- 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
This, then, was the hypocritical world of which Anthony Comstock appointed himself chief censor and in which he set for himself the herculean task of trying to make Victorian America conform to the image of rectitude and virtue to which it pretended. In later years he liked to say that for forty years his station had been “in a swamp at the mouth of a sewer,” but it requires no deep understanding of psychology to see that, albeit unconsciously, he enjoyed being at the mouth of the sewer. For what other man had his opportunity to pore over the nation’s pornography, to study at length the obscene products of Victorian frustrations—and to do it self-righteously in the name of duty? And, such are the secret workings of the human mind, he undoubtedly never admitted even to himself that he took any prurient pleasure in looking on the things he was denying to others.
There are those who have delved into Anthony Comstock’s early history, hoping to learn what made him so implacable in hounding depravity to its lair. They have found no overwhelming experiences or traumatic events that set his feet on the path they were to follow, only the usual boyish pranks and vices; but these probably worked hard on his conscience, for Comstock was a boy in whom the repressive doctrines of his New England upbringing found soil more fertile than usual.
Anthony Comstock was born in New Canaan, Connecticut, on March 7, 1844, the son of Polly and Thomas Anthony Comstock. Thomas Cornstock was comfortably established in his community; he owned a hundred sixty good acres and also operated two sawmills. The couple had ten children, of whom seven survived infancy, and all took their place in the farm economy. Young Anthony, as soon as he was old enough, had to get up at four o’clock each morning to feed the farm animals and do other chores, but it was no more than any New England farm boy was expected to do. Sunday was no day of rest, for family and farm hands drove two and a half miles to the Congregational church. After church there was Sunday school, and after a lunch eaten in the horse sheds came the afternoon preaching service. Even this was not always the end; after dinner at home some of the family often drove back for the evening church service. The religion that Anthony Comstock learned in church was a bleak sort. It told of hellfire and damnation always waiting for him who gave in to temptation—and with so many things included in its catalogue of sins it is not surprising that Anthony sometimes succumbed to temptation and then saw the pit open and the fires glow red.
Nor were Sundays only devoted to religion. There were prayers before breakfast every morning, and Mrs. Comstock told Bible stories to her children in the evening. Occasionally her stories were from other sources, but, as Comstock later told his authorized and worshipful biographer, Charles Trumbull, “always with moral courage as their key-note.” Polly Comstock died when Anthony was ten; for the rest of his life he idealized her above all other mortals.
On the last day of December, 1863, Comstock enlisted in the 17th Connecticut Regiment to take the place of his older brother Samuel, who had been mortally wounded at Gettysburg. Anthony faced few battlefield dangers; he saw only minor skirmishing and spent most of his time on garrison duty in Florida. But there were other battles, and he fought again and again with the Devil and did not always win. His diary contains many entries confessing sin and wallowing in repentance: Again tempted and found wanting. Sin, sin. Oh flow much peace and happiness is sacrificed on thy altar. Seemed as though Devil had full sway over me today, went right into temptation, and then, Oh such love, Jesus snatched it away out of my reach. How good is he, how sinful am I. I am the chief of sinners, but I should be so miserable and wretched, were it not that Clod is merciful and I may be forgiven. Glory be to God in the highest. O I deplore my sinful weak nature so much. If I could but live without sin, I should be the happiest soul living: but Sin, that foe is ever lurking, stealing happiness from me. … This morning were severely tempted by Satan and aller some time in my own weakness I failed.
The sin against which the young volunteer strove with such dubious success was, beyond doubt, what once was euphemistically known as self-abuse—although Anthony did succumb occasionally to other temptations; he admitted that he wasted part of one day reading a novel. To strengthen himself against the Devil he went to church and prayer services sometimes eight or nine times a week. He worked hard but was not popular with his fellow soldiers; he was too sanctimonious, too censorious, too intolerant. The men, for instance, received a whiskey ration; Anthony accepted his with the rest but then would pour it out on the ground in front of his comrades, refusing to give it to them. Such gestures did not tend to create warm friendships.
After the war Comstock came back to New Canaan to stay with his brother Chester, but there was little to hold him. The family farm was gone, the mortgage foreclosed—according to biographer Trumbull by southern sympathizers because Comstock boys had enlisted in the Union Army. After periods of clerking in a New Haven store and working on a government project in Tennessee, Anthony returned to New Canaan briefly, and then, as many an ambitious Connecticut boy was doing, went to New York to make good in business.