Diana West

The last American official with the power to ban wickedness -- at least within the city limits of Boston -- has died. His name was Richard J. Sinnott (pronounced "sin not"), and between 1960 and 1980 he alone could keep the show from going on anywhere in his undoubtedly fair city by revoking the municipal license of theatres, nightclubs and other venues for morally questionable acts. Mr. Sinnott's powers may have effectively come undone with loosening sexual mores and unraveling social codes, but in an earlier era, the prospect of being "Banned in Boston" caused playwrights to gnash their teeth, producers to bite their nails, and intellectuals to tear their hair over Boston's bubble. Whitman, Hemingway, even "Snow White" were all banished for a time from the city by Mr. Sinnott's predecessors, among them the Pilgrims, who, in the 17th century, banned Christmas celebrations in Massachusetts, undoubtedly for being too merry.

By 1960, though, no book was subject to Boston's censors, and notions of "obscenity" and "pornography," once beached on the seamier side of life, were beginning to make their splash in the cultural mainstream. Censorship as a government institution, even in Boston, was about to go under. Even so, as Mr. Sinnott's obituary in The New York Times points out, "Banned in Boston" could still beat a rave review, turning a real lemon into the showbiz version of forbidden fruit. The sole stripper Mr. Sinnott kept off Boston's boards later thanked him for tripling her salary. When a dance company failed to draw Mr. Sinnott's stamp of disapproval for performing half-naked, producers were furious, the newspaper reported, later sending Mr. Sinnott a postcard from New York. "Thanks a lot," they wrote. "The show closed." Eventually, so did the censor's office.

Looking back, Mr. Sinnott wasn't sure his roughly 10 bans had been worth the bother. He thought they might have made Bostonians look like "party poopers." So they did, but what of it? While Boston's bluestocking statutes made the city the butt of jokes, could they also have served some public good?

Diana West

Diana West is the author of American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation's Character (St. Martin's Press, 2013), and The Death of the Grown-Up: How America's Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization (St. Martin's Press, 2007).