G-Men as Morality Police

There’s a new book out by Douglas Charles, called The FBI’s Obscene File: J. Edgar Hoover and the Bureau’s Crusade against Smut. David Rosen reviews that book and reveals some of what is in it, much of which is rather amusing in hindsight. From the 1920s to the 1990s, the FBI maintained what it called the Obscene File, which was a large number of filing cabinets filled with tawdry tales and evidence of sexual deviance (though ironically, Hoover did not appear in it). This part is pretty funny:

What may surprise many are Charles’s revelations about the F.B.I.’s targeting of popular music. In the 1940s and ’50s, Hoover & Co. went after what was known as “race music,” popular, non-religious African-American music. The F.B.I. considered it as a depiction of “lewd and licentious acts in obscene and foul language.” The funniest episode in the F.B.I.’s endless war against obscenity was the investigation of the 1963 rock n’ roll hit, “Louie Louie,” by the all-white teen group, the Kingsmen. Hoover got letters from Indiana’s Governor Matthew Welsh and others that the song’s lyrics were secretly obscene. Agents amassed a 119-page file and came to the momentous conclusion that the lyrics, written in a quasi-Caribbean meter, were too difficult to discern.

But who’s on first, you may ask…

In his dogged scholarship, Charles offers some interesting stories about public figures who had sex-related F.B.I. files. As expected, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Alfred Kinsey had files as did pop artist and very-out Andy Warhol; surprisingly, no mention of John F. Kennedy’s well-documented sexcapades is made. But who knew about the comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello? A police informant reported that Abbott was a porn collector, allegedly having 1,500 reels of obscene motion pictures. According to another report, Costello paid two prostitutes $50 each to put on a lewd performance.

The real obscenity, of course, is a government that feels the need to pry into the sex lives of adults who have harmed no one at all.

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  • erichoug

    As odd as it may sound, this makes me love Abbott and Costello even more.

  • Randomfactor

    During the Nixon Administration the government funded a commission to determine the negative effects of smut on society. The commission came to the conclusion that, essentially, there weren’t any significant ones.

    This infuriated one good Catholic member of the commission who issued his own minority report decrying porn and its dangers.

    He later went on to bigger things–you may have heard of Charles Keating, Jr.?

  • I think it used to be a law that if you had a porn collection, you HAD to have this mustache: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=1881&PIpi=147907

  • sosw

    There’s clearly also an element of magical thinking here.

    If the lyrics of “Louie Louie” are supposedly secretly lewd, but nobody can understand it, what’s the harm?

    The magical thinking (as with much of the opposition to various genres of music) goes something along the lines of “anyone enjoying the music but not understanding the intent of the originators is being magically manipulated”. Intent is still not magic.

    Additionally, even if there had been lewd implications…that would be pretty damn tame.

    While I tend toward the somewhat less extreme subgenres (prog/power/traditional rock/metal) , I’m very much into the metal scene in general and have listened to and been to the gigs of many very extreme metal acts with explicitly extreme lyrics (as well as stage performances involving pouring and drinking blood – bovine blood, also used in some traditional foods around here)…and the audiences in all of them tend to be much less aggressive than for more mainstream acts, despite some of them wearing t-shirts with rather disturbing messages (such as “kill for satan” and “dead girls don’t say no”).

    Oh and on an FTB-relevant side-note, the latter is hyperbolic enough to be considered obviously dark humor, unlike rape jokes. Necrophilia is extremely rare, rape isn’t.

  • coragyps

    When “Louie Louie” was popular I heard about twelve different sets of imagined lyrics for it, all “dirty” and all made up by fifteen-year-old boys like me. That’s what boys that age do best, or did best back then before video games existed.

  • anubisprime

    ‘The real obscenity, of course, is a government that feels the need to pry into the sex lives of adults who have harmed no one at all.’

    And they are still wanting to do just that and make no mistake about it, that perverted curiousness, that plumbs depths far deeper then the ‘smut’ they are investigating, now manifests itself as INTERNET security measures.

    They want to see browser histories and e-mail correspondence all under cover of…TERRORISM prevention…yeah right, they just want to see what sex sites folk visit, that is the bottom line, if they pick up a terrorist plot while they are snooping that is just a bonus but it is not the reason, never was!!

  • Trebuchet

    @ #5: Right. It wasn’t just the governor of Indiana, everybody thought the lyrics to “Louie, Louie” were secretly dirty. That’s what made it so popular!

  • daved

    These days, of course, you can type “louie louie lyrics” into any search engine, which will lead you to a number of web sites with the actual lyrics. This will, in turn, amaze you with how dull the actual lyrics are.

  • Trebuchet

    Oh, for an edit function!

  • The authoritarian mindset requires that the authoritarian learn as much as possible about their victims. Of course, that doesn’t apply to the authoritarians, themselves, who secretly enjoy doing exactly what they most wish to forbid.

    I used to know a couple guys that were on an internet child-porn investigation team. Their collection of child porn was epic and they really enjoyed having it. Of course, like the necrophiliac funeral director or the vampire who works at the blood bank, they had it all arranged so they could enjoy it unassailably.

  • bmiller


    A local radio host in the SF Bay Area (KGO’s Bernie Ward) was caught with a collection of child porn. He claimed he was “researching” the issue. His excuse didn’t work and he is in State Prison right now. Interestingly enough, he is a former priest.

  • cjcolucci

    Since Bud Abbott’s name came up, I’ve long thought there was a good book to be written about The Great Straight Men, like Bud Abbott, George Burns, Dean Martin, and so on. It would describe the art of the straight man and the lives and careers of the great ones. You used to do stand-up, Ed. How about it?

  • slc1

    Re bmiller @ #11

    Gosh, I was unaware of Mr. Ward’s troubles. I used to listen to him when he had a nation wide radio talk/call-in show. Given his anti-Israel and borderline antisemitic views, I didn’t much care for him, although I generally agreed with his politics, which are decidedly left wing. Interestingly enough, the judge that sentenced him to the slammer was Vaughn Walker, who was the judge in the Proposition 8 case.

    Apparently there are also allegations that Ward engaged in sexual misconduct while he was a priest.


    Relative to J. Edgar Himmler, it was well known that he kept files on numerous politicians who he blackmailed into keeping him on as FBI director. These included dirt on Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, etc. After his death, his assistant and alleged lover, Clyde Tolson, cleaned out the files and destroyed them to protect Himmler’s reputation.