This Day In Writing History
On April 5th, 1926, the legendary American writer and journalist H.L. Mencken was arrested by Boston police for the possession and distribution of obscene literature. The literature in question was an issue of Mencken's own magazine, American Mercury. This particular issue was declared obscene because of one short story that appeared in it.
The short story was called Hatrack, and it had been written by Herbert Asbury, best known for his non-fiction book, The Gangs of New York, which would be adapted in 2002 as a highly acclaimed film by legendary director Martin Scorsese. Asbury's short story Hatrack was a stinging, satirical indictment of Christian hypocrisy.
Hatrack is the nickname of a skinny small-town prostitute who wants to leave the streets and go straight. Her attempts at reform are sneered at and strongly rebuffed by the town's upstanding, churchgoing citizens - many of whom are her clients. Hatrack would service her Catholic clients at Protestant cemeteries and her Protestant clients at Catholic cemeteries. The story's funniest line is Hatrack's response to a client who overpays her because he doesn't have any smaller currency in his wallet: "You know damned well I haven't got any change."
The conservative media watchdogs of the New England Watch and Ward Society weren't laughing.
The New England Watch and Ward Society, formerly the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice, was formed in 1875 by a group of prominent Boston citizens after hearing a speech by the notorious Anthony Comstock, who had founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice two years earlier. He had also gotten Congress to pass the infamous Comstock Act, a federal law prohibiting the shipment of obscene materials through the mail. As Postmaster General, Comstock would pervert and abuse the vaguely worded law to censor even medical textbooks sent to medical students.
In addition to policing vices such as alcohol, narcotics, gambling, and prostitution, The New England Watch and Ward Society's mission was to also police books, magazines, newspapers, and the theater for obscenity. The Society's director, Reverend John Chase, managed to get every copy of American Mercury pulled from every newsstand in Boston and threatened anyone else who might try to sell the magazine. A furious H.L. Mencken told his publisher, Alfred Knopf, "I am against any further parlay with these sons of bitches. Let us tackle them as soon as possible."
In classic Mencken form, he staged a public event - in full view of the police, the press, and the public - where he personally sold a copy of his magazine to Reverend Chase. The Reverend paid Mencken the fifty cent cover price, took the magazine, then had the police arrest him. Before they hauled him away, Mencken bit down on Chase's 50-cent piece to make sure it wasn't a counterfeit coin. The crowd of onlookers roared with laughter. He went on trial the next day.
It wasn't the first time that Mencken had been tried for publishing objectionable material in his magazine. He had been arrested the previous year for publishing news reports covering the famous Scopes Monkey Trial. John Scopes, a high school science teacher from Tennessee, had been charged with violating that state's Butler Act, which made it unlawful to "teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals" in any state-funded school or university.
The outcome of Mencken's trial for publishing the objectionable short story Hatrack was the same as before. The judge ruled that Mencken's magazine was not obscene. Both trials gave him a great deal of free publicity which he used to sell his magazine and fight censorship. The stress of the trial and Mencken's acquittal took a toll on Reverend John Chase's health and he died later that year, demoralizing the New England Watch and Ward Society and leaving it without a strong leader at the helm.
H.L. Mencken would later be called as a star witness in the trial of Esquire magazine, which was being prosecuted for allegedly publishing obscene photos and cartoons. He was called on to argue that words such as behind, backside, and fanny - all euphemisms for the buttocks - were not obscene. During his testimony, he famously defined puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy."
Quote Of The Day
"Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." - H.L. Mencken
Today's video features H.L. Mencken's comic poem, Theatrical Alphabet. Enjoy!