Thursday, August 10, 2017
Detail from the Julio Mario Santo Domingo bookplate. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryDetail from the Julio Mario Santo Domingo bookplate. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

Recently, the Schlesinger Library cataloged some materials received with the Julio Mario Santo Domingo collection, “the world’s largest private collection of material documenting altered states of mind,” which is currently on long-term deposit with Harvard University. Included among the marijuana cookbooks and collections of Beat poetry was one curious and unique item—an envelope of objects labeled “Keep This Under Lock and Key—The ‘Hummer’ Combination of Rich, Rare, Racy, Sporty Stuff.”

Upon first glance, this appears to be a collection of pornographic material, and indeed, a portion of the Santo Domingo collection is erotic in nature, but when one opens the envelope, the contents are not quite as expected. The promised set of “real pictures” turns out to be 14 black and white reproductions of classical paintings (albeit those depicting the female nude). The six “rare and priceless tales,” with such suggestive titles as “The maiden’s dream” and “How a married woman goes to bed,” would not be out of place in any general interest publication. And the “Book of the White Slave Trade” reprints a portion of E. Norine Law’s The Shame of a Great Nation: The Story of the ”White Slave Trade,” a xenophobic anti-prostitution volume of dubious veracity.

Simply put, this is a bait-and-switch operation—the sucker pays $2.50 for a collection that the envelope brags “should be $5.00” and receives a handful of paper that is not nearly as licentious as hoped for. However, the description on the outside is technically accurate, and as the sale and distribution of obscene material had been illegal in the United States since 1873, it is unlikely that anyone duped by this scheme would seek legal recourse.

Frauds of this sort are described in the contemporary book “Fishing for Suckers”: Advertising Schemes That Get Money from the Innocent, Gullible and Unwary by George Thomas Watkins, published by the author in Boston in 1916. Canny publishers would place advertisements in newspapers or magazines promising to send photos of “Pretty girls in swimming” (largely pictures of bathing suit clad women from newspaper articles), a fascinating book for “sports” sent in plain wrapper (the Bible), or get rich quick plans that only cost the reader a small initial outlay of capital (in return for which, they of course get nothing). Watkins notes that many publications are now refusing such advertisements, but as anyone who’s received a spam e-mail or a phone call offering to lower their credit card rates can tell you, 100 years of progress have not dampened scammers’ efforts. 

One item in the envelope that does remain mysterious is a “trick card” stamped “SOAK IN WATER.” No search of the literature on mail order scams uncovered information on what happens, and the library was hesitant to destroy a portion of its holdings in order to confirm that the “trick” is likely that the owner is left with a damp piece of cardboard.

Courtesy of Schlesinger Library


Summer Unsinn