Bradlaugh-Besant Trial (birth control)

A turning point in the movement for the dissemination of information about contraceptives was the Bradlaugh-Besant trial in 1877 involving Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant.The publicity surrounding the trial radically increased the demand for information about contraception and spurred people to be interested. Norman Himes, in his standard history of contraception, labeled his topic on the topic as “Democratization by Publicity.”

Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy had been published and distributed in London for more than 40 years without interference, Henry Cook, published it, the authorities there, encouraged by the local Society for the Suppression of Vice, charged him with publishing a book with obscene illustrations (probably illustrations of the male and female genital organs). Cook was convicted and sentenced to two years at hard labor. Encouraged by the Bristol case, and probably again encouraged by the Society for the Suppression of Vice, Charles Watts (1836-1906). Watts, in order to avoid prison, pleaded guilty to publishing an obscene book and was let off with a suspended sentence and court costs. Bradlaugh, highly upset, responded with a strong editorial in his newspaper, the National Reformer:

The Knowlton pamphlet is either decent or indecent. If decent, it ought to be defended; if indecent, it should never have been published . . .I hold the work to be defensible, and I deny the right of anyone to interfere with the full and free discussion of social questions affecting the happiness of the nation. The struggle for a free press has been one of the marks of the Free thought party throughout its history, and as long as the Party permit me to hold its flag, I will never voluntarily lower it. I have no right and no power to dictate to Mr. Watts the course he should pursue, but I have the right and duty to refuse to associate my name with a submission which is utterly repugnant to my nature and inconsistent with my whole career. (Quoted from the National Reformer, January 18, 1877, by Fryer, 1965,p. 161)

To provoke a test case, Bradlaugh, with Annie Besant, his associate at the National Reformer, formed the Free Thought Publishing Company and republished Fruits of Philosophy with medical notes by George Drysdale. The book was distributed at the Guildhall and the two notified the police that they would be there themselves to sell copies. They sold some five hundred in the first twenty minutes, after which they were arrested. In the three-month interval between their arrest and trial they had sold no fewer than 125,000 copies.

The trial began in June 1877. After some maneuvering Bradlaugh convinced the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Alexander Cockburn, whose name traditionally had been associated with a definition of what constituted obscenity, to agree that whether Fruits of Philosophy was an obscene work or had scientific merit should be decided by a judge and jury over which Cock-burn himself would preside. Bradlaugh and Besant conducted their own defense very effectively. Cockburn allowed them a great deal of freedom with only occasional interruptions. Besant seemed to be particularly effective in her lengthy address in which she included references to poor women’s need to purchase inexpensive contraceptives. C. R. Drysdale, a physician and brother of George Drysdale, argued that the attempt of women to better space their children by engaging in long lactation periods (eighteen months or two years) was harmful to the children because it deprived infants of proper food. Moreover, if, in spite of her effort to avoid becoming pregnant, the woman conceived anyway, the unborn child would suffer from want of nourishment. He said he knew of women with as many as twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, and even one woman with twenty-five children, and he held that this was one of the greatest social crimes a man could permit. Another witness, H. G. Bohn, who published English translations of the Greek and Roman classics, reported that the Society for the Suppression of Vice was constantly trying to prevent him from publishing the classics because they held they were obscene.

The solicitor general was not convinced by the witnesses and held that the real issue was publication of “a dirty, filthy book” that no one would willingly allow to lie on his table and no English husband would allow even his wife to have it. He said the only object of the topic was to enable a person to have sexual intercourse and not have that which “in the order of Providence is the natural result . . . .” Cockburn in his summary called the prosecution “ill advised” and that a more injudicious proceeding in the way of a prosecution had probably never been brought into a court of justice. He wanted to know who had initiated the prosecution, but the solicitor general refused to say.

The jury after discussing the case for ninety-five minutes reported that they were unanimous in the opinion that the book was calculated to deprave public morals, but at the same time said that they “entirely exonerate the defendants from any corrupt motives in publishing it.” Cockburn replied that this must mean that the jury found them guilty, a statement that the foreman immediately agreed to without consulting his colleagues. Later, one of the jurors reported to Besant that six of them had not intended to agree to a verdict of guilty and it had been arranged for them to return to further deliberations if the judge had not accepted their tortured decision, which they believed would be the case. Besant held that the decision amounted to saying “Not guilty, but don’t do it again.”

At their sentencing a week later, they refused to surrender the book and insisted they would go on selling it. They were each sentenced to six months’ imprisonment, fined 200 pounds, and had to each post 500 pounds as bond that they would not again publish the book for a period of at least two years. Execution of the sentence was delayed pending an appeal on condition that publication be suspended. The appeal in February 1878 was decided in their favor on strictly technical grounds that the words alleged by the prosecution to be obscene had never been expressly set out in the indictment. One of the justices warned the couple that, if the book was republished and the appellants were convicted on a properly framed indictment, such a repetition of the offense would have to be met by greater punishment. Bradlaugh and Besant ignored the warning and continued to publish. The overall effect of the trial was to make large numbers of people aware of the potential available for better planning of the size of their families.

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