Roger Ludlow and the 1650 Scourge of Shuffleboard

In 1646, Roger Ludlow was commissioned to establish laws for Connecticut. It wasn’t an easy job, but after four hard years he produced the Code of 1650 – sometimes called Ludlow’s Code – and it addressed all manner of evils up to and including shuffleboard.

Ludlow was among the more staunch Puritans who left England, frustrated by the Anglican Church. Arriving in America in 1630, he first lived in Dorchester in Massachusetts before moving to Windsor, Connecticut and later Fairfield, which he founded.

tavern shuffleboard scene

The Hazard Room, a 1792 painting by Thomas Rowlandson.

Ludlow was an Oxford-educated lawyer. He was one of the main authors of the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, the first constitution in America. Though Ludlow had some success in politics – serving as deputy governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and lieutenant governor of Connecticut – his main contribution to the settlement of New England was his codification of laws for Connecticut.

Ludlow’s Code proceeded alphabetically from “Ability” to “Wrecks at Sea,” and it covers the typical crimes. Capital offenses included murder, perjury, witchcraft and smiting one’s parents. Burglars were to be branded with the letter “B” and so forth.

Ludlow didn’t stop with major crimes, his code outlawed swearing, heresy, idleness and stubbornness. And he also singled out shuffleboard for elimination.

Outlawing shuffleboard was not that unusual considering the Puritan’s general orientation and the nature of the game in Britain. Dating back at least 500 years, shuffleboard was a popular contest in Europe. In England, it went by names like shove halfpenny and earlier shove groat.

The basics of the game were similar to today’s shuffleboard. A disk was slid down a board and points awarded based on where it stopped. It was played in public houses in England and was a time-waster that was generally harmless – except when disputes arose between players or large wagers resulted in hard feelings. The Puritans, who opposed most sports played with a ball, had little use for it.

King Henry VIII played at shuffleboard and outlawed it for commoners in England during his reign and there’s little doubt that the Puritans had no use for the people who pursued it. In some taverns, the shuffleboard was kept hidden and secret from any strangers, only brought out for trusted regulars.

Arthur Miller in his play about the 1692 Salem witch trials, The Crucible, notes that shuffleboard was a pastime at the tavern run by Bridget Bishop, which hints at the prejudice the residents of Salem would have held against her.

In the long run, of course, shuffleboard prevailed – morphing into various forms and enjoying popular revivals during the Roaring 20s and the 1950s. Even today shuffleboard can be found in its table and floor varieties.

As for Roger Ludlow, the publication of his code was the high water mark for his career in New England. He was involved in various property disputes and convicted of slandering a woman, whom he declared a witch. Ludlow left Connecticut to settle briefly with his brother in Virginia in 1654 and then travelled to Ireland, where he was appointed to a post of magistrate. He did not return to America and died in the 1660s – well before Connecticut became the gaming and gambling capital of New England.

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