Russell Hunting stories #2 1896: obscenity, filth, lasciviousness; the record business discovers smut sells!

This week we are planning to run a five day series of blog entries about Russell Hunting, a maverick who was involved at the start of the very start of the record business when its pioneers were searching to find the best business model to capitalise on the new sound-recording and playback technology. Hunting tried all sorts of ways to make money. One or two of them sailed close to the wind. None were boring. This is day #2 of 5 about the early years of Russell Hunting.

Fred Gaisberg recorded Russell Hunting doing his “Michael Casey” comedy routines in 1894. Hunting’s next move was to try something a little racier. Just as the invention of the printing press in the 1400’s and the internet more recently were seized upon by the pornographers of their day, people experimented with recorded smut. Russell Hunting among them. He recorded a series of obscene recordings under new pseudonyms, including Manly Tempest and Willy Fathand, and and marketed them to saloons, amusement arcades and other gathering places with nickel-in-the-slot phonographs. These saloons were where most people listened to records in those days. The playback machines were too expensive for home entertainment for most people in the very early days of the business.

These rude recordings were popular and successful but they were seized upon by a newspaper who called them “the abuse of a great invention.” Soon Anthony Comstock, the crusading founder of the recently formed New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, was on the trail of indecent cylinders, chasing down distributors and performers. Comstock was a formidable opponent. He was a super-charged fore-runner of Mary Whitehouse who rigorously sought to stamp out “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” material wherever he could find it. Comstock also opposed any information relating to birth control and human reproduction. He became a hero figure to J.Edgar Hoover who visited Comstock in his old age and studied his methods. You would never guess what Comstock was like from his picture…

Comstock was not daft, however. On June 24, 1896, a detective working for Comstock came to Hunting’s Manhattan home, posing as a collector of saucy songs. He hired Hunting to record two cylinders of smut and, when Hunting had fulfilled his side of the bargains, promptly arrested our Hero who was later sentenced to three months in prison for violating obscenity ordinances that normally governed written literature and visual images.

But don’t worry, dear reader. A number of these recording were recently discovered, cleaned up and released as a CD called “Actionable Offences” by Archeophone Records and are available for purchase here. Phworrrr!!!!

And Russell Hunting would serve his time, dust himself down and step back on the rollercoaster that was his life in recorded music…..