For eight decades, the New England Watch and Ward Society hovered over almost every local activity, ever ready to condemn anything with a taint of vice. With self-righteous resolve, these societal watchdogs suppressed books, magazines, movies, dramatic performances, gambling establishments, gays, lesbians, and prostitutes. The words "Banned in Boston" became a banner of sinfulness for proper society; but for the more adventurous, a phrase of allure. (Some distributors even falsely claimed that their goods had been banned in Bean Town to generate interest.) Neil Miller's history of the Watch and Ward Society, surprisingly the first ever, is so revealing that one suspects that it too would have suppressed by these protectors.
Banned in Bostonby Neil Miller
“I want to be intelligent, even if I do live in Boston.”
—an anonymous Bostonian, 1929
In this spectacular romp through the Puritan City, Neil Miller relates the scintillating story of how a powerful band of Brahmin moral crusaders helped make Boston the most straitlaced city in America, forever linked with the infamous catchphrase
“I want to be intelligent, even if I do live in Boston.”
—an anonymous Bostonian, 1929
In this spectacular romp through the Puritan City, Neil Miller relates the scintillating story of how a powerful band of Brahmin moral crusaders helped make Boston the most straitlaced city in America, forever linked with the infamous catchphrase “Banned in Boston.”
Bankrolled by society’s upper crust, the New England Watch and Ward Society acted as a quasi-vigilante police force and notorious literary censor for over eighty years. Often going over the heads of local authorities, it orchestrated the mass censorship of books and plays, raided gambling dens and brothels, and utilized spies to entrap prostitutes and their patrons.
Miller deftly traces the growth of the Watch and Ward, from its formation in 1878 to its waning days in the 1950s. During its heyday, the society and its imitators banished modern classics by Hemingway, Faulkner, and Sinclair Lewis and went to war with publishing and literary giants such as Alfred A. Knopf and The Atlantic Monthly. To the chagrin of the Watch and Ward, some writers rode the national wave of publicity that accompanied the banning of their books. Upton Sinclair declared staunchly, “I would rather be banned in Boston than read anywhere else because when you are banned in Boston, you are read everywhere else.” Others faced extinction or tried to barter their way onto bookshelves, like Walt Whitman, who hesitantly removed lines from Leaves of Grass under the watchful eye of the Watch and Ward. As the Great Depression unfolded, the society shifted its focus from bookstores to burlesque, successfully shuttering the Old Howard, the city’s legendary theater that attracted patrons from T. S. Eliot to John F. Kennedy.
Banned in Boston is a lively history and, despite Boston’s “liberal” reputation today, a cautionary tale of the dangers caused by moral crusaders of all stripes.
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Read an Excerpt
It was a proverbial match of the titans. In one corner was
H. L. Mencken, the most prominent editor in America, the great iconoclast and savage and sharp-tongued foe, in his words, of all “preposterous
Puritans,” “malignant moralists,” and “Christians turned cannibals.” In the other corner was the Reverend J. Frank Chase, Boston’s reigning censor and moral policeman, secretary of the powerful New England Watch and Ward Society, scourge of small-time gamblers, burlesque promoters,
and writers who trafficked in “hells” and “goddamns” and anything that smacked of frankness in terms of sex. The scene was Brimstone Corner,
just off the Boston Common, in front of the Park Street Church, a block from the gilded dome of the State House. It was at the Park Street Church where the Watch and Ward Society (then called the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice) was originally established in 1878.
A week before, Chase, whose word was law to Massachusetts booksellers and magazine vendors, had ordered the banning of the April 1926
issue of Mencken’s magazine, the American Mercury. It contained a vignette called “Hatrack,” a tale of prostitution and hypocrisy in a small Missouri town that Chase contended was obscene. Across the river in Cambridge,
the proprietor of a Harvard Square newsstand had been arrested for selling a copy of the magazine to a Watch and Ward agent.
Mencken had taken the train up to Boston from his hometown of
Baltimore on April 5, 1926, for the purpose of challenging the Watch and Ward Society by selling Chase a copy of that very issue. Henry Louis
Mencken was a small man, with “a plum pudding of a body and a square head stuck on it with no intervening neck,” as British journalist Alistair
Cooke described him. He parted his hair in the middle, and his eyes, so small that you could see the whites above the irises, gave him “the earnestness of a gas jet when he talked, an air of resigned incredulity when he listened, and a merry acceptance of the human race and all its foibles when he grinned.” He usually dressed “like the owner of a country hardware store,” noted Cooke. On ceremonial occasions, however, he dressed
“like a plumber got up for church.” This day was one of the latter.
More than a thousand curiosity-seekers—largely Harvard undergraduates—
turned out for the spectacle on the Common. Some hung off trees and out of windows. Mencken’s lawyer, Arthur Garfield Hays,
lately a counsel for the defense at the Scopes “monkey” trial in Dayton,
Tennessee, arrived first, at about 1:50 in the afternoon. He mounted the steps of the Park Street Church carrying a bundle of fifty copies of the
American Mercury, clothed in its famous green cover, to sell just in case
Chase declined to show up at the last minute. The crowd, impatient to snap up copies of the magazine, rushed towards him, holding out dollar bills. When Mencken stepped from a taxicab a few minutes later, accompanied by a Baltimore Sun reporter and an Alfred A. Knopf book salesman,
he found no place to move or even stand. It was that crowded. Traffic officers tried unsuccessfully to disperse the mob as the editor and his lawyer pushed their way across Park Street to the Common, where they could barely gain their footing.
A man claiming to represent Chase approached Mencken and offered to buy a copy of the Mercury. Mencken waved him away. It was Chase he was waiting for. And then, amidst cries of “Here he is!” the superintendent of police, Michael H. Crowley, cleared a path for the Watch and Ward secretary. He was accompanied by Captain George W. Peterson, chief of
Boston’s Vice Squad, and a young plainclothes officer named Oliver Garrett,
later to become a notorious character in Boston.
“Are you Chase?” demanded Mencken.
“I am,” replied a solidly built man with glasses and a walrus mustache.
“And do you want to buy a copy of the Mercury?”
“I do,” came the reply.
Chase offered Mencken a silver half-dollar, and, in a theatrical moment that delighted the throng, the editor took the coin and bit the end of it to make sure that it was genuine. Then he handed over a copy of the magazine.
“Officer, arrest that man!” commanded Chase, addressing Captain
Peterson. The Boston police and the Watch and Ward had had their differences over the years—sometimes the vice organization’s agents had acted as if they were the Boston police—but this time the police were more than happy to do the Watch and Ward’s bidding. Garrett, the plainclothes officer, tapped Mencken on the arm.
Mencken still had three copies of the Mercury in his hand. “Throw them away,” his lawyer counseled.
Mencken tossed the magazines into the air. There was a scramble,
and, in the rush to get a copy, the crowd ripped the magazines to pieces.
Chase handed his over to Peterson.
Then Mencken, hat low on his head and trademark cigar in hand,
accompanied by Hays and followed by several hundred onlookers, was marched up Tremont Street to police headquarters at Pemberton Square,
four blocks away. He was led to the second floor and booked on a charge of violating Chapter 272, Section 28, of the Public General Laws of Massachusetts.
The charge was clear—that he, Mencken, “did sell to one
Jason F. Chase certain obscene, indecent, and impure printing . . . manifestly tending to corrupt the morals of youth.” After that, Mencken was taken to the Central Municipal Court and formally arraigned. A hearing was set for 10 a.m. the following day, April 6. Mencken was released on his own recognizance, with a surety bond fixed at $500.
Chase had won round one.
Meet the Author
Neil Miller teaches journalism at Tufts University and is the award-winning author of five nonfiction books. His most recent work, Kartchner Caverns, won the 2009 Arizona Book Award.
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Fascinating social history of how conservative views can harm.