Sex has always sold well. Most of us just assumed it took the likes of Larry Flynt, Al Goldstein, and the rest of that merry band of porn purveyors to finally get it openly on the newsstands. But now comes news that more than a century before them, an earlier breed of devilish publishers delighted readers with similar publications right here in New York.
That discovery was no small thrill for historians of American smut when they unearthed copies of long-forgotten sex rags that flared briefly in the early 1840s. These Dead Sea Scrolls of sleaze were discovered when Patricia Cline Cohen, one of a trio of authors of The Flash Press, was visiting the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1987: “On one memorable day, Dennis R. Laurie, reference specialist of newspapers and periodicals, asked her if she might like to see some uncataloged New York titles of a somewhat disreputable character.”
Cohen tipped co-author Timothy J. Gilfoyle to her discovery for his own book on the history of prostitution in New York (City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialism of Sex, 1790-1920); Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz joined the team when another researcher whispered to her about some “racy primary sources.”
The Flash Press is the happy result of their joint excavations. And while much of the story is presented in the driest of historical modes (all three are university professors), it’s hard to keep a lid on this wonderfully salacious antebellum genre.
Like Goldstein’s Screw, the publishers chose titles that got right to the point: The Whip, The Rake, The Libertine, The Flash, and others with even shorter publishing lives. One of these, The New York Sporting Whip, offered a kind of mission statement: “Man is endowed by nature with passions that must be gratified,” the newspaper asserted, “and no blame can be attached to him, who for that purpose occasionally seeks the woman of pleasure.”
The so-called “father of the smutty papers” was William J. Snelling, a hard-drinking Bostoner who dropped out of West Point, hunted with the Dakota Indians, and helped found anti-slavery organizations. Inspired by a sex scandal involving a wealthy theater producer, Snelling launched The Sunday Flash in 1841 together with an eccentric minstrel singer named George Washington Dixon. They didn’t mince words: The theater producer in question, they wrote, was “a hoary leper,” a “Scoundrel whom even Texas vomited from her afflicted bowels.”
The papers were an immediate hit. Newsboys hawked them for six cents apiece at ferry landings and oyster bars. Paid circulation averaged 10,000 to 12,000 per issue. Among the surefire circulation-building devices were in-depth reviews of the city’s hundreds of brothels. “Princess Julia’s Palace of Love,” a story in the June 6, 1841, edition of a weekly called Dixon’s Polyanthos, depicted a popular brothel run by a fashionable madam named Julia Brown: “On ascending the second story, up the splendid steps, you fall in, with apartment No. 1. This room is occupied by Lady Ellen, and a glorious lady she is, with the dark flashing orbs, and full of feeling—so full of intellect that one might stand and gaze, and gaze . . .”
Such prostitution should be legal, the weeklies openly advocated. Brothels, wrote The Rake, “are as essential to the well-being of society as churches.” Equally shocking, some publications were “matter-of-factly pro-abortion,” the authors state.
But they were often less high-minded. Publishers accepted payoffs to plug brothels, while blackmailing sex-parlor owners and customers alike. Addressing a prominent New Yorker as “J.R.L.,” The Whip threatened to publish “a list of the houses he lets to frail women for the purpose of carrying on the sinful trade of prostitution” if he failed to pay $50. He paid.
Little wonder that, while they lasted, the papers were highly profitable: The Whip‘s publisher bragged that he turned a $5,000 profit—a small fortune—in his first four months of publication. But both law enforcement and jealous newspaper rivals quickly pounced. Editors and publishers were regularly sued and convicted of libel, a criminal offense that led to jail terms. In 1842, New York’s district attorney upped the ante, charging the owners of The Flash with publishing “an obscene paper.”
Another series of charges that year against the owners of The Whip, The Libertine, and The Rake held that the papers’ purpose was “to debauch, injure, debase, and corrupt” the city’s youth, “and create in their minds inordinate and lustful desires,” an argument that jurors found persuasive. These cases, the authors suggest, may have been the earliest use of the American courts as sex censors. If so, it was an effective antidote: By 1844, the papers had been driven out of business. The city’s sex trade somehow managed to continue thriving without them. But it’s no small tribute to these newspaper pioneers that they knew a good thing when they saw it—some 130 years before the first massage-parlor ad.