Paladin Of Purity

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Comstock’s several attacks on dealers in pornography so far had been extracurricular activities, for he still earned his bread selling dry goods. His small crusades, moreover, had produced quite debatable results; already he had had one man arrested a second time for peddling pornography, and it was plain that the only way to strike at the heart of the problem was to put the publishers of the stuff out of business. Comstock soon discovered that three publishers accounted for 167 pornographic books then in circulation. He had hardly begun his investigations when the most prominent of the three, William Haynes, was called before that higher tribunal that Comstock liked to talk about. The popular but unlikely story was that Haynes had been warned to lie low because Comstock was on the prowl and that same night, fearing the nemesis, took his own life. But his printing plates survived, and Comstock wanted to get these from his widow before they fell into other hands.

In the spring of 1872 Comstock wrote to the New York Young Men’s Christian Association asking for help. Morris K. Jesup, Y.M.C.A. president, saw the letter and was so impressed that he invited Comstock in and heard from him his story of how he had fought the smut dealers and how the publishers were still operating. Comstock could be a very persuasive speaker; often when he described the evil he was fighting and the way it was sending unsuspecting youths into the fiery pit, tears would stream down his face. Jesup was convinced and gave Comstock a check for six hundred fifty dollars. He was not only a Victorian but a wealthy one and would back Comstock as long as he lived. Shortly afterward the Y.M.C.A. formed the Committee for the Suppression of Vice to “engage in a still-hunt” against pornography. Its leaders, in other words, were against sin but did not want their names publicized in connection with the ugly word. Comstock, as their agent, would work for them, but quietly. They did not yet know their man.

Almost at once Comstock received help from on high. He was on his way to work one morning when—as he told it—an insistent inner voice told him to see Haynes’s widow. He had work to do in the city and no immediate reason to see Mrs. Haynes, but the voice would not be denied. He took the trolley to the Haynes house. He had been there only a few minutes when through the window he saw a wagon loaded with boxes of stereotype plates arrive. He did not hesitate. In a moment he was outside and had taken the reins. “I’ll take charge of those,” he said to Mrs. Haynes, and rattled off to Y.M.C.A. headquarters, where the plates were stored until they were destroyed. Comstock paid Mrs. Haynes four hundred fifty dollars for the plates, which were worth thirty thousand. The delighted officers of the Committee for the Suppression of Vice gave Comstock five hundred dollars, and the young sin-fighter, equally happy, noted in his diary that God had had a hand in this bounty.

Comstock took after the other publishers. The first, George Ackerman, he cornered after a cat-and-mouse game during which Comstock played a drunk to avoid suspicion as he trailed his man through dark streets and Ackerman masqueraded as an Episcopal clergyman to elude his pursuer. Ackerman surrendered his entire stock in trade: printing plates, books, “French” post cards. Shortly after, he died of causes unrecorded. The third publisher, Jeremiah H. Farrell, left his illicit business and fled south when he learned that Comstock was after him. Two weeks later he too was dead. Comstock took in stride these deaths, along with those of a drayman charged with hauling indecent goods and of a maker of “obscene rubber articles” (undoubtedly contraceptives). Others might have considered the string of deaths either eerie or strangely coincidental; Comstock saw only the hand of God.

Even among those who regarded Comstock as a meddler and snooper there were many who gave him grudging respect for his effectiveness in drying up the sources of pornography. Then in the fall of 1872 his zeal caused him to joust with women, a very bad mistake. Two sisters were involved, Victoria C. Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin. These beautiful, fascinating, and unconventional women had a background of travelling medicine shows and spiritualistic séances. Victoria had been married at fourteen, divorced, and remarried, in a day when divorce was somewhat of a scandal. Tennessee was married but had chosen to retain her maiden name, which no lady would do in the 1870*8. They were fervent supporters of women’s rights, and their married condition did not prevent them from vigorously espousing free love. Victoria, thirty-four and the elder, was a person of exceptional dynamism and in spite of her irregular views was nominated for the Presidency by the Equal Rights Party—though by election time her supporters were having second thoughts about her.