Friday, September 22, 2023

An Obscene and Poisonous Publication

First page of Thomas Bartlett letter to President Smith
On March 28, 1866, Thomas Bartlett, a Christian clergyman from Maine, wrote to President Asa Dodge Smith of Dartmouth College requesting proof that his son Frank, a recently suspended sophomore at Dartmouth College, had been caught with an obscene book in his possession. Apparently the discovery of the text is what had motivated the trustees to eject his son from the school. However, as Bartlett argues, "[Frank] acknowledges that he drew from the College Library a book entitled Adams' On Poison, but states that he knew nothing of its contents at the time he took it to his room. He says that some of the pictures near the close of the book were hard. He firmly denies even possessing any book that could be properly styled an obscene publication."

Seventeen-year-old Frank had entered Dartmouth with his nineteen-year-old brother, Dwight, in 1864. By 1866 it seems that they had gotten into some trouble, at least some of which Frank was willing to own, per his father's letter: "That he has thrown snowballs at Charles and Rowell at their window, he freely acknowledges, but as firmly denies throwing the bottle." It's not clear what or whom the bottle hit, or if it contained anything, but apparently Frank was a habitual offender and that those incidents alone did not warrant the suspension. The faculty minutes of November 23, 1865, concerning Frank's suspension state that he had a record of "previous disorderly and unscholarly conduct" and indicated "his complicity in recent serious offenses." Unfortunately, those offenses are not listed in detail. 

I was curious about the "obscene" book that the letter mentioned in the letter, Observations on Morbid

Poisons Chronic and Acute, by Joseph Adams. I was able to get the 1807 edition from our library depository, which may be the very same copy that got Frank kicked out of school. I looked at the last four pages of the book which showed skin manifestation of diseases. Would they have been considered obscene? Could the subject matter of the book, dealing with infectious diseases like syphilis, be the cause? Or was the college administration simply looking for a pretense to rid themselves of this nuisance? Looking deeper into college records did not provide any satisfactory answers, so we may never know. 

By the time Thomas Bartlett writes his letter his older son, Dwight, is dying of consumption and has already left Dartmouth to return home. Ultimately, Dwight died in April 1866 with Frank by his side, something that would not have been possible but for the younger Bartlett's suspension from college. "It seems now that the request of Frank’s mother that he and Dwight might never be separated will be complied with," Thomas Bartlett writes in the letter. In a postscript he adds: "Frank performed his last act for Dwight last night. He wet his lips for the last time, rubbed his hands and saw him expire."

Frank never returned to Dartmouth, as his father wanted him to stay home. nearly thirty years later, in a passport application dated 1894, his profession is described as "Director of Foreign Tours". He left the US for London, England, that year and died there in 1899 at the age of 50.

To look at the letter from Thomas Barlett to President Asa Dodge Smith, come to Special Collections and ask for Mss 866228.2. To judge for yourself the prurient nature of John Adams' Observations on Morbid Poisons Chronic and Acute, request the book online from the Dartmouth Library Depository online; the call number is Depository 616.091 A214o.