Fair Comment

Americans don’t hesitate to say anything they please about a public performance. But the right to do so wasn’t established until the Cherry Sisters sued a critic who didn’t like their appalling vaudeville act.

The year 1896 found Oscar Hammerstein in trouble. He was in debt, and the acts he had brought to Broadway weren’t doing well. He was desperate. “I’ve tried the best,” he is reported to have said. “Now I’ll try the worst.” So he sent for the Cherry Sisters. Effie, Addie, Jessie, Lizzie, and Ella Cherry clearly were the worst act of the day. They couldn’t dance, and they couldn’t sing. In fact, they couldn’t do anything at all. Except draw crowds. Read more »

Freedom Of The Press: How Far Can They Go?

The Supreme Court says the First Amendment gives newspapers the right to denounce the government, advocate revolution, attack public figures, and even be wrong. This may not be nice—but those who understand the strengths of a republic wouldn’t have it any other way.

During the summer of 1919 a group of dissident members of the Socialist party, including the radical journalist John Reed, published a manifesto in the left-wing newspaper Revolutionary Age attacking the party’s more moderate elements and calling on workers in the United States to rise up and “overthrow the political organization upon which capitalistic exploitation depends.” The only uprising their “Left Wing Manifesto” engendered was a walkout by Reed and his comrades at the Socialist party’s national convention that AuRead more »

The Social Evil Ordinance

—More than a century ago, the city of St. Louis enacted a well-thought-out plan to legalize vice. What went wrong? Everything .

A little over a century ago an ambitious woman named Kate Clark, who kept a house of prostitution at 112 South Eighth Street, St. Louis, decided to move her business to larger quarters at Sixth and Elm. In any other American city she would have kept her intentions secret or quietly arranged to pay off the police. But this was St. Louis; and on March 14, 1873, Madam Clark confidently wrote directly to the chief of police for “a permit to keep the house on the northwest corner of 6th and Elm Streets for bawdy house purposes.Read more »

Assassin On Trial

A century ago a President’s murderer went on trial for the first time in our history. The issues raised then continue to trouble us.

The twentieth President of the United States was shot in a Washington, D.C., railroad station on July 2, 1881. He died seventy-nine days later from infections resulting from his wound. Read more »

Marks For The Marketplace

The Curious World of the Trademark

Millions of readers have been pleasured by the writings of John Steinbeck, but there was no joy in the Atlanta headquarters of the Coca-Cola Company when the Pulitzer-prize-winning novelist’s The Wayward Bus reached the executive suite.

”‘You rather have a coke?’ ” asked the traveling salesman who was trying to move in on the blonde at the bus stop lunchroom.

”‘No. Coffee’ ” she replied. ” ‘Cokes make me fat.’ ” Read more »

Temples Of Democracy

The County Courthouse

There are 3,101 county courthouses in the United States, and a lot of history has happened in them. Abraham Lincoln was just one of hundreds of small-town lawyers who first made their marks in county courthouses, and scores of celebrated trials—from Lizzie Borden to Patty Hearst—have taken place inside them. Most of us have humbler courthouse errands—to file a deed, argue about a tax assessment, or buy a dog license.

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Was It Legal? Thoreau In Jail

When Constable Samuel Staples of Concord, Massachusetts, placed Henry David Thoreau under arrest for nonpayment of his state poll tax in late July of 1846, he had no idea that his act would bring about international repercussions a century later. On a less important but perhaps equally interesting level, neither of them evidently was aware that the arrest was extralegal—a fact that has just now come to light. Read more »

Terror in New York—1741

Was there really a conspiracy to burn the town?

In January, 1708, a Mr. William Hallett, Jr., of Newton, Long Island, was murdered in his sleep with his pregnant wife and his five children. Two of Hallett’s slaves, an Indian man and a Negro woman, were tried for the crime and found guilty. They and two alleged accomplices, both blacks, were executed, being “put to all the torment possible for a terror to others,” according to a contemporary newspaper account. The Negro woman was burned alive at the stake.Read more »

Anne Hutchinson Versus Massachusetts

She was, said Governor Winthrop, an American Jezebel

It would have been no pleasant thing for any defendant to hear John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts colony, declaim the serious charges brought against Anne Hutchinson at her trial in 1637. In the Puritan society of early Massachusetts they were among the gravest that could be imagined. As recorded by the court reporter, they seem to evoke the gravity with which John Winthrop must have delivered them: “Mrs. Hutchinson, you are called here as one of those that have troubled the peace of the commonwealth and the churches here.Read more »

Surgeon Thompson’s Separate Peace

In nearly all respects the Civil War remains the bloodiest war this nation has fought. The casualty rate was higher, the destruction more extensive, the scars deeper than in any other conflict before or since. But for all of that there was an essential innocence in the way the men of both armies adjusted to the grim, hard tasks they were called upon to perfarm. Read more »