- 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
After four or five years as a shipping clerk and dry-goods salesman he was earning enough to buy a small house in Brooklyn and to fall in love. The light of his life was Maggie Hamilton, the wispy, faded daughter of a merchant who had failed in business; she was ten years Comstock’s senior and so sensitive about the age difference that she never had a photograph made after the marriage. She was apparently an eminently forgettable character, for of two men who had known her as Comstock’s wife, one recalled only that she weighed eighty-two pounds, the other that she dressed always in black and seldom spoke. Comstock often likened this shadowy creature to his deified mother and loved her deeply; in his diary he called her “little Wifey” and always missed her when trips kept him away from home. They were married in January, 1871, and the following December their first and only child was born, a girl who lived only six months.
Not long after her death a combination of business and accident took Comstock to a tenement district and the bedside of a dying woman and her illegitimate baby daughter. On the mother’s death he took the infant home and legally adopted her. The child, Adele, grew up subnormal and troublesome and in her forties had to be placed in an institution when Cornstock died. It is said that he never knew she was different from other children. Comstock had a soft spot where all children were concerned; no matter how cantankerous he might be with others, he always had time for a crying child and carried rubber toys in his pocket to pass out to chance small acquaintances.
Three years before his marriage Comstock took the first steps along the path he would follow the rest of his life. The young shipping clerk from Connecticut had already seen around him, as Trumbull in his biography puts it, young businessmen “whose lives were plainly being ruined by their interest in the obscene pictures and literature and other devilish things that they had easy access to.” Moreover, “one of his friends had been led astray and corrupted and diseased.” Comstock learned that a man named Charles Conroy had sold the devilish things to his friend. Thereupon he too bought an obscene book from Conroy and took it to the police, who arrested the dealer and seized his books and pictures. Soon after, Comstock made a similar successful foray against another dealer in smut, in the process getting a patrolman who tried to warn the pornographer suspended.
There were few encomiums. Instead newspapers criticized Comstock for causing the policeman to lose his job. Later, as his efforts continued, they suggested that it was ridiculous to attack only minor dealers in pornography when bigger and busier places flourished on New York’s Ann and Nassau streets. Comstock accepted the information and asked the New York Tribune for a reporter to accompany him when he quietly invaded the area collecting evidence. Their complaints to the police led to seven arrests, a good day’s work for a man still new at this sort of thing.
In 1871, a few months after his marriage, Comstock joined battle with the peddlers of rum. Two saloons operated less than a block from his home; the proprietor of at least one of them, a bad-mouthed bully named Chapman, operated openly on Sunday, thanks to police protection. When Comstock complained to the authorities, Chapman paraded in front of the Comstock home, came to the door and threatened personal violence, and retreated only when Comstock displayed a pistol. In the midst of the lengthy legal battle that ensued, the other saloonkeeper, McNamara, dropped dead behind his bar, and Comstock calmly accepted it as a judgment from on high. He was eventually successful; after many postponements the case came to court, and Chapman lost his license.
It was no doubt a satisfying victory, but to Anthony Comstock liquor was never the menace that sex was. His diary shows that he did not hesitate to use liquor medicinally, and he wrote at least once of drinking beer during an evening of jollification. Moreover, in his office it amused him when playful to pretend to be intoxicated, and one does not joke about something one abominates.
Obscenity was something else again. Comstock wrote a book called Traps for the Young , in which he exposed the multitudinous snares set by the Devil for youth, from dime novels and the theatre to rum and shooting pool, but it was pornography that he considered the most direct route to damnation. His long and graphic description of the effects of lewd literature said, among many other things: … Passions that had slumbered or ‘lain dormant are awakened, and the boy is forced over a precipice, and death and destruction are sure, except the grace of God saves him. An indelible stain has been placed upon the boy’s imagination, and this vision shall be kept like a panorama, moving to and fro before his mind until it has blotted out moral purity. … Many a parent sends away the child [to boarding school] pure, fresh, and vigorous. He comes back, after a few years’ absence, with pale cheeks, lustreless and sunken eyes, enervated body, moody, nervous, and irritable—a moral wreck—and the parents mourn “that the child has studied too hard.” If they could get at the real trouble, it would be found that the child had fallen into one of these lust-traps, or death-traps by mail.