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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 332

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This is the grave of Anthony Comstock, arguably the single worst American to ever live.

Born in New Canaan, Connecticut (try not to hold it against the town, I’m sure there are some OK people there) in 1844, Comstock served in the Civil War. He grew up poor, but that didn’t make him a decent person. Already a moral prig, he used to take his daily dram of whiskey in the 17th Connecticut serving in Florida, pour it on the ground, and lecture to his fellow soldiers on the evil of alcohol. You can guess how popular he was. Other soldiers hated him as he cajoled them into prayer services and temperance campaigns. They openly made fun of him. This would be just the start to an illustrious career of assholery.

After the war, Comstock moved to Brooklyn, got married, and initially had trouble getting anyone to take him seriously. He worked as a clerk and spent his free time trying to convince New York authorities to arrest anyone he thought was peddling sex or other moral crimes. In 1871, committed to getting New York to enforce its laws to close bars on Sunday, a bar owner threatened him, but Comstock fought him off with a revolver. Another time, a Newark printer stabbed him and doctors thought he would die but he didn’t. Too bad. He also tried to get booksellers he believed were selling smut arrested. He was doing this on his own for a few years, but in 1872 was hired by the YMCA to do it for them. This gave him the resources to purse a goal: the arrest of Victoria Woodhull.

One of the most interesting people of her time, Woodhull was the first woman to be a major player on Wall Street, a reformer, a feminist, and a candidate for the presidency. She also believed in free love. In short, she was everything Comstock found repulsive. And he set out to destroy her. Woodhull represented everything Comstock thought was destroying America. Calling sexual literature, which was more like things talking about birth control than modern pornography “the leprosy of this vile trash” and “a deadly poison, cast into the fountain of moral purity,” Comstock believed the erotic book “breeds lust. Lust defiles the body, corrupts the mind, deadens the will, destroys the memory, sears the conscience, hardens the heart, and damns the soul. It unnerves the arm and steals away the elastic step.” Is that all? He targeted printers and bookshops, looking to have anyone arrested this moral prude wanted to see eliminated.

Because Woodhull believed in free love and because Comstock was good at badgering people, he had her arrested at just the right time–when the YMCA was talking about giving him a raise. This was during her presidential campaign, which of course wasn’t going to go anywhere, but was the most prominent public display of politics by a woman in American history. She was arrested for running a story in her newspaper that male editors of New York papers also ran, but her sexuality threatened Comstock’s moral universe so he sought to crush her. The story was a factual one: the big time preacher Lyman Beecher had a mistress. This was a fact. But it was an obscenity if you were Comstock. The case was a disaster. Woodhull had some defenders, but the fact that she was a bold woman had alienated many men who in a misogynist nation (then and now) wanted her crushed. That she was talking so frankly about the sexual hypocrisy of a powerful man unnerved some of her previous male supporters and they remained silent during her persecution. Woodhull was acquitted of course, because the case was bogus, but public opinion had turned against her. She gave up her previously radical lifestyle, married a rich British guy, moved there, and lived a very conventional rich woman’s lifestyle until she died.

In the aftermath, Comstock became the nation’s moral scold. The YMCA went all in with Comstock. The Comstock Laws, enacted in 1873, were designed to oppress anyone talking about sex in any way, especially people giving advice around birth control. He became the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice later that year. Calling himself “the weeder of God’s garden,” he sought to purify America on his own terms. He would not allow medical textbooks showing accurate depictions of the human body to be sent through the U.S. mail, among other things. Comstock literally laughed when the prosecutions his laws caused against birth control providers caused them to commit suicide. Seriously–he openly wrote letters about how great this was, especially when the New York provider Ida Craddock killed herself after being targeted by Comstock and wrote a long suicide note blaming him for her decision to commit suicide. He was tickled pink. The same with the prominent abortionist Madame Restell, who killed herself after Comstock had her arrested in 1878. I mean, this was an utter piece of shit, a terrible human being in all ways. He later bragged about of the 4,000 people he had arrested, 15 killed themselves. To Comstock, this was the greatest of all outcomes. I want you to imagine the moral turpitude of a man who thinks this way. Maybe he doesn’t seem to you the equal of the worst Americans who led us to war and the like, but to me, a man who seeks to oppress women to this degree, it really doesn’t get worse.

It also drove Comstock nuts that others were not as fanatical as he was. Sure the laws were passed. But then juries wouldn’t convict and when they did, politicians tended to pardon the convicted, because unlike Comstock, they weren’t moral monsters. Grant and Hayes would routinely pardon his victims. Yet he managed to stay in power since no one would really call him out of his horrors. His final major act was trying to suppress Margaret Sanger, who fled to Europe in 1914 after Comstock sought her arrest and actually had her husband imprisoned for distributing obscene literature. Luckily for everyone in the world, Comstock dropped dead in 1915. Sanger returned to the U.S. and the nation finally took some steps forward on issues of birth control and women’s bodily autonomy.

Anthony Comstock, human scum, is buried in The Evergreens Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York. Unfortunately, grass grows over his grave, which seems inappropriate. Nothing should receive the nutrients of this rotting corpse. If you would like this series to visit more of the worst Americans who have ever lived, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. I plan on a visit to Nashville in December and your donations could get me to visit Andrew Jackson. I think you should make it happen. In fact, you can make that visit happen with your generosity. It is worth noting that no one has made the decision to continue this series for a month now, so I hope I can continue it on my own. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

All the good quotes here from Comstock come from Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, “Victoria Woodhull, Anthony Comstock, and Conflict over Sex in the United States in the 1870s,” from the September 2000 issue of Journal of American History.

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