Great-Great-Grandma and Her Vice Play

Meet my great-great-grandmother Cecil (that’s her sitting ^). She had a pretty eventful life as a suffragette that wasn’t just about campaigning for women’s rights but just doing it. But there’s one event that I wanted to focus on first because it’s pretty crazy and it made the front page of the New York Times.

In 1913, a dramatization of Reginald Wright Kaufmann’s novel “The House of Bondage” was being shopped around to New York City’s theaters. Everyone the play had been offered to passed on it. It portrayed the police as corrupt and was just begging to be censored. That was until 25-years old Cecil decided to produce the “white slave melodrama” in her Bronx theater.

That's Cecil on the bottom as a fallen woman That’s Cecil on the bottom as a fallen woman.

Not only was the play obviously meant to shock but Cecil egged the coppers on. Apparently she absolutely plastered Harlem and the Bronx with posters advertising the play. Deputy Police Commissioner Newburger told the New York Times that the posters “gave a clear idea of the theme of the play.”

To give you a “clear idea of the theme of the play,” here’s how the Times broke it down:

Act I on the program is described as “the First Fatal Step.” Act II is a scene in the shop of a modiste [that’s a dressmaker] in the Tenderloin of this city [Tenderloin = Manhattan’s red-light district in the 19th and 20th centuries]. The setting for Act III is “The House of Bondage.” Act IV is a scene in the Tenderloin. The story is that of the downfall of a young woman, and the last two acts are frank pictures of degraded life and associates. The ending is tragic.

As the play was about to begin on its second night, to a packed theater mind you, the police who had been in-waiting stormed behind the scenes and arrested Cecil and her manager, charging them with producing an indecent play. Their arrest sites the play as prohibited by Section 1140A of the Penal Code (that was presenting or participating in an obscene, indecent, immoral or impure drama, play, or show which would tend to the corruption of youth).

Deputy Commissioner Newburger and some members of his staff plus a stenographer copying down dialogue and jokes had attended opening night and brought their “findings” to a Magistrate Murphy who issued the arrest warrants.

While Cecil was being marched out, my great-great-uncle Henry Clay went in front of the curtain and informed the audience of the arrests. He then insisted that the play would go on the next night. Angry at the police, the audience started to jeer and walked out to the front to see if they could catch the cops in action, I suppose for some more jeering.

What they found was Cecil arguing with the police. They were insistent that she ride in the patrol wagon. The Times reported “she greatly preferred to ride in her own automobile.” In the end she went in the wagon but was allowed to bring her mother and sister who were also in the cast of “The House of Bondage” and still dressed in costume. As the police departed the crowd gathered around the car and cheered for Cecil.

The crowd followed the police wagon to Morrisania Station and cheered Cecil on again as they were taken into Night Court. Cecil and her manager (and lawyer of course) put in no defense and asked the Chief Magistrate to see a performance of the play first before passing judgement. He declined.

My great-great-grandfather bailed them out immediately so that they could perform again the next night. Which they did! Cecil announced to reporters that she would file a complaint against the police for the way she was arrested. She was still hung up on the wagon vs. her own car thing.

The very next night “The House of Bondage” played to 2,500 people. The newspapers reported that thousands were turned away. Deputy Police Commissioner Newburger scored a ticket though. He applied for a fresh warrant. He didn’t get one.

Sources: The New York Times archive, The New York Public Library, “Sisters in Sin” by Katie Johnson