Paladin Of Purity

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Comstock became even more rigid in his later years, if that was possible, and some of his more foolish tiltings at windmills occurred when society was beginning to shed a few of the repressions of the Victorian Era. In 1906 his busy eye chanced to fall on a brochure of the New York Art Students’ League, and he was horrified to see there reproductions of studies of nudes. Remembering his past unhappy experiences where women had been involved, Comstock did his best to find a man to arrest but was finally forced to take into custody a nineteen-year-old girl who was giving out the brochures at League headquarters. It did the aging sin fighter no good when the girl became so upset in court that a doctor had to be called, and the newspapers chortled when the frustrated Comstock called for the young lady’s employer to show up. “I want to get at the sneaking hounds behind this woman’s skirts,” he said. Ultimately Comstock was happy to have the case against the girl dismissed after the pamphlets were seized, but others did not forget so easily. The Art Students’ League, which had been mailing similar brochures for years with—they claimed—full knowledge of postal authorities, caricatured Comstock mercilessly, newspapers used the episode as a subject for cartoons, and he was accused of being a lewd-minded old man.

This had not been his first raid on serious art. As early as 1887 he had moved against the old and respected gallery of Herman Knoedler in New York and had confiscated a hundred seventeen photographs of masterpieces by Bouguereau, Henner, Perrault, and other living French artists many of which had hung in the Paris Salon. “The morals of the youth of this country are endangered by obscenity and indecency in the shape of photographs of lewd French art—a foreign foe,” Comstock proclaimed, alerting the nation to the enemy from without. It is possible that he did not quite understand what the Paris Salon was, for in one report he listed among his accomplishments the seizure of photographs of paintings “which had been exhibited in the Saloons of Paris.”

One of his most publicized and silly acts was his attempt in 1913 to suppress September Morn , a Paris Salon medal-of-honor winner by Paul Chabas. A print of the picture was exhibited in the window of a New York art dealer, and though the picture portrays a nude so chaste that even Comstock and an assistant agreed action could probably not be brought in court, Comstock demanded that it be taken out of the window. “It is not a proper picture to be shown to boys and girls,” he told the dealer. “There is nothing more sacred than the form of woman, but it must not be denuded. I think everyone will agree with me that such pictures should not be displayed where school children passing through the streets can see them.”

Comstock almost alone made September Morn an overnight success. The manager refused to be intimidated, Comstock became an object of ridicule, and September Morn sold in quantities far beyond its value as art or any slight ability to titillate.

He did the same valuable service for Bernarr Macfadden, the apostle of physical fitness. In 1905 Macfadden advertised his Mammoth Physical Exhibition in Madison Square Garden, with posters that showed photographs of young ladies attired in what today would be called long Johns. Comstock, shocked, found the posters “lewd,” “vile,” “degrading,” and another contribution to “the harvest of minds debauched, lives wrecked, and souls damned.” He impounded the posters and arrested Macfadden, and as a result of the publicity and clamor five thousand were turned away from the doors of an exhibition that would not have threatened the morals of the most unsophisticated country boy.

Comstock, in his last years, battled at gnats. He railed against French and Italian novels. He became upset by visiting British suffragettes, especially when they brought to this country copies of their paper containing articles on prostitution. He stopped the fund-raising activities of many Roman Catholic churches, which even then were using raffles, if not bingo, to replace worn-out furnaces and repair leaking roofs. He forced a garment maker to remove unclothed manikins from his window. He even had a woman arrested because on a post card she had called her husband a “spitzbub,” or rascal, very likely meaning it as a term of endearment. He quarreled with people in his office and sometimes—and not always in the line of duty—got involved in physical altercations that left him bruised and bloodied.

One of his last great crusades was against birth control, and his special target was Margaret Sanger, the pioneer in that field. In 1915 he went to her home pretending to be an impoverished father and obtained a pamphlet from her husband, who was arrested and served a month in jail. That July, a month after Sanger’s trial, the champion of decency went to the International Purity Congress in San Francisco, an American delegate appointed by President Wilson. It was a busy and exciting time for a man not quite as spry as he had been—he was then seventy-one—for he was kept busy attending meetings and making speeches extolling purity, but it was a bit too much for him. He caught cold, and though he returned to his desk in late August, he soon became ill with pneumonia. On September 21, 1915, he went to receive his reward.