Thursday, January 18, 2018

How to Get Banned in Boston

By Marjorie Howard

Neil Miller writes a history of the group that made the Hub famous for intolerance

Neil Miller

In its heyday, the Watch and Ward Society, based on Beacon Hill, “was almost like its own mini-vigilante vice squad,” says Neil Miller. Photo: Alonso Nichols

In Boston, there was a time when if you wanted to buy books by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Bertrand Russell or Upton Sinclair, among many others, you’d have to head out of the city. They weren’t sold out—they were banned.

The forbidden tomes weren’t the result of campaigns by government or religious organizations, but of the Boston Brahmin-led Watch and Ward Society. The society spent some 80 years outlawing “immoral” books, leading raids on burlesque houses and gambling establishments and making the words “Banned in Boston” a national catch phrase.

Neil Miller, a lecturer in English in the School of Arts and Sciences, has written the first book about the society, whose reign as self-appointed arbiter of morality ran from 1878 through 1957. Miller’s book, Banned in Boston, will be published September 21 by Beacon Press, just in time for Banned Books Week, an annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the First Amendment.

Miller, who has written five nonfiction books, has long been interested in Boston history. Despite the Watch and Ward Society’s influence, which permeated Boston culture for decades, “the society is a neglected part of history that really hasn’t been written about,” he says. Under the Watch and Ward Society, Miller says, “Boston became the epicenter of censorship.” Founded as the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice, the group later changed its name to the New England Watch and Ward Society, adopting the name of the unofficial police force that patrolled Boston in colonial times.

The dues-paying members, Miller says, were a roll call of the Brahmin aristocracy, including such familiar names as Coolidge, Lodge, Lowell, Peabody, Saltonstall and Weld. Joining them were Unitarian and Congregationalist ministers. In its earliest years, Miller writes, the society focused on indecency in books, photographs and art work as well as gambling and later added prostitution and drugs to the list.

“Its purview was wide,” he says, and nothing seemed too small or unimportant to engage the society’s interest, ranging from paintings and photographs in shop windows to theatrical posters and “especially anything that even faintly smacked of a raffle or lottery, from the lowliest church bazaar to the most obscure agriculture fair.” The society was not anti-immigrant, Miller says, but its members did associate vice with immigrant groups: gambling with the Irish, for example, and opium with the Chinese.

At its peak in both influence and membership from 1910 to 1926, the society wielded enormous power. “It was almost like its own mini-vigilante vice squad,” says Miller. “They would go over the heads of police authorities and get a judge to issue a warrant and get permission to raid a poker game and gambling dens and houses of prostitution. They were their own little moral police force.”

For about 15 years, starting in 1911, three members of Watch and Ward, joined by three booksellers, decided what books could be sold in Boston. Booksellers, weary of court battles with the society, went along, as did newspapers, which did not review the banned books.

Often Bostonians went out of town to see and read what they wanted. When Upton Sinclair’s book Oil! was published in 1927, Bostonians took the train to New York City to buy it at Grand Central Station. Eugene O’Neil’s play Strange Interlude, a five-hour marathon, had to be performed in Quincy in 1929 because it was banned in Boston proper. (During the dinner break, a heretofore obscure restaurant across the street, Howard Johnson’s, gained its first financial foothold, thanks to the performances.)

Among the society’s targets over the years were many books that are now staples of high school reading lists: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry.

Decline and Fall

On an October day in 1929 a customer walked into a popular Harvard Square bookstore and asked for D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, then considered a risqué novel. The store did not stock it, but the clerk said he would order one. It turned out the customer was a member of the Watch and Ward Society, and soon the society began legal proceedings against the Dunster Book Store.

The owners were found guilty under the Massachusetts obscenity statute, but the case caused an uproar. The Harvard University community was furious and, although many law enforcement officials had been supportive of the Watch and Ward, they were uneasy with the idea of entrapment.

Public opinion turned against the society, and at the same time, merchants began to complain they were losing business to New York. Not only that, but many people, including the founder of Filene’s department store, feared that Boston was being perceived as a cultural backwater.

“Once the Depression took hold,” says Miller, “people were less and less concerned about these issues. There was a cultural shift. Boston was getting sick of the city getting a bad rap, and law enforcement people questioned why they were spending so much time on censorship issues.”

In 1957 the Watch and Ward Society became the New England Citizens Crime Commission, which later morphed into Community Resources for Justice, a very different organization today, providing support to ex-convicts.

In the 1950s, Catholic organizations in Boston such as the Knights of Columbus, the Holy Name Society and the National Organization for Decent Literature took the lead in censorship. But Supreme Court decisions on freedom of speech in the 1960s and ’70s made it very difficult to censor books, says Miller.

With Massachusetts legislators still weighing the idea of authorizing casino gambling, Miller ponders the changes from the early days of the Watch and Ward. “If those people were here now, they would be totally horrified,” he says. “The things they censored seem so ridiculous today, such as the mention of abortion, which was the main reason they didn’t want Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy sold in Boston.”

While the Watch and Ward now seems antiquated, the struggle to balance competing public interests lives on. Notes Miller, “Society struggles with the question: how do you set limits and who decides what those limits are? Who should make the decisions: a school board? Librarians? A bunch of ministers? Or the Supreme Court?”

Censorship, Miller says, still exists, though less so in the Northeast than in other parts of the country. Most examples of censorship “are in libraries or in schools,” he says. “Judy Blume gets banned a lot, and it was claimed that Sarah Palin wanted to ban books in the Wasilla Public Library.”

In the end, censorship often backfires, Miller says. The efforts of the Watch and Ward Society were no exception, and in fact they boosted sales of banned books. On April 17, 1929, an anti-censorship rally was held at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum. Among the letters of support read at the event was this one from Upton Sinclair: “I would rather be banned in Boston than read anywhere else, because when you are banned in Boston, you are read everywhere else.”

Neil Miller will be giving readings and talks about Banned in Boston on Sept. 28 at Old South Meeting House, 310 Washington St., Boston (at Downtown Crossing) at 12:15 p.m.; Oct. 6 at the Boston Public Library at Copley Square, Orientation Room, at 6:30 p.m.; and Oct. 21 at Porter Square Books, Porter Square Mall, Cambridge at 7 p.m.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at

Posted September 16, 2010