Newsletter #27 (Spring 2001)

The Town Hall Raid

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the police suppression of the November 13, 1921 public birth control meeting at the Town Hall theater in Manhattan, an event that roused New York's libertarian upper crust to actively support Margaret Sanger and created a windfall of publicity for birth control. The most sensational of several attempts on the part of the Catholic Church to thwart and silence Sanger in the 1920s, the Town Hall raid played in the press as though it was orchestrated by Sanger herself, complete with police bungling and the moral hubris of a Roman Catholic Archbishop.

Sanger planned the Town Hall meeting as the culmination of the First American Birth Control Conference (November 10-13), an historic gathering of prominent scientists, physicians, demographers and eugenicists, as well as social workers, birth control advocates and socialites to discuss the global ramifications of birth control and its potential to lessen the major social ills of the world. The conference also launched the American Birth Control League (ABCL) to promote birth control through education and lobbying. Sanger invited her English friend Harold Cox, former member of Parliament and editor of the Edinburgh Review, to present the keynote address, "Morality and Birth Control," at the concluding public forum.

However, Police Captain Thomas Donahue ordered the doors to the Town Hall theater locked just minutes before the meeting was to begin. When police were forced to unlock the doors a short time later to let out the crowd that had already gathered in the hall, many outside, including Sanger, burst in. Sanger quickly took the podium, and when she began to speak, Donahue ordered her arrest. Other activists then sought the stage, and one of them, Mary Winsor, a member of the new ABCL National Council, was also arrested. Police escorted the two women out of the hall while the audience sang "My Country ‘Tis of Thee." A "hatless" Sanger (nearly a crime itself at the time), and Winsor were brought to the Police Court followed by a large crowd of supporters, and charged with disorderly conduct. They were discharged soon after for lack of evidence. "I consider my arrest," Sanger said upon leaving the police station, "in violation of every principle of liberty that America stands for, and I shall take this case to the highest courts, if necessary, to preclude the possibility of it ever happening again." (New York Times, November 14, 1921)

The incident escalated in the press when it was reported that the New York Archdiocese had pressured the police to shut the meeting down. A representative of Archbishop Patrick J. Hayes telephoned police headquarters shortly before the meeting, and the Archbishop sent his secretary, Monsignor Joseph P. Dineen, to meet with Captain Donahue. Hayes had perhaps acted in response to Sanger's invitation to attend the forum; she had hoped a Church official would rebut her claim that birth control was moral and engage in a healthy public debate. Sanger may have also recognized the greater potential for Church interference, and the subsequent publicity such interference guaranteed, if she flaunted the proposed theme of the meeting in a personal invitation to Hayes.

Dineen defended the suppression in the daily papers: "Decent and clean-minded people would not discuss a subject such as birth control in public before children [he claimed four children were present at the meeting; they turned out to be four Barnard College students with "bobbed hair and short skirts"] or at all." The police action was necessary, he added, because birth control "attacks the very foundations of human society." (New York Times, November 15, 1921) Archbishop Hayes issued a statement a week letter claiming that "The laws of God and man, science, public policy, human experience are all condemnatory of birth control as preached by a few irresponsible individuals. . . ." He then referred to the recent Eugenics conference in New York as evidence of a scientific repudiation of birth control, as it promoted the fertility of the "better born." He even went so far as to recite a startling anti-Christian, eugenic directive that "more children from the well-to-do" was a "moral duty." (New York Times, November 21, 1921) Although Dineen and Hayes admitted that a call was placed to the police in opposition to the meeting, they refused to acknowledge their power to guide or manipulate the police department.

All of New York City's dailies and several magazines, including the New Republic and The Nation, expressed outrage over police efforts to restrict free-speech, and criticized Archbishop Hayes for provoking the raid. Many prominent New Yorkers, enraged by the assault on free speech, signed a petition to the police commissioner protesting the suppression and arrests. A formal complaint, signed by Sanger's lawyer, Robert Marsh, the ACLU, several physicians and a number of conference committee members, and submitted on November 15, helped initiate a police investigation into the raid. On November 22, Chief Inspector William J. Lahey interviewed several witnesses, including Sanger and Juliet Rublee, the wealthy wife of attorney and presidential advisor George Rublee. Juliet Rublee, one of Sanger's closest friends and a key financial supporter of the birth control movement, had witnessed the raid and accompanied Sanger and Winsor to police court. When Rublee stated in her testimony that she had read section 1142 of the Penal Code (prohibiting the dissemination of obscene material or information, including contraception), and disagreed with it, Assistant Corporation Counsel Martin Dolphin directed his secretary and stenographer, officer Thomas J. Murphy, to arrest Rublee for violating the section of the law in question. After four hours in custody, Rublee was discharged by a magistrate for lack of evidence. Afterward Rublee told a reporter: "This is nothing but an attempt at intimidation, but I do not frighten easily. If I did, the post card I recently received would be disquieting. It was one of several of similar import, but this one said unless I cease my attacks on Mgr. Dineen and the Roman Catholic Church I would be killed. I am not killed, you see; I am merely arrested, and – I am not intimidated the least little bit. ( The World, Dec. 3, 1921)

Rublee's arrest inflamed the controversy over the Catholic Church's role in police affairs and prompted questions regarding the competency of police brass. It also insured a new round of press coverage of Sanger and birth control, and prompted a letter to Mayor John F. Hylan from ten prominent New Yorkers, including attorneys Paul Cravath and Lewis Delafield, financier Paul Warburg and banker/diplomat Henry Morgenthau, requesting an investigation into the Town Hall raid and the police treatment of Rublee. Commissioner of Accounts David Hirshfield, who took over the police investigation, later admitted that Rublee's arrest was the result of a "lawyer's mistake," and criticized Captain Donahue for showing "a lack of intelligence" in ordering the initial arrests of Sanger and Winsor. But he discounted any influence exerted on the police department by the Catholic Church and failed to reprimand the police.

The mass meeting to discuss "Birth Control – Is It Moral?" was rescheduled for November 18 at the Park Theater. Once again Sanger invited Archbishop Hayes, along with Catholic University sociologist, Monsignor John A. Ryan, and John Sumner, head of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Only Hayes sent a representative. The meeting took place without incident.

Sanger later noted that the Town Hall raid gave her "column after column" of free publicity with little effort on her part since "the blundering of the opposition . . . saved my voice." (Autobiography, 309). The suppression drew prominent socialite women from some of the wealthiest and most powerful New York families, including Florence Haskell Corliss Lamont, Elizabeth Cutter Morrow and Addie Wolff Kahn, to the defense of the ABCL, effectively christening the new organization as a slightly dangerous, cutting-edge women's club and insuring adequate financial support and ample political clout, at least in the short term. The controversy also pulled back the curtain on a Catholic conspiracy against birth control, glimpsed by Sanger in previous years, but never so brazen and overt as the Town Hall raid. Sanger would refer back to the raid in the years to come whenever she needed to illustrate the Church's influence over political leaders and municipalities. For Sanger the whole episode marked a transition in birth control opposition, and therefore required new strategies and alliances that began almost immediately after the conference. No longer was the government or the specter of Anthony Comstock the chief enemy of birth control; in Sanger's words "It was now a battle of a republic against the machinations of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church." (My Fight For Birth Control, 237)