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Bar Sinister


On this date in 1920, it was reported in the Capital Journal of Salem, Oregon that a North Dakota appeals court had removed the “bar sinister,” a discriminatory law affecting illegitimate children. The term “bar sinister” comes from medieval heraldry. “Sinister” is Latin for “left.” It simply indicates a direction, and does not carry the negative modern meaning. “Bar” refers to a broad line on a coat of arms. Therefore, a bar sinister is a diagonal line running from the upper right to the lower left.

The bar sinister came to be associated with being born out of wedlock, but in reality, there was no one single heraldic element used to designate illegitimacy. The association apparently arose from popular fiction, the authors of which may have used the term because the bar sinister sounded, well, sinister. It found its way into science fiction with Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. A bar sinister can be found on the badges of military units, including The Black Sheep Squadron, a Marine fighter squadron in World War II.

That “bar sinister” history aside, the matter at hand involved the court upholding the Tennyson Law, which was passed in 1917. The law was named for B.G. Tennyson of Fargo. It abolished illegitimacy of birth and provided that children born out of wedlock have equal rights with children born in wedlock. As a result, children born out of wedlock were entitled to equal education as well as the right to share equally in the estates of the parents.

The newspaper praised the North Dakota court saying that for centuries innocent children had suffered because of bigotry and the unfair conventions of society. The newspaper went on to say that “It is a hopeful sign of a better day for brotherly love preached but seldom practiced when laws like the North Dakota statute replace those of a fanatical intolerance dating from the dark ages.”

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Capital Journal. “Removing the Bar Sinister.” Salem, Oregon, 22 June, 1920.

The College of Arms. "http://www.college-of-arms.gov.uk/" http://www.college-of-arms.gov.uk/ Accessed 6 May, 2017.

TV Tropes. “Bar Sinister. "http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BarSinister" http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BarSinister Accessed 6 May, 2017.