Once, the phrase “Banned in Boston,” was used to market books, songs, movies, and plays deemed too racy or vulgar to pass Boston’s strict obscenity laws. The list included works by William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Aldous Huxley, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, Upton Sinclair, Voltaire, Walt Whitman, and H.G. Wells. Decisions were made by a group of men headed by Anthony Comstock, first as the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice and then as The New England Watch and Ward Society. Annual meetings were held at the Park Street Church, beginning in 1879. Shortly after, the society lodged obscenity charges against Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
The Watch and Ward Society was given license to determine what was too lascivious for Boston and to keep it from bookstores, newsstands, or stages by arresting anyone in possession of a banned item. During the peak of the society’s influence, the Boston Public Library was said to have kept a locked room of materials deemed “obscene.”
In 1926, the journalist H.L. Mencken—who had gained notoriety for his critical, atheistic cover of the Scopes “Monkey” Trial—released an issue of the journal American Mercury containing an article calling for a “New View of Sex,” and a short story Herbert Asbury detailing the sexual dealings of penitent Methodist prostitute. The journal was, of course, banned in Boston, and the sale of it was therefore illegal. Mencken, “the Sage of Baltimore,” boarded a train for Boston and, on the Boston Common in front of the Park Street Church, deliberately sold a copy of the journal to John Chase, director of the Watch and Ward Society. He was immediately arrested, and the ensuing trial—in which Mencken was acquitted—was instrumental in dismantling the power of the society.
Aside from its role in the banning of obscene material, the Park Street Church has a literary history all its own. Built on the site of the city’s granary—for which the Granary Burying Ground is named—the land was owned briefly by the bookseller Caleb Bingham before the current church was erected. There, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother, Edward Beecher, was pastor in the late 1820s. Author Henry James, who lived in Boston in the 1860s, described the Park Street Church’s Puritanical architecture as “the most interesting mass of brick and mortar in America.”