A Boston politician’s proposed ban on ‘bitch’ is only the latest in a city that has outlawed rock ‘n roll, Leaves of Grass and a $5 bill with bared breasts on it.
It wasn’t so much the city that did it, but a puritanical group of Boston Brahmins called the Watch and Ward Society. Boston’s own version of the Taliban, Watch and Ward policed published works from 1878 to the 1930s. But banning books and plays unintentionally heightened interest in them. And it turned Boston’s political correctness into a joke.
Watch and Ward made the mistake of tangling with the great satirist H.L. Mencken. In 1926, it banned copies of his American Mercury magazine because of a short story about a prostitute. Mencken came to Boston and orchestrated a farce. Before a crowd he sold a copy of the magazine to the Watch and Ward secretary, who then had him arrested.
A judge acquitted the publisher, and the Watch and Ward Society would soon turn its attention to banning gambling. But well into the 1970s – and certainly today – Bostonians have tried to regulate language and thought.
Ban on ‘Bitch’
In 2019, a state representative from Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, Daniel Hunt, filed a bill at a constituent’s request. He called it "An Act regarding the use of offensive words." The bill states, "A person who uses the word 'bitch' directed at another person to accost, annoy, degrade or demean the other person shall be considered to be a disorderly person."
The ban on ‘bitch’ would impose a $150 fine for a first offense, $200 or six months in prison for a subsequent offense.
The Boston Herald quoted a consultant named Chip Jones, who asked, “If we’re going to ban the word bitch, why are we only protecting 51% of the population from having their feelings hurt?” The answer, he said, was that men have become second-class citizens.
Other critics said the law wouldn’t stand up in court for 10 seconds.
Ban on ‘Bitch’ Not the First
The Watch and Ward Society had deep roots in Massachusetts’ Puritan theocracy. In 1651, Boston’s Puritan leaders banned a book by William Pynchon because it criticized Puritanism. A disgusted Pynchon returned to England the next year.
Then the Watch and Ward Society got rolling in 1878 at a meeting that barred women. A historian called its membership list “almost a roll call of Boston Brahmin aristocracy.”
Shortly after its formation it banned Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The list of verboten works grew quickly and included Boccaccio's The Decameron, Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.
The expression ‘banned in Boston’ really took off in 1896, when Boston society ladies objected to the new $5 bill. Numismatists consider it one of the most beautiful U.S. currency designs ever, but it depicted a few undraped breasts. Some Boston bankers wouldn’t accept the indelicate bill, and the U.S. Treasury scrapped it a few years later.
But the ‘banned in Boston’ label only sparked interest by audiences perhaps looking for a lascivious thrill. Booksellers outside the city began to seek out the banned books.
Watch and Ward in 1927 banned Oil by Upton Sinclair for a motel sex scene, so the publisher printed 150 copies of a so-called fig-leaf edition. It had the sex scenes blacked out, which fueled the controversy along with sales. In 2007, the novel was adapted into a movie, There Will Be Blood, rated R.
Sin Not, Or At Least Don’t Talk About It
In 1958, Boston banned rock ‘n roll after an Alan Freed concert featuring Chuck Berry got rowdy. Two years later, Richard J. Sinnott (pronounced sin-not) picked up the torch of Boston censorship as chief of the city’s Licensing Division. For 22 years, he kept ‘banned in Boston’ alive by policing words and images.
He made sure strippers didn’t lose their pasties and he made Edward Albee change “Jesus Christ” to “Mary Magdalene” in the city’s performances of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. He banned the Jackson 5 in 1970 because he thought they had violent fans.
Then in 1975, during Boston’s busing crisis, he banned Marvin Gaye, because, he said, “we didn’t want black and white together so they wouldn’t kill each other.”
That same year, WCVB-TV refused to air the first eight episodes of Welcome Back, Kotter, because the show dealt with desegregation.
Boston’s nanny mentality continued into the 21st century, when a group called the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood asked the transit authority to ban ads for the video game Grand Theft Auto.
The request met the same fate as the ban on ‘bitch’ probably will.
With thanks to Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader.