March 07, 2008

When Cub Scouts Attack

David Hajdu recreates a few choice scenes from the great comic-book scare in the late 1940s and early '50s. Parents and sweaty councilmen feared that leafing through a comic book would "stimulate sadistic and masochistic attitudes and interfere with the normal development of sexual habits in children." So:
Groups of students continued to burn comic books in school yards around the country, some under the sway of their parents and teachers, some in concord with them, some unsure of their own points of view and doubtful of the propriety of disagreeing with their elders, some emboldened to defiance through the burnings themselves. In one case—a grand public protest organized in Rumson, New Jersey, an affluent town near the seashore—the young people involved were exceptionally young, Cub Scouts, and they were only part of an elaborate plan arranged by a Cubmaster, Louis Cooke, a scout committeeman, Ralph Walter, and the mayor, Edward Wilson.
As it was announced on January 6 at a "fathers' night" meeting of the Rumson High School PTA, the event was to involve a two-day drive to collect comic books "portraying murderers and criminals," a journalist at the meeting reported. A group of forty Cubs would tour the borough in a fire truck, "with siren screaming, and collect objectionable books at homes along the way." Then the mayor would lead the boys in a procession from Borough Hall to Rumson's Victory Park, where Wilson would present awards to the scouts and lead them in burning the comic books. The Cub who had gathered the most comics would have the honor of applying the torch to the books. When the national office of the Cub Scouts of America declined to support the bonfire, and news¬papers as far-flung as Michigan's Ironwood Daily Globe questioned it, the Rumson event was revised to conclude with the scouts donating the comics to the Salvation Army for scrap.

A few weeks later, a Girl Scout leader in the farm-country town of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Mrs. Thomas Mullen, guided her troop and local students in a comic-book burning, unencumbered. (The event had not been widely publicized in advance.) The scouts, fourteen- to eighteen-year-old members of Senior Troop 29, began gathering crime comics, as well as western and romance titles (because of their shootings and sexual innuendo, respectively), then turned the burning over to students at St. Mary's, a Catholic high school of about 275 housed in an austere redbrick building, a refurbished old hospital.

Following a script by the parish pastor, Rev. Theon Schoen, the students conducted a mock trial of four comic-book characters, portrayed by upperclassmen who pleaded guilty to "leading young people astray and building up false conceptions in the minds of youth." The trial, held on the school grounds after classes, concluded with a "great big bonfire," as one of the students, Bonnie Wulfers, would remember it. As the books burned, Schoen led the assembled group of more than four hundred students from St. Mary's elementary and high schools in a version of the now-standard pledge to "neither read nor purchase objectionable publications and to stay away from retail establishments where such are sold."
The craze culminated in the Senate subcommittee hearings of the early 1950s, in one of which Estes Kefauver held up the cover of Crime Suspenstories #22, featuring the severed head of a woman held aloft by an ax-wielding maniac. EC Comics founder Bill Gaines replied that a certain amount of blood was actually in good taste. ("A cover in bad taste," Gaines explained, "might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it.") In any case, a few years later rock 'n' roll became the bogeyman du jour threatening to rot the pristine mores of youth, and everyone mostly forgot about comics.
-- Brad Plumer 12:05 PM || ||