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Reichenbach’s version of “September Morn” controversy definitely debunked
Status: Classic hoax debunkedTwo days ago I noted that I had posted an account of the "September Morn" controversy in the hoaxipedia, and I also said that I had my doubts about the role the publicist Harry Reichenbach played in the controversy. Well, I did some more research, and I've now been able to confirm my doubts. Reichenbach was just spinning a wild yarn.
Some background: The story (according to Reichenbach) is that back in 1913 he was working at a New York City art dealer who was trying to sell 2000 copies of a little-known work of art that showed a young woman bathing in a lake. Reichenbach came up with the idea of staging a phony protest. He phoned up Anthony Comstock, head of New York's anti-vice league, and complained that the painting, which was hanging in the window of the store, was indecent. Comstock stormed down to the store, saw a large group of boys gathered outside the store, gawking at the painting, and almost blew his top. He didn't know the boys had been secretly paid by Reichenbach to stand there. Comstock ordered the picture removed and charged the store owner with indecency. The resulting controversy made the picture famous and caused millions of copies of it to be sold throughout the nation.
It's a great anecdote about how a clever marketer got the better of Comstock, who was a self-righteous moral crusader (and thus a perfect comedic foil for Reichenbach's tale). The story is regularly repeated in newspapers, and for years it's been a staple in books about hoaxes. In fact some author called Alex Boese included it in the book version of The Museum of Hoaxes (Dutton, 2002).
Well, Boese evidently didn't do his homework, because some quick digging through newspapers from 1913 would quickly have revealed a major flaw in Reichenbach's story: The September Morn controversy didn't start in New York. It started in Chicago. Comstock did threaten a New York art dealer who displayed the painting in his window, but only two months after Chicago authorities had prosecuted a Chicago art dealer for doing the same thing. It was the Chicago case that made September Morn famous, not the New York one.
At best Reichenbach can claim that he jumped on the bandwagon after the controversy was well underway. But my guess is that Reichenbach simply invented his role in the controversy out of whole cloth.
You can read my entire description of the controversy in the hoaxipedia.