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In 1895, a grand jury indicted Dunlop (pictured above) for mailing “obscene, lewd, lascivious and indecent” materials contained in his newspaper’s personal ads. Two years later, he went to jail.
By the summer of 1895, anyone who glanced through the classified ad section of a feisty young newspaper called the Chicago Dispatch would have noticed a curious phenomenon: Dozens of women used the forum to announce their desire to meet gentlemen. Many ladies specified the sort of men they wanted to see: “refined,” “appreciative,” “liberal.” They were even more specific in describing themselves: “TALL, HANDSOME LADY, magnificent form”; “A VOLUPTUOUS JEWISH LADY from Aurora”; “TWO NICE-LOOKING LADIES, blonde and brunette”; “LADY WITH BEAUTIFUL RED hair”; “A JOLLY YOUNG IRISH GIRL in her own flat”; “YOUNG ARTIST’S MODEL OUT of a position.”
None of the ads said anything about sex, but because many invited men to visit addresses in Chicago’s red-light districts, guardians of the city’s morals thought they knew full well the underlying agenda. “It was simply a directory of the vile houses of the town,” said John Alexander Dowie, a prominent Chicago preacher of the time.
More than a century before the Cook County sheriff Thomas Dart filed a civil lawsuit against Craigslist, arguing that the popular website should be held responsible for allowing prostitution ads, federal prosecutors went after the Chicago Dispatch publisher Joseph R. Dunlop for a similar offense. The authorities took different approaches, and the cases had different outcomes: A judge rejected Dart’s suit, while Dunlop served almost two years in prison. But the cases also have much in common, despite the years that separate them. And a comparison of the two highlights some of the complex and nuanced issues presented by the emergence of the Internet.
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The son of an Irish clergyman, Joseph R. Dunlop moved from Canada to Chicago in 1867, when he was 18. Writing and editing for a variety of newspapers, he developed a reputation for producing lively and entertaining stories. One reporter who worked for him recalled, “He spent a good half hour telling us about the kind of paragraphs he wanted: they had to be smoking, every paragraph had to curl somebody’s hair.”
In 1892, Dunlop founded the Chicago Dispatch, which eagerly boasted about its independence and fearless reporting. A promotional ad proclaimed: “Any newspaper which has no enemies doesn’t deserve to have friends.” Dunlop later recalled that the Dispatch exposed “pulpit fraud,” insurance scams, and political corruption. Critics claimed he had a different agenda: They accused Dunlop of blackmailing people by threatening to publish reputation-ruining articles.
Only a few copies of the Dispatch are available today, so it’s hard to say whether the paper really was as “ultra-sensational” as some claimed. Judging from the four issues at the Chicago History Museum, the Dispatch looks like a typical paper of the 1890s, lacking the sort of lurid headlines that would burst onto front pages with the arrival of William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago American in 1900.
By 1894, the Dispatch was the “Official Paper” of the city of Chicago and Cook County, printing all legal notices for those governments. Dunlop’s rivals said he monopolized those notices by making ludicrously low bids, printing them at a loss so he could gain a veneer of respectability. Nine major daily English-language newspapers were vying for readers in those days, and in 1895 the Dispatch claimed to have a circulation of 65,000, second in the evening only to the Daily News, which sold about 200,000 copies.
The Dispatch made its debut not long after a New York moral crusader named Anthony Comstock had spurred the U.S. Post Office to wage a war against obscenity. In 1873, Congress had passed the Comstock Law, cracking down on sending obscene material through the mail.
Between 1873 and 1913, federal authorities in Chicago prosecuted about 500 cases involving obscene mail, according to the scholar Shirley J. Burton’s 1991 study of the case files. During most of that era, about one-tenth of all criminal cases at the Chicago federal court were Comstock Law prosecutions. Some Illinoisans were arrested for mailing lurid novels or pinup photographs of “Sporty Girls.” Authorities also attacked books containing advice about sex, and people were hauled into court for writing personal letters and post cards containing sexual language or innuendo.
The local crackdown was handled by a postal inspector based in St. Louis, Missouri, Robert W. McAfee, who was also the agent for the Western Society for the Suppression of Vice, a regional counterpart of Comstock’s New York censorship group. In 1894, McAfee visited the Dispatch’s offices and warned Dunlop against mailing copies of his newspaper containing lewd advertisements. Dunlop later portrayed himself as the victim of a conspiracy. He maintained that powerful Chicagoans who had been investigated by the Dispatch were trying to drive him out of business and that rival publishers were ganging up on him.
The forces aligned against Dunlop included John Alexander Dowie, leader of the Christian Catholic Church at Chicago’s Zion Tabernacle (and later the founder of the religious colony of Zion in Lake County). Dowie visited the U.S. postmaster general, William Wilson, and showed him the Dispatch. “I want this paper thrown out of the mails,” Dowie said. Recounting the conversation, Dowie quoted Wilson as replying, “God helping me . . . I will see that . . . its publisher is punished.”
On October 24, 1895, a federal grand jury in Chicago indicted Dunlop for mailing copies of the Dispatch containing “obscene, lewd, lascivious and indecent matters.” Oddly, the jurors listed the categories under which the ads appeared but refused to repeat what the ads said because they were “so indecent.”
The cited ads included promotions for male virility drugs, a breast-enlargement product, and “regulator tablets,” which were allegedly abortion aids.
One ad described “a company of young ladies” performing “a novel entertainment introducing unique features.” But most of the ads were notices from women seeking to meet men. For example, Miss Lillian Walsh suggested that her friends should stop by her new home, 164 Custom House Place (now Federal Street). A year earlier, William Stead’s book If Christ Came to Chicago! had identified that address as a “house of ill-fame.”
Illustration: Mario Wagner