"Newly Obtained Documents Shed Light on Sanger's 1914 Escape Into Exile," #65 Winter 2013/14

In October of 1914 Margaret Sanger confronted the most difficult choice she had yet faced: whether to defend herself in court against obscenity charges stemming from her publication of the Woman Rebel, or flee the country, leaving her three children behind. After several days of indecision she chose to go into exile. She hurriedly packed, made arrangements for her children and departed on a train for Montreal, from where she would sail to England.

Details in Sanger’s two autobiographies about her trip out of the country and first days as a fugitive from the law are sketchy and difficult to confirm because of a lack of surviving letters. She wrote briefly about the trip in a journal entry, included in Volume I of our Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger (p.97-98), but did not elaborate. We are, however, beginning to get a clearer picture of this important episode in Sanger’s early activism because of a recently acquired collection of documents. This fall we received a small set of letters saved by a Canadian couple, socialists Frank and Mildred Bain, who helped Sanger when she arrived in Montreal. We obtained the letters from Brian Bain Caldwell, the grandson of Frank and Mildred Bain, with the help of Dr. Marilyn McKay of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Dr. McKay came across this material while writing “Walt Whitman in Canada: The Sexual Trinity of Horace Traubel and Frank and Mildred Bain" in the Walt Whitman Quarterly, 30 (Summer 2012): 1-30. These letters, including one written to the Bains by Sanger after she arrived safely in Liverpool, provide some new details and new insight into Sanger’s state of mind.

To set the stage: this was a tumultuous time for Sanger, and she struggled with, in her own words, “mental turmoil and distress.” She was estranged from her husband, William, having left him in Paris at the end of 1913, where he stayed on to paint. She had almost no money to her name. And she was suffering from severe exhaustion after working many hours to get her contraceptive manual, Family Limitation, printed and bundled up to be sent out to a network of radical supporters across the country. Meanwhile, she was being harassed by postal agents, who had suppressed the last two issues of the Woman Rebel, and pressured by the U. S. Attorney’s office, which was forging ahead with an obscenity case against her for articles published in her journal. As she weighed her options, a source inside the government informed her that her conviction was a fait accompli, and she would likely face prison time. Complicating matters was the nature of the obscenity charges. She was accused of violating the Comstock Law by printing articles on birth control, abortion, the economics of large families, the convention of marriage, and one entitled “A Defense of Assassination.” However, none of the articles in question contained specific contraceptive advice or instruction. As a test case it missed the mark, and Sanger said at the time that she would rather be indicted for publishing Family Limitation, her bold and unambiguous attempt to deliver practical birth control information to women. “Had I been able to print Family Limitation earlier,” she later wrote, “and to swing the indictment around that, going to jail might have had some signicance.” (Sanger, An Autobiography, 118-119.)

So she made up her mind to flee. On the evening of October 29, 1914, without a passport or a firm plan for her immediate future, she took a train to Montreal. What she did have were the names of a number of “comrades,” an extended network of radicals and Woman Rebel subscribers ready to help in any way. These included Frank and Mildred Bain, who picked Sanger up at the train station and welcomed her into their Montreal home. The Bains were, on first glance, an unassuming middle-class couple. Frank worked for the Trader’s Bank, based in Toronto, and Mildred, a part-time writer, stayed at home caring for their toddler-aged daughter, Betty. But their lives revolved around leftist causes, and they were in regular contact with well-connected socialist friends on both sides of the Atlantic. They belonged to the Fabian Society, the British socialist organization that had branches in Canada, and had joined the Labor Temple and Equal Suffrage League. They were most active as “Whitmanites,” admirers--almost to the point of religious zealotry--of the American poet, Walt Whitman. They became intimate friends with Whitman guru Horace Traubel, even engaging in a sexual triangle that resulted in Traubel most likely fathering Betty Bain and her younger brother, Paul, born in 1916. Traubel, a widely respected writer at the time and Whitman’s literary executor, edited and published the The Conservator, a monthly literary magazine dedicated to Whitman’s memory and the causes Whitman espoused. Mildred Bain wrote regularly for the journal. (Marylin J. McKay, “Walt Whitman in Canada: The Sexual Trinity of Horace Traubel and Frank and Mildred Bain,” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review [2012]: 1-3, 8, 17-18.)

It is likely that Traubel, a regular visitor to Greenwich Village radical haunts who had published an early feminist statement by Sanger in The Conservator in December 1913, directed Sanger to the Bains. He had introduced the Bains to other American reformers, including feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who stayed with the Bains a few weeks before Sanger’s arrival. Sanger admired Traubel, noting that “all who come in contact with him . . . come within the radiance of his personality,” and she would have trusted his judgment. And the Bains were far enough outside the widening circle of Greenwich Village radicals to allow Sanger to feel safe, for a few days at least, from the authorities. Furthermore, Frank Bain’s reputation as a respectable banker, along with his business and government connections, put him in position to arrange for a new identity for Sanger and the necessary paperwork for her passage to England. Sanger adopted the unalluring “Bertha Watson” as her alias, a name that, she later wrote, “seemed to rob me of my femininity.” A newly obtained letter written by William Sanger to the Bains confirms that they “aided her in procuring passage” via a letter to a government official, “all so invaluable in a time when friends are in the most need.” (The Conservator 24:10 [Dec. 1913]: 152; McKay, “Walt Whitman in Canada,” 18; MS, Journal, Nov. 3, 1914 [S70:13]; MS, An Autobiography, 121; William Sanger to Frank and Mildred Bain, Nov. 19, 1914 [MSPP].)

The November 19 letter from William Sanger, written not long after he returned to New York from Paris, also confirms his wife’s legal status--that “the authorities are now looking for our beloved Rebel.” He expected federal prosecutors to file a new indictment against her for the publication of Family Limitation, increasing the odds that the government would seek extradition as soon as they discovered her whereabouts. “Whether or no they will find her,” he wrote, “will depend on the character of the new Federal indictment they will issue on the circulation of the pamphlet. By this I mean that if the Grand Jury here issue a Felonous Indictment that ↑she↓ would be extradited.” Of course, we know now that postal authorities were in the process of planning a sting action against William Sanger in a maneuver to draw his wife back home. Here William Sanger describes his own run-ins with Post Office inspectors just after his wife’s departure and anticipates further trouble.

I have had some interesting sessions with the P.O. Inspectors including two secret service–-who came to my studio like any newspaper men would to get an interview. I can assure you the information they procured was entirely brief–-

I have not been molested since–-but I feel there will be some interesting developments shortly. The pamphlet is out & its taking root. I have it right that Brother Comstock, has been seen reading it.– (William Sanger to Frank and Mildred Bain, Nov. 19, 1914 [MSPP].)

One month later, William Sanger gave an undercover agent for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, posing as one of Margaret’’s socialist friends, a copy of Family Limitation. Another month passed before Anthony Comstock himself, the famous censor and moral crusader, came to William Sanger’s studio in New York and arrested him for giving out contraceptive information.

In the same letter to the Bains, William Sanger recounts his awakening to his wife’s keen intellectual faculties and notes his willingness to sacrifice suburban comfort for her greater calling in life.

You must know only four years ago, when Margaret belonged to the local Literary Society of Hastings on Hudson where we built our house intending to “settle down” there for the rest of our “natural lives–-”” like all more or less prosperous suburban people, yes–-she wrote that scrib on George Eliot & that one evening she read it to me & I realized that here was one who could not alone write but think as well[.] [F]rom that hour, I began to realize that a broader life should be hers-–so we sold our home where two of our babies were born. We came to the city to live in all its stress & noise that Margaret will be one of the big women of her generation.

In this interesting retelling of the Sangers’ domestic life in Hastings, William fails to mention his desire to become a great artist and the fact that Margaret Sanger worked as a visiting nurse to support the family. He does not give any indication that his marriage to Margaret had fallen apart, although he admits he had not yet heard from her, but “I hope she has arrived safe” in England. What does come through clearly in this poignant letter is his emotional pain over their separation. (William Sanger to Frank and Mildred Bain, Nov. 19, 1914 [MSPP].)

On November 20, Margaret Sanger wrote to the Bains from Liverpool, where she arrived a week earlier. In this newly obtained letter, Sanger thanks the Bains for harboring her and helping her arrange her voyage to England, writing, “I think of you both so often and how lovely you were to me. I should have been passed back to the U.S. on a gold platter sure enough had I not had your assistance.” She describes her ten-day voyage across the Atlantic on the R.M.S. Virginian and her close call with customs.

The trip across was quite the usual trip-–very few-–people on board and as “Miss Watson” I was well attended where as the married women with husbands “fighting for France” as they say, were looked upon as Virgin Marys & left quite alone. Lesson Mildred–-never go across as “Mrs”–- But to be serious-–when I landed I had the devils own time trying to prove I was an American–-Having no passport I was detained because I was booked as a British subject. A mistake of the Purser. Just my luck. (MS to Frank & Mildred Bain, Nov. 20, 1914 [MSPP].)

Forced to endure an anxious waiting period while customs officials scoured her documents (“believe me ‘J. C.’ had nothing on me in his crucifixion during the waiting,” she told the Bains), they finally let her pass because of a letter she carried from an Ambassador Bradley vouching for her identity, and a guarantor’s statement from Frank Bain and his bank that was sufficient for ““Bertha Watson” to secure a passport once she arrived in London. (MS to Frank & Mildred Bain, Nov. 20, 1914 [MSPP].)

Settled in a Liverpool hotel, Sanger wrote to the Bains with unusual openness about her emotional state. Her letter expresses the desperate loneliness and depression she suffered upon her arrival in Liverpool and underscores the uncertainty of her situation: a single woman with a fake name, traveling in a foreign country in the middle of a world war.

It was raining & cold & dreary & no mail as I intended there should be, and for an hour or two I was wishing for the quite quiet, simple life of the married slave, with the fireside & twenty-five children I didnot care how many or often and never wanted to hear of revolution or propoganda or anything but die dead. It was awful honest!

But she gathered her courage, writing:

I knew that was no condition for one to be in so hiked off to look up the Clarion Club and behold found the Fabians gathered around their fireside & greeted me as a comrade. I felt better at once.

Sanger set about trying to contact several of the Bains’’ friends and fellow Whitmanites in England. One of them, James William Wallace, an architect’s assistant, had organized British devotees of Walt Whitman into an informal fellowship. This group included writer and social reformer, Edward Carpenter, another Bain friend and a much celebrated author within the American radical community for his writings on sexuality and gender. Wallace set about to get fellow British Whitmanite, socialist Charles Frederick Sixsmith, to write a letter of introduction for Sanger to give to Carpenter (Sanger met Carpenter in London in January of 1915). Wallace also suggested, in another newly acquired letter, that she track down Havelock Ellis, the sex psychologist, in London, already a top priority for Sanger. (J. W. Wallace to “Bertha Watson,” Dec. 13, 1914 [MSPP].)

At the Clarion Café, a socialist meeting place, Sanger was invited into a heated discussion about the war. She wrote the Bains that

The Socialists are certain that the Germans need to be “licked” just this once etc. . . The people here are glad of the war for it has given them great economic relief. Thousands of marriages have taken place ↑which↓ leaves the “seperation pension” of three or four dollars a week to the wife–-and five or six if there are children–- also the wife or women can work & earn a little, so they are better off than when the man was here unemployed & she to keep him–- there is almost no news–things are very quiet in the papers. The laughable thing is that the English think U.S. should come into this war with the Allies. (MS to Frank & Mildred Bain, Nov. 20, 1914 [MSPP].)

Unfortunately we have yet to find their answer, or any of the other letters that surely passed between the Bains and Sanger during the latter’s year in Europe. We do know that the Bains sent money to Sanger during her exile and that Sanger had formulated plans to have her children meet her in Canada, presumably at the Bains, in the spring or summer of 1915. But given the war news and her still precarious legal state, she decided to stay in Europe and await news of William Sanger’s Family Limitation trial. Like so many who popped in and out of Sanger’s eventful life, Frank and Mildred Bain made an important contribution to the birth control cause--providing refuge for the “woman rebel” at her time of greatest need--but then quickly faded from view, returning to their intense sexual and intellectual idolatry of Traubel and Whitman. Sanger did keep in touch with them; as late as 1958 she sent a short acknowledgment, part of this new collection of letters, of a birthday telegram sent by Frank, who died a year later, and Mildred, who died in 1962. But it is not clear whether she ever saw them again after 1914 and those few days “that left such a glow of love and good fellowship over my mind.”” (MS to Frank & Mildred Bain, Nov. 20, 1914 [MSPP]; Caroline Nelson to MS, June 12, 1915 [LCM 9:887]; McKay, “Walt Whitman in Canada,” 18-19; MS to Frank & Mildred Bain, Sept. 19, 1958 [MSPP]; MS, Journal, Nov. 3, 1914 [MSM S70:13].)