- 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
Although the Y.M.C.A. had found him an embarrassment, it was not unaware of what he had accomplished; in January, 1874, it issued a private report showing that in little more than a year as agent for the defunct committee Comstock had seized 134,000 pounds of obscene books, 194,000 lewd pictures and photographs, 14.200 pounds of stereotype plates, 60,300 “articles made of rubber for immoral purposes,” 5,500 sets of playing cards, and 31,15o boxes of pills and powders (mostly “aphrodisiacs”). In fact, Comstock had been so thorough that from then on his confiscation of obscene material followed a curve of diminishing returns, and the take grew smaller each year. Hy 1881 the society could boast of having seized only twenty pounds of obscene books and a mere twenty-five indecent pictures, Comstock undoubtedly considered it worth the effort, for it was his conviction that “a single book or a single picture may taint forever the soul of the person who reads it”—a hypothesis that is still being debated.
While Comstock did not differentiate between obscenity and works of literary merit, not much was lost to the world of letters during his early crusading. The books he suppressed ran almost entirely to such titles as Peep Behind the Curtains of a Female Seminary; Curtain Drawn Up, or the Education of Laura; and Isabel Manton, the Beautiful Courtesan . Nor did the great part of the pictorial art he destroyed leave the world any poorer. It was inevitable, though, that with his lack of ability to discriminate and his heavy-handed approach he was bound to gather up works of literary and artistic merit along with the garbage. And because he drew no distinctions, he effectively terrorized most publishers and booksellers and for years made them afraid to sell anything but the blandest of material. At the same time Comstock had a great deal of cooperation from like-minded judges and prosecuting attorneys. Courts accepted the rule that a work need not be examined on its overall intent but that findings of obscenity could be brought on the basis of isolated paragraphs, sentences, and even words. The Bible would not have passed this test. Judges also ruled in many cases that material under consideration was too lewd to go into th public record, and bewildered juric had no choice but to bring in a guilt verdict, without ever having been pei mitted to see the material on whicl their decision was being made.
Comstock’s duties brought him into conflict with gambling. In New York he drove the Louisiana Lotten out of business, though it was receiving protection in high places, and he was offered a bribe of $25,000 to forget the entire thing. He led an attack on Long Island (lit) poolroom gambling houses, and his accounts of the raids leave little doubt that he thoroughy enjoyed kicking down doors and facing antagonistic crowds. Certainly he was well equipped for physical confrontation. Trumbull describes him in the vigor of manhood: Standing ahout live leet ten in his shoes, he carries his two hundred and ten pounds of muscle and hone so svell that vou would not judge him to weigh over a hundred and eightv. His Atlas shoulders ol enormous hreadth and squareness, his chest of prodigious girth, surmounted by a bull-like neck, are in keeping with a biceps and a calf of exceptional size and iron solidarity. His legs are short, and remind one somewhat of tree trunks. …
Yet though he enjoyed the physical contact, he could not get greatly exercised about gambling. The great evil was sex. After it became legal to bet on horses in New York State, he had no appetite for moving against off-track locations where bets could be made illegally. “It doesn’t seem fair to let a man bet at the track and to arrest another for doing the same thing in some place outside the race course,” he said. But fairness was the least of Comstock’s worries when there was important game afoot. He spent a great deal of time answering advertisements—and newspapers then accepted advertising that would be proscribed in this permissive age—for everything from “Peephole rings, Sultry Sue magnified 50 times” to those that offered “Confidential solutions to women’s problems” and were nothing more or less than abortionists’ come-ons. Cornstock wrote his letters under aliases, and as soon as he had the necessary evidence, he moved in on the culprit. These methods did not endear him to the public, however productive they may have been, and for this and other reasons he became widely despised.