In 1926, The American Mercury ran several things that got under the skin of Boston’s Watch and Ward Society. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was “Hatrack” from Herbert Asbury’s forthcoming book Up from Methodism, a piece about a small town prostitute and how she was snubbed in public by her own customers . The “indecent”, sympathetic portrayal of a “fallen woman” was more than the Society was prepared to overlook. Accordingly they set the wheels in motion to purge Boston of the scourge of the Mercury .
H.L.Mencken was the editor of the Mercury and rather delighted by the Society’s decision. By 1926, being banned in Boston was something of a ticket to bigger sales nationwide. Several bookstores and magazine stands had placards already printed that said “Banned in Boston” to place atop stacks of books and magazines. H. L., however, was not a man to sit idly by in the face of stupidity. Instead, he took a box of the offending issue, and grabbed the train at Grand Central.
In Boston, he took up his position with other newsboys on a prominent downtown corner and began selling the magazine. Within an hour, he was both sold out, and arrested.
The trial that resulted is remarkable for one thing. It established a previously unstated Constitutional right. According to the Court, H. L. Mencken — and hence the rest of us — were invested with “the right to raise hell.” Something we probably should be doing more of.
Originally Published in AB Bookman’s Weekly