Saturday, July 9, 2016

A Little Niagara History: Hartland Anti-Swearing Society

Editor's Note: With Howie's birthday and his vacation from writing, we needed some new content for Saturday. Since Bacon is off doing God knows what following some band, and George is celebrating his un-birthday, the rest of the Watercooler staff decided to run a piece on some local history. This was previously published in the Buffalo News in 2012 by the Niagara County Historians Office, and written by Craig Bacon. Here's hoping you enjoy a bit of little-known Niagara County history.

“Dadnamit, but that cussed Nancy-boy gave me the bull when he sold me the ‘Ever Sweet’ necessary!”

While modern readers probably do not take offense with reading that statement, their grandfathers and great-grandmothers would be horrified. Roughly translated, the speaker said: “God, but that effeminate man told me lies and exaggerations when he sold me that ’Ever Sweet’ outhouse/bathroom.” Cleary invectives and their usage have changed over the years.

Swearing is universal.  Every language or dialect ever studied, living or dead, has its share of forbidden words. Case in point: George Carlin’s famous “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television”.  People learning a new language invariably learn the “naughty” words first and high school students happily plow through Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales looking for the “spicy bits”.  The concept of bad language harkens back to earlier times and the belief that words have power that can curse or bless.  This leads to the idea that words can either be very good or very bad.  

What constitutes swearing depends on the society,  but it generally falls into two categories:  Deistic, relating to religion, usually invoking the name of a deity to give a statement more power or credibility, and Visceral, which relates to the human body and all its functions.  Bad language can deliver a jolt, but it can help wash away stress and anger.  It is a form of anger management.  Conversely, some studies show that foul language may signal relaxation.  The more comfortable and relaxed a person feels within a group, the more likely they will swear.

Certain swear words can confirm group identity and are remembered four times better than other words. Hearing an obscenity causes people’s pulse to quicken, their breathing becomes shallow and the hairs on their arms rise.  Surprisingly this same reaction is found in the well educated when they listen to bad grammar or slang expressions that they regard as irritating or illiterate. People sometimes feel that language must be protected against the depravities of improper language.  One such instance happened in Western New York.

In the Towns of Hartland (Niagara County) and Ridgeway (Orleans County), an Anti-Swearing Society was formed after a Debating Society meeting on January 20, 1852.  Job Peirce was appointed chairman, then drafted J. Johnson, B. Warren and A.H. Peirce to compose a Constitution and By-Laws.  Formed as the North Ridgeway Anti-Swearing Society, the Preamble to its Constitution stated, “We, whose names are annexed, desirous of forming a society to shield us from the evils of profane hearing and elevate our character as men…”

The second Article stated “No member of this association shall use or countenance profane or immoral language.” The Constitution goes on to explain that members may be fined no more than 12 ½ cents per indiscretion and the fines to be paid within one week from the time of conviction.  A reprimand or expulsion would follow if the fines were not fulfilled.  

Any members who violated the Constitution or By-Laws would have a fair trial and representation by counsel if he was unable or unwilling to defend himself.  After the trial the body of members present would vote on acquittal, fines, or expulsion.  Members were required to turn in other members for violations, flirting with their own violations for the failure to report utterances of profanity.

Admittance to the Society was a mere five cents and included a signature on the Constitution and By-Laws.  At first, only men could apply to become members.  However, by their fourth meeting on February 7th, it was decided that ladies could also join, foregoing the five cent initiation fee.  Six ladies joined the original forty members.

The society levied its first fines on February 14th, when two “delinquents were tried and fined six pence, each.”  At the same meeting, another member stepped forward to turn himself in for violating the By-Laws.

By the minutes presented to the Historian’s Office by Hartland Historian, Norm LaJoie, it is unclear exactly how long the North Ridgeway Anti-Swearing Society remained in existence.   What exactly did they consider swearing?

“Breast” or “leg” was not used in mixed company being substituted by “bosom” or “limb” instead.  “Bull,” popularized by Civil War soldiers, meant “lies or exaggeration.   A male bovine was never called a “bull” as it denoted sexual potency; rather polite people spoke of “cow brute, a gentleman cow, a top cow” or “a seed ox”.  “Bell,” “blazes,” “heck,” “Jesse,” and “Sam Hill” were euphemisms for “hell”.  Some, like “bloody” date back to the English Middle Ages when it was a shortened form of “by Your Lady’ referring to the Virgin Mary.  

Obviously, the measure of profanity greatly differs across the 160 years between then and now.  “Damn it all” and “For Christ’s sake” were some of the edgiest vulgarities of the 1850s, equivalent to the F-bomb today.  Most of the profanity in the mid-19th century was focused on blasphemy, a serious charge in a time where a great majority of people attended church weekly and business was suspended on Sundays.  Until the 1930s, “damn” was considered an unprintable word and that utterance was widely frowned upon, conjuring images of the devil. People still talk about the shock of hearing Rhett Butler’s final remarks to Scarlett in the movie “Gone with the Wind”.

So, where does this all lead?   The idea of an Anti-Swearing society in Western New York is intriguing and the Niagara County Historian’s Office would love more information about it or any other such societies that may have existed in the area.

The Niagara County Historian's Office is located at 139 Niagara Street, at the corner of Niagara and Hawley Streets. They are open Wednesday through Friday, 8:30-4:30. You can reach them at 716-439-7324, or by email at