Monday, January 18, 2010

The Nude That Launched a Thousand..well, One Trial

Meet Narcissus.

The original of this statue of him was discovered in Pompeii in 1862 and housed in the Naples Museum.

In 1873, an enterprising art dealer of New Bedford Massachusetts, one Charles Hazeltine, purchased a replica of this very Narcissus in Boston and displayed it in the front window of his shop.

Now, this particular shop window opened onto a very busy public street, normally a boon for a business.  However,

"the good people of this New England town were not used to nude figures, either in marble, bronze, or plaster, and very soon the sidewalk was crowded with young and old, gazing at the unaccustomed sight."

The marshal ordered Hazeltine to remove the statue from his window and when he refused, Hazeltine was arrested.  He went on trial for "exhibiting a lewd and lascivious statue."

Many citizens testified on Hazeltine's behalf, saying that of course they'd allow this statue in their homes, trying to explain that this was Art.  Perhaps they were embarrassed at how this case was making their town seem like a mad, prudish backwater.  One testified that the only reason not to have one in the house would be, "if I had a daughter of an unfortunate turn of mind."

[ah, yes, got to protect the womenfolk from seeing tiny, relaxed representations of normal body parts]

The prosecution denied that "that botch" was Art and furthermore, "if such instruments as that are necessary to teach art, then we don't want any art taught.  We have got along very well without it in New England for many years, and we can in years to come."

On the stand, Hazeltine admitted to the court, "The image is entirely nude, a male youth; the sexual organs are represented." But his defense attorney argued that anyone who could "look on this figure with anything but the loftiest sentiment must be already corrupt."

You might think he had a good point, but no, this was a slippery slope.  The anguished prosecutor protested, "If he is allowed to go on, will he not fill his window with sexual organs in all positions?"

Besides, the prosecution added, along with corrupting the populace, the statue had been causing a public scene and obstructing the thoroughfare.

To which the defense replied:
"Narcissus did not obstruct the sidewalk. He asked nobody to stop and look at him. If the street was obstructed, the marshal ought to have arrested the boys and girls who obstructed it."

The jury deliberated 9 hours, balloting 22 times, but could not come to an unanimous decision.  Charles Hazeltine was released.

What Narcissus thought about all this is unknown.


  1. That's hilarious...really glad that the good people of Massachusetts stood up for him, we're known to be progressive, nice to see more history confirming as much.