Monday, June 20, 2011

June 21, 1877 --- A Dirty Filthy Book

A London jury convicts Annie Besant (right), a leading birth control advocate, and Charles Bradlaugh, a political radical and atheist, of publishing an obscene book.

They had resuscitated an 1832 pamphlet on birth control by Dr. Charles Knowlton, entitled The Fruits of Philosophy; The Private Companion of Young Married Couples. Dr. Knowlton blamed most of society's woes on large families and encouraged douching after intercourse to forestall conception. As opposed to coitus interruptus or the rudimentary condoms of the day, the doctor argued that douching puts the power over conception in the hands of the woman, "where for good reasons it ought to be."  Besant and Bradlaugh, who had hoped for the publicity of a prosecution, launched Freethought Publications and hand delivered a copy of the book to the Central Criminal Court.

The Solicitor-General, who handled the lengthy prosecution, denounced it as a "dirty, filthy book [appealing to] strangely perverted minds." On the stand, Besant said douching is the lawful alternative to the impractical (abstinence) and the immoral (abortion). The jury makes an effort to reach a middle ground, finding that the pamphlet is "calculated to deprave public morals" but suggesting that the defendants had no "corrupt motives." The Lord Chief Justice, insisting the jury could not have it both ways, sentences Besant and Bradlaugh to six months in prison. Neither served a day, the sentences were set aside on appeal.

When all was settled, the Chief Justice - and many others - called it an "ill-advised and injudicious prosecution." Sales of Knowlton's obscure tract had soared from the hundreds to the hundreds of thousands overnight.

Mrs. Besant was dealt a personal setback when her estranged husband - of all things, a vicar in remote Lincolnshire - successfully sued for custody of the couple's 7-year old daughter. The presiding official ruled that Mrs.
was an unfit mother for a young girl as "One cannot expect modest women to associate with her."

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