New York Society for the Suppression of Vice
The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV or SSV) was an institution dedicated to supervising the morality of the public, founded in 1873. Its specific mission was to monitor compliance with state laws and work with the courts and district attorneys in bringing offenders to justice. It and its members also pushed for additional laws against perceived immoral conduct. While the NYSSV is better remembered for its opposition to literary works, it also closely monitored the news-stands, commonly found on city sidewalks and in transportation terminals, which sold the popular magazines of the day.
The NYSSV was founded by Anthony Comstock and his supporters in the Young Men's Christian Association. It was chartered by the New York state legislature, which granted its agents powers of search, seizure and arrest, and awarded the society 50% of all fines levied in resulting cases. After his death in 1915, Comstock was succeeded by John S. Sumner. In 1947, the organization's name was changed to the Society to Maintain Public Decency. After Sumner's retirement in 1950, the organization was dissolved. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice is not to be confused with its namesake, the earlier, 19th-century Society for the Suppression of Vice.
Noteworthy actions pursued by the NYSSV
- 1900: Encouraged authorities to arrest Olga Nethersole and others for "violating public decency" in Clyde Fitch's Broadway play Sapho. All were found innocent at trial.
- 1915: Forced off the market Stanisław Przybyszewski's Homo sapiens
- 1916: Forced off the market Theodore Dreiser's The Genius.
- 1916: Opposed Margaret Sanger and publishers of birth control books.
- 1919: Failed in its effort to suppress the fantasy novel Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice by James Branch Cabell and ended up giving it considerable publicity and boosting its sales.
- 1919: At its urging a police raid at the Everard Baths resulted in nine arrests.
- 1920: After the magazine The Little Review serialized a passage of the book Ulysses dealing with the main character masturbating, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, who objected to the book's content, took action to attempt to keep the book out of the United States. At a trial in 1921 the magazine was declared obscene and as a result Ulysses was banned in the United States.
- 1922: Encouraged the arrest of bookstore employee Raymond D. Halsey for selling the "obscene" novel Mademoiselle de Maupin by Théophile Gautier, which depicted adultery and homosexuality. Halsey was acquitted, and successfully sued the Society for false arrest and malicious prosecution. This case established that literary experts could offer testimony in support of a book to guide the judge's opinion.
- 1920s and '30s: Prosecuted a long war against the so-called "girlie pulps," which featured titillating fiction, sometimes accompanied with nude photography.
- 1925: Attacked as indecent the magazines Artists and Models and Art Lovers' Magazine.
- 1927: Attacked publisher Bernarr Macfadden's newspaper, the New York Graphic.
- 1927: Shut down Mae West's first starring role on Broadway, the play Sex. West spent ten days in jail.
- 1929: Seized 3,000 books from three book dealers; titles included Ulysses, Lady Chatterley's Lover, and novels by Oscar Wilde, Frank Harris and Clement Wood.
- 1930: Forced pulp publisher Harold Hersey to suppress the depiction of violence and lawlessness in his new line of gang pulps, which included Gangster Stories and Racketeer Stories.
- 1932: Falsely arrested a bookseller for displaying a book on nudism in his store's window. John S. Sumner, secretary of the society, was ordered to pay the bookseller $500 in restitution.
- 1933: Lost fight to have Erskine Caldwell's novel God's Little Acre declared obscene.
- 1934: Raided magazine "back-number" shops to confiscate four new magazines with the titles Real Boudoir Tales, Real Temptation Tales, Real Forbidden Sweets, and Real French Capers.
- 1935: Charged that Jim Tully's novel Ladies in the Parlor was indecent and emphasized "dirt in the raw."
- 1937: Attempted to block circulation of James T. Farrell's novel A World I Never Made for using obscene language.
- 1946: Charged Edmund Wilson's Memoirs of Hecate County with obscenity.
- Encyclopedia of Censorship. New York: Facts on File, 2005. Page 522.
- Kreymborg, Alfred, Troubador, 1925, chapter 12, page 79 of the 1957, Sagamore Press paperback.
- "New Name Chosen by Sumner Group," New York Times, July 3, 1947.
- "The Sapho Affair". American Experience. Retrieved 2011-03-19.
During one performance, Olga Nethersole was placed under arrest for "violating public decency." Her trial transfixed the city for weeks. Instructed by the trial judge that they were "not the guardians of the morals of this community," the jury took only 15 minutes to find Nethersole innocent. No sooner had the judge laid down his gavel, than the curtain rose again on Sapho. This time, the crowds were even bigger.
- Dawn B. Sova (August 2006). Literature suppressed on sexual grounds. Infobase Publishing. pp. 108–109. ISBN 978-0-8160-6272-0. Retrieved 12 July 2011.
- "Vice Society Assails Book," New York Times, August 21, 1916.
- "Vice Society Head Hissed By Women," New York Times, November 18, 1916.
- Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 by George Chauncey Basic Books (May 18, 1995) ISBN 0-465-02621-4
- Bill Morgan and Nancy Joyce Peters, (2006). Howl on trial: the battle for free expression. City Lights Books, ISBN 0-87286-479-0 (p. 9).
- Ellis, Douglas. Uncovered: The Hidden Art of the Girlie Pulps. Adventure House, 2003. ISBN 1-886937-74-5.
- "Magazine Sales Attacked in Court," New York Times, May 30, 1925.
- "Graphic Publisher Is Haled to Court," New York Times, February 5, 1927.
- "Seize 3,000 Books as 'Indecent' Writing," New York Times, October 5, 1929.
- Locke, John; editor. Gang Pulp. Off-Trail Publications, 2008. ISBN 978-1-935031-00-0.
- "Sumner Must Pay $500 for False Arrest Of Bookseller Over Pictures on Nudism", The New York Times. April 16, 1936. Page 6.
- "Sumner Defeated in Fight on a Book," New York Times, May 24, 1933.
- "11,744 New Magazines Seized as Indecent," New York Times, October 10, 1934.
- "Tully Book 'Indecent,' " New York Times, August 17, 1935.
- "Suit Seeks to Ban Novel by Farrell" New York Times, January 15, 1937.
- "Many Shops Halt Seized Book Sale" New York Times, July 10, 1946.
- " 'Hecate' Obscene; Publisher Is Fined" New York Times, November 28, 1946.
- Gertzman, Jay A. Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica, 1920-1940, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. ISBN 0-8122-1798-5