If you think that the notion of "free love" was an idea born out of the 1960s—think again. In fact, free love caused quite the stir at Faneuil Hall this week, way back in the 1870s—when thousands gathered for a so-called indignation meeting in support of Ezra Heywood.
"He was a wonderful character, quite idiosyncratic," said Marty Blatt, director of Northeastern University’s public history program, who’s published a biography of Heywood. "He’s a perfectionist. He believes that human society can be perfected. He’s a spiritualist, he’s an optimist, and he has relentless energy for radical causes."
It didn’t start out that way. Heywood was born into a venerable Massachusetts family. And like the model of an upright, 19th-century Yankee, he entered Brown University to become a Christian minister.
"And there, he’s radicalized," Blatt explained. "He actually meets a couple of women who are for suffrage and for abolition."
Their causes lit a fire in young Heywood, who would go on to fight not just for abolition and women’s suffrage, but also for worker’s rights, and broader women’s rights. He would fight against the primacy of both the church and the state. Heck, he even tried to fight death.
"He organizes something called the New England Anti-Death league, so that with enough positive energy and spirit, even death itself could be transcended," Blatt said.
By the 1870s Heywood had fully embraced the cause that would bring him the most notoriety—and controversy: Free love.
"[People] may think of the 1960’s unbridled sex, everyone coupling with one another," Blatt said. "It’s not that."
Free love for Heywood meant an equal partnership of inviolable individuals. He was for access to birth control for women and against marriage. His partner in the crusade? His wife Angela.
"Contradiction? Don’t we all have contradictions," Blatt said. "They believed in the dignity of the individual. They felt that could not and should not be violated by the state, by the church, by any organized force in the society."
From their home in Princeton, Mass., Ezra and Angela Heywood penned pamphlets, and launched The Word, a Free Love publication that promulgated their worldview—sometimes in language so frank it would still raise some eyebrows today.
"The readers are a small, dedicated band of people across the country who are interested in the philosophy of Ezra and Angela Heywood, which was individualist anarchism," Blatt said.
The Heywoods' writings, in particular the pamphlet "Cupid's Yoke," also caught the eye of U.S. Postal Inspector Anthony Comstock, who was on his own crusade to rid the country of obscene and indecent materials.
"Comstock saw Heywood as a threat to social norms, to social order," Blatt said.
It was Ezra Heywood’s arrest and imprisonment under the Comstock Laws in 1878 that sparked the rally at Faneuil Hall, organized by National Liberal League.
"The meeting was principally about Heywood’s right to express himself," Blatt said. "Very few—a few—did talk about his radical views on women’s rights and sexuality. Most did not."
It worked. Buoyed by the rally, leaders from the National Liberal League eventually earned Heywood an unconditional pardon from no less than U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes.
And upon his release?
"He goes right back at it. And he’s arrested, over the course of his lifetime, five times for a variety of offenses," Blatt said.
"His final arrest, in 1890, resulted in a two-year stint in Charlestown [State] Prison"
"He comes out still undaunted in terms of his beliefs but broken in terms of his health," Blatt said. "So, he’s released in 1892, he dies in 1893."
Despite being an active partner in her husband’s endeavors, Angela was never arrested, something Blatt describes as a kind of sexism of its own. But with their unique philosophy, and bold publication, Blatt says the Heywoods were ripples on a pond worth remembering.
"However tiny they were, I think you could fairly argue that this small group of radicals were important precursors to 20th century women’s rights and proponents of a sexual revolution in the 20th century," Blatt said.
The indignation meeting at Faneuil Hall, when thousands gathered in support of Massachusetts’ individualist anarchist and free-love advocate Ezra Heywood, happened 138 years ago this week.