldest merchants made the remark that in fourteen years of merchandising in this town he had not seen such a prosperous season as the present one, at the close of the year 1888.”