October-ganza 3, Day 11: The Watch and Ward Society’s War on Vice, 1917-1918

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October 11, 2016 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)

The public first learned of it in February, when a vast series of raids and arrests occurred, followed by the deliberate burning and dynamiting—under suitable precautions—of an enormous number of crumbling, worm-eaten, and supposedly empty houses along the abandoned waterfront. Uninquiring souls let this occurrence pass as one of the major clashes in a spasmodic war on liquor.

– The Shadow Over Innsmouth


While the Innsmouth raid is a thing of fiction, there are certain historical analogs that might pique the interest of historically minded Keepers –  the Red Scare (1919-20) had the Palmer Raids in the winter of 1920 in which more than 500 leftists were rounded up; more than 2000 German-born Americans were held in interment camps during the Great War; and, as HPL himself said, Bureau of Prohibition Agents engaged in a “spasmodic war on liquor” from the passage of the Volstead Act 1919 to its repeal in 1933.  Today I thought we might focus on the single most violent chapter in the history of a most peculiarly New England institution – the Watch and Ward Society.

The War Against Vice


Motto: Manu Fortis – “With a Strong Hand”

The Watch and Ward Society, founded in 1878 as New England Society for the Suppression of Vice, was a society dedicated to the protection of the morals of the people of New England against socially damaging vices, or as they organized them in their 1920 report:

  • Crimes Against Public Chastity (Indecent pictures {i.e. pornography}, Indecent Literature, “the Social Evil” {i.e. liquor}, Indecent Theater
  • Crimes Against Public Policy (Gambling)
  • Crimes Against Public Health (Narcotics, Prostitution)
  • Legislative Action (opposition to changes to the laws against the above immoral acts – legislation cited in 1920 as dangerous included permitting amateur baseball and boxing, and the sale of 2 3/4% beer)

The group, which was renamed the Watch and Ward Society in 1891, served as an extra-judicial control for the enforcement of all manner of morality laws, not just working to advocate for their adoption and enforcement, but applying continual pressure to public officials to keep up strict enforcement and, starting in 1882, providing private agents for the investigation of all manner of morals crimes.  One of the most significant effects the


100% Smut

group had was on the enforcement of book censorship in Boston (and wider New England), providing book sellers with a list of prohibited titles while holding over their head the threat of fines and even arrest if they were found to be trafficking in “indecent” materials.  Some of the titles banned by the Watch and Ward included Boccacio’s Decameron, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Voltaire’s Candide,  and Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms.


While Watch and Ward agents did not have the legal authority to conduct arrests, they would collect evidence of a crime for use by law enforcement later and even sometimes accompany officers on raids.  Most often these agents would reconnoiter a location where some illegal or illicit activity was going on, identifying clients and employees, collecting so much evidence that they could force local law enforcement (which often had a more laissez-faire approach to vice) into action.

One important factor to consider regarding actions of the Watch and Ward is the way in which it reinforced Boston’s (and New England more generally) social divide between White Anglo-Saxon New England and more recently arrived immigrants, especially the Irish, Italian, and French-Canadians.  Many of the vices and vice-purveyors pursued by the Watch and Ward were concentrated in various immigrant communities – gambling and liquor consumptions especially – while the criminal element that catered to Boston’s WASPs.  While this divide was not universal – consider their censorship work – the membership of the Watch and Ward was predominately WASPs (or a they were termed in Boston “Brahmins”) .  The group’s treasurer in this era, was Godfrey Lowell Cabot, one of Boston’s richest men.  His generosity kept the group afloat for which, and the group, in turn, tended to target the Irish politicians who has crossed Cabot.

The ‘Hygiene’  Campaign of 1917-1918

 It was the Great War that offered the Watch and Ward the chance to have the most direct engagement with the vice it sought to suppress.  The War Department, beginning in the


Fort Devens

spring of 1917, sought to reduce the incidence of venereal disease (among other vices detrimental to health) among the newly drafted troops; to do so, they established 10-mile exclusion zones around training camps – called “Moral Zones” – and sought the aid of groups like the Watch and Ward for enforcing these “vice free” areas. 

The Watch and Ward was happy to help and the multiple induction camps being established in Massachusetts and Rhode Island provided ample opportunity.  Watch and Ward agents, typically backed up by county and state police, raided multiple locations throughout the east coast:

  • April , 1917 – 15 W&W agents, 2 MA State Police officers, and 4 Hampden Co. Sheriff’s officers raid two brothels, one in Holyoke, one in West Springfield.  16 men, 19 women arrested.
  • ‘Summer’ 1917 – 6 ‘houses’ shut down in vicinity of Fort Devens (Ayer, MA), 2 by W&W agents, 4 by local police based on evidence provided by the W&W.
  • May 4th, 1918 – Gloucester, MA’s red-light district is raided.  A team of 4 Essex Co. Deputy sheriffs, 4 W&W agents (including Society director Rev. J. Frank Chase), and “several young men in the employ of the Watch and Ward” along with local police raid 7 ‘houses’, making 30 arrests.
  • May 18, 1918 – 4 ‘houses’ in New Bedford, MA were raided by a team of 19 Watch and Ward agents, aided by 4 Bristol Co. deputy sheriffs, resulting in 17 arrests.  The local police were considered corrupt and not alerted to the raid in advance nor asked to take part.
  • August 26, 1918 – A group of W&W agents raid a brothel in Taunton, MA, making 5 arrests.

The Battle of Diamond Hill

The most dramatic raid of the Watch and Ward’s history happened in October of 1918, outside of Cumberland, Rhode Island.  A pair of brothels operating along Diamond Hill Road had been identified by W&W agents as the frequent destination of soldiers and sailors from Fort Devens as well as the Naval training station in Framingham, MA.  While they were outside of the 10-mile exclusion zone, the Society successfully petitioned the Department of Justice for permission to raid these two sites.

On the evening of October 26, 1918, a group of raiders descended on northeastern Rhode Island.  The group consisted of a squad of Provost Guards from Fort Devens (lead by Lt. Hannibal Hamlin), 6 Dept. of Justice agents, 4 U.S. Marshalls, and 10 Watch and Ward agents (including, again, W&W head J. Frank Chase).  While no troops were discovered at the first site, the second site – the old Staples roadhouse – was a different story.

Someone inside the house had spotted the approaching raiders and had opened fire upon them just as they began entering the building.  One of the W&W agents was struck in the leg.  While most of the raiders took cover behind nearby trees or their own vehicles, Lt. Hamlin ordered his squad to surround the roadhouse with pistols at the ready.  He then shouted to those inside the house “Surrender in the name of the President of the United States or I will burn the house down!”  From somewhere within the house, several weapons were again fired at the raiders, this time without success.

At this point, a mass of patrons and employees attempted to flee the house and were chased down by some of the raiders.  Lt. Hamlin’s men rushed the house, bellowing for those within to surrender, waving lit torches to emphasize his earlier threat.  The raiders then burst into the house through the front door.  Everyone inside soon after surrendered without further violence.

The accounts of how many people were taken into custody differ significantly, but only 8 people (6 women and 2 men including the house’s owner) were actually ever charged with a crime.  Considering that the raiders elected to not inform local police suggests these two roadhouses were well-known to authorities who turned a blind eye to their activities.   The war ended only a few short weeks later, curtailing future anti-vice raids, at least with the goal of shielding US servicemen from the threat of immorality and veneral disease.  The Watch and Ward’s campaign against obscene books and performances would continue however…


My main source for this article is Neil Miller’s 2010 Banned in Boston: The Watch and Ward Society’s Crusade against Books, Burlesque, and the Social Evil. (Beacon Press, 2010).  I also reviewed some the annual reports from the Society (which are available online from Northeastern University), though regrettably I was not able to read J. Frank Chase’s own account of the Diamond Hill raid… perhaps I’ll keep digging for a copy…

A question for our readers

Considering the Watch and Ward Society’s New England focus, the sorts of activities the group was involved with (including book censorship), and the era it was most active in, I think that the group might make an excellent locus for a Lovecraft Country campaign or serve as an unusual type of investigator group, as per the 7th edition Call of Cthulhu rules.  I am curious what our readers (and let us hope, customers) would think of such a product.  Is it of interest?  Would you prefer straight historical background of the group or something with a stronger gaming focus – perhaps a campaign outline or even a scenario or two?  Should we use the Watch and Ward as-is or create our own Lovecraft Country parallel group.  Please let us know in the comments!

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