March 20

H.L. Mencken

The April issue of The American Mercury, edited by H.L. Mencken and George Nathan, was published on March 20, 1926. One of the stories entitled “Hatrack,” by Herbert Asbury concerned a prostitute. For this the publication was banned in Boston. Its censorship meant that it had run afoul of the Watch and Ward Society, self-appointed guardian of Boston’s morals. There had been two previous articles in Mercury concerning the machinations of this Society, which for twenty years had held the state of the arts in Boston under almost absolute control. This criticism, coupled with the printing of another detrimental article in the April issue, brought about the decision of the Society, through its secretary J. Frank Chase, to “get” Mencken. Using the article by Asbury as an excuse, Chase notified the Massachusetts Magazine Committee that the April issue of Mercury was objectionable. This committee, with the distribution of magazines throughout the state under its control, thereupon requested that the bookshops and newsstands withdraw the issue.

Mencken determined to fight the matter and by doing so try to bring the Society into such disrepute that its influence might be damaged. He secured the services of Arthur Garfield Hays, the lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. Hays advised him to go to Boston and risk arrest by selling a copy of Mercury on the street. The journalist knew he courted arrest and imprisonment if convicted, but he agreed. The details were worked out that he would sell a copy to Chase himself. To insure that the Watch and Ward Society secretary would appear, the man was informed that dozens of copies of the offending issue would be sold to the crowd that would undoubtedly gather. The press was notified, and on April 5th Mencken went up to Boston.

Mencken had first to secure a license to peddle. This he did with some glee. Then he proceeded in the company of a sympathetic crowd of reporters to the Boston Common. The confrontation was to take place on Brimstone Corner, another item which greatly pleased the Baltimore editor. A large crowd gathered, buttressed by scores of Harvard students, to whom Mencken was the Man of the Hour. A man identifying himself as Chase’s assistant asked Mencken for a copy of the magazine but Mencken refused. Finally Chase himself appeared.

“Are you Chase?” Mencken asked.

“I am,” was the reply. Chase gave Mencken a half dollar, which the editor tested by biting, to the huge amusement of the spectators.

“I order this man’s arrest,” shouted Chase, turning to Captain George W. Patterson, chief of the Boston vice squad. Mencken was then escorted to police headquarters and booked. Here he was arraigned and trial was set for the following day.

Since it was unheard of in Boston for a judge of the Municipal Court to find a Watch and Ward defendant not guilty, Mencken spent a worried night before appearing in court. Due to a mix-up in timing, however, the judge scheduled to hear the case was shifted, and Mencken appeared before Judge James P. Parmenter. After both sides had had their innings, the judge announced that he would make his decision the following morning. This he did, finding for the defendant. The clerk of the court then told Mencken that he was free to go.

Mencken was scheduled to lunch at the Harvard Union. Since he had fully expected to be convicted, the lunch was in the nature of a victory celebration, with fully two thousand students waiting to cheer him. The full outcome of the case was that the Watch and Ward Society did find its influence weakened by adverse publicity. The precedent created by the decision was frequently invoked thereafter in similar cases.

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