I’ve already profiled Anthony Comstock in the grave series, but it’s good for everyone to be reminded what a complete scumbag Comstock was, a man who really has a good claim to be the worst of all Americans in the history of this awful, awful nation.
Comstock — not satisfied with attacking just pornography — argued that the definition of obscenity should be expanded to include materials related to reproductive health, birth control and abortion, and he drafted legislation with some help from a Supreme Court justice, William Strong. In 1873, Congress passed the “Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use.” The press called it the Comstock Law. States rushed to pass even more draconian versions, with Connecticut banning all forms of birth control entirely.
Congress deputized Comstock as a “special agent” for the post office. At one point, he earned a knife scar across his face when he busted a mail-order pornography operation in a New Jersey basement. Not surprisingly, Comstock was an easy target for mockery. In 1905, George Bernard Shaw, the playwright, referred to censorship-happy moralism as “Comstockery” in a letter to The New York Times. In a cartoon from “The Masses” magazine in 1915, an outraged Comstock drags an unconscious woman before a judge and screams, “Your honor! This woman gave birth to a naked child!”
He may have been easy to satirize, but Comstock’s tactics were deadly serious. He bragged that he’d driven at least a dozen women to suicide. His victims included the Chicago spiritualist Ida Craddock, who killed herself after being sentenced to five years in prison for mailing “obscene” articles about reproductive health and tantric yoga. He reveled in the brutality of his tactics. As the historian Amy Werbel writes in her book “Lust on Trial,” Comstock’s abortion busts sometimes involved dragging women away from their doctors in the middle of a procedure. Writing in his ledger, Comstock noted the arrest of a “very sick” 17-year-old, Barbara Voss, who was charged with “wantonness” and taken, presumably still bleeding, to the police.
The Comstock Laws remained on the books in many states for over half a century after his death. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that courts began to relax restrictions on birth control and abortion.
It might be tempting to laugh off today’s Anthony Comstocks, whether that’s Milo Yiannopoulos attacking Leslie Jones on Twitter, or Vice President Mike Pence expressing his fear of meeting with women alone. But history reminds us that Comstock’s strategy worked. He used the courts to prevent generations of women from gaining access to information about reproduction and sexual health. He normalized the idea that the government could spy on our mail to ferret out “immorality.”Today’s legal battles over abortion access and gender identity are a continuation of his activism. His name may be forgotten, but the age of Comstockery is not over.
The New Gilded Age indeed.