H.L. Mencken in 1926 fought back against the overzealous censorship that inspired the catchphrase ‘Banned in Boston.’ He did it by getting himself arrested on Boston Common.
His stunt worked. Boston’s chief censor wilted under the mockery the spectacle created.
The city’s Watch and Ward Society, a puritanical group of private citizens, policed published works from 1878 to the 1920s. It made Boston a target of scorn and – unintentionally – heightened interest in the books and plays it banned.
It was founded as the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1878. Anyone who contributed $5 or more could belong, and one historian called its membership list “almost a roll call of Boston Brahmin aristocracy.” Soon after its formation, the group leveled obscenity charges against Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in 1882.
Banned in Boston
By the 1920s, the Society had evolved into a Jazz Age version of the Taliban. It censored hundreds of books and plays. It forced the Boston Public Library to keep banned books in locked rooms. Booksellers so feared the group that they refused to sell books on its list. Those who did were arrested, charged and fined. Plays deemed racy were performed in a sanitized Boston version.
Beginning in 1902, Watch and Ward Society’s Secretary J. Franklin Chase singlehandedly censored dozens of books in Boston. A humorless Methodist minister, he once said, ‘a whole high school class of unwedded mothers may be the result of a lascivious book.’ Mencken had little use for him.
When Chase banned the April 1926 edition of Mencken’s magazine American Mercury, the irrepressible journalist decided to take him on. “Between 1918 and 1926 … the Watch and Ward Society suppressed between 50 and 75 books in Boston,” wrote Mencken in a broadside against Chase.
Chase had banned the magazine because of a story in it called Hatrack, a compassionate essay about a very thin small-town prostitute named Fanny Fewclothes. Chase found it “immoral” and “full of filthy and degrading descriptions.” Mencken believed Chase had gone too far.
A Peddler’s License
Mencken got Chase to agree to a public showdown on April 5, 1926. He traveled to Boston with copies of the banned magazine. Then he went to a police station and got a peddler’s license. The press and a large crowd of students awaited him at Brimstone Corner in front of the Park Street Church. When he arrived with his lawyers, the rowdy crowd cheered him on and called for Chase, who showed up late.
Chase, who missed the humor in the situation, finally arrived with the captain of the vice squad and a plainclothes detective. He gave Mencken a 50-cent piece for the magazine, which Mencken bit for effect. Mencken put the magazine into his hand and Chase said, “I order this man’s arrest.” The police marched Mencken to the station, then let him out on bail.
Mencken went to trial the next day. He appeared nervous, as the judge didn’t let on which way he would rule. In the end, the judge acquitted Mencken because private citizens could not take the law into their own hands.
A jubilant Mencken went to lunch at Harvard University, where a crowd of a thousand greeted him with cheers.
Sex and the Co-ed, Cut
The battle hadn’t ended. Chase retaliated by banning the next month’s issue of American Mercury in the mail, which created a problem for Mencken: If one more month’s issue were banned in Boston, he’d lose his second-class mailing privileges. He capitulated and substituted a story about cello playing instead of one called Sex and the Co-ed.
Mencken then sued the Watch and Ward Society for restraint of trade. Again, a judge ruled that prosecutors, not private citizens, had the duty to censor literature.
Mencken’s real victory may have lain in ending Chase’s career as secretary of the Watch and Ward Society. The group ‘s influence would continue during the ‘30s, banning books such as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Aldous Huxley’s Point Counterpoint and John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra. By 1948, it would change its focus to suppressing gambling.
If you liked this story, you may also like Banned in Hartford, Panned in Boston: Tough Crowds in Early American Theater.
With thanks to Babbitts and Bohemians: From the Great War to the Great Depression by Elizabeth Stevenson. This story was updated in 2023.
Images: Boston Public Library reading room By Brian Johnson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28851158. Park Street Church By Daderot – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39075427.