The Pornic Pranks of the Elite: Newspapers as they once were

The Age (Melbourne), Oct. 9, 1961Newspapers have changed a lot over the years. The front pages of modern-day newspapers are rich with photographs, whereas 50 years ago they were often filled with dispatches from around the country and around the world — stories about the crisis in Berlin, events at the U.N., details about a plane crash in a faraway land, and so on.

Years before that, the newspaper filled two roles. It served as the primary method of relaying news from the outside world, and for sharing gossip about what everyone in town was up to. It wasn’t so much news you can use as news about you and everyone around you.

Much of what was printed then wouldn’t be printed today. No modern day newspaper would report that someone found a lost parcel on a street corner, or publish a letter to the editor from someone who threatened to blow up the editor, a matter which presumably would be forwarded directly to police these days.

Yet it was often the things that wouldn’t get published these days that fueled demand for newspapers.

Even very little news could be turned into some kind of news, as this report on a relatively quiet 24 hours on Mar. 16-17, 1922 in Windsor, Ont. illustrates. During that 24-hour period, Windsor Police had little difficulty maintaining law and order in Canada’s Motor City, with their only calls being three reports of family quarrels and a report that someone had thrown a dead cat on the lawn of police court interpreter William Englander’s home at 222 Wyandotte St. E. It’s now the site of a shabby low-rent building that’s home to a “psychic reader”.  Perhaps he or she knows who the (presumably long-dead) culprit was.

The last tango in Paris would have taken place in 1914 if the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Leon Adolphe Amette, had had his way in the final months of peace prior to the outbreak of World War I.  On Jan. 13, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix reported that the Cardinal had been “distressed by the persistence of the vogue of the tango” but “felt it his duty to now to intervene formally”. Thus, the newspaper reported that dancing the tango was now “a sin which must be confessed and for which penance must be done”.

“We condemn the dance imported from abroad known under the name of the tango, which, by its nature, is indecent and offensive to morals and Christians may not in conscience take part therein.”

At the time, it was predicted that the prohibition of the tango “would produce profound emotion and dismay in Parisian social circles.”

Mental health issues were as much a problem in the olden days as they are today. On Friday, Dec. 17, 1926, residents of Hornell, N.Y. were shocked to see a 30 year old man in front of a local hotel, dressed only in his underwear and babbling incoherently. The next day, a wire service report identified the “mystery man” as Dr. Knute Houck, a “prominent Washington physician” at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. He had reportedly left Washington in search of his 28-year-old wife, Gladys, who had gone missing.  Her body was found in the Potomac river about three months later. Her husband was detained for a time, but then released from custody after a coroner’s jury found that she had died by “drowning in an unknown manner”.

After several months as a nationwide sensation, the Houck case then faded into the mists of history.

The articles immediately to the right of the “Street Singer in Underwear” article illustrates how newspapers covered even the most minor of local events in 1926. Under the headline Cuts His Hand, we learn that 24-year-old George A. DeHart of 419 North Ninth Street received four stitches for a laceration he suffered on the forearm while cutting down a tree in Reading, Pa. Below that, we learn that “Policeman Lloyd found a box containing a child’s dress at Fifth and Washington streets. It was taken to [the] police station and will be turned over to the owner if proper claim is established.”

And thus ended another exciting day in Reading.

They just don’t write letters to the editor like they used to. In 1912, the entire town of Waihi, New Zealand, a mining community on the country’s North Island, was on edge as a miners’ strike moved closer to boiling over. One newspaper publisher, a certain Mr. McRobie, took a pro-management stance which at least one miner took exception to, as this letter to the editor illustrates:

Waihi, Oct. 16

Mr. McRobie, proprietor of the local newspaper, yesterday received the following letter:

“You dirty, black, trimmed-whiskered mongrel, if you don’t alter your hostile tactics toward the Waihi Miners’ Union in your leading articles in your dirty, gutter-snipe rag, I inform you candidly that I have 250 plugs of gelignite, 100 detonators, and six coils of fuse, of which you shall swallow some if you keep on at the rate you are going. Now, McRobie, I have warned you; so beware. I am in earnest, ‘Only a Striker’.”

There is no record of McRobie being blown to Kingdom Come, but the Waihi strike turned violent a month later, on Nov. 12, 1912, when striker Fred Evans was killed when strikebreakers and police stormed the miners’ hall. The incident is still remembered in New Zealand as Black Tuesday.

The heat of a July day can certainly make one want to strip down to as little clothing as you can decently wear outdoors. But when a group of Doukhobors got hot under the collar about the arrest of one of their colleagues in Nelson, B.C. in July 1928, the stripping down threatened to turn into full-frontal nudity.

“Fifteen members of the colony, 14 men and one woman, calling themselves the ‘Sons of Freedom’, invaded Nelson Wednesday and vowed they would remain until their imprisoned brother was released,” an AP item published in Kansas’s Lawrence Daily Journal-World reported.

“This morning the city and provincial police loaded them into a bus, took them to the outskirts of town and told them to go home. They declared they would return to Nelson and stage a parade au naturel.”

Four years later, they actually did demonstrate in the nude in the village of Thrums, 16 miles from Nelson, when 33 women and 84 men were arrested for walking around town in the buff. Police restored law and order by spraying the protesters with water and itching power, ultimately herding them into  an orchard to await arrest.

Note above that the Lawrence Daily World-Journal seemed to include a 1920s version of Facebook status updates in its pages: “George Sullivans drove to Topeka July Fourth to see the fireworks.” “Mrs. Jim Jones was shopping in Vinland Saturday evening.” “Earnest George helped Henry Rhoe shock oats Saturday, but became ill and had to come home at noon.” And you thought Facebook was based on a new idea.

“Childless Families, Debauchery of Sex Arouse Clergyman”, was the unfortunate (or possibly mischievous) headline of a story published in the Milwaukee Journal on Aug. 24, 1937. This item, which originated from Buffalo, N.Y., reported on the comments of Rev. Dr. M. R. de Hann of Grand Rapids, Mich., decrying the declining numbers of large families. “Debauchery of sex and the sanctity of the home are driving America toward moral doom,” he told a conference.

Eighty-two years before the release of Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, Australians waited patiently to watch a real-life production of The Pornic Pranks of the Elite where members of the public lucky enough to get a seat in the court room could take in the details of Wallace vs. Wallace and Strong, Melbourne’s most colourful divorce case of 1907.

To make a long story short, Charles and Ruby Wallace were a couple of means in Melbourne, but certainly not a happy couple. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Charles had greeted the news that his wife was three months pregnant in 1901 with, “That is impossible, we have only been married six weeks.”

Mrs. Wallace took to partying without her husband, returning home late at night, and rarely waking up before midday. By 1906, she was making regular visits to a Melbourne doctor named Strong, who became the co-respondent in the Wallaces’ 1907 divorce case.

The juicy details of the case — of love letters, clandestine trysts and pornographic postcards — made their way across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand, where they were reported in detail by the N.Z. Truth newspaper (despite its claim to be a “pious family paper”) under the bizarre headline, “Dirty Doings in Divorce. A Stenchful Sassiety Suit in Smellbourne. The Pornic Pranks of the Elite. Wallace v. Wallace and Strong.”

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

2 Responses to The Pornic Pranks of the Elite: Newspapers as they once were

  1. Oh, man, I love this kind of stuff. Newspapers were hilarious back in the day, especially since the smaller ones were routinely just one guy with a printing press and no editorial oversight or sense of self-control.

    The local papers here had no shortage of seedy underbelly to them, either, as was the style of the time; I remember digging around at the Archives through the papers of Selkirk’s earliest history and finding some pretty weird stuff, like the brutally casual reporting of a local man’s suicide on his farm or the occasional section — sometimes as much as a third of the page — populated entirely by a barrage of amazingly racist jokes. Different times, man, I tell you what.

  2. theviewfromseven says:

    “N.Z. Truth” seemed to be one of those one-guy-with-a-press newspapers which claimed to be piously outraged by sinfulness on one hand, and yet avidly reported on it in great detail:

    Sinful Mary Sidon

    Pornic Pranks in Prison

    Errant Husbands and Wicked Wives
    Pornic Pranks in Public

    N.Z. Truth also used language that would even make the modern-day Winnipeg Sun look staid and elitist. Consider this descriptive gem, for example: “He fell in with a temporary consort in Mary Riley, a middle-aged woman with a face like an overcooked tart.”

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