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Smith Historical Library debunks weird Oxford laws

By Lauren Williams
On February 1, 2013

The weird laws allegedly still on the books in Oxford appear to be nothing more than historical myths.

A quick Google search for 'Oxford weird laws,' shows laws ranging from the prohibition of dueling to the illegality of women appearing in public unshaven.

Smith Regional History Library, 15 S. College Ave., receives visitors who come in to uncover the rumored laws in the Oxford village ordinances from 1890 to 1920. The microfilm set consists of the minutes of each Oxford city council meeting in the 30-year period. Each ordinance is handwritten in cursive in between hundreds of maintenance requests, payments for renovations and levy propositions.

The most ridiculous law that library manager Valerie Elliott has heard around Oxford's rumor mill is that a woman may not strip her clothes while standing in front of the picture of a man.

But as amusing as these laws may be, they remain a mystery for researchers, who are unable to locate them in the library's archives.

"People have come in here looking for them," Elliott said. "But no one's been able to find them."

Miami history lecturer Helen Sheumaker said she has no idea where the law prohibiting women from undressing in front of a man's picture originated or why it would have been posited as a law.

"They're not really historical," Sheumaker said. "They're more like historical memories that actually gain their power from the fact that there's not a lot of [evidence] to back any of it up."

However, some laws that are just as strange do have permanence in print.

A 1975 ordinance, for example, states that a person who possesses less than four ounces of cannabis "shall be fined not more than five dollars." This still exists as part B in section 513.14 of the Oxford City Code, titled, "Casual Possession of Marijuana."

Oxford police officer Sgt. Jones said this is one he finds most unusual.

"It doesn't make any sense, the fine being so small," Jones said. "That [law] I find kind of odd, and why nobody's ever taken it out."

Jones said officers typically ignore this code and use section 513.03, which classifies the possession of marijuana as a misdemeanor if it does not exceed 200 grams.

Another wacky Internet example is one law that states motor vehicles may not circle around the square 100 times in a single session.

"These seem really out of character," Elliott said. "If you look through the ordinances, they are business matters: signs of the times, but nothing more."

One law that graces several weird law websites is the prohibition of horn honking as to not disturb horses. On the surface, this one seems legitimate.

"That seems practical, when motorized vehicles were introduced," Elliott said.

Although some of the actual ordinances used to be realistic, it is easy to see how some of those ordinances have become unlikely over time.

For example, the law that supposedly prohibits parking a vehicle in the city square could have originated from the June 15, 1893 ordinance in the microfilm that instructs the marshal to arrest "any person or persons riding or driving any bicycle, tricycle, wheel-barrow or delivery cart on or over any sidewalks within the limits of the village of Oxford."

Sheumaker said the perpetuation of these weird laws is attributed to Oxford being founded to host the university.

"Higher education has had a disproportionate influence on the town compared to other college towns," Sheumaker said. "A lot of these may have originated as inside jokes in the 19th century."

Jones said he has not seen a historical basis for any of these legends, including the rumor he has heard for years that it is illegal to spit on the sidewalk.

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