You know how people often lament that things used to be so much simpler back in the day — a time when men were men and you could legally cut half of someone’s brain out for being gay? Things weren’t so simple back when your grandparents or their grandparents were kids, and all kinds of wild things were legal — from meth to murder. Here are 11 things you used to be able to get away with back in the day that are helpfully illegal now.
Remember how you used to be able to own people? Fun times.
Like peyote, opium, LSD, mushrooms, heroine and ecstasy, meth used to be perfectly legal in the U.S. You used to be able to get metamphetamines from your pharmacist to treat a number of ailments, including alcoholism, depression, narcolepsy and those pesky Spring allergies, because they didn’t have Claritin yet. The drug was FDA-approved in 1944 and became known as “Methedrine” in the 1950s, when it became wildly popular due to its unintentional addictive qualities. However, meth abuse became so common that the government passed the Controlled Substances Act to limit the sale of methedrine – although you can still get it in small doses under the name of “Desoxyn.”
2. Drinking and Driving
Driving while drunk has been a no-no for some time, but drinking while consuming alcohol was another matter. To clear it up: You couldn’t be already drunk when you got in the car, but you could drink in the car. In 1998, the federal government began to enforce Open Container Laws to stop you from openly chugging a beer bong while swerving into oncoming traffic. Six TEA-21 laws are in place to ensure Open Container Laws are enforced, but only 39 of the 50 states follow all six of them. Although Wyoming, Alaska, Lousiana and Tennessee (among others) have their own Open Container Laws, they are not as strict or wide-reaching as the federal ones.
Have you ever seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Then you know that partial lobotomies used to be considered an appropriate ways to deal with mental illness – an encouraged procedure to handle schizophrenia, depression, suicidal tendencies and other unwanted social problems – like homosexuality. (It was even sometimes used to treat backaches.) The procedure became common in the early 20th century and could be enforced against the individual’s will. According to estimates, the United States was the worldwide leader in lobotomies, performing between 40,000 and 50,000. The practice was formally banned in 1967, but reports suggest that lobotomies still occurred throughout the 1980s.
4. Forced Castrations
Have you ever thought about how strange it is that an entire class of people – the Eunuchs and the Castrati – lived their entire lives as the victims of forced castrations? Castrations weren’t just legal, but surprisingly common. Around the world, homosexuality has long been “treated” with chemical castration, and famed computer scientist Alan Turing willingly chose castration as an alternate to imprisonment for homosexuality in 1952, when homosexuality was still illegal. Many states in the U.S. still “dabble” in chemical castration as a way to deal with child molesters, with California and Florida allowing the practice in cases of severe child rape.
5. Domestic violence
In the 18th and 19th centuries, most states went by the “Rule of Thumb,” in which a man could legally beat his wife as long as the instrument of abuse was “no wider than the thumb,” which obviously varies by the size of the hand and the gentleman. Although many states moved to outlaw domestic violence by the end of the 1800s, others still considered it a “private matter” between a man and his wife (read: property) and even those who did penalize partner abuse would only get involved if there was a witness. Not until the 1970s were women’s groups able to get society (and the government) to recognize the severity of the problem, with the first Battered Women’s Shelter opening in 1974, less than 30 years ago.
6. Marital Rape
Traditionally, a woman was considered a “legal minor” under the supervision of her husband, who was her legal guardian (in the place of her father). Until the 20th century, the legal system of “coverture” stated that a woman’s rights were “subsumed by her husband” at the point of marriage. Because of this, women had few rights or autonomy outside of marriage – which gave them little recourse to prosecute in instances of sexual assault from her husband. With the greater visibility of women’s rights issues, the conversation around criminalizing marital rape began in the 1970s, but it wasn’t actually outlawed until 1993. However, the penalties vary from state to state, with South Carolina still requiring sexual violence of a “high and aggravated nature” to prosecute.
7. Child Labor and Abuse
Childhood used to be a very different thing in the United States, as child labor and child slavery has been a common practice throughout our nation’s history. Children used to be the preferred workforce of many industrial factory owners, as they were less likely to be involved in a union or strike than their adult counterparts. As the child labor force reached its apex in the early part of the 20th century, children worked as laborers in mines, agriculture, textiles and nearly every industry you can think of – with few states restricting the use of child labor. Child labor wasn’t regulated until 1938, but child abuse wouldn’t be dealt with until 1974, with the Child Abuse Protection and Treatment Act. This included physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, gross neglect and other forms of maltreatment.
My most memorable day of Undergrad was when my Political Science professor (also our school’s Russian politics czar) informed our class that it was still legal to have someone killed in Russia. You couldn’t kill someone, but you could have someone do it for you. This shouldn’t have been that surprising – because murder was widely legal in the U.S., if you were killing the right person. If a slavemaster were to execute one of his slaves, it wasn’t seen or prosecuted as murder – because this was legally his property, and he could do with it what he liked. (As you know, raping one’s slaves was also common.) In the case of Native Americans, murder wasn’t just ignored; it was encouraged in many cases, with local governments offering rewards for the killing or capture of Native Americans.
One of the great mindfucks of life after high school English class is re-reading The Great Gatsby and finding out that they were all on a lot of coke. Cocaine was originally used in the late 1800s as a way to treat addiction to morphine, after being introduced onto the market in 1879. However, the drug quickly became a vice of its own, popping up in Victorian literature of the era. In 1884, Sigmund Freud (a chronic coke user) even penned a love letter to cocaine, called “Uber Coca,” in which he praised the drug for its “exhilaration and lasting euphoria.” In Tennessee at the turn of the century, you could obtain cocaine in local drugstores, and when Coca-Cola debuted in 1886, it had two major ingredients: caffeine and cocaine. Why else do you think it would be called “Coke?”
10. Mailing Children
This sounds like it’s from The Onion, but it’s absolutely real. When the parcel post service went into effect on January 1, 1913, Americans were able to send all kinds of things through the mail, revolutionizing the shipping industry. When it was first introduced, the only regulations were that the shipment had to weight less than fifty pounds. The industrious parents of May Pierstroff, a four-year old, decided to use this service to save money. They mailed the little girl from her home in Grangeville, Idaho to her grandparents in Lewiston. Instead of paying for the more expensive train fare, they shelled out all of 53 cents for transit. Upon learning about this case (and those of other child mailings), the U.S. Postmaster General quickly banned the mailing of humans.
11. Owning People
Okay, you know this happened “a long time ago,” but it’s not as long as you think.
Slavery was wildly common in antiquity, with up to one-third of the population of entire countries being enslaved. The first country to regulate slavery was Spain, which attempted to prevent abuse of exploitation of conquered peoples by the Spanish conquistadors. Denmark-Norway was the first country in Europe to outright ban the slave trade in 1803 – with Sweden swiftly following, despite never having slaves trafficked in the country to begin with. Although the U.S. wouldn’t get around to banning slavery for another sixty years, China didn’t ban slavery until 1906. The U.N. declared slavery a violation of global human rights in 1948, but it hung around in Niger, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, The United Arab Emirates and Oman until the 1960s and 70s. Mauritania was the last country to outlaw slavery in 1981. That’s less than two Abigail Breslins ago.