|The following is an article from Uncle John's Triumphant 20th Anniversary Bathroom Reader
It’s hard to believe, but Boston - in many ways, one of the most liberal cities in the nation - once led the country in suppression. Here’s how
the phrase “banned in Boston” became synonymous with anything tawdry and controversial.
CHRISTMAS GETS BANNED
In 1659, just a few decades after they had arrived in the New World, the Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas (as well as gambling and congregation for non-religious purposes). The holiday reminded them of Old World customs from England (the nation from which they’d fled to escape religious persecution). In fact, they refused to consider December 25th a holy day at all - the Catholic Church had selected the date as the day to celebrate Christ’s birthday because it coincided with an ancient, popular pagan festival. Anybody in Boston caught singing, drinking, playing games, or having a feast on Christmas was fined five shillings. The bans were later revoked, but it wouldn’t be the last time a moral outcry deprived Bostonians of diversions that seem relatively harmless today.
BOOKS GET BANNED
In 1878 a Methodist minister from Boston named J. Frank Chase formed the Watch and Ward Society, dedicated to banning all books he considered indecent or obscene (which meant books that had any sexual content). Boston’s population, especially conservative Irish Catholic immigrants, supported Chase’s crusade against “filth.” The Society even had an agreement with police - all complains about indecent books were sent directly to the Society. If the Society thought the book was indecent, it notified Boston booksellers that they had three days to remove the book from their shelves or they could be arrested on obscenity charges. The Watch and Ward Society held power in Boston for over half a century.
- They banned Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in 1882, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of D’Urbervilles in 1891, and Elinor Glyn’s 1907 bestseller Three Weeks. They all depicted premarital sex.
- In 1926 author and editor H.L. Mencken directly challenged the Society’s authority. He went to Boston and publicly sold an issue of his literary magazine, American Mercury, which featured a short story entitled “Hatrack.” The plot: A prostitute goes to a Methodist church to seek forgiveness, is shunned, and returns to prostitution. The Methodist-based Watch and Ward Society called the story both obscene and personally offensive and took Mencken to court on obscenity charges. Mencken won.
- In 1928 the Society tried to ban Candide, Voltaire’s 1759 satires, for blasphemy and sex, and Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point for depicting a man who considers cheating on his wife. Neither attempt was successful, although they were able to remove Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front in 1929 because of vulgar language.
The Watch and Ward Society’s reign over Boston ended for good in 1948. The new director, Dwight Strong, changed the organization’s name to the New England Citizens Crime Commission and focused on gambling, not books. They would have been powerless in just a few years, anyway: Several Supreme Court rulings denied a city’s legal ability to regulate books.
MUSIC AND THEATER GET BANNED
From 1955 to 1982, Richard Sinnott (pronounced “sin-not”) served as chief of Boston’s licensing division, which oversaw health and safety at entertainment venues. That allowed Sinnott to ban or change any performance he deemed “morally unhealthy.”
- “Louie, Louie.” In 1955 many people thought the nearly incomprehensible lyrics had to be obscene. Sinnott investigated, but a proposal to prevent bands from performing the song had to be dropped because Sinnot couldn’t understand the lyrics, either.
- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In 1963, Sinnott threatened to cancel performances of Edward Albee’s Tony Award-wining play. Reason: Some dialogue “took the name of the Lord in vain.” To avoid the cancellation, producers agreed to change any reference to Jesus to “Mary Magdalene.”
- The Jackson Five. The pop group was banned from performing in 1970 because Sinnott thought they had violent fans.
- Marvin Gaye. In 1975 a federal judge ordered Boston to integrate its public schools, leading to the busing of inner-city minority kids to mostly white schools. Racially motivated violence and rioting ensued. Sinnott banned Marvin Gaye from performing in Boston because “we didn’t want black and white together so they wouldn’t kill each other.”
- Ozzy Osbourne. In one of Sinnott’s last acts on the job (his position was eliminated in 1982), Osbourne was banned from performing in Boston shortly after he was arrested in San Antonio for urinating on the Alamo.
Surprisingly, in 1960 Sinnott didn’t ban a ballet that featured topless women. Because the show was about Africa and featured African choreography, Sinnott reasoned that the topless dancing made sense and was essential to the ballet.
Many other groups and individuals have taken it upon themselves to protect Bostonians - even recently.
- Welcome Back, Kotter. In 1975 Boston’s ABC affiliate WCVB-TV refused to air the new sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter. Because it was about juvenile delinquent? No - because they thought it was about school busing and desegregation. After blacking out the first eight episodes, the station aired the show to no complaint.
- The Warriors. When the ultra-violent movie about street gangs was released in 1979, two teenagers in New York City died as a result of copycat violence. A few members of the Massachusetts legislature (from Boston) introduced a bill to ban the movie in Beantown. The bill failed.
- Video-game ads. In 2006 a Boston advocacy group called the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood asked the city to remove ads for the violent video game Grand Theft Auto from subway cars. The Massachusetts Bus and Transit Authority refused.