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“The best people in any community will indorse [sic] an ordinance to prohibit and prevent spitting in public places. The habit is filthy, disgusting and spreads disease, and ruins clothing.” – The Paducah Sun, August 15, 1904.

In the early 1900’s, on the site where Stuart Nelson Park now sits, was a building locally known as the “Old Pest Farm.” No, it wasn’t a place for the raising of rats and fleas, but a hospital, situated beyond the city limits, specifically for the housing and treatment of those afflicted with tuberculosis. The isolation of the hospital was intentional, not only for the welfare of the sick, but for the well-being of the rest of the population.

Tuberculosis (also called consumption) is contagious, and folks throughout the world were deathly afraid of catching it, as they rightly should have been. Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection of the lungs, an ancient disease with its earliest traces dating back to 9000 B.C. Some have named it “the first disease known to mankind.” Even into the 20th century, before effective vaccines were developed, tuberculosis was often fatal. The only treatments thought to be effective were 1) tonics, often with recipes combining pine oil, glycerin, and bourbon; 2) segregating the sick on “Pest Farms”; 3) and curing people of the habit of SPITTING.

Spitting, you say?

Whatever you call it (mucus, phlegm, catarrh, sputum), spit was a problem. Folks liked to spit back then, apparently even more than they do now. Looking at the number of old news stories about the problems with spitting and it seems as if the streets must have been coated in goobers. And because those with tuberculosis were especially phlegmatic, with near constant coughing and hawking, it was believed that their spit was so contagious that if it dried on the sidewalk it would be “trodden to a powder and whirled about in the wind for healthy people to breathe” (Paducah Evening sun, 2/13/1907). Ladies feared trailing their long skirts through sidewalk mucus, and then dragging the disease into their homes to infect their families. The state senate actually voted on a bill to provide every tuberculosis patient in the state with a “tin cup for sputum.” The vote failed.

But with such trepidation toward tubercular spittle, the only true recourse to curb the habit was to make spitting illegal. Such laws were being enacted across the nation, and in Paducah, Mayor Yeiser finally signed the first anti-spitting ordinance into effect on May 26, 1905, making it against the law to spit specifically in Paducah’s Market House. The very next day, the newspaper reported that merchants at the Market House had already hung many conspicuous signs that read “Spitting Prohibited.” By early June of the same year, the citizens of the town were calling for the ordinance to be expanded outside of the Market House and onto the city’s sidewalks. Mayor Yeiser also signed that ordinance into effect, and thus on June 26, 1905, Paducah saw its first spitting-related arrest.

Jack Hughes was arrested on the charge of spitting at the corner of Broadway and Third. However, due to a stenographer’s omission, the ordinance was wrongly worded. The stenographer left out the word “walks,” so it became of breach of the ordinance to “spit on the side of the city” instead of the sidewalk. Because of the mistake, Judge Sanders threw out the case and Jack Hughes was set free.

Just a year later, a great stride was made in the development of a tuberculosis vaccine, and by 1930, so many people had been inoculated that tuberculosis hospitals became unnecessary. Paducah’s Pest Farm was torn down and a park went up in its place.

So what then about the anti-spitting ordinance? Did it go away too?

Nope. It’s still on our books. The contemporary ordinance reads, “It shall be unlawful for any person to expectorate on any sidewalk, street or floor in public buildings or upon any other public place within the city.” Though the ordinance isn’t vigilantly enforced anymore, I can think of a few friends who wear long skirts who would be happy if it was.

For more about Paducah’s nasty habits, visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library. And if you like this article, be sure to “like” our Facebook page.

–Matt Jaeger