- Historic Sites
Paladin Of Purity
Anthony Comstock spent a lifetime on a crusade to clean the nation’ Augean stables of smut, vice, and nudity. Sometimes it seems as if he pried in vain
October 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 6
Anthony Comslock made it his life’s work to purify this nation, to protect the young from such sights as might lead them into paths that would corrupt their souls and eventually lead them into the yawning pit. He was very certain that he was doing the work of the Lord, and almost singlehandedly for more than forty years he conducted a campaign against wickedness that not only swept in many real offenders against decency but also landed some pretty small fry whose sins appear almost nonexistent to a less discerning eye than Comstock’s. He liked to visualize his accomplishments and in an interview in 1913, two years before he died, said:
“In the forty-one years I have been here I have convicted persons enough to fill a passenger train of sixty-one coaches, sixty coaches containing sixty passengers each and the sixty-first almost full. 1 have destroyed 160 tons of obscene literature.”
All but the closing years of Comstock’s career coincided with that period known as the Victorian Age. We know it as a time of genteel prudery, yet Comstock’s trainload of sinners and his tons of confiscated pornography suggest that it was not all a time of strawberry festivals and looking at stereopticon slides of the Holy Land. Something must have been going on under the purple plush surface.
The Victorians went to great lengths to insure that nothing untoward would happen, nothing indelicate be seen or heard. Chaperons became necessary for young couples, and strict codes of behavior were enjoined on young ladies: “Do not suffer your hand to be held or squeezed, without showing that it displeases you by instantly withdrawing it. If a finger is put out to touch a chain that is round your neck, or a breast-pin that you are wearing, draw back, and take it off for inspection. Accept not unnecessary assistance in putting on cloaks, shawls, overshoes, or anything of the sort. …” Fig leaves were pasted on classical nude statues. And euphemism was carried to a fine art. This was the time when legs disappeared, to become “limbs”; trousers were “unmentionables” or “nether garments”; bull became “gentleman cow”; cockroach was shortened to plain “roach”; and some lady guests, in an excess of delicacy, would ask to be served a bit of the “bosom” of the turkey.
Puritanism and Victorianism have been equated, but although there is a kinship, there is also a difference. One depended on religion to enforce its strictures, the other mainly on the pressures of society. The Puritan divines thundered against sex outside of marriage as sinful, but they were realists, fully aware that women as well as men are moved by physical appetites, and they hoped only to keep such urges confined to the nuptial bed. After the American Revolution religion lost its power as an enforcer of moral restraints, and for a time there was a period of relative tolerance. Then the heavy hand of repressive morality began to weigh down again, but now the sanctions were not from the church but from society and, particularly, from the middle class. What would your neighbors think? What would Mrs. Grundy say?
Victorian woman, unlike her Puritan forebear, was desexed and placed on a pedestal. While her husband went out to fight the dragons of business and commerce every day, she took command of hearth and home and became the protector of family morals, the guardian of spiritual values. It was tacitly recognized that the male was driven by carnal urges, but woman, pure and high-minded, was unmoved, if not actually repelled, by “that sort of thing.” Yet in a wonderfully contorted bit of reasoning Victorian society believed that woman, although so much purer than man and lacking the same animal desires, must be carefully protected from temptation lest she succumb and fall into the depths of degradation.
There was a great deal of ferment under the bland surface respectability. Pornography flourished as it never had before. Authors of popular novels, though they and their editors carefully excised any word or phrase that might possibly offend, were skillful in insinuating eroticism into chapters that outwardly seemed to drip with sentimentality and to preach virtue. Prostitution flourished; a physician claimed in 1869 that there were twelve thousand known prostitutes in Philadelphia, seven thousand in Chicago, and twice as many per capita in Chicago as in New York. As for New York, it, too, was well served. In 1866 the chief of police admitted that there were 62 i houses of prostitution and 96 houses of assignation; one of the more elegant brothels regularly sent its business card to men registering at the better hotels.