A Cincinnati Housewife’s Career As A Novelist Was Cut Short By Censorship

Jean Randolph Searles was a most unlikely pornographer—in fact, Jean Randolph Searles did not exist.

As near as I can tell, not a single copy of Jean Randolph Searle’s novels is to be found in any tri-state library, unless you count the book stacks at Anderson University, 88 miles away in Indiana.

Portrait of Adah Viola Benz, aka Jean Randolph Searles

From Cincinnati Post 13 November 1929 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

It is ironic that many of the libraries holding Miss Searles’ books today are conservative Christian schools like Anderson, affiliated with the Church of God, Roman Catholic Carlow University in Pittsburgh, and “non-denominational conservative Christian” Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia. The irony lies in the reception her books detonated in 1912 when they were condemned by the national and local branches of the Society for the Suppression of Vice as “too utterly indecent for our young to see.”

Jean Randolph Searles was a most unlikely pornographer. In fact, Jean Randolph Searles did not exist. That was merely the pen name of Adah Viola Benz of Price Hill, aka Mrs. George Benz, mother of two daughters and wife of an apparently quite successful real estate developer.

One might assume that Mrs. Benz, married to an established businessman, had the money to pay for the publication of her two 1912 novels herself—a practice known as vanity publishing. The books credit the “Press of Jennings & Graham,” a printer affiliated with Cincinnati’s Methodist Book Concern, a publishing house and bookstore located on West Fourth Street. The wording implies that Jennings & Graham published the books, but it is likely they only printed and bound them.

The books in question are The Girl In The Slumber Boots and its simultaneously published sequel, Further Annals of the Girl In The Slumber Boots. Although the books deal with marital infidelity and its consequences the (shall we say) “mechanics” of this infidelity are buried in baroque prose that relies ponderously on innuendo and not at all on forthright exposition.

In brief, Nell, the titular girl in the slumber boots (heavy knit slippers made to wear to bed) is unhappily married and walks in her sleep. One morning, she finds herself in the bed of an unhappily married doctor who leaves his apartment door unlocked. When Nell enters his darkened room in the wee hours, he thinks she is his wife and has his way with her. Somehow, this activity does not rouse the somnambulist and it is only when she awakens hours later that the full import of her transgression inspires her to action. Drama and trauma ensue, involving British gentry, ruined damsels, misadventures out West and the shenanigans of high society.

This illustration, as much as the innuendo-laden text, got Jean Randolph Searles’ “The Girl In The Slumber Boots” banned on publication in 1912.

From Library of Congress

According to Alfred Segal at the Cincinnati Post [26 November 1929], the Society for the Suppression of Vice may not have even read the book. Their censorious ire may have been directed toward the illustration opposite the title page:

“It showed a woman in a nightgown confronting a man in a bathrobe. Her hand seemed to flutter towards her face in fear. He stared at her with the glum expression which men on old-fashioned posters frequently had. That was too much for the purity of the day. The book officially was ruled out of the stalls and sent back to the author.”

None of the Cincinnati newspapers reviewed “The Girl In The Slumber Boots.” One of the few published reviews, from the Monroe City, Missouri, Democrat [12 December 1912] is more than a little vague in its appraisal:

“It is too bad that anyone capable of writing as interesting a story as this one spoils it by taking the wrong view of what is right and what wrong. To be sure she straightens out matters in the second volume, Further Annals of the Girl In The Slumber Boots, but she doesn’t look at life right. The books are not wholesome – are not what we would want our young people to read.”

Well, that was in 1912. By 1929—only 17 years later!—when the Post’s Segal interviewed the author, times had changed. Hemlines had skyrocketed from floor-length to knee-length. Women now smoked in public, for goodness’ sake. The new morality was reflected in the racy novels of the Roaring Twenties. As Segal explained:

“Words that would have been strange to the Slumber Boot Girl were sprinkled all over the pages. Details which she would have locked forever in her heart were shouted in black type. The erstwhile author thought perhaps her hour had struck. If she had written naughty things (with indecent pictures) too early in the century, she now could make up for it.”

Mrs. Benz, by now living on Shiloh Avenue in Clifton, took copies of her books downtown to Fourth Street, to Bertrand L. Smith, proprietor of the Traveler’s Book Shop, later to be known as Bertrand Smith’s Acres of Books.

“Smith glanced at the ‘indecent’ pictures and smiled sadly. He skipped through a few lines of the intimate passages and smiled still more sadly. ‘Madame,’ he said, ‘this ain’t nuthin’.’”

Smith accepted Mrs. Benz’s books and put them on sale. Buyers told Smith it was a relief to find decent books still for sale in Cincinnati. Still, Mrs. Benz would not allow Al Segal to print her real name for fear the taint of prior condemnation might still adhere to it.

George Benz died in 1937. A couple years later, Adah Benz revived her pen name and published another novel, Only A Substitute Wife. This time, the book was actually accepted by a legitimate publisher, Ruter Press, who also issued books of Caroline Williams’ artwork. Adah’s third novel appears not to have sold well and copies are hard to locate.

Adah Viola Rohrer was born in Elkhart, Indiana, in 1872 and married George Benz, a young and ambitious carpenter, in 1896. The young couple moved to Cincinnati in 1906, where George, in partnership with Sherman Weigold, built and sold a good number of houses in the northeast portion of Northside. Both George and Adah, aka Jean Randolph Searles, are buried in Goshen, near Elkhart, Indiana.

Adah’s books, while not preserved in Cincinnati, are on file in the Library of Congress and perhaps a dozen other libraries. They can be located online, where original editions fetch $70 or more.

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