Recalling Long-Vanished Taboos

(Charleston Gazette, Sept. 21, 1993)

By James A. Haught

The death of L.E. Crowson the other day brought back a surge of memories -- and awareness of enormous social changes that have happened in West Virginia.

Crowson, a fiery Methodist preacher, was a "dry'' crusader in the 1960s, when drinking was both a sin and a crime in the Bible Belt. In those days, Charlestonians wanting to socialize with cocktails went to bootleg clubs -- and police with sledgehammers often bashed in the doors to rout the wicked.

One time, Crowson, then located in South Charleston, hired a private detective and visited the illicit nightspots to gather evidence of illegal drinking. The minister later told reporters that, of course, he couldn't drink the booze he bought, so he furtively poured it out. This prompted a jokester to write to the Gazette, saying he had been quietly imbibing one night in a club when a stranger reached under his table and poured a drink in his shoe, causing his sock to dye his foot blue. The letter was a spoof, but it became part of the Crowson lore.

In 1962, Crowson led a statewide campaign that defeated a constitutional amendment to allow restaurants and bars to serve drinks. Alcohol in public remained a crime -- until the Legislature legitimized it through a sham, by pretending that restaurants and bars are members-only private lodges.

Today, with liquor sold everywhere, even in supermarkets, it's hard to remember the alcohol taboo that gripped West Virginia a generation ago. But that's just one of several taboos which bit the dust. Ponder these changes:

Sex was unmentionable in the years after World War II, and writing about it was a crime under censorship laws. Former Mayor John Copenhaver ordered police to jail anyone who sold a copy of Peyton Place, a mildly risque novel. A Daily Mail copy editor was arrested on pornography charges for possessing a magazine akin to today's Playboy. Now, in contrast, nude lovemaking is seen in hundreds of R-rated movies, and Playboy is almost as respectable as Good Housekeeping.

Gambling was a crime in those Good Old Days. Charleston police constantly raided poolrooms. Melvin Loveless, the city's "numbers king,'' was jailed for operating a lottery. Today, the state government is the numbers king, and churches run bingo gambling.

Homosexuality was a felony in those times. Under Old Testament-type sodomy laws, gays were put in the state penitentiary at Moundsville. Charleston police Sgt. Frank Riddle kept files on people he called "pree-verts.'' Now, gays no longer are criminals, and they're gaining acceptance, except among wrathful religious zealots.

Abortion was another felony, and Charleston doctors sometimes were prosecuted for helping desperate girls escape unwanted pregnancies. Birth control devices were unmentionable -- and it was a crime to sell them in some states. Today, birth control and abortion are legal rights, although some churches want a return to the past.

Divorce was hush-hush, and rare, in those days -- but now more than half of marriages disintegrate, with little stigma.

Unwed motherhood was a scandal that branded a woman and tainted her child -- but multitudes of babies are born in that condition today, without reprisal, except at places like Teays Valley Christian School.

Unmarried couples caught in the same living quarters in yesteryear were jailed for "unlawful cohabitation'' -- but today it's normal for unwed pairs to live together. In fact, landlords are forbidden to discriminate against them.

All those old "thou shalt nots'' were religion-based. But there other taboos: Racial segregation was enforced by law in yesterday's West Virginia. Blacks couldn't enter Charleston's "white'' restaurants, hotels or movie theaters. They were forbidden to live in white neighborhoods, and their children couldn't attend white schools. It was common to find blacks with degrees from West Virginia State College working as elevator operators and janitors, because most other jobs were closed to them. But the Jim Crow system died in the civil rights movement.

Also in the post-war years, Jews couldn't join Charleston's elite country clubs, and bylaws barred them from members-only places like Lake Chaweva. But that segregation, too, disappeared.

This list could go on and on. But you get the picture. Far-reaching social change has occurred during the lifetime of mature West Virginians like me. Yet it happened so gradually, amid the chaos of daily life, that we barely noticed the transformation.

Here's the spooky part: When I was young, I never dreamed that the whole foundation of public morality -- the taboos against sex, liquor, gambling, nudity, divorce, birth control, cohabitation, etc. -- might vanish so casually. Does this mean that other undreamed-of changes lie ahead?

Will our children inhabit a society we can't imagine? Will vending machines dispense crack cocaine? Will churches sponsor group sex clubs?

Just thinking about it makes my head hurt.