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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
One of Comstock’s most notorious cases of entrapment involved an abortionist, a Cockney woman named Ann Lohman, who, with success in her practice, had achieved a fine house on New York’s Fifth Avenue and had come to call herself Madame Restell. Comstock never denied that he had gone after Madame Restell because others had told him he would not dare attack anyone so well protected. There is also some evidence that this woman had all but retired and was about to attempt to move into polite society. Comstock approached her in the guise of a man whose wife was pregnant with an unwanted child, and when Restell demurred at helping him, he beseeched her aid, so she said, by claiming that he was all but destitute and that another mouth to feed would ruin him. Only then did she give him her medicines, not so much for money as out of compassion. Then Comstock arrested her. She was out on bail shortly, but back in her Fifth Avenue home she contemplated her future, and it was bleak. She was sixty-seven years old, and the prospect of exchanging the comfort with which she had surrounded herself for a cell must have been cheerless indeed. She went into her marble bathroom and cut her throat.
The editorial outcry against Comstock was vociferous, but it glanced off the armor of his righteousness. “A bloody ending to a bloody life,” he summed it up briefly, and later said, half boasting, that Madame Restell’s death was the fifteenth suicide he had caused. There were to be others. In 1902, long after the Restell affair, a booklet called The Wedding Night caught Comstock’s vigilant eye. It was the work of a Miss Ida Craddock, who, though mentally deranged, had a brilliant mind within the limits of her affliction. The unfortunate woman believed she was the espoused of an angel, and from the erotic hallucinations of her marital relations with this heavenly being came a number of writings, including, oddly, a defense of the belly dance, as well as The Wedding Night , a small volume of advice to the newly married. Comstock found it obscene and had her arrested, and a New York court sent her to jail for three months. When she was released, Comstock had the poor woman arrested again on a federal charge of sending indecent matter through the mails. The judge, as so often happened, found the pamphlet too obscene to enter in the court records, and the jury, without having seen the evidence, was forced to find Miss Craddock guilty. She chose, while awaiting sentencing, not to go back to jail again and turned on the gas in her little apartment.
Miss Craddock had many friends, and the clamor against Comstock was so great that it penetrated even his thick skin. He asked Miss Craddock’s pastor for a chance to give his side of the story but was ignored. He was shrewd enough not to make any statement saying that Miss Craddock got what she deserved. Nor did he ever mention how she ranked in the number of suicides he had caused.
Bearing the banner of the Lord, as Comstock did, had its risks. In 1874 an enraged smut dealer slashed his face with a knife, leaving a scar he carried the rest of his life. On another occasion he was kicked down a flight of stairs by a doctor he was trying to arrest and broke three ribs, and in a number of other encounters he suffered various abrasions and contusions. There were less open attempts to do him harm. Once he was sent an infernal machine whose main element was an explosive surrounded by pieces of broken glass and a bottle of sulfuric acid; only a malfunction of the crude firing mechanism kept it from going off. On another occasion Cornstock received a small package of smallpox scabs; he and his wife were immediately vaccinated and escaped the disease. Yet another time he received through the mail, according to biographer Trumbull, an infected porous plaster, which, when he picked it up, gave him a peculiar “boring” sensation in the pores of his hands and face. Modern medicine seems unable to name any agent that could cause such a physiological effect, but Cornstock had his skin and office disinfected at once and had no further bad effects. His assistant, not so fortunate, contracted blood poisoning and was ill for a year.