The Flotsam Files, I
Pornographic postcards, Methodists on betting, and a crusading newspaper leads a crackdown on Seattle’s “automaniacs”
Obscene Postcards Vex the Postmaster
The new United States craze for printed souvenir postcards had a dark side: among the exotic views of the Eiffel Tower or the pastoral vistas of Nebraska corn fields, perverts were abusing the goodness of the U. S. Post Office by mailing obscene images of scantily clad women. This deviant practice tainted the good name of the Post Office, as well as exposing letter carriers to vice during their daily rounds.
Consequently, the U. S. Postmaster had issued a directive, cracking down on lewd cards. Local postmasters were to “withdraw every card bearing a picture or language that is obscene, indecent, or improperly suggestive and forward it without delay to the dead letter box.”
If postal workers had doubts about whether a particular card was obscene, they could send them for inspection to the first assistant postmaster general (who was apparently making a collection).
An earlier order to check the flow of scandalous material netted 5,000 pornographic cards; it was expected that more would be snared in the latest net. One wonders how long it took purveyors of these seamy images to adopt the venerable “brown paper wrapper.”
Source: The Rushville Republican (IN), October 9, 1905
Chicago Ministers Debate the “Amusement Rule”
Immoral behavior was also under consideration in Chicago, where the city’s ministers, meeting at the First Methodist Church, debated the denomination’s ban on “games of chance.” But what was a game of chance? Should church members be tried and expelled from the congregation if they placed a friendly wager?
One minister, the Reverend William Fawcett, scandalized the assembled clergymen with an admission of personal guilt. “The last game of croquet I saw played was in London. It was in a highly respectable place and with a brother of the denomination there, the wager was a hat. I [won] the hat.”
Some of the other ministers began to shout “Misconduct! Prefer charges!” Others simply laughed at the confession. Debate consumed several hours as the ministers argued over the Christianity of a wager.
Reverend Fawcett, arguing for the exclusion of personal wagers from the overall ban on gambling, said, “It looks to other denominations as if we need these things in our discipline to keep us from going to everlasting ballywhacks.”
Reverend Shute opposed amending the rule to allow personal wagers. “The only class of people,” he said, “unanimously in favor of the repeal of this rule are those who are in favor of these practices. The only effect of a change in the eyes of the world would be to legalize these practices. A repeal would put the church in the wrong attitude.”
Despite Shute’s commendable attempt to stop the creeping corruption of gambling, there was a practical matter to consider: even the most moral parishioners lodged bets with each other. As Reverend Cady noted: “It is impossible to bring the members of a church to trial under this rule. The people are careful to hide the name of every person who is doing these things from the pastor. If he should discover a person, he could get no committee to sit on a case.”
The rest of the ministers were unconvinced. Despite the obvious difficulties of enforcing a prohibition on personal betting, the clergymen, after hours of debate, voted to retain the church law.
Source: Chicago Tribune, May 1, 1900
The Seattle Star Cracks Down on “Automaniacs”
After several accidents involving the reckless operation of motor vehicles in the city center, the Seattle Star launched a one newspaper crusade to clip the wings of the “automaniacs.”
Cars were flying through the business district at an alarming rate, violating the posted limit of 12 miles per hour. “I have timed auto cars going as fast as 18 miles per hour,” stated City Councilman J. E. Crichton.
Strong action was needed. After a vigorous publicity campaign, led by the Seattle Star, the city council instructed the local police to stake out the streets and clamp down on the fast-moving automobiles.
Naturally, the drivers opposed the new measure. Herman Chapin, president of the Seattle National Bank and a member of the Seattle Automobile Association, argued against the new rules. “It is my opinion,” he said, “that arbitrary speed limits are not of so much value as provisions of a general nature against reckless driving. It is impossible to know exactly the rate at which a vehicle is moving and the best gauge is common sense.”
Ah, but was it impossible to determine the speed of a passing car before the advent of radar guns? In fact, the police department had an ingenious solution to this problem. On April 29, crusading Seattle Star reporter Dan Dean accompanied police detective Charlie Phillips into the mean streets. “It ought to be a splendid morning for automobiling,” remarked Phillips as the two left the police station.
They took up a post in front of a secondhand store on the corner of Pike Street and First Avenue. Phillips sat in an armchair, smoking a pipe and clutching a stopwatch. Suddenly, a flash of chrome and the flat blat-blat-blat of an engine. An automobile raced toward the intersection. Reporter and detective both clicked the button on their stopwatches. They timed the car’s passage down the block.
“One block in 13.5 seconds,” said Detective Phillips. “That is going some.” He wrote down the car’s license plate number — 75 — as well as the observed time, and then the watchers settled back to wait for the next “devil-wagon.”
Fifteen minutes passed. The two men became drowsy. Suddenly their slumber was disturbed by the howl of another engine. “Brrr! Bing! Bing! Around the corner came Auto №91, like a proverbial streak of greased lightning,” wrote Dean.
The car’s speed violation was noted in Phillip’s notebook. By the end of the morning, several fish had been caught by the stealthy tactics of Detective Phillips. He submitted his record of infractions, along with the calculated speeds, to the Police Court, and the next day summons went out to the violators.
Shame-faced drivers began appearing in court, answering the speeding charges. Some of the most respected men of the community — doctors, lawyers, presidents of corporations — were fined fifteen to thirty dollars, depending on the degree of their recklessness.
“The automobile crusade instituted by the Star has ended in a complete victory for this paper,” crowed the newspaper. A coalition of journalists, city councilmen, and police detectives broke the back of the automaniacs.
And that is why no one ever broke the speed limit in Seattle again.
Sources: Seattle Star, April 28 — May 3, 1905
Author’s Note: In the course of my research, I often run across quirky little stories that are too short to develop into a full Medium article, but too fun to forget. Join me each week as I offer a new selection of History’s flotsam, as it washes up on the shores of my desk.
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