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Justice sought for Meriden shop owner prosecuted under blue law in 1905

Justice sought for Meriden shop owner prosecuted under blue law in 1905

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MERIDEN — In 1905, Bertha Mag ran a meat market at 153 Pratt St., raised four daughters and tended to her sick husband. 

Mag was known to butcher meat in a back room of the building, sing songs in Yiddish and write poems in English. At least once, Mag opened her shop on a Sunday. She was arrested and fined for violating the state’s blue laws regarding observance of the Sabbath.

Today, her grandson David Gorfinkle, of Salem, Massachusetts, wants the city to pardon his grandmother.

“The Sabbath to which they referred, of course was a Sunday,” Gorfinkle wrote in a recent letter to City Attorney Stephanie Dellolio. “My grandmother had been reared in the Jewish religion, followed its teachings and considered the Sabbath to be on Saturday.”

Then-City Attorney L.C. Hinman pulled no punches in a warrant for Mag’s arrest for opening her shop on a Sunday and a story about her arrest appeared on the front page of the Meriden Morning Record on Aug. 8, 1905.

”Mrs. Bertha Mag on said sixth day of August, being the Lord’s day, did with force and arms between the hours of twelve o’clock on Saturday night, August 5, 1905, and twelve o’clock Sunday night August 6, 1905, and wilfully and unlawfully engage in and perform secular business and or which was not a work of necessity or mercy and did then and there at said hours, time and place willfully and unlawfully and not having the fear of God, keep open a certain shop, store and warehouse known as number 153 Pratt Street, and did in said shop and warehouse at said time and place expose certain property for sale against the form of the statute in such case made and provided and against the peace,” the Morning Record article read.

Police summoned 10 witnesses to testify against Mag when she appeared in court the next day. Hinman said Mag had opened two days not just one, but the case was settled for $10 and included a promise that she wouldn’t open on the Sabbath, or butcher animals in the rear of the shop.

“Needless to say, although the civil authorities in Meriden may have considered the infraction a minor one, having known my grandmother and being part of that family, I am sure that she and they felt disgraced beyond words — traumatized, in fact, and in her mind, the subject of negative dinner conversation throughout Meriden and beyond,” Gorfinkle wrote.

The family left Meriden shortly after the incident and moved to Springfield, Massachusetts “where they probably felt that they could ride out the storm,” he added.

The old blue law regarding conducting business on a Sunday was enacted in 1805 and amended in 1897 to raise the fine to $50.

It became a central issue for Jews who felt the law made it economically difficult to rest on their own Sabbath, observed on a Saturday.

“In theory, if not in effect, Sunday laws treated Jews and Christians alike,” wrote Jonathan Sarna, Brandeis University professor, in “American Jews and Church-State Relations: The Search for Equal Footing” (1989). “But what seemed to many Christians to be a legitimate means of assuring religious ‘free exercise’ was in Jewish eyes an effort to establish Christianity as the national religion. Jews insisted that forcing observant Jews to keep two days of rest, their own and the state’s amounted to economic discrimination. The question tested the meaning and limits of church-state separation, and raised anew the problem of majority rule versus minority rights.”

A representative of the Connecticut Anti-Defamation League said he had never heard of relatives seeking reparations for aggrieved family members, however.

Law overturned

It took seven decades for the blue law restriction on businesses remaining open on Sundays to be declared unconstitutional by the Connecticut Supreme Court.

The 1979 ruling resulted from a suit brought by Caldor to prevent Bedding Barn from opening on Sunday. The Supreme Court based its finding on the equal protection clause and the right to due process and found the Sunday closing law arbitrary and discriminatory.

For that reason, Gorfinkle is asking the city to pardon his grandmother and return the fine to her living heirs. If the law permits, Gorfinkle estimates the $10 to be more than $300 today.

Dellolio wrote back to Gorfinkle two weeks ago, acknowledging his request, according to emails provided by Gorfinkle.

“As I am sure you can appreciate, ‘overturning’ a conviction is not within the realm of the Law Department’s jurisdiction, nor can the Law Department render legal advice,” Dellolio wrote, adding a link to the State of Connecticut Board of Pardon and Paroles.

Gorfinkle said he has no interest in filling out the lengthy paperwork to pursue a pardon through the state, nor does he feel he should have to since the charges were brought by the then-city attorney before the “police court” and the fine imposed by the city. He said he hopes city officials will reconsider and clear his grandmother’s name.

“She was a lovely woman. The passing of time does not right a wrong,” Gorfinkle wrote. “What may be legal is not necessarily just.”
Twitter: @Cconnbiz

Meriden Morning Record article, Aug. 8, 1905.