October 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 6
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
Anthony Comslock made it his life’s work to purify this nation, to protect the young from such sights as might lead them into paths that would corrupt their souls and eventually lead them into the yawning pit. He was very certain that he was doing the work of the Lord, and almost singlehandedly for more than forty years he conducted a campaign against wickedness that not only swept in many real offenders against decency but also landed some pretty small fry whose sins appear almost nonexistent to a less discerning eye than Comstock’s. He liked to visualize his accomplishments and in an interview in 1913, two years before he died, said:
“In the forty-one years I have been here I have convicted persons enough to fill a passenger train of sixty-one coaches, sixty coaches containing sixty passengers each and the sixty-first almost full. 1 have destroyed 160 tons of obscene literature.”
All but the closing years of Comstock’s career coincided with that period known as the Victorian Age. We know it as a time of genteel prudery, yet Comstock’s trainload of sinners and his tons of confiscated pornography suggest that it was not all a time of strawberry festivals and looking at stereopticon slides of the Holy Land. Something must have been going on under the purple plush surface.
The Victorians went to great lengths to insure that nothing untoward would happen, nothing indelicate be seen or heard. Chaperons became necessary for young couples, and strict codes of behavior were enjoined on young ladies: “Do not suffer your hand to be held or squeezed, without showing that it displeases you by instantly withdrawing it. If a finger is put out to touch a chain that is round your neck, or a breast-pin that you are wearing, draw back, and take it off for inspection. Accept not unnecessary assistance in putting on cloaks, shawls, overshoes, or anything of the sort. …” Fig leaves were pasted on classical nude statues. And euphemism was carried to a fine art. This was the time when legs disappeared, to become “limbs”; trousers were “unmentionables” or “nether garments”; bull became “gentleman cow”; cockroach was shortened to plain “roach”; and some lady guests, in an excess of delicacy, would ask to be served a bit of the “bosom” of the turkey.
Puritanism and Victorianism have been equated, but although there is a kinship, there is also a difference. One depended on religion to enforce its strictures, the other mainly on the pressures of society. The Puritan divines thundered against sex outside of marriage as sinful, but they were realists, fully aware that women as well as men are moved by physical appetites, and they hoped only to keep such urges confined to the nuptial bed. After the American Revolution religion lost its power as an enforcer of moral restraints, and for a time there was a period of relative tolerance. Then the heavy hand of repressive morality began to weigh down again, but now the sanctions were not from the church but from society and, particularly, from the middle class. What would your neighbors think? What would Mrs. Grundy say?
Victorian woman, unlike her Puritan forebear, was desexed and placed on a pedestal. While her husband went out to fight the dragons of business and commerce every day, she took command of hearth and home and became the protector of family morals, the guardian of spiritual values. It was tacitly recognized that the male was driven by carnal urges, but woman, pure and high-minded, was unmoved, if not actually repelled, by “that sort of thing.” Yet in a wonderfully contorted bit of reasoning Victorian society believed that woman, although so much purer than man and lacking the same animal desires, must be carefully protected from temptation lest she succumb and fall into the depths of degradation.
There was a great deal of ferment under the bland surface respectability. Pornography flourished as it never had before. Authors of popular novels, though they and their editors carefully excised any word or phrase that might possibly offend, were skillful in insinuating eroticism into chapters that outwardly seemed to drip with sentimentality and to preach virtue. Prostitution flourished; a physician claimed in 1869 that there were twelve thousand known prostitutes in Philadelphia, seven thousand in Chicago, and twice as many per capita in Chicago as in New York. As for New York, it, too, was well served. In 1866 the chief of police admitted that there were 62 i houses of prostitution and 96 houses of assignation; one of the more elegant brothels regularly sent its business card to men registering at the better hotels.
This, then, was the hypocritical world of which Anthony Comstock appointed himself chief censor and in which he set for himself the herculean task of trying to make Victorian America conform to the image of rectitude and virtue to which it pretended. In later years he liked to say that for forty years his station had been “in a swamp at the mouth of a sewer,” but it requires no deep understanding of psychology to see that, albeit unconsciously, he enjoyed being at the mouth of the sewer. For what other man had his opportunity to pore over the nation’s pornography, to study at length the obscene products of Victorian frustrations—and to do it self-righteously in the name of duty? And, such are the secret workings of the human mind, he undoubtedly never admitted even to himself that he took any prurient pleasure in looking on the things he was denying to others.
There are those who have delved into Anthony Comstock’s early history, hoping to learn what made him so implacable in hounding depravity to its lair. They have found no overwhelming experiences or traumatic events that set his feet on the path they were to follow, only the usual boyish pranks and vices; but these probably worked hard on his conscience, for Comstock was a boy in whom the repressive doctrines of his New England upbringing found soil more fertile than usual.
Anthony Comstock was born in New Canaan, Connecticut, on March 7, 1844, the son of Polly and Thomas Anthony Comstock. Thomas Cornstock was comfortably established in his community; he owned a hundred sixty good acres and also operated two sawmills. The couple had ten children, of whom seven survived infancy, and all took their place in the farm economy. Young Anthony, as soon as he was old enough, had to get up at four o’clock each morning to feed the farm animals and do other chores, but it was no more than any New England farm boy was expected to do. Sunday was no day of rest, for family and farm hands drove two and a half miles to the Congregational church. After church there was Sunday school, and after a lunch eaten in the horse sheds came the afternoon preaching service. Even this was not always the end; after dinner at home some of the family often drove back for the evening church service. The religion that Anthony Comstock learned in church was a bleak sort. It told of hellfire and damnation always waiting for him who gave in to temptation—and with so many things included in its catalogue of sins it is not surprising that Anthony sometimes succumbed to temptation and then saw the pit open and the fires glow red.
Nor were Sundays only devoted to religion. There were prayers before breakfast every morning, and Mrs. Comstock told Bible stories to her children in the evening. Occasionally her stories were from other sources, but, as Comstock later told his authorized and worshipful biographer, Charles Trumbull, “always with moral courage as their key-note.” Polly Comstock died when Anthony was ten; for the rest of his life he idealized her above all other mortals.
On the last day of December, 1863, Comstock enlisted in the 17th Connecticut Regiment to take the place of his older brother Samuel, who had been mortally wounded at Gettysburg. Anthony faced few battlefield dangers; he saw only minor skirmishing and spent most of his time on garrison duty in Florida. But there were other battles, and he fought again and again with the Devil and did not always win. His diary contains many entries confessing sin and wallowing in repentance: Again tempted and found wanting. Sin, sin. Oh flow much peace and happiness is sacrificed on thy altar. Seemed as though Devil had full sway over me today, went right into temptation, and then, Oh such love, Jesus snatched it away out of my reach. How good is he, how sinful am I. I am the chief of sinners, but I should be so miserable and wretched, were it not that Clod is merciful and I may be forgiven. Glory be to God in the highest. O I deplore my sinful weak nature so much. If I could but live without sin, I should be the happiest soul living: but Sin, that foe is ever lurking, stealing happiness from me. … This morning were severely tempted by Satan and aller some time in my own weakness I failed.
The sin against which the young volunteer strove with such dubious success was, beyond doubt, what once was euphemistically known as self-abuse—although Anthony did succumb occasionally to other temptations; he admitted that he wasted part of one day reading a novel. To strengthen himself against the Devil he went to church and prayer services sometimes eight or nine times a week. He worked hard but was not popular with his fellow soldiers; he was too sanctimonious, too censorious, too intolerant. The men, for instance, received a whiskey ration; Anthony accepted his with the rest but then would pour it out on the ground in front of his comrades, refusing to give it to them. Such gestures did not tend to create warm friendships.
After the war Comstock came back to New Canaan to stay with his brother Chester, but there was little to hold him. The family farm was gone, the mortgage foreclosed—according to biographer Trumbull by southern sympathizers because Comstock boys had enlisted in the Union Army. After periods of clerking in a New Haven store and working on a government project in Tennessee, Anthony returned to New Canaan briefly, and then, as many an ambitious Connecticut boy was doing, went to New York to make good in business.
After four or five years as a shipping clerk and dry-goods salesman he was earning enough to buy a small house in Brooklyn and to fall in love. The light of his life was Maggie Hamilton, the wispy, faded daughter of a merchant who had failed in business; she was ten years Comstock’s senior and so sensitive about the age difference that she never had a photograph made after the marriage. She was apparently an eminently forgettable character, for of two men who had known her as Comstock’s wife, one recalled only that she weighed eighty-two pounds, the other that she dressed always in black and seldom spoke. Comstock often likened this shadowy creature to his deified mother and loved her deeply; in his diary he called her “little Wifey” and always missed her when trips kept him away from home. They were married in January, 1871, and the following December their first and only child was born, a girl who lived only six months.
Not long after her death a combination of business and accident took Comstock to a tenement district and the bedside of a dying woman and her illegitimate baby daughter. On the mother’s death he took the infant home and legally adopted her. The child, Adele, grew up subnormal and troublesome and in her forties had to be placed in an institution when Cornstock died. It is said that he never knew she was different from other children. Comstock had a soft spot where all children were concerned; no matter how cantankerous he might be with others, he always had time for a crying child and carried rubber toys in his pocket to pass out to chance small acquaintances.
Three years before his marriage Comstock took the first steps along the path he would follow the rest of his life. The young shipping clerk from Connecticut had already seen around him, as Trumbull in his biography puts it, young businessmen “whose lives were plainly being ruined by their interest in the obscene pictures and literature and other devilish things that they had easy access to.” Moreover, “one of his friends had been led astray and corrupted and diseased.” Comstock learned that a man named Charles Conroy had sold the devilish things to his friend. Thereupon he too bought an obscene book from Conroy and took it to the police, who arrested the dealer and seized his books and pictures. Soon after, Comstock made a similar successful foray against another dealer in smut, in the process getting a patrolman who tried to warn the pornographer suspended.
There were few encomiums. Instead newspapers criticized Comstock for causing the policeman to lose his job. Later, as his efforts continued, they suggested that it was ridiculous to attack only minor dealers in pornography when bigger and busier places flourished on New York’s Ann and Nassau streets. Comstock accepted the information and asked the New York Tribune for a reporter to accompany him when he quietly invaded the area collecting evidence. Their complaints to the police led to seven arrests, a good day’s work for a man still new at this sort of thing.
In 1871, a few months after his marriage, Comstock joined battle with the peddlers of rum. Two saloons operated less than a block from his home; the proprietor of at least one of them, a bad-mouthed bully named Chapman, operated openly on Sunday, thanks to police protection. When Comstock complained to the authorities, Chapman paraded in front of the Comstock home, came to the door and threatened personal violence, and retreated only when Comstock displayed a pistol. In the midst of the lengthy legal battle that ensued, the other saloonkeeper, McNamara, dropped dead behind his bar, and Comstock calmly accepted it as a judgment from on high. He was eventually successful; after many postponements the case came to court, and Chapman lost his license.
It was no doubt a satisfying victory, but to Anthony Comstock liquor was never the menace that sex was. His diary shows that he did not hesitate to use liquor medicinally, and he wrote at least once of drinking beer during an evening of jollification. Moreover, in his office it amused him when playful to pretend to be intoxicated, and one does not joke about something one abominates.
Obscenity was something else again. Comstock wrote a book called Traps for the Young , in which he exposed the multitudinous snares set by the Devil for youth, from dime novels and the theatre to rum and shooting pool, but it was pornography that he considered the most direct route to damnation. His long and graphic description of the effects of lewd literature said, among many other things: … Passions that had slumbered or ‘lain dormant are awakened, and the boy is forced over a precipice, and death and destruction are sure, except the grace of God saves him. An indelible stain has been placed upon the boy’s imagination, and this vision shall be kept like a panorama, moving to and fro before his mind until it has blotted out moral purity. … Many a parent sends away the child [to boarding school] pure, fresh, and vigorous. He comes back, after a few years’ absence, with pale cheeks, lustreless and sunken eyes, enervated body, moody, nervous, and irritable—a moral wreck—and the parents mourn “that the child has studied too hard.” If they could get at the real trouble, it would be found that the child had fallen into one of these lust-traps, or death-traps by mail.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By the time he died, Comstock had already become an anachronism. During his heyday the majority of the American public undoubtedly approved his aims if not always his methods. In his last years they were beginning to be bored by the old man and to find him a bit of a nuisance. Young couples were dancing to a syncopated beat, snuggling up to each other in the turkey trot and the bunny hug, even doing the sinful tango. In the sophisticated cities the sight of a young lady joining her escort in a cigarette and a cocktail no longer created a scandal. The narrow, expurgated world of Anthony Comstock was crumbling fast.
The process of disintegration has gone a long way since then. Motion pictures playing to mixed audiences portray scenes that not long ago could be seen only at stag parties. Nudity and obscenity are common on the stage. There are virtually no themes and no words that cannot be used in a novel today. Night clubs offer topless waitresses and bottomless entertainers. Contraception and abortion, which Comstock fought bitterly for years, have been sanctioned by the courts.
Although the seeds of the sexual revolution were beginning to sprout even before World War i, the greatest change has been in the last ten years or so. Our society, increasingly preoccupied with war and civil unrest, oppressed by a feeling of rootlessness and of helplessness before the dehumanizing influence of modern technology and supercorporations, has leaned toward total permissiveness. The recent Supreme Court decision recognizing the right of states to prohibit material that is “patently offensive” to “contemporary community standards” is a step in the other direction. It remains to be seen whether a chaos of nonuniformity is preferable to a chaos of permissiveness, however, for as the Court itself recognized, what is patently offensive in Oshkosh may be quite acceptable in Las Vegas or New York City. Still, it does seem that it is time again to set some standards of behavior and lay out some limits to license, however difficult questions of definition may be.