Legislating morality

Go and sin no more

On the 7th of February, 1856, the New Mexico Territorial Legislature took a stand.

moralityNo more living in sin.

That sort of depraved conduct just wouldn’t be tolerated.

From that day forward, it said:

Any person or persons who shall after the approval of this act, be found living together publicly as if they were married, shall be considered as living in a state of concubinage, and shall be required immediately to contract and join in the bonds of matrimony, if there shall be no impediment to prevent their so doing ; and if they do not form such union on the first requirement of any judge, and persist in their accustomed mode of life, they shall, on accusation thereof before any of the said judges, be fined in any sum not less than twenty-five dollars nor more than eighty dollars, for every time they shall be so found…1

That provision was in the criminal laws section of the New Mexico laws, in an act that also made it illegal for folks to “establish their residence in any part of this Territory, … who shall have no visible honest means of living, corrupting and giving a bad example by their vices to public society.”2

And it made it illegal to “scandalously discover the faults of married persons, by interfering in private life, from which may result the disagreement of the parties, causing thereby a terrible evil, and injury to their family.”3

Legislating morality is nothing new. In colonial Massachusetts, early laws went so far as to impose Biblical standards of conduct. One 1646 law provided that “If any child or children, above 16 yeares old, … shall curse or smite their naturall fathr or mother, he or shee shalbe put to death…”4

But for a genealogist, this sort of law is just wonderful, because it helps on occasion to explain not just what our ancestors did — but why. And why a particular action was taken at a particular time.

That quickie marriage we find in the records may not have been the shotgun marriage we thought it was. Oh, there might have been some coercion involved in tying the knot, but in New Mexico at least it might have been from being caught in the sack by the law.

This particular “if we catch you, you have to get married” rule stayed the law in New Mexico for a long time. It was still on the books, in exactly the same form, in 1915:

Any person or persons who shall be found living together publicly as if they were married, shall be considered as living in a state of concubinage, and shall be required immediatly to contract and join in the bonds of matrimony, if there shall be no impediment to prevent their so doing; and if they do not form such union on the first requirement of any judge, and persist in their accustomed mode of life, they shall, on accusation thereof before any of the said judges, be fined in any sum not less than twenty-five dollars nor more than eighty dollars, for every time they shall be found so…5

And it was still the law in 1941.6

And in 1953.7

Oh, by the way… in case you’re wondering… or worried…

It’s not the law today.8

Whew.


SOURCES

  1. §27, “An Act Requiring and Authorizing Judges of Probate and Justices of the Peace to Punish Depraved Persons in Cases Herein Prescribed,” in Revised Statutes and Laws of the Territory of New Mexico, … 1865 (St. Louis: p.p., 1865), 388; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 30 June 2014).
  2. Ibid., §28.
  3. Ibid., §29.
  4. Laws of 1646, in Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, ed., Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay of New England, vol. 2 (Boston: W. White, 1853), 179.
  5. §1776, “Unlawful Cohabitation,” Title 33, Offenses Against Public Morals, in New Mexico Statutes Annotated … in Effect June 11, 1915, Volume 1 (Denver, Colo. : Courtright Publishing Co., 1915), 565; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 30 June 2014).
  6. New Mexico Statutes, 1941 (Indianapolis : Bobbs-Merrill, 1942); snippet view, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 30 June 2014).
  7. John W. Tranberg, editor, New Mexico Statutes Annotated, 1953 (Indianapolis : A. Smith Co., 1954); snippet view, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 30 June 2014).
  8. A search of the New Mexico statutes at the New Mexico Compilation Commission website for concubinate returned “No Documents Found.”
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12 Responses to Legislating morality

  1. Toni says:

    What does this mean?
    And it made it illegal to “scandalously discover the faults of married persons, by interfering in private life, from which may result the disagreement of the parties, causing thereby a terrible evil, and injury to their family.”3

  2. Jackie says:

    I wonder if that law was the reason New Mexico had no waiting period between obtaining a marriage license and getting married. At least, that’s the way it was in the 1950′s when my parents got married in Raton just hours after obtaining the license.

  3. Stopping nosey people is nice but who is discovering all the cohabitating people?

  4. Jade says:

    The law appears to exempt couples for whom there was an impediment to marriage. It is not clear from the quoted language whether this was an enduring exemption.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It did, but it was not enduring. The law went on to say that: “if there be any impediment to prevent the marriage of the persons aforesaid, and they do not separate, after having been required so to do, for the first time by any of the aforesaid judges, they shall on conviction thereof on accusation, be fined for each violation of this act, in any sum not exceeding that above provided in this section, recoverable on execution as in civil cases, one half of which shall go to the Territorial treasury, and the other half shall go to the treasury of the county in which the offender may belong.”

  5. Bill says:

    “Whew.” ?

    Judy, were *you* worried?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I have the right to remain silent and — especially with you! — anything I say might be used against me!

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