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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
When Victoria and Tennessee came to New York, they set themselves up as stockbrokers and, with the advice of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, did quite well. They also began publishing a paper, Woodhull and Claflins Weekly , in which they aired their views on women’s rights, the spirit world, free love, and other unorthodox subjects. At this time there were persistent rumors that the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, the respected pastor of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church, was having an affair with the wife of Theodore Tilton, one of his parishioners. Tilton tattled to Victoria, who printed the sordid little story in the November 2, 1872, issue of the Weekly . Victoria did not cluck at Beecher’s conduct; on the contrary, she found his “immense physical potency” admirable and attributed his success as a minister to his strong “physical amativeness.” The only thing she found reprehensible was the secretiveness of Beecher and Mrs. Tilton, when they should have been broadcasting their love to the world.
This issue of the Weekly did not fail to catch the eye of Anthony Comstock, who was already scandalized by the doings of the sisters. When the district attorney refused to bring action under the New York obscenity law, Comstock brought suit under a federal statute that prohibited the mailing of obscene publications. The sisters, along with Victoria’s second husband, Colonel James H. Blood, who was managing editor, were indicted and the offending issue suppressed. Victoria and Tennessee refused to post bail and went to jail for four weeks, where they were regaled with every kindness by their wardens. Comstock was not pleased by the levity with which the newspapers treated developments. He was even more unhappy that the public should feel sympathy for the notorious ladies and that he should be looked on as their persecutor.
The sisters were released on bail after a month, were arrested again when Comstock, using an assumed name, trapped them into sending him copies of the proscribed issue, were released, arrested, released again—and at each court hearing Comstock was battered about a bit more, ridiculed, accused of harassment, and even heard himself called an “obscene man.” He became so heartily sick of the affair that when the sisters in bold defiance reprinted the entire Beecher piece in the Weekly , he chose to ignore it. When the end came in June, 1873, it was anticlimax. The case was dismissed, the judge ruling that the federal law applied only to books, pamphlets, and pictures and did not expressly include newspapers.
Comstock had known that existing federal law was weak, and even while the case against Victoria and Tennessee was dragging its slow way through the courts he had (Directed that Haw. Early in 1873, with the blessings of the Committee lor the Suppression of Vice, he had gone to Washington to show his exhibits to members of Congress and tell his stories of young men corrupted and lives ruined by such indecent material. The bill he proposed was passed with virtually no debate, and it was a strong one, prohibiting the mailing of any obscene, lewd, lascivious, or filthy matter. No loopholes were left like the one in the former law that had let Victoria and Tennessee escape; every possible kind of material was specified. Contraceptives and abortifacients and advertisements for them were also included in the scope of the law. The one thing the bill did not do was den ne “obscene,” “lewd,” “indecent,” and “lascivious.” Courts have been struggling with that problem ever since.
Comstock’s cup ran over when he was appointed a special postal agent to enforce the new law. He asked that he be paid no salary, so that the office would not liecome a political plum. His only income from fighting sin was the hundred dollars a year the Y.M.C.A. gave him as partial compensation for lost commissions on dry-goods sales. That arrangement came to an end a few months after passage of the Cornstock Law. Many members of the Y.M.C.A. had become embarrassed by Comstock’s rampaging, publicityattracting methods of fighting sin, so some of the more stout of heart reorganized the Committee (renamed the Society) for the Suppression of Vice and divorced it completely from the Y.M.C.A. Comstock was made chief special agent and secretary and was paid a salary—modest but yet a salary. He gave up the dry-goods business completely, which was not much of a sacrifice, for by then he was spending so much time as special postal agent and in suppressing New York vice that he could not have had much time left for selling cloth.