SKILL, LEONARD JAMES, bookseller; b. 15 Dec. 1864 at Camsix Farm, near Felsted, England, fourth of the six children of Charles James Skill, a farmer, and Harriet Eliza Leonard (Lennard); m. 2 Sept. 1895 Minnie Stephens in Woodstock, Ont.; they had no children; d. 6 Jan. 1923 in Toronto.
Raised in England, with an elementary education, Leonard Skill immigrated to Canada in 1890. An uncle, Henry Herbert Skill, had settled in Cobourg, Ont., in 1883 following his retirement from the British army. Leonard first appears in Toronto directories in 1900. Beginning in 1901 he worked for William Clarke as treasurer and then manager of the Globe Library Club (publishers’ agents) and Clarke’s publishing and importing business. In early 1905 he opened the Toronto Antiquarian Book Company, with an inventory of some 18,000 rare and second-hand volumes. Skill purchased private libraries, issued monthly catalogues to customers in Canada and the United States, and earned a respectable reputation among the many established politicians, businessmen, and clergy who were his patrons. In addition to the standard antiquarian fare of history, biography, and belles-lettres, the company offered more explicit and “realistic” works, principally translations of Greek, Latin, and modern Continental literature.
In 1907 the bookstore fell under the scrutiny of the Reverend John George Shearer of Toronto and Anthony Comstock, the famed American vice crusader and postal inspector. Comstock complained frequently that Skill was forwarding immoral literature and advertising through the United States mail. Shipments of books from Skill’s Paris suppliers were consequently subjected to repeated confiscations by Canadian postal and customs officials in 1907 and 1908. On 29 June 1909, equipped with a search warrant and reports from Comstock, post-office inspector James Henderson and Toronto morality police seized more than a dozen books, including unexpurgated translations of Balzac, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Brantôme, Flaubert, Hector France, Loti, and Petronius Arbiter, as well as 7,000 catalogues allegedly employing “language manifestly intended to commend them to the prurient mind.” Skill and his store manager, John Campbell King, were charged with selling, and posting circulars advertising, literature “tending to corrupt morals.”
Represented by Hugh Edward Rose and James Walter Curry respectively, Skill and King pleaded not guilty at the preliminary hearing on 14 July before magistrate Rupert Etherege Kingsford*. Among the witnesses called by prosecutor Herbert Hartley Dewart (filling in for crown attorney John William Seymour Corley) were Henderson, to whom Skill admitted having mailed the catalogues; George Herbert Locke*, head of the Toronto Public Library, who testified the books were “unfit for circulation”; and Arthur Jukes Johnson, Toronto’s chief coroner, who dismissed Brantôme as “lewd” and Barbey d’Aurevilly as “absolutely foul.” The defence argued that the booksellers had no criminal intent and that the books, which possessed more literary merit than others previously accorded the court’s sanction, had been sold without restriction for years. The fact that they were published in limited editions, and cost between $20 and $30 in a market where popular writers such as Charles William Gordon* (Ralph Connor) sold for 50 cents, limited their appeal to collectors and prevented their general circulation. Moreover, Curry argued, books which might, if sold to the general public, be deemed objectionable, were not so when placed in the hands of physicians, professionals, or scholars. In the end Kingsford found sufficient evidence to commit Skill and King to trial.
Following several delays, and sensing perhaps that the books were indefensible by contemporary standards, Skill and King changed their pleas to guilty on 20 December. On 3 Jan. 1910 they received a scathing reprimand from judge John Winchester, who maintained that no court could justify having the books read aloud to a jury, the “filth” being so great that “they would never get clear of it, no matter how long they lived.” Skill and King were each sentenced to a year in the Central Prison in Toronto.
The federal minister of justice, Allen Bristol Aylesworth*, received applications and petitions urging clemency from more than two dozen prominent businessmen and clergy familiar with the prisoners. He reviewed the books, some of which he deemed to be classics, and discussed the case with provincial attorney general James Joseph Foy. Upon Aylesworth’s advice to Governor General Lord Grey*, Skill and King were pardoned and, on 4 March, released. Forced to justify his action in parliament, Aylesworth declared that both men had engaged in “the ordinary legitimate business of respectable book selling” and that, in his judgement as a lawyer, they were not guilty.
The pardons aroused an almost unprecedented degree of outrage among reformers and their political allies. The secular press, led by the Toronto Globe in a series of blistering editorials, accused Aylesworth of being “a traitor to private decency and national character” for sanctioning the expression of “the grossest unnatural sensuality.” Religious conservatives denounced him for “sodomizing” Canada. Vociferous protests and demands for his resignation were lodged by such groups as the Moral and Social Reform Council of Canada, various Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist church bodies, and the Canadian Press Association.
The Reverend James Alexander Macdonald, editor of the Globe, privately warned Sir Wilfrid Laurier* in April that “there is more political gunpowder in this than in almost anything else that has come up of late” and urged that translations of authors such as Brantôme be “absolutely forbidden.” In a rare venture into literary criticism, the prime minister argued that Brantôme’s object was to provoke mirth, not passion, and his work should not be considered “half so dangerous for youth as some other books of almost daily circulation,” including Shakespeare. Did Macdonald, he wondered, really desire an index expurgatorius within the Presbyterian Church?
Despite considerable pressure and embarrassment to the government, Laurier refused to censure or dismiss his friend and minister, while Aylesworth vowed that “if the same thing were to be considered over again, . . . I should act in exactly the way in which I have acted throughout.” For his part, Skill soon parted company with his store manager. He renamed his shop the Toronto Book Company in 1911, and continued to own and operate it, apparently without further incident, until he was struck and killed by an automobile in 1923. He was buried in Hillview Cemetery in Woodstock.
Skill’s conviction provides a rare glimpse into the mechanisms used to suppress “objectionable” books in early-20th-century Canada. Reform organizations had initiated many such campaigns since the 1890s and typically received the cooperation of authorities, notably the Post Office and Customs departments. The Skill case, however, is memorable for the literary merit of the books involved and the extraordinary controversy it generated following federal intervention.
AO, RG 22-5871, box 2698, S-145-47/1909. LAC, MG 26, G: 170156-59, 170168-69, 170300-7, 170318-21, 170397-402; MG 28, I 327, box 29, Moral and Social Reform Council of Canada, minutes of the annual meeting, 23 Sept. 1910: 20-25 (published as The release of Skill and King, infra); RG 31, C1, 1901, Toronto, Ward 6, div.7: 15 (mfm. at AO). Daily Mail and Empire, April-May 1910. Globe, July 1909, April-May 1910. World (Toronto), July 1909, April-May 1910. Can., House of Commons, Debates, 1910. Directory, Toronto, 1900–23. Moral and Social Reform Council of Canada, Executive Committee, The release of Skill and King: immoral book vendors . . . ([Toronto, 1910]; copy in UCC-C). Toronto Antiquarian Book Company, Catalogue of an interesting collection of miscellaneous books (Toronto), nos.1 (February 1905)-34 (1909) (copies in Univ. of Toronto Library, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library).