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Anthony Comstock: American Prude


When I started writing over here, I had planned to run a series of my best posts at Alterdestiny since no one read them at the time. In fact, that’s why I had so many “Most Prominent Politician” posts when I first started–I was just taking them from over there. Speaking of which, look for Ohio to come out later today if I get enough grading done.

Anyway, writing about John Nance Garner yesterday, I was reminded that I used to post all the time about historical Americans I hated. I could make such a thing a series, but I don’t want to commit myself to a lot of long, work-intensive posts about U.S. history. “This Day in Labor History” is tough enough to keep up on and you’ve seen how sporadic the “Most Prominent Politician” posts are. Which reminds me that after I finally get through that series, which at this rate will be in 2019, I am going to do a series on the vice-presidential candidates on losing tickets.

I actually had the need to remember one of those old posts about Americans I hated, because tomorrow I am teaching about the lovely Anthony Comstock in my Gilded Age/Progressive Era course. So I thought I’d run this old post about the man who might be the douchiest American to ever live. I think it still holds up. It’s a bit long, but forgive the excess. Comstock may also be the inspiration for the Catholic bishops today; in a county that is now debating access to birth control, a little historical lesson might do some good.


Has there ever been a more loathsome American than Anthony Comstock? The self-appointed regulator of American morality, Comstock acquired great power during the late 19th and early 20th centuries through taking advantage of the anxieties of the upper classes to pass anti-obscenity legislation and prosecute those he thought were smut-peddlers. Loathed even in his own time, but with powerful protectors, Comstock represents the worst of puritanical America. His pernicious influence still lives with us today.

Comstock was born in New Canaan, Connecticut on March 7, 1844. He grew up as a Congregationalist. I don’t think the Congregationalists can engage in postmortem excommunications, but they may want to rethink this policy for Comstock. He enlisted in the Civil War, fighting for the Union between 1863 and 1865. He started his moralizing crusades while in the military, protesting against the use of foul language by his fellow soldiers. By all accounts, the soldiers that served with Comstock ridiculed him mercilessly, seeing him for the uptight bastard that he was. He poured his own daily ration of whiskey on the ground, which would have convinced me to ridicule him too.

After the war, Comstock took a job with the YMCA in New York City. He saw a city teeming with prostitutes and pornography. While he was right about this, he was also disturbed that people might also enjoy sex. Even by this early date, the YMCA was a center for gay men to hook up, though I am not sure how aware Comstock was of this. While working at the YMCA, Comstock managed to prosecute two men for peddling pornography. One of the men later slashed him with a knife, leaving a good sized scar on his face. Like during the Civil War, Comstock managed to survive, helping to show that evil is hard to kill.

Comstock’s first bit of fame came in 1872 when he attacked the feminist Victoria Woodhull after she reported a story detailing an affair famous American preacher Henry Ward Beecher had with one of his congregants. Woodhull was already famous in America in 1872. She declared she was running for president and convinced Massachusetts Senator Benjamin Butler to make a statement on her behalf before Congress, claiming that as citizens, women already had the right to vote. Woodhull also advocated free love, making her scandalous at the time. Woodhull’s belief that sex might be a good thing brought Comstock’s wrath upon her. Woodhull was arrested under obscenity statues for this story. She correctly argued that if she was a man, she would not have been arrested. But for Comstock, women talking about sex was even worse than men talking about sex. A technicality got Woodhull off, but Comstock became famous around the nation. He also destroyed Woodhull in the process. She lost her backers, moved to England, and married a proper gentleman, retreating into a traditional Victorian marriage.

Comstock frequently referred to himself in typical modest fashion as “the weeder in God’s garden.” In 1873, Comstock continued his national career of prudity by creating the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Through his powerful congressional benefactors, Comstock pushed through Congress in 1874 the notorious Comstock Law, which made illegal sending “obscene, lewd, and lascivious” material through the U.S. mail. Examples of such material included information on birth control and biology textbooks that showed accurate representations of the human body. Comstock believed the birth control devices caused lust to rise in the human body and lewd behavior to follow. It was primarily to stop birth control from being propagated that Comstock fought for the law that bears his name. Soon after, 24 states enacted similar laws to prevent the dissemination of birth control on the state level. The worst of these laws was in Comstock’s home state of Connecticut, where even the use of birth control was a violation of the law. Married couples could be prosecuted for using birth control in the privacy of their own homes and sentenced to a year in prison.

Comstock saw all erotic material as, “a deadly poison, cast into the fountain of moral purity.” Erotic books “breeds lust. Lust defiles the body, debauches the imagination, 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.”

Comstock used to brag about how 15 people had killed themselves because of his attacks. Among them was Ida Craddock. Craddock has been convicted violating the obscenity laws for authoring sexually explicit marriage manuals and sending them to paying couples who needed help in the bedroom. On the eve of reporting to federal prison for such a heinous crime, Craddock killed herself, leaving a lengthy note blaming Comstock for driving her to this. It was one of his proudest moments.

Comstock also had other obsessions. For instance, he managed to shut down the Louisiana Lottery, the only public lottery in the United States at the time. He really loved burning books too. He claimed to have arrested more than 3000 people and burned 15 tons of books in his career. He also fought against abortion and went after abortion providers with all the power he could muster. But abortion had many proponents during the Gilded Age. For instance, he had Sarah Chase arrested five times for violations of the Comstock Law because she was sending birth control through the mail, as well as for providing abortion. She was convicted only once, when a patient died after an abortion. Chase fought back too, suing Comstock for $10,000 after her 1878 arrest. She didn’t win, but she continually outfoxed Comstock through their dual careers. Birth control and abortion were widely sought after in America, even though people had to go underground to find it.

Many of Comstock’s contemporaries held a special place in their heart for hating Comstock. George Bernard Shaw coined the term “comstockery,” meaning “censorship because of perceived obscenity or immorality,” after Comstock attacked his play “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.” Shaw said, “Comstockery is the world’s standing joke at the expense of the United States. Europe likes to hear of such things. It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second-rate country-town civilization after all.” Comstock, showing all the class you would expect, simply referred to Shaw as an “Irish smut peddler.”

As the historian Andrea Tone writes,

After 1873 others, too, let their own views on morality and privacy guide their assessments of contraceptive criminality. Although Comstock took solace in blaming repeated acts of clemency on the ineptitude of officials or the treachery of his enemies, it was the reasoned deliberation of those who made up the court system, not its corruption, that returned birth control proprietors to the streets. To be sure, the leniency accorded birth control offenders may have been related to widespread loathing of Comstock, the man. Comstock’s belligerence and courtroom histrionics offended judges, alienated prosecutors, and prompted a steady stream of derogatory editorials, cartoons, and poems in turn-of-the-century newspapers and journals. But, although the frequent ridiculing of Comstock may help explain support for violators of the Comstock Law in general, it cannot account for the special leniency accorded birth control offenders in particular. Rather, those entrusted with the responsibility for enforcing contraceptive laws made choices that bespoke tolerance of birth control and compassion toward those who sold it, a willingness to see as gray what Comstock could see only as black-and-white. The judicial decisions of an age when popular attitudes toward criminal behavior and reproductive control are often difficult to gauge index broad-based support of bootleg birth control. Such support had economic ramifications. Favoring acquittal almost as often as conviction and light sentencing as a rule, judges and jurors created an environment in which black market birth control could thrive.

Emma Goldman, the famous anarchist and feminist, loved Comstock almost as much as Shaw did, calling him the head of America’s “moral eunuchs.” Many local police officers and judges hated Comstock’s laws as much as Shaw and Goldman and just refused to enforce them. Only 16 out of 105 people arrested for birth control violations between 1873 and 1898 were sent to prison. In virtually all the cases they were guilty of the violating the law, but sympathetic judges and juries usually either dismissed the charges, found them not guilty, or suspended the sentences. Ulysses S. Grant, who signed the Comstock Law, also felt sympathy and went out of his way to pardon 5 of the 12 people sentenced to prison during his presidency. His successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, also pardoned at least one person.

On the other hand, Comstock did have his followers. One big fan was J. Edgar Hoover. I guess cross-dressing wasn’t so obscene in those days. I’m sure Comstock would have agreed.

Comstock died on September 21, 1915. His health suffered in his later years after an anonymous attacker whacked him in the head. Unfortunately, his assailant failed to kill him.

Immediately after his death, the young birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger began her campaign to overturn these laws. In 1916, she opened the nation’s first birth control clinic, in New York City. She was arrested for violating the Comstock Laws. In 1918, courts sided with Sanger, making it legal for women to use birth control devices, though only for therapeutic purposes. In 1936, Sanger pushed a case that resulted in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in United States v. One Package that made it legal to distribute contraceptives across state lines. This made it legal to mail birth control devices around the nation.

Modern day disciples of Comstock must include former Attorney General John Ashcroft. Ashcroft used his time in the office to fight against sex any way he could, including in 2002 covering up the semi-nude statue “Spirit of Justice” at the cost of $8000 of taxpayer money. The statue was in the press conference room in the Justice Department. The site of a nude breast on a statue was too much for Ashcroft to bear.

This information comes from a variety of places. Several websites to be sure. I also looked at Nicola Beisel’s Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America, published by Princeton in 1997, Heywood Broun and Margaret Leech’s 1927 biography, Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord, which is more critical than you might expect, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz’s article, “Victoria Woodhull, Anthony Comstock, and Conflict over Sex in the United States in the 1870s,” published in the Journal of American History in September 2000, and Andrea Tone’s excellent piece, “Black Market Birth Control: Contraceptive Entrepreneurship and Criminality in the Gilded Age,” also published in the Journal of American History in September 2000.

Allow me to say how much I enjoyed researching and writing this post. May you all do something obscene tonight and dedicate it to the memory of Anthony Comstock, American Bastard.

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