Cincinnati Was Rocked by a Free Love Scandal in 1908

A UC philosophy professor was sacked for privately raising doubts about the sanctity of marriage and run out of town.

Scandals in Cincinnati come in abundant variety, from sex and politics to greed and scientific discovery. Philosophic scandals are somewhat rare here, so it was surprising when Henry Heath Bawden got fired from the University of Cincinnati in 1908 for pondering the sanctity of marriage.

Professor Henry Heath Bawden is photographed on the steps of UC’s McMicken Hall.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (May 1908), image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Bawden arrived at UC in 1907 as Professor of Philosophy. He was, in fact, the entire Philosophy Department. UC’s College of Liberal Arts boasted just 27 faculty at the time, and Bawden was the only one teaching philosophy, arriving in Cincinnati from an endowed professorship at Vassar. During six years at that elite school, he proved so popular that students dedicated the 1906 yearbook to him. He and his wife were both Ohio natives and had family here, so no one questioned why he would give up a distinguished position at one of the Seven Sisters—women’s colleges considered equal to the Ivy League—to teach at a small, municipal college out in the hinterlands.

By all accounts, Bawden was an engaging lecturer, a beneficial mentor, and a creative thinker. He wrote the standard introductory text for an emerging school of American philosophy known as Pragmatism. He also didn’t much care for marriage and insisted on discussing his aversion.

One day in May 1908, Bawden’s philosophy caught up with him when Mrs. Bawden, the former Susan Talbot of Granville, Ohio, sat down to chat with UC President Charles Dabney. Why Mrs. Bawden met with Dabney remains a mystery. At the time, several motivations were proposed:

  • Mrs. Bawden was tired of defending her husband and explaining their unusual living arrangements, so she called Dabney.
  • Gossip about the Bawdens’ unusual living arrangements was circulating among the UC faculty and, more importantly, donors, so Dabney called her.
  • Some students were upset that Bawden expressed anti-Christian beliefs in class.

The “unusual living arrangements” were these: The Bawdens lived in the Auburn Hotel on Malvern Place in Mt. Auburn. Mrs. Bawden and the couple’s two sons lived in a suite at the main hotel, while Professor Bawden lived across the street in the annex.

Whatever the genesis of the meeting, it soon came out that Bawden had been asked to leave Vassar after Mrs. Bawden discovered some passionate letters and erotic poetry written by her husband to a young research assistant. Confronted with the documents, Bawden confessed, telling his wife he was in love with the graduate student and that his philosophy of marriage allowed him to associate with anyone for whom he felt affinity or “comradeship.”

Everyone agreed that Professor Bawden, outside his indiscreet love notes, had not acted on his philosophical yearnings, nor had he propounded his radical beliefs in the classroom. His philosophy, nevertheless, disqualified him from teaching in the presence of impressionable young minds, particularly those of the fairer sex, according to President Dabney, who told The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune [May 12, 1908]:

“No man whose opinions or whose manner of life are destructive of the very foundation of human society will be permitted to teach in any institution for which I am responsible.”

At the time the scandal broke, Bawden had two weeks left on his teaching contract. UC decided that any student who declined to attend the remainder of Bawden’s classes would be counted as “present” and no women could attend his classes without a note from their parents.

Just what were these dangerous beliefs propounded by Henry Heath Bawden? As he himself summarized them in a manifesto published by The Cincinnati Times-Star:

“Fellowship, comradeship, is the only basis of a true marriage, and when, for any reason, this has vanished, the real immorality is to seek to keep up the outward form when the inward essence has fled.”

The university and the local media interpreted that statement as promoting free love, sexual license, and the abolition of marriage. Here is The Enquirer’s [May 12, 1908] take:

“Prof. Bawden’s views are unique, but not new. He holds to the creed of the ‘Free Thinkers.’ As to marriage, he holds that it is a good institution only in so far as it is a provision for the offspring of the relation of the sexes. Man and woman should live only as comrades—with comradeship only as a tie.”

And here is an excerpt from a Cincinnati Post [May 13, 1908] editorial:

“And when a college professor makes known that his belief lies NOT in marriage as the safety valve on all society—at once its blessing and its protection—but in a love of the ‘affinity’ type, his day of usefulness as a pedagogue has passed.”

To recount: Bawden wrote some passionate words to a Vassar student that, apparently, were never delivered. It is possible—none of the media reports suggest this—that he may have expressed his desires in some other manner. Everyone agreed that Bawden never had actual sexual relations with anyone other than his wife. His students insist he never discussed his opinions on marriage in class. In brief, Professor Bawden was fired because of his scandalous but entirely personal beliefs.

Professor Henry Heath Bawden scrupulously mentioned, in every interview concerning his dismissal from UC’s faculty, his three unpublished manuscripts. Local newspapers excoriated him for shameless self-promotion at the expense of his publicly humiliated wife.

Cincinnati Post (May 1908), image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Bawden told the inquisitive that, if they really wanted to know what he was thinking, he was ready to publish four books: one on Pragmatism, one on education, and one on aesthetics, plus a volume of his love poetry. The newspapers roasted him for this shameless self-promotion.

The Enquirer printed more unsubstantiated rumors than the other local papers and claimed that Bawden’s Vassar inamorata had fled Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and was now living in California. That’s where Bawden landed after his dismissal from UC.

Mrs. Bawden took the children and moved in with Professor Bawden’s parents. She divorced her wayward philosopher in 1909, never remarried, and lived until 1953. Both sons earned Ph.D.s and became professors.

Bawden’s book on Pragmatism was published in 1910 and is still regarded as a classic, although Pragmatism was long ago superseded by other schools of thought. By the time his book came out, Bawden was living as Henry H. Bawden, working as a truck farmer in San Ysidro, California. Over the next 40 years, he built a new reputation as a pioneer in organic farming.

During his time in California, Bawden lived with one woman for a while, got sued for enticing a married woman to live with him, and married and divorced another woman. No word on whether he found his true comrade.

None of his other books ever saw print. Bawden died in 1950 and is buried in San Diego.

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