On this day in 1926: Boston, H.L. Mencken, and the landmark free-speech case that wasn't

In 1925, H.L. Mencken delivered a furious torrent of nad-kicks to the "Babbits" of Tennessee with his coverage of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Less than a year later, on April 5, 1926, he came to Boston for another battle of absurdity: the Hatrack incident, which led to him being arrested by the Boston vice squad for selling obscene literature.

This time, Mencken had set his sights on Reverend Chase, secretary of the New England Watch and Ward Society (who helped immortalize the phrase "banned in Boston"). Chase had managed to blockade all sales of the April issue of Mencken's American Mercury magazine, which contained Herbert "Gangs of New York" Asbury's inflammatory short story "Hatrack," about a small-town prostitute.

Chase managed to, yes, ban the Mercury from local newsstands; a Harvard Square vendor was arrested for selling an issue. And from there, Mencken was on a mission. He told publisher Alfred Knopf: "I am against any further parlay with these sons of bitches. Let us tackle them as soon as possible." And so he did, with one hell of a public stunt, detailed in a 1957 Milwaukee Journal article thusly:

Mencken announced that he would fight. On Apr. 5, 1926, he arrived in Boston and got a peddler's license at the city morgue ... Early in the afternoon, several thousand persons gathered at "Brimstone Corner," at the Boston common, where early Puritan sermons on fire and brimstone had been delivered. It was a friendly crowd, consisting mainly of Harvard lads. ... Mencken arrived first, carrying copies of the forbidden magazine. Soon Mr. Chase accommodated him by arriving, giving him a half dollar and accepting a copy. As Mencken chewed the coin vigorously to test its genuineness, Chase ordered the onlooking policemen to arrest him.

Mencken's trial was swift, and a judge acquitted him. But the Hatrack affair did not end there -- Mencken ended up taking on the US Post Office. From the Wikipedia entry on the Mercury controversy:

The Solicitor of the U. S. Post Office Department Donnelly ruled the April 1926 American Mercury was obscene — the federal Comstock Law, he ruled, barred the issue from delivery through the U.S. Post Office. Mencken challenged Donnelly, arousing the prospect of a landmark free speech case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and legendary Judge Learned Hand. But because the April 1926 Mercury had already been mailed, an injunction was no longer an appropriate remedy.

And so the case fizzled out. By 1957, the Supreme Court started to make rulings that redefined the Constitutional test for obscenity on a national level (and under these guidelines, "Hatrack" proves too tame to be obscene); in the meantime, the incident upheld Mencken's Law: "Whenever A annoys or injures B on the pretense of improving or saving X, A is a scoundrel."

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