8 Historical Things That Prove Privacy Issues Aren't a Modern Problem

iStock/Veleri
iStock/Veleri

DEAR A.J.,
Help! I feel I have no privacy anymore. Facebook, Google, and Target know more about my life than my own husband does. Where has all the privacy gone?
Kathleen

Dear Kathleen,

Thanks for writing. I’ve recorded your name, address, marital status, and income level for my email list. You’ll be hearing from me soon!

In the meantime, maybe this will make you feel better: Privacy may be endangered in the digital age, but at least we’re still better off than many of our ancestors. In the past, everyone was all up in your business.

1. Peeping Tithingmen

Consider the Puritans: They were stunningly good at privacy invasion. In colonial America, Puritan villages had professional snoopers called “tithingmen.” Part of a tithingman’s job was to peek into their neighbors’ windows and spy on their every move to ensure they weren’t doing anything naughty, such as (gasp!) going for a stroll on the Sabbath—a crime that could be punishable by a day in the stocks.

2. Snail Mail Breaches

If you’re worried about hackers (or husbands) monitoring your emails, you should know that pen-and-ink mail was even more vulnerable back in the day. In early America, before an official postal service existed, letters were frequently left at taverns and coffeehouses to be picked up by the recipient—often after they’d been perused by other inquisitive customers. Things didn’t get much better when the government got involved. Postal workers were notorious for peeping at mail. Even letters from the Founding Fathers weren’t immune. Thomas Jefferson complained about the “curiosity of the post-offices” who enjoyed opening and reading his correspondence.

3. Public Voting—Out Loud

Speaking of the government: Voting was not always a private affair conducted behind the safety of a curtain. In early America, everyone knew your vote. They heard it loud and clear. You voted by stepping up to an election officer and announcing your vote in front of spectators. The practice was called viva voce—by voice. This, naturally, led to intimidation and harassment. As Paula Wasley writes in Humanities magazine, voting was “spectacularly public ... accompanied by boisterous crowds, partisan hecklers, torchlight parades, free-flowing whiskey, and brawling.” Casting your vote was less like participating in a dignified civic ritual and more like attending a Gathering of the Juggalos.

4. Nosy Questions on the (Publicly Posted) Census

You won’t find much respect for privacy in the old days of the U.S. census. The questions in the 1800s were astoundingly nosy. Uncle Sam asked about your mental health, whether you were “crippled, maimed, or deformed,” and questions about the financial status of homes and farms. The results of the early census were also posted in public, ostensibly so you could check them for accuracy, but in reality so that all your neighbors could titter.

5. Newspapers Printed Ailments

And if you didn’t know your neighbor’s frailties from the census, busybody local newspapers were there to fill you in. With no pesky HIPAA laws to get in the way, hospital admissions were popular fodder for newspapers for decades. For instance, an issue of the 1885 Philadelphia Inquirer told us that 53-year-old Hugh Dady had to go to the hospital after he received a head cut from a falling barrel.

6. Newspapers Printed Addresses

And if that’s not enough, the paper gives us what certainly appears to be the ailing folks’ addresses, such as “Francis Reynolds, aged twenty-seven, of No. 2335 Owen Street, with sprained wrist, from heavy lifting.” It was like TMZ, but if every celebrity was very boring.

7. Pooping in Public

But I’ve saved the worst for last. Because in the days of yore, even your most intimate acts—including going to the bathroom—occurred with very little privacy. In ancient Rome, you did your business in a public latrine with dozens of seats side by side. Archaeologists have found board games in between the toilets, indicating that voiding was a social occasion, much like a trip to the pub. Even the Father of our Country might not have pooped alone: Mount Vernon has a cozy three-seat outhouse. Over on the other side of the pond, Henry VIII had a formal assistant called “The Groom of the Stool,” a bathroom attendant whose job supposedly consisted of, in part, wiping the glorious monarchical butt.

8. Sex on Trial

What’s more, marital problems were shockingly out in the open. Consider the bizarreness that were the impotence trials of pre-Revolutionary France. A woman could ask to end a marriage on the grounds that her husband failed to consummate a marriage … but she had to prove it in front of witnesses. The most notorious such trial was in 1659, when a Marquis had to attempt sex with his wife in front of a 15-person jury, including doctors. The trial was so public, Frenchmen placed bets on the outcome. I’d tell you what happened, but I don’t want to invade the nobleman’s privacy yet again. (OK, fine. He failed. Happy?)

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Is It Illegal to Falsely Shout 'Fire' in a Crowded Theater?

Fortunately, nobody incited a stampede at New York's Metropolitan Opera House on this night in 1937.
Fortunately, nobody incited a stampede at New York's Metropolitan Opera House on this night in 1937.
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If you asked a few random people to name a situation that wouldn’t be protected under the First Amendment’s “freedom of speech” clause, there’s a pretty good chance at least one of them would mention the example of someone shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater (when there’s no fire). Over the last century, the scene has been used far and wide to illustrate that if your “free speech” harms people, you can still end up in the defendant’s chair. But, as is so often the case when it comes to interpreting the law, it’s really not that simple.

Panic Room

The aftermath of the Iroquois Theatre fire.Fire-Truck.Ru, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

When people first started discussing human fire alarms at packed gatherings, it was less about constitutional debate and more about societal menace. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there were dozens of tragedies [PDF]—mainly in the U.S., but also abroad—where false shouts of “Fire!” provoked panic that resulted in multiple innocent, and avoidable, deaths. In 1913, for example, residents of Calumet, Michigan, held a Christmas party for the children of copper miners on strike. Hundreds of people gathered on the second floor of Italian Hall, and when an unidentified perpetrator (possibly motivated by anti-union sentiments) yelled “Fire!” they all rushed to the stairs. The stampede claimed 73 victims, most of whom were children.

The fear of fire wasn’t unfounded. Since not all buildings had sprinkler systems, neon exit signs, and capacity limits, plenty of fatal blazes occurred. More than 600 people died in Chicago’s Iroquois Theater fire in 1903, even though (ironically) that building was actually thought to be fireproof.

In short, shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater was an idea firmly entrenched in the public consciousness by the time judges co-opted the phrase for legal arguments on First Amendment rights.

Discussing Fire in a Crowded Courtroom

We mustache Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. a question about First Amendment rights.National Photo Company, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Wikimedia Commons // No Known Restrictions on Publication

The axiom became popular in legal spheres after Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. mentioned it during Schenck v. United States in 1919, but he wasn’t the first person to use it in court. As Carlton F.W. Lawson pointed out in a 2015 article in the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, U.S. attorney Edwin Wertz had uttered a lengthier version of it the previous year while prosecuting activist Eugene Debs. In fact, since Holmes ruled on Debs’s appeal the very week after the Schenck case, he may have even gotten the idea from Wertz.

Each case involved a violation of the Espionage Act of 1917, which essentially made it punishable to do anything that interfered with U.S. military operations—including speaking out against the draft. Debs, a pacifist who opposed World War I, was under fire for a speech he had given in Ohio; and Charles T. Schenck, the U.S. Socialist Party’s general secretary, landed in front of the Supreme Court for passing out pamphlets that encouraged men to refuse the draft.

Both defendants were convicted, and Holmes justified his ruling on the Schenck case with the explanation that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a theater and causing a panic.” But while his analogy struck an emotional chord, it really had nothing to do with constitutional law.

“The ‘crowded theater’ statement in Schenck never amounted to any kind of binding standard or doctrine,” Nashwa Gewaily, a media and First Amendment lawyer, tells Mental Floss. “It was basically a bit of emotionally charged extra flair from Justice Holmes, outside the official legal determination of that case; a powerful image that endured outside its context ... It was not a high point in American jurisprudence.”

“Revengeance” Is Fine

What Holmes said after it, however, did become a standard for future free speech arguments. “The question in every case,” he said, “is whether the words are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”

For the next 50 years, clear and present danger was the accepted—and slightly vague—metric for discerning if spoken or printed material was protected speech. Then, in 1969, the Supreme Court replaced it with something clearer. The case, Brandenburg v. Ohio, concerned a Ku Klux Klan leader named Clarence Brandenburg who had broken Ohio’s law against advocating “crime, sabotage, or unlawful methods of terrorism” for political purposes. (In his offending speech, he had mentioned the possibility of “revengeance” [sic] if the federal government didn’t stop “[suppressing] the white, Caucasian race.”)

Brandenburg appealed his guilty verdict all the way up to the Supreme Court, which overturned the ruling on the grounds that his threats were too ambiguous to “[incite] or [produce] imminent lawless action.” In order for something to qualify as imminent lawless action, it must: expressly advocate violence, advocate immediate violence, and relate to violence likely to occur.

As Gewaily explains, judges interpret this standard “far more narrowly than many would presume.” While individual institutions may condemn hate speech, for example, it’s technically protected under the law unless there’s “immediate violence” involved.

When Free Speech Is the Least of Your Worries

So, does falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater fall outside the conditions of imminent lawless action, and therefore fall under First Amendment protection? The short answer is that it depends on the circumstances. But here’s the long answer: If you get arrested for doing that, the charges brought against you might make the question of free speech totally irrelevant.

“The falsely shouted warning, while technically speech, could potentially violate a state's criminal laws against disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct, whether or not it provokes a stampede, for instance,” Gewaily says. And if there is a stampede in which somebody dies, you could be charged with involuntary manslaughter. In other words, there’s no law that explicitly prohibits you from crying “Fire” in a theater. It’s the other laws you’d have to worry about.

Shouting “Bomb!” or “Gun!” in public would put you in a similar situation. In May 2018, for example, officials had to evacuate part of Daytona Beach International Airport after a man ran naked through the building screaming about a bomb in the women’s bathroom. There was no bomb, but he was charged with “false report of a bomb,” “criminal mischief,” and “exposure of sexual organs,” among other things. In that case, no self-respecting lawyer would advise him to claim his actions were protected by the First Amendment.

That said, there’s good news for anyone whose panicked cry is an honest mistake. “Someone who shouts a warning in genuine error, with an intent to galvanize movement to safety, would not be properly punished for that speech,” Gewaily says.

And if Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. has taught us anything, it’s that not every word a Supreme Court Justice says automatically counts as constitutional doctrine.

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