Discovering the New England Watch and Ward Society

By Anna J. Cook

One aspect of working at a research library that I enjoy immensely is seeing the fruits of our researchers’ labor in the form of published works. I recently had the pleasure of reading historian Neil Miller’s recently published history Banned in Boston: The Watch and Ward Society’s Crusade against Books, Burlesque, and the Social Evil (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010). This slim volume chronicles the activities of the New England Watch and Ward Society, a private organization with considerable political influence in the Boston area and throughout the region, between 1878 and 1967.

Part of Miller’s research took place here at the MHS, where we hold the Godfrey Lowell Cabot Papers. Cabot was a prominent member of the Watch and Ward, to which he began donating funds in the early 1890s. He joined the Watch and Ward in 1900, served as treasurer from 1915 to 1940, and remained active into the 1950s [1]. Of the 73 boxes of material in the Godfrey Lowell Cabot papers, only two boxes are directly related to the Watch and Ward Society between 1913 and 1921. Yet those two boxes offer researchers a wide range of documentary evidence concerning the Watch and Ward’s activities during this period. My own perusal of the collection this week turned up a few documents that hint at some fascinating stories.

For example, there is an invoice from The Morgan-Boylston Detective Agency for expenses related to “Case 1172” during the fall of 1917. These expenses included taxi hire, car and boat fares, a railroad trip from Boston to New York City, room at a hotel, and unspecified “entertainment.” $10.00 in cash was also paid out to a Mr. H.

A more descriptive report from the same case is found in another folder, and it becomes clear that the investigators are seeking out information concerning the activities taking place at a certain hotel where “it is claimed many high jinks times used to occur.” The author of the report (“Operative #38”) observes, “I attended a banquet on business one night in almost the same room pointed out by Mrs. Moore, if not the same one, when girls in pink skin tights danced the ‘Hoochy Koochy’ on the dining table.”

The Watch and Ward was not only interested in illegal activities, but also in monitoring the efforts of “good people” and institutions involved in public health. On 16 April 1918, J. Frank Chase, the secretary of the Watch and Ward, wrote a letter describing his visit to the Old Army Medical Museum in Washington D.C. for a screening of “Fit to Fight,” a propaganda film that was part of the military’s attempt to combat “the Social Diseases.” While he approved of the general effort, Chase was critical of certain aspects of the film:

Realizing the difficulties of the subject and how mistakes are inevitable and the diversity of opinion even among good people as to the details and the methods of doing this necessary work, I am loathe to criticize the work accomplished. Yet, I must urge one criticism of the method. It concerns the unwisdom [sic] of putting on exhibition at the very beginning or at all the picture of a nude woman of full front view, as is done in this film.

While he acknowledges the “nude” is, in fact, a statue of Venus, he argues that its manner of display is troubling. It “does not declare itself as a statue until after such a time as gives the mind a chance to conclude ‘Here is the picture of a naked woman,’ and to gasp at the boldness.”

It is unclear from the existing correspondence whether anyone in the War Department was similarly offended by the film, or whether Chase’s objection to it had any effect on future screenings.

These are just a few examples of the primary source materials to be found in the Cabot papers related to Watch and Ward efforts. You can read more about the Watch and Ward in Miller’s new book, Banned in Boston. The Geoffrey Lowell Cabot papers are open and available for research in the Library’s reading room.

[1] Neil Miller, Banned in Boston, 47.