Crime and Scandal

The Charles River Canoe Craze and Massachusetts’ ‘War on Osculation’

In the 1890s and early 1900s, the place for young couples to spend their leisure time was in a canoe. The canoe craze had something for everyone. It was cool in the summer. It provided light activity and pleasant scenery. But most importantly, it got young men and women out from under the watchful eyes of their parents.

A postcard highlights one of the benefits of owning a canoe.

A postcard highlights one of the benefits of owning a canoe.

And there was no better place for canoeing than the Charles River in Massachusetts. Boaters slipped their canoes into the water by the score and spent the day leisurely paddling around the river. But the secret agenda, for many of the young people, was to let their boat drift into the shallows under the trees, use a paddle to anchor the boat and then lie down in the bottom for a little necking.

Out of sight, out of mind. Many a happy marriage started out this way, or so the story goes. Until 1903, that is, when alarmed parents and government officials became aware of what was going on in those little boats.

The Metropolitan Parks Commission enacted a rule that no kissing or hand-holding was allowed in canoes, and heads had to stay above the gunwales at all times. The kids taunted police, blowing kisses at them on the shore or on bridges overhead as they tried to enforce the new law.

But the police stepped up their game. They took to the water themselves. On one August day, they spotted Miss Flora Smith of New York, who was visiting Somerville, and Mr. Matthew Peterson of Dorchester out in a canoe – and they were kissing.

The arrest would cost Peterson a $20 fine, but it erupted into a national story as amused citizens learned of the trouble in Massachusetts. “The attack on osculation,” it was called. One newspaper columnist wrote, tongue in check, “If a man cannot kiss a pretty girl on a moonlit river or at any other time or place unnamed in the warrant, then our hard fought liberties are indeed in danger.”

Defamation lawsuits were threatened. Protests and petitions that made it all the way to the governor’s office kept the story in the news. Miss Smith was prostrate with embarrassment, and young people were facing tough questioning about what they did when they were out canoeing.

The scandal quickly died, but the canoe craze did not. It continued for another several years and canoe makers even capitalized on the risqué nature of their product in marketing. Thomas Edison sent his film crew to document “Canoeing on the Charles River,” as a short film to satisfy the growing appetite for moving pictures.

But technology finally intervened. As the automobile gained popularity, it offered new worlds of adventure for young people to explore. Plus, cars had back seats and they weren’t so tippy.

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