By Rakashi Chand, Reading Room Supervisor
On August 1, 1878, thousands gathered at Faneuil Hall in Boston to fight for Free Love.
A century before the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, Ezra and Angela Heywood were leading a movement to fight for the rights of women, against the oppression and constraints of marriage, and for sexual self-governance. But, how did 19th century Boston react to these ideas? For some, it was an eye-opening revelation, and they turned out in droves at the ‘Indignation Meeting’ to protest the arrest of Ezra Heywood on obscenity charges. For others, such ideas needed to be stopped by any means possible. Hence the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice was born. A precursor to the Watch and Ward Society, the Society for the Suppression of Vice was determined to enforce moral policing of society.
Ezra Heywood was on the road to a career as a minister when he became disaffected with organized religion and its control of people’s private lives. In 1865, he married Angela Tilden of Worcester, MA, a radical feminist. Following the Civil War, the Ezra and Angela began a life-long fight for women’s rights. While they believed in long-term monogamous unions, they argued that the institution of marriage was nothing more than a contract meant to subdue and control women. They advocated for a woman’s right to choose in areas like sexual relations, birth control, and abortion. In 1872, they launched The Word, a “Free Love” publication sent out to like-minded people across the country. People who read the journal were grouped with Ezra and Angela as anarchists.
By circulating the journal by mail, Ezra Heywood was in knowing violation of the Comstock Laws, a set of anti-obscenity laws lobbied for by U. S. Postal Inspector Anthony Comstock and passed by Congress in 1873. As a result, Heywood was arrested, imprisoned, and in June 1878 sentenced to two years hard labor in the Dedham Jail. In protest to his imprisonment, the National Liberal League organized the “Indignation Meeting” at Faneuil Hall. While most of the people who turned out were there to defend free speech, some were also there to support “Free Love” as defined by the Heywoods, and vilified by Comstock. The rally at Faneuil Hall was enough to convince President Rutherford B. Hayes to pardon Ezra Heywood and secure his release from prison.
On May 28, 1878, a group of Bostonians gathered in the vestry of the Park Street Church and resolved to establish a New England Society for the Suppression of Vice, taking inspiration from none other than Anthony Comstock who served as the secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The MHS holds New England Society for the Suppression of Vice record book, 1878-1888, which documents some of their activities.
The records of the society were kept by the secretary, Frederick Baylies Allen, and describe the society’s work to ban books, curtail sex work and gambling, juxtapose themselves in schools, libraries, and courts, and to stop work of people like Ezra and Angela Heywood, whose agitation for women’s rights and autonomy was seen not only as radical, but as anarchical.
The record book begins with a set of resolutions that praise Comstock for his efforts to curtail the spread of “impure literature” and to protect “our youth from those who would defile their innocence…”
“Resolutions (May 28th 1878.)
First. Resolved: that the hearty thanks of this community are due to Mr. Anthony Comstock, (Secretary of the N. Y, So. For the Suppression of Vice) for his efficient and untiring labors in the extermination of impure literature, in the protection of our youth from those who would defile their innocence, in the condign punishment of the unprincipled offenders, and the brave and unflinching defence of public morals.
Second. Resolved: that the circulation of sensational and demoralizing literature among the young has assumed such alarming proportions that it may be characterized as a national evil, calling for the wisest and most earnest cooperation of all good citizens for its suppression or reformation.”
Following the August rally at Faneuil Hall and Pres. Hayes’s subsequent pledge to free Ezra Heywood, the NESSV made it their goal to block his release. On December 10, 1878, secretary of the society Allen records that
“Messrs. French and Allen were appointed committee to prepare a petition against the release of Ezra Heywood from prison.”
And at the society’s regular monthly meeting on December 31, the minutes record that
Upon report of the Committee [French and Allen] to consider a petition with regard to Ezra D. Heywood’s imprisonment, it was moved and carried that a Com. be appointed to furnish facts to the Aldermen in view of the proposed request for the use of Faneuil Hall for a testimonial to Mr. Heywood. Messrs. Whiting and French were appointed as this committee.
The minutes of the following month include mention of the work of Whiting and French, as well as some of the expanding activities of the society
“…the committee appointed to prepare the draft of a State Law for the more efficient suppression of Vice, made a favorable report of progress. Their report was accepted and they were requested to complete their work. The Report of the committee, appointed to resist the granting of Faneuil Hall to the friends of Ezra D. Heywood for a public Reception was made and the committee discharged…”
Later records of the NESSV demonstrate their attempts to force the Boston Public Library to censor books, and to push for the conviction of booksellers in the city for carrying works that the society deemed inappropriate. At a meeting of the society on December 4, 1882, it was
*Moved and carried that the Agent proceed at once to obtain legal Evidence of the Sale of [Walt] Whitman’s Book- “Leaves of Grass”, sufficient to secure the conviction of the Booksellers dealing in it.
*It was then voted that the consent of All the Booksellers shall be sought to agree not to keep or sell said book: – This to be done in the name of the Society over the Signature of the Prest. And the Sec’y…
The NESSV grew stronger in subsequent years, gaining more supporters and hiring additional agents to carry out their decrees, the society taking it upon itself to decide what was good and what needed to be banned in Boston. In 1891, the NESSV was renamed the Watch and Ward Society, an organization that lasted through much of the 20th century, finally dissolving in 1975.
After serving six months during his first term in prison and receiving his pardon from Pres. Hayes, Ezra Heywood was arrested and jailed four more times as he continued to fight for the rights of women and laborers, always pushing for equality. During his last stint in prison, Ezra contracted tuberculosis and, less than a year after his release, died in 1892.
Visit the library to look more closely at the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice records.
Further reading on Ezra Heywood
- Meet Massachusetts’ Most Famous 19th Century Individualist Anarchist and Free Love Advocate (wgbh.org)