Banned in Boston  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

"Banned in Boston" was a phrase employed from the late 19th century through Prohibition to describe a literary work, motion picture, or play prohibited from distribution or exhibition in Boston, Massachusetts. During this period, Boston officials had wide authority to ban works featuring "objectionable" content, and often banned works with sexual or foul language. Started by Boston city censor Richard "Dick" Sinnott.

Boston was founded by Puritans in the early 17th century. Puritans held highly negative views regarding public exhibitions of sex. Boston's second major wave of immigrants, Irish Roman Catholics, also held conservative moral beliefs, particularly regarding sex.

In the late 19th century, American 'moral crusader' Anthony Comstock began a campaign to suppress "vice." He found widespread support in Boston, particularly among socially prominent and influential officials. Comstock was also known as the proponent of the Comstock Law, which prevented "obscene" materials from being delivered by the U.S. mail. Some critics have pointed out if the list of banned words were strictly enforced, then even the King James Version of the Bible would be unmailable.

Following Comstock's lead, Boston's city officials took it upon themselves to ban anything that they found to be salacious, inappropriate, or offensive. Aiding them in their efforts was a group of private citizens, the Boston Watch and Ward Society. Theatrical shows were run out of town, books were confiscated, and motion pictures were prevented from being shown; sometimes movies were stopped mid-showing, after an official had "seen enough".

This movement had several consequences. One was that Boston, a cultural center since its founding, was perceived as less sophisticated than many cities without stringent censorship practices. Another was that the phrase "banned in Boston" became associated, in the popular mind, with something lurid, sexy, and naughty. Commercial distributors were often pleased when their works were banned in Boston—it gave them more appeal elsewhere. Some falsely claimed that their works were banned in Boston to promote them.

Prominent literary figure H. L. Mencken was arrested in Boston in 1926 after purposefully selling a banned issue of his magazine, The American Mercury. Though his case was dismissed by a local judge, and he later won a lawsuit against the Watch and Ward Society for illegal restraint of trade, the effort did little to affect censorship in Boston.

The Supreme Court decisions during the 1950s and 1960s, in the era of Earl Warren, limited and eventually stopped municipalities' ability to regulate the content of literature, plays, and movies. Only works "without any redeeming social value" were eligible for banishment; most works were given "the benefit of the doubt." The ability of Boston, or any other municipality, to ban controversial content came to an end. The Watch and Ward Society changed its name to the New England Citizens Crime Commission, and moved to campaigning against gambling.

By the early 1970s Boston developed a full-fledged "adult entertainment" district, the "Combat zone." It featured many entertainments that would have resulted in fines or prison time only a quarter of century earlier.



Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Banned in Boston" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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