From the Desk of Mark Stein: Writing Vice Capades

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The following is a contribution from Mark Stein, author of Vice Capades: Sex, Drugs, and Bowling from the Pilgrims to the Present (July 2017). Stein is an author, screenwriter, and playwright. He has published several books, including How the States Got Their Shapes, a New York Times best seller and the basis for the eponymous History Channel series, and American Panic: A History of Who Scares Us and Why.  

MarkStein_colorWhen I set about writing How the States Got Their Shapes ten or so years ago, I asked myself the same question I put to myself when recently writing Vice Capades: Sex, Drugs, and Bowling from the Pilgrims to the Present. That question being: Why am I writing this? Why do I care about this subject?—closely followed by the potentially more troubling question: Why would anyone else care?

Though the two books are on very different topics, the answers turned out to be the same. Both the location of state lines and laws prohibiting vice, I discovered, are lenses that provide particularly vivid views of who we were at the time, what we valued, and whose values ruled.

Take the panhandle of Oklahoma. Like many of our vice laws, its boundaries contain a wealth of insights into who we were, dating back in this instance to the days of Charles II—though never in his wildest dreams did Charles II dream of Oklahoma. Moreover, and also like our vice laws, the boundaries of the Oklahoma panhandle tell a tale of government efforts at regulation (in this case, slavery) and of the government washing its hands of regulation (slavery again).

Fasten your seat belts for a spin around that panhandle. Its southern border is located at 36°30’ north latitude. Tracing that line back, it turns out to be the midpoint between two vital waterways inland from the ocean—the Chesapeake Bay and Albemarle Sound. In 1665, Charles II quite logically declared a line due west from that midpoint to be the boundary between Virginia and the then Carolina colony. Surveying through the wilderness ended up veering northward and was later corrected at the western end of the Kentucky/Tennessee border. Soon after, the line was extended as the southern border of Missouri (with the exception of that state’s “boot heel,” but that’s another story—one involving the power of money.)

Which brings us to the 1820 Missouri Compromise and the eventual further extension of that 1665 line as the northernmost border between Texas and Oklahoma. In the Missouri Compromise, the federal government sought to regulate slavery by prohibiting it in any new state or territory north of 36°30’—with the exception of Missouri (that being the compromise). When Texas entered the Union in 1845, it was much larger than it is today and it had slavery. To keep slavery, Texas relinquished its land north of 36°30’. Hence, the southern border of what would become Oklahoma’s panhandle.

The northern border of that panhandle was located where it is in the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, in which the federal government gave up on regulating slavery by now allowing each new state or territory to decide the question for itself. While this law served to disable human equality as a value, its stipulating the Oklahoma/Kansas border at 37° enabled state equality by making it possible for a tier of prairie states to be created—Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota—all having equal degrees (three) of height. But it also left a gap between the top of Texas and the bottom of Kansas—which later became the Oklahoma panhandle.

In much the same way I discovered a wealth of history hidden within our ever-changing views of vice. What perplexed and fascinated me was that some of our views of vice have changed in more tolerant directions (such as ending prohibitions on inter-racial or same-sex marriage) while others have changed in less tolerant directions (such as punishments one might face for whistling at a woman in the workplace). As with How the States Got Their Shapes, I came to see how vice laws, too, are boundaries. And as such they provide us with another form of map, one in which the borders are those of values. Those borders which have changed and those which have not reveal who ruled back then and who rules today.

Take bowling, for example. In the colonial era, it was among the many games listed as prohibited in every colony—with one exception: New York. Turns out, the Dutch brought bowling to the New World, and when the British ousted the Dutch authorities from what is now New York, they did not oust the Dutch residents—who owned a lot of land, had a lot of money (hence power), and liked to bowl. Today, the oldest park in New York is Bowling Green at the bottom of Manhattan.

In the case of vice laws, I discovered that gaps in enforcement or adherence to a law—much like blips in state lines—provide a view of groups that were either a rising power or a hidden power. Through the lens of those laws, I could see religious authorities having to share power with physicians and scientists when the word sodomy (from the biblical sinful city of Sodom) came to be replaced by homosexuality (from the Latin used in scientific terminology). I could see white Americans using views of vice in an effort to maintain power over Mexican immigrants in the early twentieth century by replacing the word cannabis (long used not only in science but in ads for patent medicines that, for some reason, worked wonders) with the Spanish word for that plant, marijuana.

When I was a kid, like all kids I’d guess, I took joy in finding cool stuff on the ground. Coins, of course, but also interesting stones or colorful shards of glass. I’d gaze at them and wonder where they had been, what events they were a part of. In both How the States Got Their Shapes and Vice Capades, I’m still doing that stuff.

For better or for worse, I guess I never fully grew up.