In the 1840s, New Yorkers didn’t have Hustler or Screw magazine, but they didn’t go without their titillation in print. They could get to the newsstand and buy The Flash, The Rake, The Whip, or The Libertine, and get a dash of bold, provocative, and spicy prose, with saucy pictures. The papers are long gone, and would have been forgotten ephemera had not a treasure trove of them shown up twenty years ago. Three professors of history, Patricia Cline Cohen, Timothy J. Gilfoyle, and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, have examined the lot and, with admirable academic objectivity and distance, have described the papers and given context for them in The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York (University of Chicago Press). That doesn’t keep the book from being fun, for all it’s footnotes and references. Not only do the authors give a history of the papers, a summary of their contents, a description of the sexual politics of the time, and a report of the trials to which their editors, writers, and publishers were put, but also almost half of the book’s text is reprints in full of stories from the press. The flash press must have been shocking entertainment in its time, and The Flash Press proves to be entertaining history in our own.
The papers may have made a great noise in their short time of existence (1841 – 1843) but they were then forgotten. Histories of journalism in New York might mention the titles, but could quote no originals. Lawyers arguing obscenity cases could not cite them as precedent. In 1985, however, the American Antiquarian Society purchased a hundred issues from private hands. When Patricia Cline Cohen was researching a murder case from 1836, a reference specialist at the AAS asked her if she would like to see some uncatalogued and “somewhat disreputable” New York papers. “Would I ever!” is not the reply Ms Cohen is reported as giving, but she did assent, citing them in a subsequent article and tipping off her future collaborators about the papers’ existence. The authors have calculated that there ought to be a total of 142 issues, and that we have 104 is a pretty good rate of salvage, given that the “contemporary readers of the papers, men (and women) who bought them in theaters, saloons, and barbershops, had little reason to save their copies and perhaps much reason to dispose of them quickly.”
Newsboys would hawk the papers for perhaps six cents apiece (the going rate for a major newspaper at the time, but more expensive than the penny dailies). Sales may have rivaled those of the legitimate press. Further income into the papers came from advertisers; reputable firms were not scared of using flash papers. Another source was any reader who paid twenty-five cents to include an item in the “Want to Know” gossip column, like the curious person who wanted to know “When those three wise men of Brooklyn intend paying a female for the new dress they spoiled one rainy night about three o’clock in the morning” or “What has become of a lady who is known by the name of M___e who formally lived as a married woman at a respectable boarding house in Spring st., and not far from Hudson,” or “Why English Mary Elizabeth meddles herself so much with other people’s business. If she would attend to her own she would be much better employed.” The suggestiveness was sometimes part of another source of income, blackmail; perhaps M___e would have rushed to the paper’s office to hush an upcoming story that would answer the query. Sometimes a paper would be frank about a threat, as in a notice to “Mr. J.R.L. We think this gentleman will feel rather sore when we acquaint him with the fact that we are preparing a list of the houses he lets to frail women for the purpose of carrying on the sinful trade of prostitution.” (“Frail women” was one of the euphemisms used for prostitutes, and the authors include a page of other synonyms, like “fair creatures”, “nymphs”, or “theater-women”.) There was no subsequent exposure of Mr. J.R.L.’s houses, so quite possibly he paid up.
The flash press was often literally pornography, if you remember that etymologically “pornography” means “harlot writing”. Much of the print in the flash press had to do with brothels, reporting upon particular houses or the charms of certain ladies, or on celebrations and balls held by the prostitutes. Some of the income of the press came from brothel-keepers who paid bribes to have their businesses puffed. But the remarks on “the sinful trade of prostitution” are in keeping with what the authors say is the great paradox of the flash press: “it indulged in verbal pornographic image-making while simultaneously employing the language and rhetoric of moral reformers.” By taking a literal stance against prostitution, the papers were then able to describe its manifestations in detail, including addresses of houses to which readers could go if they wished to be outraged in person. Sometimes the papers were less hypocritical, as in the opinion printed in The Whip, “Man is endowed by nature with passions that must be gratified and no blame can be attached to him, who for that purpose occasionally seeks the woman of pleasure,” and sometimes the papers openly advocated legalization of prostitution, and even went so far as to advocate medical abortions. The papers were not so broad-minded about homosexuality, and no hypocrisy was present when The Whip began an article “The Sodomites” with, “We hope that in presenting to our readers a sketch of some of the inhuman enormities that a set of fiends bearing the form of men are nightly in the habit of disgusting nature with their monstrous and wicked acts; our excuse must be, that we have undertook to rout from our city these monsters.” The flash press shared the hysteria of the time over masturbation, certain that it led to mental and physical disability: “It is roally [in the extracts, no corrections are made from the originals] lamentable to contemplate the misery and deteriviation of the human race brought about by this bestial enjoyment.” The flash press knew its audience, and printed plenty about sex, but not just that; there were recommendations on stage shows and reports on sporting events like illegal bare-knuckles fights, boat or foot races, and dog fighting.
The papers were a financial success, but their success made them a visible target for libel suits from those who were treated badly in their pages or from law enforcement’s efforts to improve the citizens’ morals. The owners of The Flash were indicted for publishing an obscene paper in 1842, and other suits against the papers charged that they inspired lust and intended “to debauch, injure, debase, and corrupt” the youth of the city. It was possibly the first time the courts were used as censors of sexual matter. The authors show that like most states, New York had no anti-obscenity law at the time; this would not happen until the federal Comstock Law of 1873, which banned circulation of printed matter containing such obscenities as information about contraception. The English common law tradition, imported to the U.S., served as a basis for the prosecutions, which were generally successful and shut the papers down after their short but lucrative runs. The First Amendment was held more as a protection for states against the federal government, not for citizens against governmental intrusion, and was not a factor in obscenity proceedings until the tradition of dissent that emerged after the Civil War. During the twentieth century, obscenity decisions would overturn many of the common law assumptions that had ended the flash press, which was succeeded by milder “police gazettes” that had similar themes. The flash press thus is important both for having played a substantial role in the history of government prosecution of naughtiness and for giving a picture of the sporting, manly urban life of the mid-nineteenth century. Both roles are well documented in this appealing volume of historical commentary and excerpts and engravings from the papers themselves.
© 2008 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.