Books have power – they can convey information and experience readers would otherwise not have access to. Inevitably, then, booksellers sometimes run afoul of the law when they attempt to sell to the general public works the government deems dangerous (the subject of a later post) or obscene. In some cases, the defiance of local obscenity laws can become a kind of political act, undertaken by booksellers who feel passionately about the freedoms of press and expression. Eric Losfeld of Paris was one such seller, despising profit and holding as his only principle “to be faithful to his tastes and unfaithful to his disgusts.”
Other booksellers take a more mercenary approach, selling pornographic books, no matter how poorly written or illegally obtained, because of the ever-present demand for such material. Edward Avery appears to be one such bookseller, who by 1879 was using his remainders business as a front for the pornography he published. At his height, he ran a virtual empire of smut out of his shop at 53 Greek Street, London, employing a number of booksellers, printers, and publishers both in England and abroad who together were known as “Avery’s Gang.”
Two of the Gang’s more well-known members were Leonard Smithers and Harry Sidney Nichols, who together founded the Erotika Biblion Society, a pornographic publishing imprint; Avery was both a producer of numerous works for them and their London distributor from 1888 to 1891.
Alas, Avery’s fortunes reversed in 1900 when he was arrested by Chief Inspector Edward Drew. All his stock was destroyed, and Avery himself was convicted and imprisoned for several months. After that he disappeared from the bookselling world.
Nichols and Smithers fared better, at least at first. Nichols and many others of the Gang fled to Paris, where they continued selling erotica. Nichols ran a mail-order business until 1908, when he was threatened with extradition. He moved to the United States and, not one to give up, continued to publish erotica until he was committed to Bellevue Mental Hospital in 1939.
Smithers, who had gained a good deal of fame and wealth in the later 1890s by publishing the works (erotic and otherwise) of Sir Richard Francis Burton, Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, and others, mostly avoided the legal trouble other members of the Gang found but could not keep up with his spending and went bankrupt in 1900. Smithers returned to selling and publishing pornographic and pirated works as he did early in his career, but continuing financial troubles and poor health led to his death in 1907.
Perhaps the most dramatic fate was reserved for one of Avery’s possible rivals, publisher and swindler Dr. Sinclair Ronald, a.k.a. Ronald de Villiers, a.k.a. George Ferdinand Springmuhl von Weissenfeld. He managed to elude the authorities for almost two years before being tracked down to his residence in the country. When police officers searched his home, they found him hidden in a secret passage. Once he was in custody, he asked for a glass of water but dropped dead after one sip. The coroner attributed his death to apoplexy, but others weren’t so sure; apparently Weissenfeld often wore a gold ring with a secret compartment that, he bragged, held a few grains of poison.
None of these arrests, of course, could truly stop the flow of pornographic books to the public. For every bookseller jailed or run out of town, another stepped into the fray for principle or profit (or both). Whether they intend to or not, booksellers serve a crucial if sometimes unsavory role in the fight for freedom of expression.
By Janalyn Martínez
References and further reading:
Clandestine Erotic Fiction in English, 1800-1930 : a Bibliographical Study. Peter Mendes. Scolar Press, 1993.
Publisher to the Decadents: Leonard Smithers in the Career of Beardsley, Wilde, Dowson. James G. Nelson. Penn State U. Press, 2000.
The Victorian Underworld. Donald Thomas. New York University Press, 1998.