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THE HIGH COST OF CUSSING

Heading back a century to visit Santa Rosa in your time machine? Remember this: Use swear words in front of women or children – or anywhere on the street where they could be within earshot – and you might spend weeks in jail or pay a stiff fine.

The Santa Rosa newspapers of the late 19th/early 20th centuries often reported men (VERY rarely women) being arrested for vile, obscene, profane or otherwise offensive language in public – and even in private, when the cusser was also accused of assault or another crime. Punishment was twice as severe as public drunkenness or brawling, and some spent months in the city jail for letting fly.

This topic has been visited here before in the context of cussing being a more serious offense in 1907 than parents starving their children or someone brutally whipping an animal. Another example like that from 1893 finds drunken “Windy Jim” tried to strangle his landlady in Healdsburg, only to be stopped by her son stabbing the guy with a fork and just narrowly missing his eye. But it appears ol’ Windy got three months in the county slammer not for the choking but for the indecent language that she – as a woman – was forced to endure while he was trying to kill her.

It was never made clear what words were offensive. Was “damn” okay without a preceding “god”? What about compound phrases with “hell,” “bastard,” and “bitch?” Was “arsehole,” “bollocks” or “shite” acceptable if the person saying or hearing it was from the UK? (Full disclosure: While we were reshingling the house, under the original 1905 tarpaper someone had written, “arsehole Baker” on the side of the house, “Baker” presumably being the shingle subcontractor.)

An assortment of items can be found transcribed below, but there were many hundreds of arrests reported in the newspapers over the years. These are a few of my favorites:

* In 1913, Joe Goess was arrested in the town of Sonoma for language that was “said to have been particularly flagrant.” When brought before the judge, “young Goess turned on the justice and unloaded some unseemly language.” He was locked up without bail.

* When Robert Butts’ hounds got loose in 1916, neighbor McIntosh took a few shots at them when they came on his property. Mr. Butts did not like that and went over to have words with his neighbor, where he “used some uncomplimentary language towards Mrs. Mclntosh in the absence of her husband.” Butts was charged with disturbing the peace although there was apparently no one else present.

*  In 1922 a Cotati man named James Codioni was fined $50 for making obscene phone calls, with the interesting twist that it was telephone company employees who nabbed him and marched him down to the police.

Santa Rosa’s obscenity law is really old, dating back to original town ordinances of 1867. Sandwiched between a ban on riding horses on the sidewalk and mildly discouraging prostitution was §5, which outlawed “…[within] the hearing of two or more persons, any bawdy, lewd or obscene words or epithets.”

It appears no one was charged under the law for over ten years (although I really doubt that) when Charles Hall was arrested in 1877 for “using language calculated to cause a breach of the peace.” Nothing more was reported about the case, possibly because the accusation was bogus; the guy accusing him was in serious trouble for brandishing a deadly weapon, having been turned in by Hall.

Obscene language charges began tapering off during the Roaring Twenties, and from then on were most frequently bundled together with more serious offenses, such as the arrest of a group of underage kids for rowdiness and drinking. It also remained a justification for divorce in those pre no-fault years often paired with accusations of spousal physical abuse.

Curiously, I’ve never read of anyone charged during those years with the related crime of obscene graffiti – although during the mid-1930s, Petaluma was itching to catch and arrest the vandals who kept painting dirty words on the “big hen” statue at the end of the town, seen here in 1936 with its most recent defacement not quite scrubbed clean. (Photograph by John Gutmann)

UPDATE: Someone on Facebook commented that these laws were a shout out to the “politically correct crowd.” It’s a lot more complex than just appeasing the churchgoers of the day. I’m sure religious moralists in every town in the country had similar obscenity ordinances in place and some enforced the law strictly while others mostly ignored it. These laws were even exploited as a means of vengeance, as per Mrs. McIntosh in 1916. But the obscenity laws were also sometimes used to deal with bad situations where no laws were yet on the books which were directly applicable – see the 1907 story about the drunk parents starving their children. That said, Santa Rosa seems to have turned the law into a cash cow during the 1900s and 1910s, with the local police dragging offenders into court to pay hefty fines or face months behind bars.

 

 

 

 

Justices Court.— Mr. L. Howard was arraigned before Justice McGee on Wednesday, charged by Chas. Hall with exhibiting a deadly weapon. He was found guilty. Sentence postponed until Monday, October 29. Howard then had Hall arrested under a city ordinance, for using language calculated to cause a breach of the peace. Trial set for Saturday, the 27th.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 27 1877

Police Court Docket for Tuesday: John Cummings, for using vulgar language, ten days; James Miller, drunkenness, five days; H. Beck, vulgar language, ten days; M. Quin, drunkenness, five days; Wm. Vail, drunkenness, $5.

– Sonoma County Daily Democrat, May 7 1890
HE USED INDECENT LANGUAGE.
“Windy Jim” Stinson Sent to the County Jail for a Term of Three Months.

Wednesday night a week Marshal Leard and his deputy, L. A. Norton, took into their custody the ex-policeman Jim Stinson, better known as “Windy Jim,” at the instance of his landlady, Mrs. C. J. Lelouarn, in whose presence he used profane language. The prisoner made no resistance of arrest and marched to the bastile with little concern. He objected, however, to being confined in jail like an “ordinary” criminal and sent out a couple of men to hunt up sureties for his appearance in court, but they were not to he found and he had not ampIe funds on hand to put up cash bail, consequently he was compelled to go behind the bars. The next day he was arraigned before Justice Coffman on the charge, and when the testimony of the plaintiff and her two little sons was heard he was assigned to the county jail for three months without the alternative of a fine.

Stinson came here about three years ago from Petaluma, where, it is rumored, he was tendered an invitation by the citizens to make his residence elsewhere. Shortly afterward he look up his quarters at Mrs. Lelouarn’s house in North Healdsburg, but only until lately did he compensate the lady for his board and lodging, when he furnished her with a few groceries occasionally. Mrs. Lelouarn is a widow, the mother of three young children and is a cripple. She depends on washing and housework for a livelihood. A week before Stinson’s arrest she alleges that he assailed her. That afternoon she had been at work for Mrs. A. L. Paul, assisting her in moving and when she returned home she found that Stinson had barred her out by fastening the door. When she forced it open the monster grasped her by the throat and she might have been strangled had not her son, Henry, come to her assistance with a table fork, with which he punctured the flesh over Stinson’s ieft eye. Of late Stinson had been drinking heavily and the neighbors say that such disturbances were of frequent occurrence. His absence from Healdsburg is generally hailed with delight.

– Sonoma County Tribune (Healdsburg), January 19 1893

 

Was Disturbing the Peace

Officer Boyes arrested a young man on Main street Saturday night upon a charge of disturbing the peace and using vulgar language in front of the Salvation Army headquarters. The fellow ran at the approach of the officer, but the latter caught him as he was disappearing down an alley in Chinatown and locked him up at the police station.

– Press Democrat, June 9 1901

 

USED BAD LANGUAGE
Man Arrested for Improper Behavior on Wilson Street Monday Night

George Bates was arrested on Wilson street Monday night and was locked up on a charge of using profane and indecent language in the presence of women and children. Bates will have to explain his conduct to Police Judge Bagley this morning.

– Press Democrat, June 26 1906

 

WAS FINED $30
George Deacon Punished for Using Bad Language on the Street

Thursday morning George Deacon appeared before Police Judge Bagley to answer to the compfalnt that he used disgusting language on Third atreet on the previous evening. A fine of $30 was imposed with an alternative of fifteen days in jail. Deacon paid the money after spending a few minutes In Jail.

– Press Democrat, August 17 1906

Bad Language on the Streets

On the complaint of S. Graham George Chester was arrested by Policeman Yeager on Sunday night charged with using vulgar and offensive language on the streets. Chester gave bail for his appearance before Police Judge Bagley.

The use of improper language, particularly when women and children are passing, is altogether too prevalent, and the officers mean to take steps to make examples of the offenders in this respect.

– Press Democrat, September 10 1907

 

MAN IS FINED FOR USING PROFANITY

Walter Petross paid a fine of $10 in the City Recorder’s court Wednesday for indulging in the use of profane language on the street Tuesday evening in the vicinity of the Nickelodeon. This shall serve as a warning to other profanity hawkers.

– Press Democrat, February 13 1908

Arrested for Disturbance

James Aker, a lad who used profane language and created trouble on the lake Sunday, is locked up In the county jail pending a hearing for disturbing the peace. As he has been in trouble on a number of occasions it is probable that he will serve some time in jail before being liberated.

– Press Democrat, May 24 1910

 

VILE LANGUAGE LED TO A THRASHING

Sheriff J. K. Smith was called to Cotati Saturday evening to arrest a couple of men whom, it was claimed, had assaulted a man there when he visited their camp, they being members of a hay baling crew from Stockton. On his arrival Sheriff Smith was informed that the visitor to the camp had used vile language in the presence of women and children, and failed to heed the warning to stop, and was then given a trouncing by members of the crew. The Sheriff hunted him up and informed him that it stood him in hand to drop the matter or he might find himself getting a worst defeat In th« courts. That ended the incident.

– Press Democrat, August 20 1911

 

USED VULGAR LANGUAGE BEFORE LITTLE CHILDREN

Joe Goess, a young man of Sonoma, was arrested there on Sunday afternoon by Deputy Sheriff Joe Ryan on a charge of using vulgar language in the presence of women and children. The alleged offense occurred on Main street, and is said to have been particularly flagrant. When spoken to about his conduct by Justice Campbell, young Goess turned on the justice and unloaded some unseemly language. Justice Campbell took the young into custody and turned him over to Ryan, who locked the offender in jail. His examination took place Monday.

– Santa Rosa Republica, April 28, 1913

 

SIXTY DAYS IN JAIL FOR INSULTING WOMEN

Monday was a busy time with City Recorder W. P. Bagley. There were thirteen cases in his court that day. Four drunks were dismissed, but one returned later and will face his fate Tuesday. One drunk had his case continued while two others paid fines of $5 each and two went to jail for three days each. One driver who stopped his auto on the wrong side of the street had his case continued, while one vagrant went to jail for five days and another was dismissed. A man who insulted women on the street appeared with an attorney, but it did not prevent him getting sixty days in jail for the offense.

– Press Democrat, May 20 1913

 

THE VULGAR TALK TO BE STOPPED
Police Will Endeavor to Check Behavior That is Devoid of Manliness

Chief of Police J. M. Boyes and his department are determined to put a stop to the practice that has become altogether too prevalent in Santa Rosa on the part of some persons who seem to take delight in using vulgar and unseemly language on the sidewalks or in public places.

The only way to reach the offenders will be to arrest one or two and make examples of them in the police court. The language complained of is generally used, possibly not intentionally, at times when ladies are in hearing distance. There is nothing manly in such conduct as this, and complaints have been made.

– Press Democrat, August 8 1913
Charged With Using Improper Language

Robert Butts, charged with disturbing the piece [sic]  by J. O. McIntosh, was arraigned before Justice Marvin T. Vaughan Saturday, and his case continued to be set. Butts was released on $250 bail pending a hearing. It is claimed that when Butts’ hounds got loose and trespassed on the McIntosh place, Mr. McIntosh fired at them, but failed to kill any of them. It is claimed that Butts learning of this went to the home and used some uncomplimentary language towards Mrs. McIntosh in the absence of her husband, which resulted in the complaint being sworn out.

– Press Democrat, March 26 1916

 

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WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH SANTA ROSA?

Candidate for best headline ever in the Press Democrat: “The Town OK, People Wrong”. That was how the paper described one of the talks given as part of a 1913 lecture series titled, “What Is the Matter with Santa Rosa?” Some of the complaints were quite serious (corruption, unsafe schools) and some were personal gripes (our kids “are allowed too much of a certain kind of liberty”) but they all offered a unique window into life here a century ago.

Leading off the series was Rev. G. W. Henning, pastor of the Unitarian church at the corner of Third and D streets. His charges were broad and explosive: Our elected officials ignore the will of the people and we need a new city charter, “one under which ‘bad’ men can do no mischief.”

Most eye-opening was his complaint about “our partnership in the saloon and ‘red-light’ district,” going into some detail that we must rehabilitate the prostitutes “whereby they can earn an honest and decent living.” Santa Rosa’s tenderloin was supposedly abolished in 1909, although there were hints in subsequent years that most of the ladies were still working at several houses around the intersection of First and D streets. This is the first confirmation it was still an ongoing problem.

(RIGHT: Scene from “An Unseen Enemy” with Dorothy and Lillian Gish. This short silent film played at the Theaterette in Santa Rosa October 4, 1912)

It was also surprising to find the reverend insisting the charter must be rewritten to keep “bad” men from harming the town. That sounds like the accusations made shortly before the 1906 earthquake in the Santa Rosa Republican, when that paper was briefly operated by a pair of muckraking journalists. They charged city leaders were in cahoots with a “scheming coterie of gentlemen who manage to protect their private interests by the conduct of the city government through the present administration.” Nothing more about their detailed allegations of graft and corruption was discussed in the Republican after editorial control returned to the publisher after the quake.

The next speaker was City Health Officer Jackson Temple who complained he was underpaid and overworked, his department lacked funding, the water supply would likely be contaminated because the city was too cheap to improve it and someone’s gonna die because important public health decisions were being made by know-nothings like the mayor and police chief. Dr. Temple was probably lots of fun at parties.

The lecture with the winning “The Town OK, People Wrong” headline was presented by Attorney Frances McG. Martin, an eloquent suffragist in the 1911 fight to grant women the right to vote in California.

Press Democrat coverage of her remarks was slim, but the Republican newspaper reprinted all (or nearly all) of what she said. And some of it was pretty wild, telling the audience you can’t legislate morality, but you can criminalize immoral conduct and drive it into the shadows. (“…Even if immoral men and women are only forced to be secretly immoral, it is far preferable to flaunting their indecencies in the faces of young and old.”) Then she went on a rant against the lousy way Santa Rosa parents were raising their kids:


Young people of Santa Rosa are allowed too much of a certain kind of liberty. Children, disobedient to parents and teachers, bid fair to make very poor citizens. Young girls and boys are permitted to frequent our streets and public places of amusement at night, unaccompanied by parent or guardian, thereby incurring the gravest risks. High school girls, in many cases, attend school dressed as though for a social function, sometimes roughed and powdered and crowned with a wealth of rats and false hair. Elaborate dancing parties, given in club house or hall, are here considered necessary for pupils attending school, instead of simple home parties; and no ‘coming out’ will be possible for these young people when their school days are over, for a ‘bud’ once unfolded, can never again be a bud.

The PD didn’t cover the following talk at all, but Attorney Thomas J. Butts was the most cheery and optimistic speaker of the bunch. Our schools were good, churches plentiful, courthouse the best and “our city government is as good as we deserve” The following year Butts ran for mayor and lost by a considerable margin.

“The one great trouble with Santa Rosa is lack of co-operation,” said Butts. “We don’t work together. Take the matter of parks. The energy and zeal which it called forth is commendable, but there was no co-operation. Every section wanted a park. Every property owner want a park in his back yard. Consequently, we have no spot to which we may point with pride, much less where a person may rest.” The town’s lack of a single park was obviously a cause for Butts, who wrote an essay on the same theme a year before. As I commented then, you should read it and decide for yourself whether it’s the work of someone a little unhinged.

Butts also wanted the citizens of Santa Rosa to get serious about gardening. “We have Luther Burbank in our midst…All our gardens should be emulation of Burbank’s but we seem to prefer to raise cabbage.”

The final speaker was Margaret Stanislawsky, a parent and activist for better schools. She singled out the Fremont school (corner of Fourth and North streets) and Lincoln school (Eighth and Davis) as being “fire-traps,” invoking the tragedy of the 1908 Collinwood school fire, where 172 children were trapped and burned to death at an elementary school on the outskirts of Cleveland. Frances McG. Martin earlier had also commented on school conditions: “The Fremont school house has been the lurking place of contagious diseases for more than 20 years, and should fire break out on the lower floor, the faulty construction of this relic of the dark ages would surely cause the loss of many precious lives.”

These comments echo muckraking stories on the poor conditions of Santa Rosa schools which appeared in the Republican during Dec. 1904. The reporter found the elementary schools overcrowded and in poor condition, with only natural lighting so classrooms were sometimes dark. The South Park school didn’t even have a sewer hookup, with an outhouse and greywater from the building  draining into an open ditch in front of the building. (EDIT: on closer reading, the 1904 paper stated only water from sinks went into the ditch.) Like the investigative series on political corruption, there was no followup concerning school issues by either Santa Rosa paper after the muckraking duo departed.

Martin and Stanislawsky were also in agreement that the town treated people from outside the town like second-class citizens, even though Santa Rosa was “dependent on the farmers of the surrounding territory for an existence,” as Martin said. She chided the city for “refusing to supply them with hitching places for their horses,” a complaint which first aired in 1910 because hitching posts were yielding to parking spots. Martin also dropped the interesting statistic that there was then (in 1913) three hundred automobiles owned in Santa Rosa.

Stanislawsky further slapped the town for not allowing farmers to use its public library. “You people in town depend upon these neighbors as much as they depend upon you. If it were not for their support, there would not be much business in Santa Rosa-—not much business property to bear taxes for the sake of the library or for anything else. It is well worth your while to have the goodwill of the country people,” she said.

 

“WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH SANTA ROSA?”

Reproducing in part the lecture of the previous Sunday evening, the Rev. G. W. Henning continued last Sunday evening to point out some of the things that are the matter with the city of his adoption. He said:

“We are not satisfied with out streets, our lights, our schools, our partnership in the saloon and ‘red-light’ district, and want these conditions changed. We have elected ‘good’ men—-the very best available to administer our municipal affairs, and yet are not satisfied—-in fact, we repudiate their sober propositions 15 to 1. We are sure we have neither efficiency, economy nor progress in our municipal management-—and will not be satisfied with anything else, nor less.

“But, I want it understood,” said Mr. Henning, touching the ’red light proposition, “that I will take no part in a campaign to drive out these unfortunate and sinful women, not to disturb them in any way until provision is made whereby they can earn an honest and decent living. They are driven for the most into vice by economic conditions our making—-and we-—the social body-—must bear the blame and the shame until we provide the remedy.

“In diagnosing the case of Santa Rosa, I have decided that it calls for constitutional treatment. Our charter is antiquated and unfit for a modern city. We must have a new one, adapted to changed conditions, one under which ‘bad’ men can do no mischief. We must have the latest and the best—-a city government after the pattern of Houston, Des Moines, Sioux City-—efficient, economical, progresslve.”

Mr. Henning announced the would be assisted in the case of Santa Rosa by Dr. Jackson Temple, Rolfe Thompson, Dr. I. H. Wyland and District Attorney Clarence F. Lea, whose several topics and dates would be advertised.

– Press Democrat, March 4, 1913
“WHAT’S THE MATTER HERE?” “NOTHING!” SAYS DR.TEMPLE

“You and I, and the rest of us—-we are Santa Rosa!” City Health Officer Jackson Temple told an audience of about 250 persons at Unitarian church Sunday evening. “There Is nothing the matter with us–that is, nothing that we ourselves may not remedy,” he went on.

The occasion was the first of a series of five lectures to be delivered by prominent citizens upon invitation of the Rev. G. W. Henning, on the subject “What’s the Matter With Santa Rosa?” Dr. Temple, as health officer, devoted his speech mainly to matters of sanitation. He favors a “commission” form of government, and would have the health department reconstructed, with a physician and a sanitary plumber as its working officers, rather than the present body, which consists of the Mayor, the Chief of Police, the City Engineer, one member of the City Council, and a physician, who is also health officer. Their duties are to enforce municipal ordinances and State and national laws affecting sanitation; enforcement of quarantine regulations, and recording the city’s vital statistics. The health department is handicapped by lack of equipment and by lack of funds,

“When I assumed my duties as health officer,” said the speaker, “I did so for the munificent recompense of ten dollars a month. I had to pay out of my own pocket more than that amount just for the filing of necessary records alone. This fault has since been partially obviated by increasing my salary to twenty-five dollars a month: but still I use that much or more for absolutely necessary expenses of the work, and I do the work for nothing. The same may be said of the other members with whom I serve. We have made periodic inspections of stores and restaurants: we have had backyards cleaned when they needed it, and have enforced the provision of fly-proof containers for such garbage as cannot be frequently removed. We have enforced the State law requiring all food to be screened from flies, and we have helped the State Dairy Bureau in improving your milk supply. Without expense to the city we have made bacteriological and microscopic examinations in contagious and infectious diseases-—there having been more than 250 of these in four months for diphtheria alone. The State board can do this work, but we can always do it 24 hours earlier than they can; and if the gain in time has saved only one life, it was certainly worth while to have the work done by the local board…

…”Our streets and their drainage present a trying problem. Our city has been laid out in disjointed sections, complicating the problems of the sewer system. The city’s water supply needs additional protection from contamination. Improvement has been made in this respect, but there Is more to be done. A concrete wall to keep surface water from the wells would cost approximately $2,000, and it is badly needed.

“Our present form of city government lacks the essential element of fixed responsibility. A commission form of government would change this. The people of Santa Rosa—-you and I and all of us-—should study these questions and solve them ourselves.” The Rev. Mr. Henning called upon those who endorsed Dr. Temple’s views to signify their approval by raised hands, and virtually all those present did so. Also the audience gave the health officer a vote of thanks for his discourse.

– Press Democrat, April 1, 1913
THE TOWN O. K. PEOPLE WRONG
Attorney Frances McG. Martin Has Something to Say on “What Is the Matter with Santa Rosa?”

The question “What is the matter with Santa Rosa?” which is being discussed by various speakers at the Unitarian church, was ably handled Sunday night by Attorney Frances McG. Martin. A large audience greeted the speaker and her remarks were cordially received.

Mrs. Martin held that nothing was wrong with Santa Rosa, but that several things were wrong with the citizens of the community. She dwelt on the fact that although dependent on the farmers of the surrounding territory for an existence, the city treated the farmers in a most selfish manner, refusing to supply them with hitching places for their horses or a park in which they might spend a part of their long trying shopping days.

The speaker said that the question of cost had been raised, but pointed out that there were three hundred automobiles owned in Santa Rosa and that if the cost of each machine averaged $1,000 it would mean that $300,000 was spent for machines to take people out of town, while the cry was being raised that there was not money enough to provide accommodations for the people coming into town.

Mrs. Martin touched on many other points, and her argument was logical, clear and forceful. She was heartily applauded by her hearers at the close of her remarks.

– Press Democrat, April 8, 1913

 

“OUR SCHOOLS FIRE-TRAPS” SAYS WOMAN IN LECTURE

“No community has the right to compel children to attend school in buildings wherein any precaution for their health and safety has been neglected. Attendance upon our grade schools in Santa Rosa is made compulsory by law. Can we say that sucn precautions are not neglected here? If catastrophe should come, with what horror-stricken eyes and aching hearts should we look back upon what might have been done!

“Does Santa Rosa need the lesson of Cleveland brought to her own doors? May God avert it! To my mind, remedy of this neglect is Santa Rosa’s most urgent duty.”

The speaker was Mrs. Henry Stanislawsky. Sunday evening at First Unitarian church, in one of a series of lectures by well known residents ot this city, upon the same topic—-” What Is the Matter with Santa Rosa?” Mrs. Stanislawsky has not lived in Santa Rosa so long as have others who had given lectures upon the same subject in the same church, but she is evidently a close observer and a thoughtful student. Withal she is a pleasing and forceful speaker, with an earnest delivery and a lucid diction that make her meanings clear. Improvement of the school buildings was her first and strongest demand.

“In the town where I lived before I came to Santa Rosa,” she said, “there was at the time of the terrible Cleveland fire a nearly new brick schoolhouse—-large, commodious, comfortable. The shocking disaster at Cleveland made every school district in the country at least momentarily alert to precaution for safety in case of fire. Then it was seen that our new schoolhouse was utterly and criminally unsafe. Fire drills had been frequent, but the exits from the upper stories were only two flights of stairs leading Into the central hall—-exits like to those that had murdered so many little ones at Cleveland-—exits quite similar to those of the Fremont school and the Lincoln school in Santa Rosa. It was seen that, if fire broke out, the large probability—-almost certainty-—was that the draft in those stairs and halls would make them the main pathway of the flame; exit there would be blocked, and the fire-drills would have proved worse than useless. A panic would be inevitable…

…If you cannot afford new buildings, can you not at least make, the old ones safe?”

Extend Library Privileges

“Another recommendation I wish to urge is, that Santa Rosa should make her public library free to her rural neighbors. True, the townspeople maintain the library, but to permit people from the nearby country to borrow books would involve no initial cost, and but a slight additional cost for upkeep. That courtesy to your neighbors would be appreciated. You people in town depend upon these neighbors as much as they depend upon you. If it were not for their support, there would not be much business in Santa Rosa-—not much business property to bear taxes for the sake of the library or for anything else. It is well worth your while to have the goodwill of the country people. It is a good business proposition…

– Press Democrat, April 29, 1913

 

 

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DID SHE REALLY SAY WHAT I SAW HER SAY?

Who knew? The actors in those century-old silent movies were actually cussing up a storm. The lip readers knew about it, of course, and some were in high dudgeon as a result, demanding censorship. And who can blame them? While watching the hero profess his undying love to his maidenly ingenue, for example, it would be a bit disconcerting to discover he was actually swearing like a lumberjack on Saturday night.

Santa Rosa learned about photoplay profanity in a 1910 Press Democrat editorial, where Ernest Finley called it “one of the strangest stories of the year,” apparently because he was astonished that such a thing as lip reading existed.

But it is a bit of surprise (at least to me) to find that salty language was common in films so early.   Movie cussing was well known and acknowledged as a problem during the roaring part of the 1920s, and headed the list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” compiled by the studio execs in 1927. Some films – particularly “What Price Glory?” released the previous year – made no effort to rein in the actors; a review at the time noted, “Victor McLaglen takes the honors in acting and unbridled profanity, and the film leaves no doubt as to what words are being used.” (Those interested in exercising their lip reading skills can practice on this clip, starting at around the 5:15 marker.) Movie controversy of the 1920s is off-topic here, but for anyone wanting more info there’s a cinema blog that has an enjoyable discussion with clips from other movies. I’ll only add that, wow, Gloria Swanson really had a mouth on her.

The PD didn’t publish the original wire service story, but it’s pretty easy to find in other newspapers, given its sensational nature. It seems Mrs. Elmer Bates of Cleveland, a “noted deaf mute instructor and lecturer,” visited a half-dozen theaters and found “shocking language was used in all the shows visited.”


Mrs. Bates made a tour of the downtown shows yesterday accompanied by a reporter who wrote down the picture talk, and at times the language was so vile that she had to stop…Curses, vile names and vile comments are indulged in by the performers while being photographed, often without the least semblance of relation to the play being performed. The profanity and obscene language seem to be addressed by members of the companies to one another on the spur of the moment.

Mrs. Bates tried to get the mayor to do something, but he passed the buck to the Humane society. (Meaning the American Humane Association, not today’s Humane Society of the United States; the Association’s activities include the protection of children as well as animals.) The Association told her it wasn’t for them and she should take it up with the movie studios. Her protest presumably faded there. 

Obl. Believe-it-or-not twist to the story: Mrs. Bates’ husband was Elmer E. Bates, a famous Cleveland sportswriter. He was best known for covering the disastrous 1899 season of the Cleveland Spiders (later renamed the Indians) when the National League team lost 134 games, which still stands as the worst performance in baseball history. Had Mrs. Bates visited the ballpark with her husband during those games, I’m certain she would have heard language far, far more ripe than anything shown in one-reel melodramas and slapstick flickers.

 MOVING-PICTURE PROFANITY

 One of the strangest stories of the year comes from Cleveland, Ohio. The deaf-mutes of that city have protested against certain of the moving pictures exhibited in the theaters there. None but deaf mutes can detect anything wrong with those pictures, but to them they are objectionable. By reason of their affliction, the deaf become proficient in what is known as “lip reading.” This proficiency enables them to derive more enjoyment and profit from moving pictures than their neighbors get who are endowed with good hearing. That is, if the actors stick to the text of the play. But it has become a common thing for the performers whose “stunts” are photographed for the moving films to vary the text to suit their own moods and minds, and where the practice is allowed they have numerously lapsed into profanity and obscenity, meanwhile keeping up all the “stage business” so that to any but a lip reader their acting is correct. But to the deaf mutes the silent profanity is as real as vocal profanity is to the rest of mankind, and the mutes in Cleveland ask that the city authorities have the reels censored by a lip-reader before they are exhibited in public.

 – Press Democrat editorial, December 25, 1910

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