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American Jewish History 91.2 (2003) 269-286

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Enforcement of the Sunday Closing Laws on the Lower East Side, 1882-1903

On Sunday, December 3 , 1882 , a day described by the New York Times as one "long to be remembered in the history of this City,"1 New York's finest took to the streets and with great zeal arrested 137 persons for various violations of the newly codified "Crimes against the Person and Against Public Decency and Good Morals," otherwise known as the Sunday Laws. Among those arrested in the crackdown were at least thirty-five Jews, including bootblacks, newspaper vendors, barbers, cigar vendors, ragpickers, fruit vendors, and truck-, butcher- and coal-cart drivers.2 While the police arrested cigar vendors, they allowed saloonkeepers to sell cigars and liquor, with customers entering the saloon through side or family doors, while the police continued their tradition of ignoring this infringement of the law.

Because so many of the cases were dismissed by the magistrates sitting in the Police Courts open that day (the courts observed limited hours on Sunday), the New York Times predicted that the day's activities and the resulting unnatural quiet in the city's streets would not be repeated. During the week that followed, Jewish tradesmen, including grocers, dry-goods dealers, clothiers, bakers, and jewelers, obtained injunctions from one Judge Arnaux on the grounds that they were covered by an exemption which provided that the observance of another day of the week as "holy time" could be a defense against prosecution. These temporary orders enjoined the police from making arrests of those protected by the injunctions until a hearing scheduled for December 21 , 1882. Thus the following Sunday was relatively quiet: the injunctions were in effect (announced by signs in the windows), the weather was bad, and the police had decided to allow barbering and other activities related to personal grooming as well as baggage and newspaper delivery and the operation of telegraph offices.3

The police superintendent reacted positively but warily to the injunctions and the Jewish claim of exemption. The New York Times reported: [End Page 269]

So long as Jews observe one day of rest and close up their place of business, the Police are not likely to molest them. There are a great many of this shrewd people, however, who are expected to play double, so say the police. In order that there may be no deception in the matter the Police, Commissioner Matthews says, have been quietly taking a census of those Jews who closed up their business yesterday.4

In what would appear to be an effort to maximize publicity for the case, Judge Arnaux invited notables to the December 21 st hearing, including David Dudley Field, the eminent jurist, famous for codifying the Penal Law (he declined the invitation), and organizations interested in the observance of the Sunday laws, such as the Sunday Closing League. The League, formed the month before in cooperation with local churches, included many merchants; and ninety of its members patrolled the streets during these December Sundays, looking for violators and then informing the police.

The hearing turned out to be a disaster for the Jewish plaintiffs. Judge Arnaux rejected all their arguments, whether constitutional (that Jews had a right to choose their day of rest, and any interference with that choice diminished their First Amendment right to freedom of religion) or those based on statutory interpretation. Here the plaintiffs argued that observant Jews should be able to take advantage of the law's exemption for "works of necessity,"5 on the grounds that closing stores for two days would work a great economic hardship, and cited as well the specific statutory exemption for those who observed a different Sabbath.6 Judge Arnaux held that the exemption applied only to "servile labor" and not to trade; he also excluded from its protection those engaged in manufacturing behind closed doors, such as tailors and shoemakers. According to the judge, allowing such activities would seriously interrupt the rights of others and...


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