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Banned in Boston

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

Author: Neil Miller

A lively history of the Watch and Ward Society New England’s notorious literary censor

“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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“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


Review: Journal of American History - October 1, 2011
“…Miller’s book is rich with colorful anecdotes.”
Review: Suite 101 - October 25, 2010
“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.”
Review: The Washington Times - October 22, 2010
“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.”
Review: PhiloBiblos - October 14, 2010
“A fast-paced, highly readable account of a forgotten…chapter in Boston’s history.”
Review: The Tufts Daily - October 12, 2010
“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.”
Review: Library Journal - September 24, 2010
“Verdict: Boston aficionados may well find this methodical book a revelation as they learn about the city’s past. Also a good choice for American social history collections.”
Review: The Chronicle Review - September 5, 2010
"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..."
Review: Booklist - August 16, 2010
“…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.”

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.

Prologue: 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 ìSocial Evil,î 1884-1897

Chapter 4 Mrs. Glyn and Sin, 1903-1909

Chapter 5 Tough Guys and ìBlue Bloods,î 1907-1925

Part II: The Watch and Ward Goes to War
Chapter 6 New Bedford, 1916

Chapter 7 The Battle of Diamond Hill, 1917-1918

Chapter 8 CafÈ 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

Chapter 15 This Was Burlesque, 1931-1953

Chapter 16 The Forties, 1941-1948

Chapter 17 A Kinder, Gentler Watch and Ward, 1948-1967

Bibliographic Essay

  • Click here to read a review of Miller's work on
  • Click here to read a piece about HL Menecken and the Watch and Ward Society for The Daily

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Banned in Boston

ISBN: 978-080705112-2
Publication Date: 9/21/2010
Pages: 240
Size:6 x 9 Inches (US)
Price:  $26.95
Format: Cloth
Availability: In stock.
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