Heading back a century to visit Santa Rosa in your time machine? Remember this: Use swear words in front of women or children – or anywhere on the street where they could be within earshot – and you might spend weeks in jail or pay a stiff fine.

The Santa Rosa newspapers of the late 19th/early 20th centuries often reported men (VERY rarely women) being arrested for vile, obscene, profane or otherwise offensive language in public – and even in private, when the cusser was also accused of assault or another crime. Punishment was twice as severe as public drunkenness or brawling, and some spent months in the city jail for letting fly.

This topic has been visited here before in the context of cussing being a more serious offense in 1907 than parents starving their children or someone brutally whipping an animal. Another example like that from 1893 finds drunken “Windy Jim” tried to strangle his landlady in Healdsburg, only to be stopped by her son stabbing the guy with a fork and just narrowly missing his eye. But it appears ol’ Windy got three months in the county slammer not for the choking but for the indecent language that she – as a woman – was forced to endure while he was trying to kill her.

It was never made clear what words were offensive. Was “damn” okay without a preceding “god”? What about compound phrases with “hell,” “bastard,” and “bitch?” Was “arsehole,” “bollocks” or “shite” acceptable if the person saying or hearing it was from the UK? (Full disclosure: While we were reshingling the house, under the original 1905 tarpaper someone had written, “arsehole Baker” on the side of the house, “Baker” presumably being the shingle subcontractor.)

An assortment of items can be found transcribed below, but there were many hundreds of arrests reported in the newspapers over the years. These are a few of my favorites:

* In 1913, Joe Goess was arrested in the town of Sonoma for language that was “said to have been particularly flagrant.” When brought before the judge, “young Goess turned on the justice and unloaded some unseemly language.” He was locked up without bail.

* When Robert Butts’ hounds got loose in 1916, neighbor McIntosh took a few shots at them when they came on his property. Mr. Butts did not like that and went over to have words with his neighbor, where he “used some uncomplimentary language towards Mrs. Mclntosh in the absence of her husband.” Butts was charged with disturbing the peace although there was apparently no one else present.

*  In 1922 a Cotati man named James Codioni was fined $50 for making obscene phone calls, with the interesting twist that it was telephone company employees who nabbed him and marched him down to the police.

Santa Rosa’s obscenity law is really old, dating back to original town ordinances of 1867. Sandwiched between a ban on riding horses on the sidewalk and mildly discouraging prostitution was §5, which outlawed “…[within] the hearing of two or more persons, any bawdy, lewd or obscene words or epithets.”

It appears no one was charged under the law for over ten years (although I really doubt that) when Charles Hall was arrested in 1877 for “using language calculated to cause a breach of the peace.” Nothing more was reported about the case, possibly because the accusation was bogus; the guy accusing him was in serious trouble for brandishing a deadly weapon, having been turned in by Hall.

Obscene language charges began tapering off during the Roaring Twenties, and from then on were most frequently bundled together with more serious offenses, such as the arrest of a group of underage kids for rowdiness and drinking. It also remained a justification for divorce in those pre no-fault years often paired with accusations of spousal physical abuse.

Curiously, I’ve never read of anyone charged during those years with the related crime of obscene graffiti – although during the mid-1930s, Petaluma was itching to catch and arrest the vandals who kept painting dirty words on the “big hen” statue at the end of the town, seen here in 1936 with its most recent defacement not quite scrubbed clean. (Photograph by John Gutmann)

UPDATE: Someone on Facebook commented that these laws were a shout out to the “politically correct crowd.” It’s a lot more complex than just appeasing the churchgoers of the day. I’m sure religious moralists in every town in the country had similar obscenity ordinances in place and some enforced the law strictly while others mostly ignored it. These laws were even exploited as a means of vengeance, as per Mrs. McIntosh in 1916. But the obscenity laws were also sometimes used to deal with bad situations where no laws were yet on the books which were directly applicable – see the 1907 story about the drunk parents starving their children. That said, Santa Rosa seems to have turned the law into a cash cow during the 1900s and 1910s, with the local police dragging offenders into court to pay hefty fines or face months behind bars.





Justices Court.— Mr. L. Howard was arraigned before Justice McGee on Wednesday, charged by Chas. Hall with exhibiting a deadly weapon. He was found guilty. Sentence postponed until Monday, October 29. Howard then had Hall arrested under a city ordinance, for using language calculated to cause a breach of the peace. Trial set for Saturday, the 27th.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 27 1877

Police Court Docket for Tuesday: John Cummings, for using vulgar language, ten days; James Miller, drunkenness, five days; H. Beck, vulgar language, ten days; M. Quin, drunkenness, five days; Wm. Vail, drunkenness, $5.

– Sonoma County Daily Democrat, May 7 1890
“Windy Jim” Stinson Sent to the County Jail for a Term of Three Months.

Wednesday night a week Marshal Leard and his deputy, L. A. Norton, took into their custody the ex-policeman Jim Stinson, better known as “Windy Jim,” at the instance of his landlady, Mrs. C. J. Lelouarn, in whose presence he used profane language. The prisoner made no resistance of arrest and marched to the bastile with little concern. He objected, however, to being confined in jail like an “ordinary” criminal and sent out a couple of men to hunt up sureties for his appearance in court, but they were not to he found and he had not ampIe funds on hand to put up cash bail, consequently he was compelled to go behind the bars. The next day he was arraigned before Justice Coffman on the charge, and when the testimony of the plaintiff and her two little sons was heard he was assigned to the county jail for three months without the alternative of a fine.

Stinson came here about three years ago from Petaluma, where, it is rumored, he was tendered an invitation by the citizens to make his residence elsewhere. Shortly afterward he look up his quarters at Mrs. Lelouarn’s house in North Healdsburg, but only until lately did he compensate the lady for his board and lodging, when he furnished her with a few groceries occasionally. Mrs. Lelouarn is a widow, the mother of three young children and is a cripple. She depends on washing and housework for a livelihood. A week before Stinson’s arrest she alleges that he assailed her. That afternoon she had been at work for Mrs. A. L. Paul, assisting her in moving and when she returned home she found that Stinson had barred her out by fastening the door. When she forced it open the monster grasped her by the throat and she might have been strangled had not her son, Henry, come to her assistance with a table fork, with which he punctured the flesh over Stinson’s ieft eye. Of late Stinson had been drinking heavily and the neighbors say that such disturbances were of frequent occurrence. His absence from Healdsburg is generally hailed with delight.

– Sonoma County Tribune (Healdsburg), January 19 1893


Was Disturbing the Peace

Officer Boyes arrested a young man on Main street Saturday night upon a charge of disturbing the peace and using vulgar language in front of the Salvation Army headquarters. The fellow ran at the approach of the officer, but the latter caught him as he was disappearing down an alley in Chinatown and locked him up at the police station.

– Press Democrat, June 9 1901


Man Arrested for Improper Behavior on Wilson Street Monday Night

George Bates was arrested on Wilson street Monday night and was locked up on a charge of using profane and indecent language in the presence of women and children. Bates will have to explain his conduct to Police Judge Bagley this morning.

– Press Democrat, June 26 1906


George Deacon Punished for Using Bad Language on the Street

Thursday morning George Deacon appeared before Police Judge Bagley to answer to the compfalnt that he used disgusting language on Third atreet on the previous evening. A fine of $30 was imposed with an alternative of fifteen days in jail. Deacon paid the money after spending a few minutes In Jail.

– Press Democrat, August 17 1906

Bad Language on the Streets

On the complaint of S. Graham George Chester was arrested by Policeman Yeager on Sunday night charged with using vulgar and offensive language on the streets. Chester gave bail for his appearance before Police Judge Bagley.

The use of improper language, particularly when women and children are passing, is altogether too prevalent, and the officers mean to take steps to make examples of the offenders in this respect.

– Press Democrat, September 10 1907



Walter Petross paid a fine of $10 in the City Recorder’s court Wednesday for indulging in the use of profane language on the street Tuesday evening in the vicinity of the Nickelodeon. This shall serve as a warning to other profanity hawkers.

– Press Democrat, February 13 1908

Arrested for Disturbance

James Aker, a lad who used profane language and created trouble on the lake Sunday, is locked up In the county jail pending a hearing for disturbing the peace. As he has been in trouble on a number of occasions it is probable that he will serve some time in jail before being liberated.

– Press Democrat, May 24 1910



Sheriff J. K. Smith was called to Cotati Saturday evening to arrest a couple of men whom, it was claimed, had assaulted a man there when he visited their camp, they being members of a hay baling crew from Stockton. On his arrival Sheriff Smith was informed that the visitor to the camp had used vile language in the presence of women and children, and failed to heed the warning to stop, and was then given a trouncing by members of the crew. The Sheriff hunted him up and informed him that it stood him in hand to drop the matter or he might find himself getting a worst defeat In th« courts. That ended the incident.

– Press Democrat, August 20 1911



Joe Goess, a young man of Sonoma, was arrested there on Sunday afternoon by Deputy Sheriff Joe Ryan on a charge of using vulgar language in the presence of women and children. The alleged offense occurred on Main street, and is said to have been particularly flagrant. When spoken to about his conduct by Justice Campbell, young Goess turned on the justice and unloaded some unseemly language. Justice Campbell took the young into custody and turned him over to Ryan, who locked the offender in jail. His examination took place Monday.

– Santa Rosa Republica, April 28, 1913



Monday was a busy time with City Recorder W. P. Bagley. There were thirteen cases in his court that day. Four drunks were dismissed, but one returned later and will face his fate Tuesday. One drunk had his case continued while two others paid fines of $5 each and two went to jail for three days each. One driver who stopped his auto on the wrong side of the street had his case continued, while one vagrant went to jail for five days and another was dismissed. A man who insulted women on the street appeared with an attorney, but it did not prevent him getting sixty days in jail for the offense.

– Press Democrat, May 20 1913


Police Will Endeavor to Check Behavior That is Devoid of Manliness

Chief of Police J. M. Boyes and his department are determined to put a stop to the practice that has become altogether too prevalent in Santa Rosa on the part of some persons who seem to take delight in using vulgar and unseemly language on the sidewalks or in public places.

The only way to reach the offenders will be to arrest one or two and make examples of them in the police court. The language complained of is generally used, possibly not intentionally, at times when ladies are in hearing distance. There is nothing manly in such conduct as this, and complaints have been made.

– Press Democrat, August 8 1913
Charged With Using Improper Language

Robert Butts, charged with disturbing the piece [sic]  by J. O. McIntosh, was arraigned before Justice Marvin T. Vaughan Saturday, and his case continued to be set. Butts was released on $250 bail pending a hearing. It is claimed that when Butts’ hounds got loose and trespassed on the McIntosh place, Mr. McIntosh fired at them, but failed to kill any of them. It is claimed that Butts learning of this went to the home and used some uncomplimentary language towards Mrs. McIntosh in the absence of her husband, which resulted in the complaint being sworn out.

– Press Democrat, March 26 1916


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