In 1912, conservatives in New York declared war on “mashing”. Flirtatious and inappropriate behaviour towards women had reached plague proportions in the Big Apple, they claimed. Attractive females could not walk down a New York street without being wolf whistled, propositioned or subjected to a barrage of provocative remarks.
State assemblyman Richard F. Hearn carried out his own research into ‘mashing’ and declared it the leading cause of divorce in the United States. In early 1912 Hearn sponsored a bill that introduced prison terms for convicted “mashers”.
This crackdown produced several arrests over the next two years – though judges tended to be lenient, if not dismissive. This was not always the case, however, as revealed in this report from November 1913:
Alonzo Bertram See (1848-1941) was a prominent elevator manufacturer from New York City. Born in Yonkers, See started his own company in 1883 and began to ride the skyscraper boom to success and wealth. By the turn of the century, See was a millionaire several times over and his business – the quirkily named A. B. See Elevator Company – was the third largest manufacturer and installer of elevators in the United States.
New Yorkers rode in See’s elevators, and thus were familiar with his name, but knew little of him until the 1920s. In 1922, Adelphi College, a Brooklyn women’s college, started a fundraising drive and wrote to See seeking donations. He responded in the negative, explaining his views bluntly:
“Of all the fool things in the world, I think colleges for women are the worst… College girls are slangy, they swagger, smoke cigarettes, have bold and brazen manners, paint and powder their faces, use lipsticks, wear high heeled shoes and dress indecently… When they graduate from college they cannot write a legible hand; they know nothing about the English language; they cannot spell… All women’s colleges ought to be burned.”
See’s letter found its way into the hands of the press. Coming shortly after the passing of the 19th amendment, guaranteeing voting rights for women, See’s views unleashed a flood of protest from women’s rights campaigners. As the New York Times put it, many women “hit the ceiling faster than they ever ascended in one of See’s elevators”. See, however, remained steadfast. When a prominent suffragette challenged him to a debate, See publicly declined, saying that:
“I never discuss anything logical with women. They can talk straight for about five minutes and then they go off the handle. They haven’t got the reasoning power a man has, and I wouldn’t think of debating with any woman on any subject.”
Apparently enjoying the notoriety, Alonzo See became something of a social critic. His two favourite targets were women and education, both of which he seemed to regard as a waste of time.
When reformers sought legislation to outlaw child labour in 1924, See wrote agitated letters to the press, claiming that it was physically harmful to keep 13-year-old boys in school. Two years later, he penned a lengthy essay on education, arguing that school causes some children to go blind and others to physically “waste away”. “Children must be rescued from their mothers and from pedagogues,” See wrote, and “women must be rescued from themselves”.
The New York press published smirking references to See’s sexism for many years. In 1936, however, it was revealed that A. B. See had undergone an epiphany with regard to women and had “changed his mind on them altogether”.
Sir William Osler (1849-1919) was a Canadian-American doctor, academic and medical pioneer. The son of a British naval officer and a pious Christian woman, Osler was born in Ontario and educated in Toronto, Montreal and London. In the 1880s be became chief of clinical medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and a founding member of the Association of American Physicians. Osler relocated to Baltimore and became a co-founder of Johns Hopkins Hospital and School of Medicine. He remained at Johns Hopkins for 12 years, overseeing its rapid growth and evolution into one of America’s foremost medical research facilities.
In 1905 Osler accepted the Regius Professorship at Oxford University. Just before embarking for England he delivered a controversial farewell address to the Johns Hopkins alumni, in which he suggested that the most important work was done by younger folk:
“The effective, moving, vitalising work of the world is done between the ages of 25 and 40, these 15 golden years of plenty, the anabolic or constructive period in which there is always a balance in the mental bank and the credit is still good.”
In contrast, Osler argued, people over 60 had outlived their usefulness and were only capable of producing “evil mistakes and drivel”:
“It can be maintained that all the great advances have come from men under 40, so the history of the world shows that a very large proportion of the evils may be traced to the sexagenarians… Nearly all the great mistakes, politically and socially, all of the worst poems, most of the bad pictures, a majority of the bad novels, not a few of the bad sermons and speeches.”
Osler’s solution drew on the writings of Anthony Trollope. Men (and only men, as he considered elderly women a “good influence” on society) should be subject to compulsory Logan’s Run-style euthanasia, once they hit the age of 60:
“The uselessness of men above 60 years of age and the incalculable benefit it would be in commercial, political and professional life [if they were to] stop work at this age… the plot hinges on the admirable scheme of a college into which, at 60, men retired for a year of contemplation, before a peaceful departure by chloroform.”
The popular press seized on Osler’s proposal and hounded him for the best part of a year. Great presidents, philosophers and inventors in their 60s were held up as potential victims of Osler’s program. “Oslerization” and “Oslerizing” became synonyms for euthanasia. Some newspapers queried whether Osler, who was 56 at the time, would volunteer to be first in line for compulsory chloroforming.
Osler’s suggestion was tongue in cheek, of course, something he later pointed out – but his negativity about older people, their lack of productivity and resource-sapping uselessness was certainly well documented. Osler himself died in 1919, aged 70, from influenza and pneumonia. Ironically, he once described these diseases as “friendly” to old people because of their capacity for a relatively painless death.
In November 1914, a New York newspaper announced the sad tale of May Gallick from the Bronx. May, aged 12, was under arrest in hospital after attempting suicide. What drove her to this desperate act? Teasing from her four-year-old brother:
In the summer of 1934, future United States president John F Kennedy was in his junior year at the prestigious Choate School in Connecticut. He was also plagued by ill health. Kennedy was unwell through much of his childhood, beginning with a near-deadly case of scarlet fever before his third birthday.
While at Choate, a good deal of his time was spent in its sick bay. Though active and seemingly fit, 17-year-old Kennedy struggled with a number of ailments including fatigue, dizziness, fainting spells, joint soreness, back pain and dangerous weight loss. Baffled doctors suggested everything from influenza to an ulcer to leukaemia.
In June 1934, his frustrated parents booked Kennedy into the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where he was subjected to a battery of tests. Doctors at Mayo pricked and probed the future president for two weeks, trying to find a reason for his general illness and fatigue. Some of these tests were painful and humiliating, leading Kennedy to describe Mayo as the “god-damnest hole I’ve ever seen”.
Kennedy went into more detail in letters to a high school friend, Lem Billings:
“I’ve got something wrong with my intestines. In other words, I shit blood… Yesterday I went through the most harassing experience of my life… [A doctor] stuck an iron tube, 12 inches long and one inch in diameter, up my ass… My poor bedraggled rectum is looking at me very reproachfully these days…”
Kennedy’s notes to Billings were also filled with banter about girls and sex. The two boys had lost their virginity earlier in the year, Kennedy to a white prostitute in Harlem, and sex was very much on his mind:
“I’m still eating peas and corn for food, [but] I had an enema given by a beautiful blonde. That is the height of cheap thrills…”
“The nurses here are the dirtiest bunch of females I’ve ever seen. One of them wanted to know if I would give her a work-out last night… I said yes, but she was put off duty early…”
“I have not [experienced] orgasm for six days, so feel kind of horny, which has been increased by reading one of the dirtiest books I’ve ever seen…”
Kennedy was eventually diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and placed on a bland diet of rice, potatoes and milk. This did not improve his health – and as later history suggests, it did nothing to alleviate his sexual appetite either.
In 1814, the Boston Manufacturing Company dammed the Charles River at Waltham, around 10 miles west of Boston. The construction of the Waltham dam created a scenic network of waterways, popular with holidaymakers and day trippers.
By the turn of the 20th century, the Charles River lakes had become Boston’s own ‘Lover’s Lane’. Hundreds of young couples caught trains or streetcars to the riverside area of Newton, where they could hire canoes from numerous boathouses. Once on the water, it was not difficult to find seclusion in the many creeks, coves and wooded inlets.
Most used this solitude to court without the glaring oversight of parents. The more daring couples used their canoe time as an opportunity to sit close, kiss, pet and whatever else took their fancy.
As might be expected, the interest in canoeing exploded, particularly among young middle-class Bostonians. A state report from January 1903 said the number of canoes on the Charles had increased from 700 to 3,500 in just two years. On warm moonlight nights, there could be as many as 100 canoes still on the water, hours after dark.
What went on in these canoes became public knowledge back in Boston, where locals responded with a combination of humour and moral outrage. Wowsers condemned “canoe mania” as yet another example of the disintegration of moral values. Residents living along the river registered numerous complaints about what they had seen taking place in canoes.
According to the Boston Post, a local Baptist minister told his flock not to allow their children onto the lakes, warning that “if these canoes could speak, what awful tales they would tell!”. One park ranger told the press:
“It is not a very nice spectacle to see a couple of opposite sexes lying in the bottom of a boat with a blanket thrown over them.”
In August 1903, the state’s Metropolitan Parks Commission (MPC) moved to crack down on canoe canoodling. New regulations prohibited “any obscene or indecent act” in the confines of the Charles River reserve. In practice, this meant that couples of the opposite sex could not kiss, embrace, lay down in their canoe or conceal themselves or their actions.
Park rangers flooded the area in the summer of 1903 and a local man became the first to fall foul of the MPC’s prophylactic regulations:
“No longer will the young man with the white ducks and canvas shoes be permitted to hold the paddle with one hand and the waist of his best girl with the other… Recently the park commissioners decided that an arm around the waist, a kiss stolen on the sly or a parasol so held that those nearby could not see the faces of the occupants constituted an offence punishable by a fine… In the quiet shade of a giant tree, as their canoe skated slowly in the water, Matthew Petersen of Dorchester improved the occasion to plant a kiss upon the lips of Miss Flora Smith of New York, the couple was arrested.”
Mr Petersen was fined $20 and a handful of others were also arrested. These events sparked a month of protest by Charles River canoeists, who defied the “sit up straight” regulations by laying down in their boats whenever they spotted a park ranger. Despite these protests, the MPC’s crackdown on canoe fornication continued the following season. There were eight arrests for indecency in 1904 and seven in 1905, before arrests declined in subsequent years.