Minnesota had a rather active intellectual life with an international reputation early in the 20th century. It had the bad — Moody Bible College, for instance, which was one of the formative centers of fundamentalist and evangelical Christian thought — but it also had some progressive thinkers, like Charles Malchow, who I’d never heard of before. Malchow was a doctor at Hamline University who was inspired to write an open-minded textbook about human sexuality, and suffered the consequences.
The Sexual Life (dedicated to Malchow’s mother, Marie), appeared in 1904, the same year Maclhow married Lydia Gluek, a daughter of the Minneapolis Gluek Brewing enterprise. The Sexual Life, over 300 pages, described in straightforward language a wide range of sex practices and problems—contraception, youthful experimentation, same-sex attraction, the physiology and psychology of sexual excitement, sexual pleasure, and sexual frustration. The book took particular aim at encouraging equality of knowledge and enjoyment for women and men.
As we’ll see, that is a charitable summary. The book does talk a lot about equality of the sexes, though, and seems to have triggered some knee-jerk reactions in the establishment.
In 1873 Congress had enacted the Comstock Act, which made using the US mail to distribute obscenity (including specifically any information about abortion) a felony. Malchow and Burton knew about the law and inquired of Minneapolis post office officials whether their advertising pamphlet—which described the book in detail—could be sent through the mail. The unhelpful answer merely referred them to the Comstock Act. They took a chance, and mailed 25,000 copies of the pamphlet to doctors, ministers, and lawyers around the country. The book quickly sold 3,000 copies.
In August 1904, just two months after Malchow’s marriage, a Minneapolis federal grand jury indicted Malchow and Burton for violating the Comstock Act. Trial began in October before Judge William Lochren, an Irish immigrant, a Civil War hero (he survived the famous charge of the First Minnesota at Gettysburg), and Minnesota’s second federal district judge. Lochren disapproved of The Sexual Life and made his views known to the jury, who quickly convicted both men. The First Amendment played no part in Malchow’s defense—it had not occurred to anyone at the time that the Constitution might protect the publication of explicit sexuality. And under the law of the time, Malchow and Burton were guilty of the crime.
Lochren gave both Malchow and Burton eighteen months in prison, later reduced to twelve. While their appeal made its way to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, Malchow’s supporters appealed to President Theodore Roosevelt for a pardon. They failed: Roosevelt wrote that he found The Sexual Life “a hideous and loathsome book.” The Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction in April 1906; Roosevelt declined the pardon in April; Malchow and Burton reported to Stillwater State Prison in May. They were released in March 1907.
Teddy thought this was a loathsome book? Well then, I must read it. Fortunately, The Sexual Life is freely available on the internet archive. It disappoints. It’s tame stuff for the 21st century, no illustrations, and it hammers away on the importance of traditional sexual and gender roles. Women can be equal to men, as long as their sexual behavior is exactly as would be expected in the pages of a Victorian romance novel — and not the seedy novels you could find under the table at men’s clubs, but the kind a gentlelady could be seen reading in public.
The word “natural” sure does a lot of heavy lifting in the text. It was “encouraging equality of knowledge and enjoyment for women and men”, but only within the narrow bounds of acceptable social behavior. Women were supposed to act one way, men another, and Medicine and Science would discourage any deviation.
It also doesn’t say much at all about same-sex attraction, briefly mentioning only male homosexuality (unthinkable that passive, mild-mannered ladies would consider such a thing), and then only to call it a perversion and dismiss it from further consideration.
Uh, right. I’m certainly not going to praise Malchow as an open-minded, forward-thinking person — the book is a paean to customary gender roles, and is built on conservative assumptions throughout.
He did go to prison for it, though, which was not just. It’s weird to read it now and realize that, for its time, it was a wildly libertine, radical perspective on sexuality. Nowadays, though, I could imagine Ben Shapiro or any of those crimped, narrow minds on the Right praising it as a great prescription for how we all should live now.