History, Law, Literature, Reviews

“A Salacious Era of New York City Sleaze”

Writing for last Tuesday’s Village Voice, none other than Tom Robbins has given Patricia Cline Cohen, Timothy J. Gilfoyle, and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz’s new book, The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York an approving thumbs-up for its revealing look at New York City’s “flash papers”—the nineteenth-century weeklies that covered and publicized New York’s extensive sexual underworld. All but forgotten after the era’s burgeoning censorship and obscenity laws shut them down, as Robbins notes, the author’s recent discovery of a cache of these papers held by the American Antiquarian Society sheds new light on the magazines’ lurid tales of libidinous lechery. Robbins writes:

Sex has always sold well. Most of us just assumed it took the likes of Larry Flynt, Al Goldstein, and the rest of that merry band of porn purveyors to finally get it openly on the newsstands. But now comes news that more than a century before them, an earlier breed of devilish publishers delighted readers with similar publications right here in New York.
That discovery was no small thrill for historians of American smut when they unearthed copies of long-forgotten sex rags that flared briefly in the early 1840s. These Dead Sea Scrolls of sleaze were discovered when Patricia Cline Cohen, one of a trio of authors of The Flash Press, was visiting the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1987: “On one memorable day, Dennis R. Laurie, reference specialist of newspapers and periodicals, asked her if she might like to see some uncataloged New York titles of a somewhat disreputable character.”
Cohen tipped co-author Timothy J. Gilfoyle to her discovery for his own book on the history of prostitution in New York (City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialism of Sex, 1790-1920); Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz joined the team when another researcher whispered to her about some “racy primary sources.”
Like Goldstein’s Screw, the publishers chose titles that got right to the point: The Whip, The Rake, The Libertine, The Flash, and others with even shorter publishing lives. One of these, The New York Sporting Whip, offered a kind of mission statement: “Man is endowed by nature with passions that must be gratified,” the newspaper asserted, “and no blame can be attached to him, who for that purpose occasionally seeks the woman of pleasure.”

Read the rest of the review on the Village Voice website.