This article appeared in the August 2012 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
I’m barreling across a large pasture in the passenger seat of a golf cart, armed with cones and a small tub of vanilla ice cream. The air is dry and the temperature is flirting with 100 degrees. There are at least 15 ponies munching grass ahead of us as my driver, Karen Brown, owner of the Wild Rose Equestrian Center outside Elizabethtown, echoes my doubt that I’ll be able to “steal” any of the animals with the frozen confection.
But wait. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
I’m sure everyone has heard examples of weird laws. Our neighbors in Indiana have a law that sets the value of pi at 3 instead of 3.1415, and many people here in Kentucky cite an oddball law prohibiting citizens from carrying ice cream cones in their back pockets. On slow news days, media outlets across the country have been known to run stories on quirky laws, most of which came about as the result of an unusual event, and later, once they’d become antiquated and taken out of context, were used for laughs. In the interest of journalistic curiosity, I was tasked with uncovering some of our area’s stranger laws and breaking them — presumably with the magazine ready to bail me out or pay my fines.
I quickly realized I would have to look past the bevy of websites dedicated to this topic. Most of the alleged laws mentioned are poorly sourced with no mention of what year they were supposed to have been passed. Maybe you’re not considered legally intoxicated in Lexington until you “cannot hold onto the ground,” but without a source, I have my doubts (and UK’s fans kind of debunked that one after this year’s NCAA basketball championship, anyway). Some of the sites can’t agree on whether the strangest law most often attributed to Louisville — that’d be the back-pocket-ice-cream canon — applies to Louisville, Lexington or the state as a whole.
I have a high threshold for weirdness, and some of these supposed state and city laws make sense given a little thought and context:
• It’s illegal for a woman to appear on a highway in a bathing suit unarmed or without police escort. Abduction/assault prevention.
• It’s illegal to break into a cave. Nobody wants to be the person who has to go in and fish out your body.
• You can’t assault a referee. UK fans can be overly avid.
• Boxers, wrestlers, etc., can’t bleed during matches. Nobody wants a blood-borne illness.
To find more examples of Louisville’s own legislative lunacy, I visited Metro Councilman and historian Tom Owen at his office in the University of Louisville Archives and Records Center. “My first job here, 37 years ago, was to microfilm the ordinance books and the minute books of the legislative body of the city of Louisville, and there were hundreds of books,” Owen says.
Luckily, he took notes and clipped newspaper accounts, and by combining those with the U of L library’s city ordinance books, I was able to find a few surprising oddities. In 1828, for example, the trustees of the Town of Louisville declared war on rats, passing a resolution that paid a bounty of one cent, actually worth something in those days, for each rat scalp with ears intact brought to the town’s sergeant. Toward the end of the 19th century, the city had pig pounds, offering a bounty for bringing in strays. Hogs roaming the streets “at large” had become a problem, and one story from the Louisville Courier in 1870 even details a “ferocious attack by hog.” Owen takes particular pride in that last bit, describing himself, with a laugh, as the world’s leading expert on the history of pigs in Louisville. “I have no rivals,” he says.
The year 1897 saw an anti-spitting ordinance, though one can imagine tobacco being a possible factor here. In 1918, an ordinance was passed quarantining people with venereal diseases, with physicians prohibited from giving “Certificates of Freedom from Venereal Disease.”
“I don’t for a moment think these laws are still on the Metro Government books,” Owen says. “In the last eight years we enacted a big pile of laws because we were reconciling the city laws and the county laws. I can’t imagine that the law departments that did all the groundwork for that would have allowed some of these quaint, goofy laws to survive.” The strangest law I could find currently on the books was one requiring that any cropping of a dog’s ears or tail be done only by a veterinarian, and I can’t imagine why anyone would think they could do that themselves in the first place.
Owen, though he had heard of it, wasn’t sure where I’d even need to begin looking for the ice cream law. The theory goes that it was passed to prevent would-be horse thieves from stealing the beasts by luring them home with a frozen treat, not unlike the strangers-with-candy we warn children about.
Which leads me back to the Wild Rose pasture and Karen Brown, who has granted me permission to attempt to “steal” one of the farm’s training ponies. Armed with a vanilla ice cream cone, I approach one of the ponies. Curious, it smells the cone’s contents, pauses for a moment, then saunters away to continue munching on grass. Repeat times 10: Each successive pony displays a similar level of disinterest.
It’s possible that horses just don’t like vanilla, or that ice cream in the 19th century was different and more “horse-friendly” than modern ice cream. For now, however, I have to believe that horses weren’t the livestock being targeted for theft by ice cream. “They’d probably be more interested if you could fit an apple in your back pocket,” Brown muses.
Illustration by Michele Melcher.