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Myth-busting librarians debunk rumors about Texas' Wild West laws

By Jon Herskovitz

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Legend has it that the long arm of Texas law once extended to hotel balconies where the men with star badges would take into custody anyone who violated a state statute forbidding people to hunt buffalo from such a perch.

The legend ends at the Legislative Reference Library of Texas, where a small team of well-referenced librarians has gone through the records and sorted out fact from fiction when it comes to the laws of the Lone Star State.

"The ideas of the history of Texas capture the imagination with those stories of cattle drives and the old West. People want to still think it is like that and those laws are on the books," said Catherine Wusterhausen, the library's assistant director.

There was never any state law forbidding buffalo hunting from the second floor of a hotel. But a person who fired a weapon in those circumstances would probably face other violations of criminal law.

The library has received a steady stream of requests from the public and lawmakers to see if a certain statute is still on the books or whether it existed at all. It recently sorted through claims for an exhibit at its home in the state capitol building.

One claim is that a couple can be married in Texas by publicly introducing a person as one's husband or wife three times.

This seems to have grown out of common law marriages that were common about a century and a half ago, when a trip to a county seat in the state's wide open spaces was too long a journey for many couples.

Texas law does allow for "marriage without formalities" and recognizes those that are registered or from couples who agree to live together as husband and wife and represent to others that they are married.

Introducing yourself as a married couple three times is not a requirement.

"There is usually a kernel of truth to many of these myths," said reference librarian Becky Johnson, who helped put together the exhibit.

The state laws of Texas have been well preserved, codified and computerized. Some of the myths of Texas laws could have come from local rules that were lost over the years.

Many of the frontier laws faded into history or were folded into other laws during major revisions to the criminal code, the last one being in 1973.

Removed was the law that made it illegal to milk another person's cow, which carried a maximum fine of $10.

The law on the books from at least 1856 making it illegal to publish that another person is a coward also has perished. Current libel law can handle cases like this.

Also gone is the law that made it illegal to introduce Johnson grass - a noxious weed - onto another person's property, because it would destroy crops.

A few myths, such as the claim that Texas once had a law requiring criminals to inform their victims at least 24 hours ahead of any crime, stem from relatively recent actions. A lawmaker proposed such a measure in 1973, but the bill did not pass.

There are also some antiquated laws that may be worth revisiting, such as a part of the education code from the early 20th century.

It required that "suitable instruction shall be given in the primary grades once each week regarding kindness to animals and the protection of birds and their nests and eggs."

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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