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America 1900 | Article

The Sapho Affair

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Early in 1900, Dr. Newell Dwight Hillis, a well-known and outspoken pastor, issued his opinion that "a common whipping post might be very wholesome for New York today." Hillis was in an uproar over what he deemed the morally lax standards on display in Broadway plays. He was not alone in this opinion. An organization calling itself The Society for the Suppression of Vice, led by Anthony Comstock, singled out Broadway as a bastion of subversive and morally corrupt works. One play, Sapho, was singled out for its bawdy depiction of a seductive woman and her many lovers. 

Based on a French novel, Sapho starred English actress Olga Nethersole as Fanny, the offended seductress. In a scene that offended the sensibilities of some, Fanny is seen being carried up a flight of stairs by a man she was not married to. On top of that, Fanny appears to be eagerly anticipating what might transpire when she and her paramour reach the top of the staircase. New York newspapers, eager to fan the flames of moral indignation and to boost circulation numbers, condemned the play as a "reeking compost of filth and folly." Such publicity only increased the play's popularity. An inspector for the New York Police Department came to the conclusion that the play was not immoral. It had taken him 6 viewings to arrive at that conclusion. 

During one performance, Olga Nethersole was placed under arrest for "violating public decency." Her trial transfixed the city for weeks. Instructed by the trial judge that they were "not the guardians of the morals of this community," the jury took only 15 minutes to find Nethersole innocent. No sooner had the judge laid down his gavel, than the curtain rose again on Sapho. This time, the crowds were even bigger. 

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