The Howl Trial (1957)

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Shig Murao is in the drunk tank at the San Francisco Hall of Justice after being arrested for selling a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. The trustee brings him a hot dog for lunch but tells him the dogs are laced with saltpeter to control the prisoners’ sexual urges.


Shig passes on the hot dog. The trustee eats it.



The Howl trial was something of a circus. The charge against Shig and Ferlinghetti was that they “did willfully and lewdly print publish and sell obscene and indecent writings.” 


The trial judge, Clayton W. Horn, taught Sunday school at his church; Ralph McIntosh, the assistant district attorney who represented the state, was an antismut crusader who adopted the curious strategy of repeatedly demanding that defense witnesses explain the precise meaning of Howl.


“Do you understand,” he railed, “what ‘angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night’ means?”


In photos of the trial Shig appears cocky and surprisingly dapper in what he later described as a “cheap, light-blue summer suit.” (Shig said that he selected this suit as an editorial comment on the absurdity of the entire scene, as no one from San Francisco would wear this type of clothing.)


Artist Bob Ward, who executed a life-size woodcut of Shig in 1985, observes that “in all the photographs of the trial, you’ll notice Shig is sitting in a pensive pose with his head resting on his hand with one digit socially raised.”


According to Ward, Shig continued doing this until ACLU attorney Lawrence Speiser ordered him to stop. “Shig was quite proud of that,” reports Ward.


Shig was dismissed from the case early on, as the Penal Code required that he had “knowingly” sold the book, and prosecutors could not prove that he had read it.


In the end, the arguments made by ACLU attorneys J. W. Ehrlich and Albert Bendich prevailed. Judge Horn agreed with their argument that Howl was protected under the First Amendment.


“The judge’s opinion was hailed with applause and cheers from a packed audience that offered the most fantastic collection of beards, turtlenecked shirts and Italian hairdos ever to grace the grimy precincts of the Hall of Justice,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle.


Another newspaper account offered a slightly more restrained account, observing, “The audience included several children and many poetic looking ladies and gentlemen in somewhat eccentric attire.”


“To me,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti would write in his introduction to Howl on Trial, “[Shig] was the real hero of this tale of sound and fury, signifying everything.” But I don’t think Shig would have seen it that way.


“In jail,” Shig wrote, “I had no noble thoughts of fighting for freedom of the press and censorship. I had planned to live a quiet life of reading, listening to music and playing chess the rest of my life. Yet here I was involved in a case for selling obscenity.”


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Copyright information here.



 

Shig Murao, ACLU attorney Al Bendich, and  Lawrence Ferlinghetti at the Howl trial.

Photo from Life magazine, 1957.

I was taken by patrol car to the Hall of Justice, three blocks from the store. In the basement, I was fingerprinted, posed for mug shots and locked in the drunk tank. The cell smelled of piss. There was a piss-stained mattress on the floor. For lunch, they served me wieners, very red.

—Shig Murao’s description of his arrest in his brief account of the trial, “Footnotes to My Arrest for Selling Howl.”

Full text here.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Shig at trial.

Photo by Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

SHIG’S STORY



SHIG’S
 DREAM   
JOB
(1953)Dream_Job_2.html

AT THE
COUNTER:
THE EARLY
YEARS
(1953)At_the_Counter.html

SHIG’S
INNER
CIRCLE
(1953)Inner_Circle_2.html


THE
HOWL
TRIAL
(1957)


SHIG’S HEYDAY AT
CITY LIGHTS
(1960)CL_a_la_Shig_2.html


THE END
OF AN
ERA
(1975)End_of_a_Era_2.html


10:00 A.M.
AT THE
TRIESTE
(1975)10_00_A.M._%40Trieste_2.html


LIFE AFTER
CITY LIGHTS
(1976)Life_After_CL_2.html


A SAMURAI
FAMILY
(1920)Samura_family_2.html



SHIG’S
PLACE
(1976)Shigs_Place.html



SHIG’S
REVIEW
(1983)Shigs_Review_2.html


THE
FINAL
CHAPTER
(1984)Final_Chapter_2.html