Marylanders

“As for me, I like him”: H.L. Mencken, Judge Morris Soper, and the Vice Squad

mencken-soper_mashup

(L) [detail] Henry Louis Mencken with unknown woman and girl, not dated, John T. “Jack” Engeman, slide collection, slide_engeman-0, MdHS (r) [detail] Morris Soper, Paul Henderson Photograph Collection, HEN.00.B1-073, MdHS.

A recent find in the Morris Soper Papers brings to light a fascinating series of correspondence between Judge Morris A. Soper and famed Baltimore journalist Henry Louis Mencken (who was featured in last week’s birthday post). This correspondence between the two men gives unique insight into their personalities,  reveals their professionalism and ethics, and hints at Soper’s complicated relationship with the Society for the Suppression of Vice during his brief tenure as Baltimore City Police Commissioner from 1912-1913. One of the most striking aspects of this correspondence is the civilized and respectful tone kept between these two men, as they worked through their disagreement and opinions about the Society for the Suppression of Vice. They exhibit a rare display of civility as unfamiliar in today’s political discourse as it was in Baltimore during the 1910s.

The Society for the Suppression of Vice was primarily known as a group which combated drinking, gambling, and sexual immorality during the late 19th and early 20th century. Though this trinity of vices seems like the same complaints of your average dogmatic moralist, it can’t be easily characterized as such. In fact, progressive thinkers like Soper may have supported the Society for more economic reasons, in an effort to protect the middle class from being squashed by the capitalist machine of the industrial age. The majority of Baltimore’s Society for the Suppression of Vice was made up of highly educated independent businessmen—a group of elites who feared that “the consolidation of capital through incorporation and the profits of mass production would deny the middle class financial and, by extension, political or social sovereignty.”(1) The independent businessman was rapidly disappearing in Baltimore as the efficient mechanized factory processes of big business dwarfed their operations.

The annual report of the Society for the Suppression of Vice from 1888. MHV6251.S67, MdHS main reading room.

The annual report of the Society for the Suppression of Vice from 1888. MHV6251.S67, MdHS.

One way the outrage of these elites manifested itself was through a paternalistic concern about the exploitation of the new working class of mostly female wage earners. As business boomed in Baltimore, floods of women and immigrants moved into  the city and took assembly-line factory jobs. While this sea change in the work force turned Victorian gender-roles on their head, by bringing women into the public sphere and providing them with spending power,   Baltimore’s class of elite merchants and businessmen found themselves on shakier ground. Though the members of the Society  decried an outcome where the majority of jobs would be reduced to mind numbing assembly line processes which “corrupted femininity,” they were basically uncomfortable with the rapidly changing times; they were fearful  for their position when the dust settled, and the perceived corruption of human values caused by big business  allowed them to point their finger at something.

Soper and Mencken’s correspondence from April 20th through April 26th, 1915 , adds some nuance to this interesting period of early 20th century Baltimore, and gives a brief glimpse of how each man situated and aligned himself with the changing times.

In the first letter of the series, from April 21, 1915,  Soper communicates his displeasure at being mischaracterized in a recent Baltimore Evening Sun editorial by Mencken. Near the end of  his column on April 20, Mencken made an off-the-cuff assertion that Judge Soper was a mentor to a Mr. John L. Cornell, the lead counsel of the Society for the Suppression of Vice; this casual declaration conveniently makes his point and wraps up the editorial nicely. The piece also expresses a clear disdain for fellow Baltimorean, and former Attorney General, Charles Joseph Bonaparte who was currently head of the newly established Bureau of Investigation(2)—a man he believed continually misused his power by cloaking his self interest with a sheen of phony morality. Though he probably wasn’t implying a direct line of command from Bonaparte, through Soper to Cornell, his column implied that they were men of the same ilk.

Charles Joseph Bonaparte (1851-1921). PVF, MdHS.

Charles Joseph Bonaparte (1851-1921). PVF, MdHS.

To Mencken’s credit, he felt he had some evidence to make this assertion. The City Directory did list Cornell and Soper as sharing an office, and Soper had been Police Commissioner in 1912, a time when the Society gained some leverage on the Police Department in going after drinking and gambling establishments and “houses of immorality.” Mencken leapt to the conclusion that not only were Soper and Cornell  colleagues, but a mentor/protege relationship existed between the two.

An excerpt from H.L. Mencken's editorial in the Baltimore Evening Sun from April 20, 1915

An excerpt from H.L. Mencken’s editorial in the Baltimore Evening Sun from April 20, 1915.

The same day Soper quickly replied that although he is listed in the City Directory as sharing the same office address with Cornell, he moved out shortly after being named Judge to the Supreme Bench of Baltimore, and there was no overlap in tenancy. (3)  Soper implies that this was quite a bold presumption and ends with—“although I may say in confidence between us that you do believe a great many curious things,” before requesting that Mencken not mention their correspondence in print—basically to let sleeping dogs lie.

The following day Mencken responds in a letter that it was indeed his error, and that relying on the telephone book and city directory seemed like a solid enough source for his inference. In efforts to keep his credibility and to prevent future attacks from his enemies he asks Soper to allow him to come clean and print a correction to his error. Ironically, Soper doesn’t want him to print it at all.  He openly explains to Mencken that he does in fact have some affiliation with the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and has supported their efforts in the past. Though Soper didn’t necessarily disagree with the Society’s ideology, he does seem uncomfortable with the zeal in which they conducted their business. In an extremely candid explanation, to a reporter no less, Soper fully explains his thought process.

“I am not one to take newspaper work seriously—no one indeed, knows better how pathetically futile it is—but so long as I am doomed to do it I try to put a reasonable amount of good faith into it.” Mencken to Soper, April 21, 1915. MS 3121, MdHS

“I am not one to take newspaper work seriously—no one indeed, knows better how pathetically futile it is—but so long as I am doomed to do it I try to put a reasonable amount of good faith into it.” Mencken to Soper, April 21, 1915. MS 3121, MdHS.

Evidently the former counsel to the Society for the Suppression of Vice, Samuel Pentz, was given a long leash while Soper was Police Commissioner. Though the Society had a long history of instigating the police to investigate saloon proprietors and houses of ill-repute, Pentz’s influence grew to the point where he seemed to be directing a police squad under Soper’s watch. Soper grew uncomfortable with this and tightened the leash on Pentz after a raid on an Arch Street property (4), but the damage had already been done. Evidently Mencken had reported extensively on Pentz’s actions and police corruption. The raid on Arch Street may have had less to do with vice and more to do with a personal vendetta against a man with the last name of Morheiser. This clear abuse of power was just the kind of thing Mencken made a career of reporting. Though he had been correct in most aspects, he was mistaken about the Society’s influence within the police department  after the Arch Street raid. Evidently Soper was also uncomfortable with Pentz’s actions, and felt he had been hoodwinked by this egregious overstep. Unfortunately he was put in a situation where he would have to face embarrassment and confess to past mistakes if he were to correct the erroneous aspects of Mencken’s articles, and feeling that Mencken was looking for such admissions of guilt,  he remained silent. Mencken interpreted this silence as Soper condoning all aspects of Vice Squad investigations. It would take this week’s exchange of correspondence for Mencken to understand not only Soper’s unique relationship with the Society for the Suppression of Vice, but to see him a man possessing a degree of honesty and integrity.

By the last letter of the series, on April 27, the two men have agreed to let the misstatement be, as the event seems to have blown over. Even though Mencken feared his political adversaries might hold his error in print over his head in the future—as an example of his tendency to stretch the truth—in a very simple gesture of good humanity, Mencken puts it to rest. The two men cordially agree to discuss the matter face to face sometime in the future.

Mencken simply articulates to Soper that his main problem with the Society is its blatant hypocrisy in the following gem from his April 23rd letter. “”I have engaged in numerous controversies with the gladiators of this society, and from Mr. Bonaparte (explain which one and role I believe Charles Joseph attorney general) down to Cornell, I have found them uniformly disingenuous. But aside from this personal experience of their constant sophistication of the facts, I confess to a general prejudice against them. The man who concerns himself with his neighbors’ morals may be perfectly honest, and he may also be pious and worthy, but as for me, I don’t like him.”

If you would like to  view these documents and draw your own conclusions, or to learn more about Mencken, Soper, or the Society for the Suppression of Vice, we invite you to come visit our library. We are open to researchers from Wednesday through Saturday, 10-5pm. (Eben Dennis)

Letter from H.L. Mencken to Judge Morris Soper from April 27, 1915. MS3121, MdHS

Letter from H.L. Mencken to Judge Morris Soper from April 27, 1915. MS3121, MdHS.

 

"I have engaged in numerous controversies with the gladiators of this society, and from Mr. Bonaparte (explain which one and role I believe Charles Joseph attorney general) down to Cornell, I have found them uniformly disingenuous. But aside from this personal experience of their constant sophistication of the facts, I confess to a general prejudice against them. The man who concerns himself with his neighbors’ morals may be perfectly honest, and he may also be pious and worthy, but as for me, I don’t like him." MS3121, MDHS

Letter from Mencken to Soper April 23, 1915. MS3121, MdHS.

 Notes

(1) “Commerce in Souls” : Vice, Virtue and Women’s Wage Work in Baltimore, 1900-1915 by Pamela Susan Haag. Maryland Historical Magazine. Vol.86, No. 3, Fall 1991. page 293

(2) The Bureau of Investigation was the forerunner the the Federal Burea of Investigation (F.B.I.)

(3) Most likely a courier service enabled them to be able to respond so quickly.

(4)”Two Houses are Raided.” Baltimore Sun, March 16, 1913

Sources and further reading:

Haag,Pamela.”Commerce in Souls” : Vice, Virtue and Women’s Wage Work in Baltimore, 1900-1915. Maryland Historical Magazine. Vol.86, No. 3, Fall 1991. page 293

Mencken, H.L., editorial. Baltimore Evening Sun, Tuesday April 20, 1915

“Mr. Pentz is Out Now.” Baltimore Sun, April 15, 1913.

Cornell, John L. The Sun (1837-1987) [Baltimore, Md] 18 Oct 1914: A6.

Letters between H.L. Mencken and Judge Morris Soper. Morris A. Soper Papers, MS3121, Maryland Historical Society

“Accuses Vice Society.” Baltimore Sun. May 29, 1913

Annual Report of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, 1888.