You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “Banned in Boston,” tossed about lightheartedly. But it was no joke in the early 20th century, thanks largely to The New England Watch and Ward Society.

Their name might conjure images of a provincial, colonial, puritan New England, but the high point for the New England Watch and Ward Society was the early 1920s.

"They were sort of the moral guardians of Boston," explained Neil Miller, Tufts lecturer and author of the book "Banned in Boston." "And they were a bit of a vigilante organization almost, but an extremely powerful one." 

Comprised chiefly of well-connected, well-heeled Boston Brahmins, The Watch and Ward Society crusaded against vice in all its forms, aiming to keep Boston free from bawdy burlesque shows, prostitution and poker games.

"People were scared of it," Miller said. "they never wanted to go against it. If Watch and Ward wanted somebody arrested—they just always got their way. And their conviction rate was like 95 percent."

But where they were most active, said Miller, was in policing the written word. They were instrumental in keeping certain books under lock and key at the Boston Public Library in a room known as “The Inferno,” and they had a secret gentleman’s agreement with the booksellers in Boston, to ban objectionable books from their City on a Hill.

"If they found a book actionable, that was their word, it was gone," Miller said.

Boccaccio’s "The Decameron"? Nope. Voltaire’s "Candide"? Banned. Walt Whitman’s "Leaves of Grass"? Not in Boston. 

In April of 1926, The Watch and Ward turned their attention to a short story called "Hatrack," about a small town prostitute, published in The American Mercury, a literary magazine edited by H.L. Mencken.

"H.L. Mencken was an American social critic and, sort of, gadfly," Miller said. "All the intellectuals, educated people, really followed every word he said. And he was a great opponent of censorship, of puritanism—of religion, actually."

When Mencken learned that his magazine had been deemed actionable, he decided to take a little action of his own.

"Mencken just hated this kind of thing, loved publicity," Miller said. "He was a very flamboyant character, so he decided he was going to come to Boston and he was going to sell a copy of The American Mercury openly on the Boston Common."

Both sides saw it as an opportunity to make a high-profile, public point, especially the Watch and Ward Society’s head, a Methodist minister named J. Frank Chase.

"There was like some vendetta between the two of them because Mencken had published in The American Mercury a rather unflattering portrait of Chase," Miller said.

On April 5, a crowd of some 5,000—many of them college students—gathered to watch the somewhat orchestrated showdown at the southeast corner of the Common. When Mencken arrived, copies of American Mercury in tow, Chase approached him, and purchased a copy of the banned magazine.

"As soon as it happened, Chase said, 'Arrest that man,' and he was arrested by the police and marched down to the police station through these crowds [with] many people following," Miller said. "It was one of these really dramatic moments."

But the next day in court, something wholly unexpected happened. Mencken beat the charges. Miller says it wasn’t just a shock, it was a turning point.

"Mencken was really the first person who publicly opposed them and after that they really began to lose some of their power and the city just began to rebel against the Watch and Ward Society," he said.

The society would soldier on for a few more decades, but Miller says it was never quite the same. As for the why the judge sided with Mencken, Miller says it’s tough to know. Perhaps it was simply that history was no longer with the Watch and Ward Society. And nobody can hold back time. Not even the Cabots and the Lodges.                            

"By that time a lot of people were becoming a little bit embarrassed by Boston being the center of American censorship," Miller said. "Society was changing and their values just didn’t seem to fit anymore."