“Wilt thou go with us tonight! There will be a merry company in the forest, and I well-nigh promised the Blackman that comely Hester Prynne should make one.” Thus said old Mistress Hibbins in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale, The Scarlet Letter.
It is known that, to evade strict anti-tobacco laws, New England settlers “fastened doors, used cellars for tobacco parties, and did homage to Lady Nicotine in secluded woodland spots or in boats anchored at a safe distance from shore.” (Background: Ye Olden Blue Laws, Ersjdamoo’s Blog, November 16, 2014.)
A “merry company in the forest.” Old Mistress Hibbins, possibly a tobacco user, may have been inviting Hester Prynne to come and offer homage to Lady Nicotine in a secluded woodland spot. Hester chose not to attend, but others at these “merry tobacco gatherings” in the forest may have met “the Black Man” there.
Black Man in the forest led to other problems. Once these people had defied the increasing labyrinth of anti-smoking regulations by going into the forest, a further general defiance of Puritan laws began. So who was to blame for the troubles which ensued, the smokers or the smothering laws?
Some of these defiant woodland smokers went so far as to sign their names to a big, heavy book, with iron clasps, carried by the Black Man, Hawthorne imagined. Once they had signed with the iron pen offered by the Black Man in the forest, he would set his mark upon their bosoms and all was lost.
In Hawthorne’s tale, Hester Prynne is ordered to wear a scarlet letter “A” sewn to her bodice, even though she had not signed the book offered by the Black Man in the forest. However in real life there indeed was at least one woman, Mary Mendame, forced to wear “a badge of infamy on her left sleeve.” If Mary Mendame ever dared not to wear the “badge of infamy”, she “was to be burned in the face with a hot iron.” Her crime? Mary had been found guilty of adultery, and with an Indian no less.
Other letters of the alphabet, besides “A”, were also used upon various offenders. For drunkenness, the offender was sometimes made to wear “about his outward garment a D made of red cloth and set upon white…” Some Quakers found guilty of Quakerism were actually branded with the letter “R” on their left shoulder. I cannot find, however, that any guilty smokers were made to wear a prominent “S” on their clothes.
Laws were piled upon laws, until a race of lawbreakers was created by the laws themselves.
Among the most grievous offenses of those olden New England times was that “young men were refusing to crop their hair, and were cultivating long tresses.” In 1634, yet another law was enacted: subject to court summons and condign punishment was any man having long hair. Again a burden of more laws seemed to do no good. Nonetheless, on November 3, 1675, the Massachusetts General Court decided, “We need more laws.” Accordingly they observed that God had caused the Indians to rise up and this had been caused in part by “manifest pride openly appearing amongst us in that long hair, like women’s hair, is worn by some men, either their own or others’ hair made into periwigs.”
First you have illegal smokers doing homage to Lady Nicotine in secluded woodland spots. There they meet the Black Man in the forest. Soon thereafter comes men with long hair. And then came coffee houses! In vain did the Massachusetts legislature pass a law in 1712 to regulate these caffeine covens. These coffee houses had begun as a rendezvous for certain politicians and from there became clubs where even music and “recitations” were heard. And from “recitations” it was only a short step to even stage plays. Obviously the solution to all this was more laws, decided the leaders of New England. In Boston, on April 11, 1750, “An Act for Preventing Stage Plays and Other Theatrical Entertainments” was passed. In Philadelphia, a law prohibiting theaters was enacted on March 30, 1779.
And yet the sly “actors” and “actresses”, possibly smokers among them, did an end run around the mighty laws. They, for instance, did not advertise “Hamlet” as such but as a moral and instructive tale called “Filial Piety Exemplified in the History of the Prince of Denmark.” Playwright Thomas Otway’s “Venice Preserved”, about a corrupt senator who is sexually involved with a courtesan, was advertised as “a moral lecture in five parts” in which “the dreadful effects of conspiracy will be exemplified.”
“Lawmakers seem never to have been so happy as when making other people unhappy,” observed Gustavus Myers about the various “blue laws.” Yet over the many years, such piled-up laws actually harmed the peace. The “vice of excessive legislation tended to expand the very evils it sought to avert.” The surprise of the olden lawmakers was enormous when their laws did not meet expectations. Nonetheless these legislators never questioned the wisdom of all these laws. Instead, laws, laws, laws was their perpetual demand.
(Source: Ye Olden Blue Laws, by Gustavus Myers. New York: The Century Co., 1921.)