New book of Mencken’s writings captures spirit of his time

On Sundays in 1913, Baltimore residents who wanted a glass of beer or shot of rye boarded a streetcar and headed to Baltimore County, where the Blue Laws were lightly enforced. Outside the then city limits, from Back River to Westport, open air pavilions and road houses dispensed the alcohol that was forbidden in the city.

H.L. Mencken, then writing his Free Lance column for The Evening Sun, sat at a table at Spot Mitchell’s watering hole along the Back River as a raiding party of Baltimore County police officers arrived to stop the drinking that summer.

Mencken scholar S.T. Joshi has edited the Free Lance columns in a new book, “A Saturnalia of Bunk,” recently published by Ohio University Press in Athens, Ohio. Of that raid, Mencken said on July 21, 1913, “It was one of the most inept and donkeyish in all my experience. The county cops came bouncing in like rubber balls and seemed a great deal more scared than the persons raided. … As they gathered up a few half-empty bottles of alleged malt liquor and proceeded to manacle two or three waiters, the crowd favored them with a large, buzzing snicker.”

He wrote: that he had personally refused a drink. “I arrived at the place in a state of exhaustion … and called for a modest, medicinal dose of malt. Two separate waiters refused to serve it. Then I sent for the proprietress, and she too refused, offering me the alternative of a bottle of sarsaparilla.”

The cops had a busy Sunday. They arrested 12 boys for swimming naked at Lake Roland. Their parents paid fines of $3.40. 

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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