Comics Critic Fredric Wertham Lied in Order to Implicate Comic Books in Juvenile Delinquency


You read here earlier today at Hit and Run Ronald Bailey writing about how some of the latest attempts to blame pop culture (in this case, video games) for corrupting our youth don't hold up.

Now new evidence has arisen showing that one of 20th century America's most notorious popular culture moral panics, the one against comic books catapulted to prominence by the superscience of psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, most prominently in his 1953 book Seduction of the Innocent, was based on some made up evidence.

Details from the University of Illiinois news bureau:

Wertham's personal archives….show that the doctor revised children's ages, distorted their quotes, omitted other causal factors and in general "played fast and loose with the data he gathered on comics," according to an article by Carol Tilley, published in a recent issue of Information and Culture: A Journal of History.

"Lots of people have suspected for years that Wertham fudged his so-called clinical evidence in arguing against comics, but there's been no proof," Tilley said. "My research is the first definitive indication that he misrepresented and altered children's own words about comics."

Wertham died in 1981. His archives, at the Library of Congress, weren't made widely available to researchers until the spring of 2010. Within a few months, Tilley, who teaches media literacy, youth services librarianship and a readers' advisory course on comics at the University of IllinoisGraduate School of Library and Information Science, was digging through the dozens of boxes of "Seduction" files.

"From a contemporary standpoint, 'Seduction' is horribly written because it's not documented," she said. "There are no citations, no bibliography. He quotes a lot of people, refers to lots of things, but there's no really good way of knowing what his basis is for any of this."….

And the more you try to find out, the sloppier Wertham was revealed to be:

As she pored over his files, she began to recognize the case notes of children referred to in "Seduction," and typing their quotes into her laptop computer. But when she returned to her hotel room and compared her notes to Wertham's book, she found numerous inconsistencies. "I thought well maybe I've missed something, maybe I typed incorrectly," Tilley said. So she began photocopying portions of Wertham's files and comparing them closely to his book. "That's when I realized the extent of the changes."

For example, in "Seduction," Wertham links "Batman" comic books to the case of a 13-year-old boy on probation and receiving counseling for sexual abuse of another boy: "Like many other homo-erotically inclined children, he was a special devotee of Batman: 'Sometimes I read them over and over again. … It could be that Batman did something with Robin like I did with the younger boy.' "

What Tilley found in Wertham's notes, however, was that the boy preferred "Superman," "Crime Does Not Pay" and "war comics" over "Batman," and that he had previously been sexually assaulted by the other boy – all information that Wertham left out.

He had an extensive case file on a 15-year-old boy named Carlisle, whom he was counseling for truancy, petty thievery and gang membership. Carlisle brought three comic books to one counseling session, and the transcript in Wertham's file shows that Carlisle said one of the comic books, called "Crime Must Pay the Penalty," was instructive on ways to commit burglaries and holdups. However, in "Seduction," Carlisle's quotes appear to come from five different boys, ranging in age from 13 to 15, in different settings and contexts…..

Tilley's article also cites the case of Dorothy, a 13-year-old whose chronic truancy Wertham ascribed to her admiration for the comic book heroine Sheena and "crime comics," omitting any mention of other factors listed in her case notes, such as her low intelligence, her reading disability, her gang membership, her sexual activity and her status as a runaway. Wertham also didn't reveal that he never personally met or observed Dorothy; she was the patient of his associate, Dr. Hilde Mosse…

And Wertham knew full well that lots of articulate kids valued their pop culture intelligently:

Her research turned up a few other surprises: about 30 letters written to Wertham and another 200 or so sent to the Senate subcommittee by children trying to save their access to comic books. Other researchers have mentioned the missives sent to the subcommittee, but Tilley decided the young writers' arguments deserved more attention. "Some of them talked about fairy tales and folk tales, Poe and Shakespeare, and said this stuff has murder and sex and traumatic events too, but you call that good literature," Tilley said. She is in the process of locating as many of these letter-writers as she can find, for her research on how kids related to comics over time. "For most of them, my contact is the first acknowledgement they've had in 60 years that anybody read their letter."

I am somewhat wondering how excited some 75 year old today would be to have their youthful enthusiasm for comics and tendency to write to officious psychiatrists brought back in their face today, but that's historical research.

Reason has written about the very progressive liberal Dr. Wertham many a time; see especially me on David Hajdu's history of the crusade Wertham was such a big part of, The Ten Cent Plague, and Greg Beato and Franklin Harris on the horror comics the doctor excoriated.