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The Watch and Ward Society's Crusade against Books, Burlesque, and the Social Evil

Written by Neil MillerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Neil Miller


List Price: $26.95


On Sale: October 13, 2010
Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-0-8070-5113-9
Published by : Beacon Press Beacon Press
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A lively history of the Watch and Ward Society--New England's notorious literary censor for over eighty years.

Banned in Boston is the first-ever history of the Watch and Ward Society--once Boston's unofficial moral guardian. An influential watchdog organization, bankrolled by society's upper crust, it actively suppressed vices like gambling and prostitution, and oversaw the mass censorship of books and plays. A spectacular romp through the Puritan City, here 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."



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
“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.

Table of Contents

The Battle of Brimstone Corner, April 1926
Part I: Early Days
Chapter 1
Founding Fathers, 1878

Chapter 2
First Forays into Censorship, 1881–1898

Chapter 3
Politics, Poker and the “Social Evil”
Chapter 4
Mrs. Glyn and Sin, 1903–1909
Chapter 5
Tough Guys and “Blue Bloods,” 1907–1925
Part II: The Watch and Ward Go to War
Chapter 6
New Bedford, 1916
Chapter 7
The Battle of Diamond Hill, 1917–1918
Chapter 8
Café Society, 1917–1919
Chapter 9
Corruption Fighters, 1913–1924
Part III: Decline and Fall
Chapter 10
Mencken versus Chase, Round 2, 1926
Chapter 11
Censorship Goes Wild, 1927–1928
Chapter 12
Boston, 1929
Chapter 13
The Dunster Bookshop Fiasco, 1929
Chapter 14
Depression Days, 1930–1938


“…Miller’s book is rich with colorful anecdotes.”—Journal of American History 

“This is a superb example of breathtaking research, presented in a style that will appeal to a broad audience…Rather than delivering a detailed history of the Watch and Ward, he offers up a series of vignettes that are historically accurate yet thoroughly entertaining in their telling. This is social history at its finest, and Miller should be applauded for resurrecting the history of this influential group that had a national reputation.”—Choice Reviews 

"The fight for artistic freedom in America begins in Boston, and Miller gives us a front-row seat."--Christopher M. Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and author of From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act

"Miller relates a wealth of historical anecdotes...[they] left no shortage of entertaining censorship initiatives for Miller to recall here for readers' enjoyment."--Booklist

"As a catchphrase, 'banned in Boston' made history; as an imprimatur it sold books." --Chronicle Review

“With precision, perception, and wry wit, Neil Miller serves up a juicy tale of censorship past. From sex, drugs, and a swearing parrot to almost anything French, Banned in Boston demonstrates that campaigns to save us from ourselves never go out of fashion.”—Nan Levinson, author of Outspoken: Free Speech Stories

“A lively history of the notorious Watch and Ward Society, which for a century sought to establish decency by suppressing ‘obscene’ works by authors such as Boccaccio, Whitman, Dreiser, Faulkner, and Mencken. This is a must read for anyone interested in understanding how censorship ultimately destroys not indecency, but freedom.”—Geoffrey R. Stone, author of Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism

“I read this book with one eye over my shoulder, fully expecting the Watch and Ward police to burst in and confiscate it for being too provocative! But it would have been worth it. Neil Miller has given us everything we could ask for in an enjoyable history—a revealing subject, well-drawn characters, and a colorful portrait of another era, all wrapped in a fast-paced, easy-to-read story. Banned in Boston is a Boston gem.”—Stephen Puleo, author of A City So Grand, The Boston Italians, and Dark Tide

“Neil Miller has created a fascinating and often funny history of a time when censors ruled. The fight for artistic freedom in America begins in Boston, and Miller gives us a front-row seat.”—Christopher M. Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and author of From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America


"As a catchphrase, "banned in Boston" made history; as an imprimatur it sold books. Now telling its story in rollicking fashion is Banned in Boston: The Watch and Ward Society's Crusade Against Books, Burlesque, and the Social Evil (Beacon Press), by Neil Miller..."- Chronicle Review

“…Miller relates a wealth of historical anecdotes regarding the likes of H. L. Mencken, Upton Sinclair, and Walt Whitman …the society moved on to other matters of perceived public good, but it left no shortage of entertaining censorship initiatives for Miller to recall here for readers’ enjoyment.”-Booklist

“Miller, who knew almost nothing about the history of book banning in Boston before beginning research for his book, was presented with the idea for this latest project by his publishers at Beacon Press after they discovered that their office was located in the old New England Watch and Ward Society headquarters. Ironically enough, the building is now a hub of dissemination of many of the types of literature that the society once sought to ban, he said.”-The Tufts Daily

“A fast-paced, highly readable account of a forgotten…chapter in Boston’s history.”

“Mr. Miller has provided a service by being the first to document the entire history of the notorious Watch and Ward Society, from its formation in 1878 to its last, dying gasps in the 1950s. The story is fascinating and often funny, and the author (who teaches journalism at Tufts University) tells it with clarity and perception.”- The Washington Times

Banned in Boston is Neil Miller’s entertaining and informative account of the Society’s activities from its founding through its heyday in the early 1960s…Banned in Boston provides a balanced look at a local movement that represented a widespread – and continuing – tension within American society.”- Suite 101


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