February 22, 2018
Mencken, the Prostitute & the PoliceOn this day in 1926, H. L. Mencken was arrested by the Boston vice squad, charged with the possession and sale of indecent literature. The literature in question was the April, 1926 issue of Mencken's American Mercury magazine, found offensive for a short story entitled "Hatrack," by Herbert Asbury. "Hatrack" is the nickname of a skinny but welcoming small-town prostitute, one whose attempts to reform have been rebuffed by the upright and churchgoing of her community. This causes Hatrack to fall back to her old and not insensitive ways: servicing her upstanding clients so that those Catholic are accommodated in the Protestant cemetery, and those Protestant in Catholic graveyards. The punch line of Asbury's story compounded hypocrisy with miserliness: when one gentleman tenders Hatrack a dollar, she responds, "You know damned well I haven't got any change."
Reverend Chase, secretary of the New England Watch and Ward Society and a type that Mencken loved to bait, was not amused. He managed to get all available copies of the Mercury pulled from newsstands in the Boston area and he promised trouble to those who attempted to sell any new ones. Editor Mencken conveyed his feelings clearly to publisher Alfred Knopf: "I am against any further parlay with these sons of bitches. Let us tackle them as soon as possible."
The showdown was an orchestrated affair. Chase and his seconds made themselves available at the appointed hour on Brimstone Corner of Boston Common; before police and press, Mencken offered the purchase of his magazine; Chase tendered his half-dollar, and Mencken was hauled off to the station -- though not before biting his coin for the crowd, as Hatrack might have done. The next day the court ruled in Mencken's favor, thus giving him victory, as much publicity as he had the year before with his reports from the Scopes trial, and yet another application of Mencken's Law: "Whenever A annoys or injures B on the pretense of improving or saving X, A is a scoundrel."
Mencken would later become a star witness at the Esquire vs. Walker obscenity trial, at which the magazine was charged with publishing lewd photos and cartoons. Being the author of the highly respected The American Language, Mencken was brought in to argue that words such as "behind," "backside" and "fanny" were acceptable parlance. Willing to do almost anything to defeat Puritanism -- in his definition, "The haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy" -- Mencken refused to accept even carfare for his court appearance, later saying that he had enjoyed himself so much that he would have paid to get in.
Asbury is a forgotten writer -- or was, until Martin Scorcese recently filmed his The Gangs of New York -- but his Hatrack lives on. Asbury modeled her after one in his hometown of Farmington, Missouri, and a recent background article on the author in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports this confidentiality from the Farmington librarian: "A few years ago, a woman came in here and whispered to me 'Do you know who Hatrack was?' she says. When I said I did, she told me she was Hatrack's granddaughter."
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