By ERIN ALLEN
Among comic-book aficionados, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham (1895–1981) was considered as much of a villain as those he assailed in the crime and horror comics he criticized. However, Wertham was more than just an outspoken crusader against comic books. He was dedicated to protecting children from harmful material in all mass media. His research about the detrimental effects of segregation was used in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education court case. In addition, Wertham founded a clinic in Harlem, providing mental-health services to the underprivileged African-American community.
The Library of Congress acquired his papers in 1987, through the estate of his wife, Florence Hesketh Wertham. In May 2010, all but six of the 222 containers were opened to public-research access. Previously, they were sealed except to people approved by the estate. (Those containing patient medical records remain closed).
“We realize that donors have certain interests they want to respect,” said Len Bruno of the Library’s Manuscript Division, which houses the collection. “Of course, things can’t stay closed forever,” he added, saying that the Library often agrees to reasonable restrictions in order to acquire materials.
Bruno said that since access became unrestricted, interest in Wertham’s papers has increased. His papers add another component to the Library’s collections, which include comic books in the Serials and Government Publications Division, about 128,000 works of cartoon art in the Prints and Photographs Division (P&P) and the papers of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and the International Psycho-Analytical Association in the Manuscript Division.
Wertham was born Fredric Wertheimer in Munich, Germany, on March 20, 1895. He received a medical degree in 1921 and moved to the United States to teach at Johns Hopkins University and practice at the university’s Phipps Psychiatric Clinic a year later. In 1932, he moved to New York City to serve as the head of the Court of General Sessions psychiatric clinic, which examined every convicted felon in the city. In 1936, he was named director of Bellevue’s Mental Hygiene Clinic in New York and later became director of psychiatric services at Queens Hospital Center.
“One of the things he did was create a clinic in Harlem to serve the underprivileged community,” said Bruno. In 1946, the Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic – a small outpatient facility run by volunteers – opened, providing care to the poor for almost 13 years.
“He was also a highly respected witness in high-profile criminal court cases,” Bruno added.
In 1935, he testified for the defense in the trial of serial child-killer Albert Fish, whom he had examined at length, declaring him insane. Wertham also testified on behalf of convicted spy Ethel Rosenberg, despite never having questioned her, in order to offer his expertise on her condition of “prison psychoses” while she was imprisoned at Sing Sing.
According to Wertham, he believed his testimony helped with Julius Rosenberg’s transfer to Sing Sing and the warden’s allowance for visitation rights between the married couple.
Wertham also provided his expertise as a forensic psychiatrist in a number of cases involving teenagers. This involvement was the basis for his book “Dark Legend: A Study of Murder” (1941).
Despite his humane interests and broader concerns with violence and protecting children from psychological harm, Wertham is best known for his book “Seduction of the Innocent” (1954) and its resulting fallout. The book was the culmination of a decade-long campaign against comic books.
“The book presents his research on the negative impact of violence in comics on impressionable youth,” said Bruno. “He was for censorship as it pertained to children.”
In “Seduction,” Wertham wrote, “There seems to be a widely held belief that democracy demands leaving the regulation of children’s reading to the individual. Leaving everything to the individual is actually … anarchy. And it is a pity that children should suffer from the anarchistic trends in our society.”
Among the items in the Library’s collection of Wertham’s papers is a selection of comics he deemed offensive, with notations he wrote inside.
His copy of “Kid Colt, Outlaw” (1967) includes a note that of the 111 pictures, 69 were scenes of violence. An issue of “Justice League of America” (1966) includes markings calling attention to the sounds of violence like “thudd,” “whapp” and “poww.”
In addition, Wertham’s papers include patient drawings and his analysis of those sketches. He writes of a young patient: “This case demonstrates the confusion created by comic books between fantasy and reality … cruelty in children’s play especially directed against girls.”
Wertham testified six times under oath on the harmfulness of comic books, including providing testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. Though the committee’s final report did not blame comics for crime, it recommended that the comics industry tone down its content voluntarily, thus resulting in the Comics Code Authority.
According to comic book historian and blogger Mike Rhode, Wertham’s research would likely not be accepted by most today as it relied on anecdotal evidence of children he saw in his Harlem clinic. Still, his legacy reverberates among comic-book fandom with his objection to even the most beloved heroes like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.
“I think he was part of a movement that is uniquely American – this need to protect children from adult life – that started in the 1950s. It was the same movement that said every child ought to graduate from high school and have the opportunity to go to college,” said Sara Duke, curator of the Library’s comic arts collections in P&P. “Until we can synthesize Wertham in his time, he will be demonized by historians for changing the comic-book industry and affecting the way generations of adults see comic books.”
Erin Allen is a writer-editor in the Library’s Office of Communications.