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When the no-spit ordinance came to Worcester.

Byline: Albert B. Southwick


New Year 1900 brought a lot of changes to Worcester. It had a brand new City Hall, in which soon presided the city's first Irish-Catholic mayor.

It had an expanding system of telephone lines and electric power lines. Electric trolley tracks from Worcester were stretching outward north, south, east and west. And automobiles - steam, gasoline and electric - were beginning to roll along city streets, frightening the horses and startling pedestrians.

And there was the new city ordinance prohibiting spitting in public. That called for a big change in public attitudes and behavior.

Men had been expectorating for centuries, if not millenniums. Rules came slowly.

In the Middle Ages, spitting at meals was permitted, "provided it was under the table and not on or across it." In 1530, the famed Dutch philosopher, Erasmus, commented that it was "unmannerly to suck back saliva, as equally as are those whom we see spitting at every third word not from necessity but from habit."

One 18th-century ruling admonished spitters to refrain from expectorating on "waxed or parquet floors" or "in church, the houses of the great and in all places where cleanliness reigns."

In America, spitting was ubiquitous. Spittoons were standard equipment in public places, from the United States Capitol on down.

But by the 1880s, spitting was being blamed for the spread of tuberculosis, and anti-spitting campaigns were organized, both in Europe and America. The Hygiene Council in France issued public orders against spitting in 1886. New York City issued its first anti-spitting ordinance in 1896, and the city staged a number of exhibits showing the dangers of public expectoration. The idea spread fast. By 1916, 195 American cities had anti-spitting ordinances in place. Worcester was one of them.

The Worcester Telegram was right on top of the news. On Dec. 9, 1900, it reported that: "FINES OF $3,200 ARE POSSIBLE" if people spit in a public building or on a public street.

"Unless you have money you don't need, don't spit on the sidewalk after Tuesday.

"Carry your mouthful to the edge of the walk and carefully deposit it on the stone paving or in the gutter, or a policeman may grab you by the collar and ring for the patrol wagon."

The Telegram, as usual, was having fun with City Hall, but the ordinance, being prepared by James Coffey, clerk of the Board of Health, was no laughing matter. Mr. Coffey told the reporter that the new rule would take effect in a few days and "he has the promise of Chief of Police William Stone that it will be enforced."

But Mr. Coffey wanted to assure the people of Worcester that he would be reasonable: "The fine is not to be in every case $100. That is the limit, and the judge can impose a fine of any amount under this limit if he sees fit. What we aim at is to stop crowds of men from standing on a street corner or in a doorway and sending floods of tobacco juice all over the sidewalks ...

"We want to get after those fellows, too, who drop about a quart of tobacco or other juice every few feet they walk, and probably we will be able to accomplish what we have in mind."

The newspaper did some research and reported that: "Had the law been in force yesterday it would have been possible by careful watching to have fined 32 people for spitting in the lower entrance of City Hall, less than 50 feet from the office of the Board of Health."

At $100 a spit, this would have been $3,200 in fines, but Mr. Coffey thought the average fine would be around $3 instead of $100.

The Telegram interviewed a police officer to find out how the enforcement process would go. It developed that some of Worcester's finest chewed tobacco and expectorated freely. One cop expostulated that if he was in the process of enforcing the law, he should be given some leeway.

In case some malefactor was caught in the act of setting off a bomb, "Would you be expected to leave your post and walk to the edge of the sidewalk to spit? Not on your picture. I'd do me duty and take no chances on alarming the man with the drill and fuse, if I had to spit a pool big enough to make a skatin' rink."

The Telegram assured its readers that law enforcement would not suffer under the new ordinance:

"If the policeman finds himself choking on a mouthful of tobacco and he is on the trail of a criminal, there will be a provision in the regulation that will exempt him from fines should he spit even on the feet of Mr. Coffey."

Also, "no special action will be taken against a City Hall employee who has a habit of allowing tobacco juice to dribble on a long pointed beard he wears on his chin."

According to the Telegram, such an inadvertent act would not be subject to the ordinance.

And how did this new rule work out? Were fines imposed? Were there objections? Alas, I have no idea. I doubt that any records exist on the anti-spitting law and its effects.

I assume that the ordinance is still in force. So, you tobacco-chewers, be careful when you're on city property.

Of course, spitting on private property is something else, not covered by the law.

Which means that Terry Francona is safe, at least for now.

Albert B. Southwick's column appears regularly in the Sunday Telegram.
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Title Annotation:INSIGHT
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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