The Policeman’s Legal Digest / A Walk Through the Penal Laws of New York (1934)

I collect old police manuals, mostly because I like to see what police were directed to do before the exclusionary rule came into the picture.  I also enjoy reading the lists of crimes that appear in some of these guides. Are these lists as interesting as the “Mad Men” / Rick Astley mash-up? No. But I take what I can get.

Some of these crimes are still with us; others have vanished from courtrooms in the intervening years. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re off the books; here in California, for example, it’s still a misdemeanor (as it has been since 1872) to kill, wound, or trap any bird within a cemetery, or to destroy any bird’s nest within a cemetery — except, of course, for swallows’ nests, which are specifically exempted by the pertinent statute (Penal Code 598). (Thinking.) Nope, I can’t say that I recall ever invoking this law back when I was a deputy D.A.

One police manual in my collection, M.J. Delahanty’s The Policeman’s Legal Digest, offers an interesting list of crimes that were on the books in circa-1934 New York. In addition to murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery, burglary, theft, and other longtime staples of the criminal docket, the Digest also told officers that they should stay on the lookout for many other crimes that no longer weigh heavily on the minds of most New Yorkers.

For each crime listed in the Digest, the manual identifies the essential elements of the offense (often in a somewhat confusing flowchart manner), as well as the section of the Penal Law or other New York code that relates the crime.  Some of the more exotic — by modern standards — crimes related in the Digest are (the list goes on, and on, after the jump):

Compulsory Prostitution of Wife (Penal Law sec. 1090)

Adultery (PL 100)

Compelling a Woman to Marry (PL 532)

Seduction (PL 2175)

Immoral Plays and Exhibitions (PL 1140-A)

Wayward Minor (C.Cr.P 913-A)

Abortion (PL 80)

Self-Abortion (PL 81)

Manufacturing or Selling (miscarriage) Instruments (PL 82)

Preventing Conception (PL 1142)

Advertising to Procure Divorce (PL 120)

Advertising as Attorney (PL 270)

Criminal Anarchy (PL 160)

Assemblage of Anarchists (PL 162)

Permitting Premises to be Used for Assemblage of Anarchists (PL 163)

Malicious Mischief (PL 1425)

A person who kills, wounds or traps a bird, deer, squirrel, rabbit, or other animal within the limits of a cemetery or public park or removes therefrom the young of such animal, or the eggs of such bird, or knowingly offers to sell, or sells or buys any bird or animal so killed or taken commits a misdemeanor

Soliciting Business on Behalf of Attorney (PL 270-A)

Entering a Hospital, Etc. (PL 270-B)

A person who enters a hospital or sanitarium to negotiate a settlement, or obtain a release or statement, written or oral, from a person confined there as patient with reference to personal injuries confining him there, within 15 days after injuries were sustained commits a misdemeanor, unless at least five days prior to obtaining the above the injured person has stated in writing he will such statement or release be given

Barratry (PL 320)

Is the practice of exciting groundless judicial proceedings. Note: In order to convict a person of this crime, it is necessary that he did so at least three times and had a CORRUPT or MALICIOUS INTENT to vex and annoy

Knowingly Marrying a Bigamist (PL 343)

Manufacture and Sale of Second-Hand Hats (PL 438-A)

[Failure to Display] Name of Owner on Establishment (PL 440-A)

Producing Unpublished, Undedicated or Copyrighted Operas (PL 441)

Permitting Children to Attend Certain Resorts (PL 484)

Refusing to Receive Guests (PL 513)

Return of Fingerprints (PL 516)

It is a misdemeanor for any officer or member of a police department to fail to return to a person upon his demand, after his discharge or acquittal on a criminal charge against him any photo, photographic plate, proof, fingerprint or duplicate thereof taken by direction of the police after his arrest 

Disguised and Masked Persons; Masquerades (PL 710)

Eavesdropping (PL 721)

Duelling (PL 731)

Posting for Not Fighting a Duel (PL 734)

A person who posts or advertises another for not fighting a duel, or not accepting or sending a challenge to fight a duel, or in writing or printing uses reproachful or contemptuous language to or concerning anyone for not sending or accepting a challenge, or fighting a duel, commits a misdemeanor

Knife Throwing (PL 831)

Marathon Dance Contests (PL 833)

(Horse) Racing Near a Court-House (PL 1080)

Cutting Ice in Front of Premises of Another (PL 1100)

Libel (PL 1341)

Furnishing False Information (PL 1353)

One who knowingly states any false or untrue statement of fact about a person or corporation intending it to be published, commits a misdemeanor

Floating Logs or Defacing Marks Theroen (PL 1360)

Maiming One’s Self to Escape Performance of a Duty (PL 1402)

Maiming One’s Self to Obtain Alms (PL 1403)

Disturbing Lawful Meetings (PL 1470)

Drugging Person for Enlistment (PL 1482)

One who administers a drug or stupefying substance to another with intent, to induce such person, while so drugged to enter the military or naval service of any state or nation commits a misdemeanor

Introduction of Spirituous or Malt Liquor into Arsenal or Armory (PL 1485)

Unlawful Removal of Poor Person (PL 1650)

Disgraceful Practices Offending Health and Decency (PL 1756-A)

One who exhibits himself or another in a public place and invites or allows others to throw or release any ball or device at his or another’s head or body for reward or otherwise; OR takes part in a game known as “ball dodger,” for reward or otherwise . . . OR does any act whereby any race of citizens is held up to contempt or ridicule commits a misdemeanor.

Disturbing Religious Meetings (PL 2071)

Compelling Adoption of a Form of Belief (PL 2073)

To attempt by threat or violence to compel one to adopt, practice or profess an form of religion, is a misdemeanor

Preventing Presentation of Living Characters Representing the Divine Person (PL 2074)

No one shall in any public or private place present, enact, or allow to be any play, drama or performance in which shall be a living character representing [a] deity, however called by any religion, which is worshipped, adored, etc., by any religious group professing a well-defined religious belief. Violations are misdemeanors.

Display of Red Flag (PL 2095-A)

Sabbath Breaking (PL 2140-2144)

Public Sports on Sunday (PL 2145)

Theatrical and Other Performances on Sunday (PL 2152)

Barbering on Sunday (PL 2153)


The bottom line being that (as Darryl Brown has written) even though there may be (net-net) more crimes on the books today than there were a century ago, crimes can and often to disappear, as social mores and realities change.

You may also like...

7 Responses

  1. Steven Lubet says:

    How would one go about manufacturing a “second-hand hat”?

  2. Matt says:

    I was going to rent an apartment in New York and loan it out to an assemblage of anarchists who wanted to put on some unpublished operas, but now I know better.

    But what I really want to know is, what would it meant to “manufacture second hand hats”? I can see what it would mean to _sell_ second-hand hats, but I would have thought that if you’d just manufactured the thing, it would be a first-hand hat. Did “manufacture” have some special older meaning then?

  3. Matt says:

    Ah- I hadn’t read the comments before. I see I’m not the only one with this question. Kyle- you must solve this mystery for us, preferably before I go to bed so that I don’t spend all night thinking of it and being unable to sleep.

  4. Kyle says:

    Matt and Steven:

    It appears that in 1933, the New York legislature passed a law that added section 438-A to the Penal Law, which provided in relevant part:

    Manufacture and sale of used or second-hand hats.

    1. Any person who shall manufacture, sell, trade or offer for sale any used or second-hand hat shall affix or cause to be affixed conspicuously and securely in such a manner that it cannot be easily detached by any person, a label upon which shall be printed in the English language the name and address of the manufacturer and the words “used hat” or “second-hand hat.”

    2. Any manufacturer, retail dealer or other person who shall make, offer for sale, trade or sell any such hat shall cause a sign of such size that it may be legible from a distance of at least thirty feet reading “used hats” or “second-hand hats” to be placed in a conspicuous place at the location where such hats are manufactured, sold, traded or offered for sale.

    3. Any person, firm, corporation or association, or its officers or agents who or which shall violate any of the provisions of this section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.


    This offense was moved over to the General Business Code in 1965, and was repealed in 1996. So it’s now safe to sell second-hand hats without conspicuous signage. Connecticut had a similar law on the books for a while, which kind of makes more sense (given Danbury’s interest in promoting sales of new hats), but that law also has been repealed.

    Helpfully, the New York Times ran a brief story on what I’ll call the Hat Act upon its enactment. The story recites a sponsor’s assertion that one out of every seven hats being sold in New York City was an old hat made to look like new. According to the sponsor, the hats were being purchased for 5 to 10 cents each, then boiled in ammonia to give them that just-boiled-in-ammonia shine.

    Diving a bit deeper, it looks like concerns about bad hattery weren’t the exclusive province of state legislatures back in the day. I came across two other New York Times stories regarding the scandalous second-hand hat trade. Both stories (one from 1933, another from 194) describe FTC orders that directed specific hat companies to stop labeling their old, used, and second-hand hats as new.

    If you’re intrigued — and why wouldn’t you be? — there’s a lengthy description of the first of these orders in “Cites Renovators of Old Hats Here,” The New York Times, July 24, 1933, at 9.

  5. Matt says:

    Thanks, Kyle. It seems, then, that “manufacture” here meant something like “refurbish”. I wonder if you could have called them “certified pre-owned hats” and got away with it. Now, though, I might well try boiling some of my old hats in ammonia, if I can get enough ammonia and get the windows opened wide enough before my wife comes back into town…

  6. mls says:

    The descendants of those diabolical second-hand hatters are probably now on the streets of New York selling illegally large sodas.

  7. Steven Lubet says:

    And all along, I assumed that a second hand hat had something to do with a very accurate watch.