Law and order in the new town of Washington

First-ever mayor ruled with an iron fist and set of handcuffs

Children couldn’t set up lemonade stands or shoot marble

Washington Mayor John Fox Sullivan, comparably speaking, has it pretty easy.

Yes, his job comes with its share of headaches: business owners telling him taxes are too high, citizens complaining of too few sidewalks in town, or else the sewer system is acting up. But as chief executive officer of 133 people, the majority of Sullivan’s official hours are spent presiding over town council meetings, approving funding for services, and balancing the budget.

A copy of the original 44 ordinances for the Town of Washington when the Rappahannock County seat was incorporated in 1894. By John McCaslin

There are the obligatory appearances, of course, from ribbon cuttings and town ceremonies to officiating the weddings of starry-eyed couples. The mayor was even spotted this year planting rose bushes on Washington’s street corners.

A far cry, history has it, from the duties of his predecessor Theodore L. Booten, the first-ever mayor of Washington when it was incorporated in 1894 (the town was established in 1796).

Consider that Booten was tasked, among other responsibilities, with rounding up the town’s “sluts” and removing them from certain “premises to the annoyance of the neighborhood” (for the record, the term slut in 19th century America referred to a female dog, as noted in the writings of Washington Irving, Thackeray and others).

Indeed, it was a smiling Mayor Sullivan who showed up at the Rappahannock News in recent days, proclaiming “I don’t have it so bad after all!” He carried with him a large sheet of paper containing the original 44 town ordinances as adopted by Booten and the original town council, its old style typeset headlined: “Town of Washington, Virginia, Adopted March 15th, 1894.”

It begins with a detailed tax levy schedule — “on each one-hundred dollars in value, twenty-five cents on each tithable” — that was placed on peddlers, common criers, junk dealers, Daguerrean artists (early day photographers who produced pictures on metal plates), eating houses, houses of private entertainment, circus shows, theatrical performances, billiard tables, and lest anybody forget standing stallions and jack asses.

Tax collecting, ironically, seemed to be the easiest part of the mayor’s day.

Consider ordinance No. 5, which sets forth that the mayor shall also be “the head of the police.” And when the going got tough, as prescribed in ordinance No. 6, the mayor could under “peculiar circumstances” appoint “special policeman to the extent the public necessity shall require.”

Otherwise, besides Booten, the police force consisted wholly of a town “sergeant” who “shall report to the mayor every day all that he is bound to notice in the discharge of his duty. At least twice every week he shall make personal inspection of all the streets and alleys of the town and give information to the mayor of any violations of the laws . . .

“The Sergeant shall report to the Mayor every nuisance or obstruction that he may find on or in any alley, sidewalk, creek, gutter or drain, in any house or on any land within the corporate limits,” the ordinance reads.

And what might these nuisances consist of?

Apart from roaming sluts, ordinance No. 12 defines nuisances as: “Snack stands, cake and lemonade stands, and other stands of like description occupying any street or sidewalk.”

It was also against the law “to loaf or loiter upon any pavement or sidewalk in the town to the annoyance of the occupant of any property along the same. Any person found so loafing or loitering shall . . . be arrested by the police and upon conviction before the Mayor shall be fined not more than one dollar for each offense.”

Ordinance No. 13 reveals that the typical home or business in Washington prior to the turn of the century had more than dust on their floors, and for that reason it “shall not be lawful for any person to deposit the sweepings” upon any street, alley, sidewalk, drain, creek or sewer, including but not limited to damaged fruit, ashes or wood chips.

Reckless driving of horses and mules also posed a problem in 1894, to the extent it warranted ordinance No. 16: “If any person shall . . . willfully gallop or recklessly drive the same or suffer the same to run at large in any street or alley of the town he shall be fined not less than one nor more than ten dollars for every such offence.”

Horses, by the way, were also prohibited from “standing upon any sidewalk” in town (which perhaps explains the few sidewalks in Washington 123 years later).

Children of the town weren’t spared the strict edicts of the mayor either. Besides not being able to set up lemonade stands, they were prohibited from setting off or discharging any “torpedo, pop-cracker or fireworks.”

If that wasn’t harsh enough, the mayor forbid children from “playing ball or playing bandy [a game similar to field hockey] or marbles or any other game” on any sidewalks or streets.

To keep his free-flowing walkways and streets clean, his honor relied on prisoners he’d locked up in the jail. Rest assured, there was little risk of escape.

“For the more perfectly securing of such prisoners as may be compelled to work on the streets, the Mayor may have provided a ball and chain for each prisoner . . . to be affixed to his leg before leaving the jail and not to be taken off until his return to the jail” — or so spells out ordinance No. 19.

Some of these “prisoners” who kept the town tidy were rounded up as “vagrants or persons without visible means of support found within the limits of the town [who] shall be at once arrested by the Sergeant, and upon conviction . . . shall be punished at the discretion of the Mayor . . . by confinement in jail not exceeding thirty days, or by labor upon the streets for a like period.” Ordinance No. 21.

The town of Washington had its share of saloons or bar rooms, and whenever things got a bit out of hand then “whenever in his opinion the good order of the town requires it” the mayor shall order the establishment to close, and further fine the bar owner “twenty dollars for every 15 minutes thereafter that he shall continue to keep open his bar room.”

And if a bar owner allowed a minor to “drink any intoxicating spirits,” then the establishment would be fined five dollars — unless, as stated in ordinance No. 26, the minor had permission from a “parent or guardian,” in which case he or she was welcome to imbibe with the elders.

Other laws unique to the town’s incorporation in 1894:

* No hog, cow or ox could run at large between dusk and sunrise.

* All households were required to keep privies thoroughly cleaned and in good working order.

* No person was allowed to bathe in any creek or stream within town limits, and no person could pollute the water or any public springs, pumps, or wells.

* No person could injure any shade tree or break or destroy any street lamp.

* No person in any public place could voice angry words, or indecent or profane language.

* No person could willfully disturb any assembly of persons meeting for the worship of God, whether they be stationed inside or outside the church.

About John McCaslin 448 Articles
John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at