I have absolutely no sympathy for Anthony Comstock, a man described by a biographer as having “no conspicuous talents and...boundless energy”. His brother's death from wounds suffered in the three days of slaughter at Gettysburg, compelled Anthony to join the Union Army. But chance sent the Connecticut farm boy far from the crucial battles around Richmond, and he spent a year of isolation and boredom guarding the backwaters of St. Augustine, Florida. Most of his fellow soldiers considered him a bible thumping prig, who instead of simply refusing it, pompously poured his daily whiskey ration out on the ground. And the great lesson this “religio-monomaniac” took from the war that ended slavery, was that his fellow soldiers were addicted to pornography.
By 1861 there were almost 3,000 photographers in Paris, and 200 schools teaching the skill in London. And from day one, a significant percentage of these technicians found taking “dirty pictures” very profitable. Shortly after Gettysburg, another smug priss, General Marsena Patrick, had boasted in his diary of “burning up a large quantity of obscene books, taken from the mails.” And it wasn't just pocket editions of “Fanny Hill”, and the “Libertine Enchantress” that he burned. There were also the “barrack favorites”, the “carte de visite” french postcards – nude photos of women, which went for twelve cents each, and “London and Paris Volupuarties” engaged in actual sex, for $3 a dozen ($9 for stereoscopic views). Comstock found himself drawn to these “deadly poisons” - as he called them - “cast into the fountain of moral purity.”
By 1868 the muscular Comstock was a menial worker in New York City, making $12 a week as a porter for a dry goods store. He was a man "devoid of humor, lustful after publicity, and vastly ignorant “ who, by his own admission, spent many lonely evenings fearing “for the souls of the young men” who roomed with him. He joined the Young Men's Christian Association, and became convinced he faced “some of the most insidious and deadly forces of evil” in America. A nation racked by continued violence inspired by four bloody years of war saw pornography as a low priority. But Comstock did not share that opinion.
He quickly attracted the attention of the President of the WMCA, Morris K. Jessup, who had made his fortune as a banker for railroad tycoons. Jessup interviewed Comstock in his Madison Avenue mansion and liked what he saw. They made an unlikely pair. Jessup stood over six feet tall, and was a philanthropist to many causes. Comstock was short and brutally single minded. But for forty years Jessup was supportive of Comstock, with money and political influence, even creating the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice for the Christian warrior, when others in the WMCA questioned his tactics. (It is interesting to note that of all the social reform movements of the late 19th century, the Comstock's “Society” was the only one with no women in positions of authority.) Comstock would admit in his diary, “ Only one man thinks as I do and that is Mr. Jessup.”
With Jessup's support Comstock successfully lobbied congress for the Comstock Law, the last act of a lame duck congress on 3 March, 1873, which made it illegal to send “obscene, lewd, or lascivious" material through the mail. The act also created a job of Special Postal Inspector for Comstock, allowing him define as pornographic anything mentioning birth control or preventing venereal disease. In Comstock's view, “God has set certain natural barriers. If you turn loose the passions and break down the fear (of unwanted pregnancies or disease) you bring . . . disaster.” His first year the new Special Inspector, always dressed in his black frock, traveled 23, 000 miles on a free rail pass, looking for sin in America. And luckily, since his job depended on it, he found it everywhere, and 24 states passed their own versions of "his" law, collectively called the Little Comstock Laws.
In 1872 Comstock won national attention when he went after Victoria Woodhull (above). She was no common pornographer, but a feminist who had run her own Wall Street brokerage firm and her “Weekly” newspaper - in which Victoria argued,”When woman rises... into the ownership and control of her sexual organs, and man is obliged to respect this freedom...then will woman be raised” To highlight the hypocrisy of men making decisions about birth control, the “Weekly” published details of an extramarital affair by one of her critics, popular Brooklyn minister Henry Ward Breecher. The same day the article appeared, Victoria, her husband and her sister were all arrested. Reporting the affair, said Comstock, was spreading obscenity. Comstock's belligerent theatrics in the court room so offended some members of the jury, they hung. Still, the trial only increased the popularity of both Comstock and Breecher.
Comstock claimed he convicted 3,500 people of distribution of pornography and destroyed 15 tons of obscene books, including medical text books that displayed female anatomy charts or mentioned abortion. To Comstock, woman’s health was far less important than their moral purity. He also burned novels written by D.H. Lawrence and Theodore Dreiser. Comstock even tried to close down a play by George Bernard Shaw, whom he called an “Irish smut dealer”. Of the first twelve people convicted of violating the Federal Comstock law, 5 were pardoned by President Ulysses Grant, who had signed the law. And of the 105 people arrested for violating Comstock's federal anti-birth control campaign, all but 16 were found not guilty. In state courts Comstock fared much better.
He saw himself as “the weeder in God's garden”, but his critics saw him as “a first class Torquemada” and chief of America's “moral eunuchs.” In 1877 Comstock went after Massachusetts social activist Ezra Heywood for publishing a pamphlet about marriage called “Cupid’s Yokes”. The judge told the jury the pamphlet was too offensive to allow them to read it, and they sentenced Heywood to two years at hard labor in the Dedham jail. Six months later President Rutherford B. Hayes pardoned Heywood, but Comstock saw that as a challenge. He now persecuted Heywood, having him arrested four more times, once for reprinting two poems by Walt Whitman, and again for discussing a contraceptive device called the “Comstock syringe” . By the fourth arrest the sixty year old Heywood was broke and emotionally exhausted, and was convicted and sentenced to another two years of hard labor. This time there was no pardon. A year after he was released in 1892, Heywood died of tuberculosis he had contracted in jail. Comstock had won again.
Comstock boasted he had driven 15 people to suicide. His most famous victim was Ida Craddock, a free spirit and writer of fact based guides like “The Marriage Night” and “Right Marital Living”. After pleading guilty and receiving a suspended sentence in 1899, for to violating Illinois' Little Comstock Law, she was arrested under New York's version in 1892 and suffered three months in a workhouse. As she left that jail Comstock had her arrested again on Federal charges for the same offense. This time she was sentenced to five years at hard labor. And Comstock let her know, that as soon as she served that term, he intended on arresting her again.
The night before she was to enter prison, Ida Craddock put her head in the oven, turned on the gas jets, and then slit her wrists. In her public suicide note, Ida blamed her death on “This man, Anthony Comstock,...(who is) unctuous with hypocrisy...if the reading of impure books and the gazing upon impure pictures does debauch and corrupt and pervert the mind...(and) Anthony Comstock has himself read perhaps more obscene books, and has gazed upon perhaps more lewd pictures than has any other one man in the United States, what are we to think of the probable state of Mr. Comstock's imagination? ...The man is a sex pervert; he is what physicians term a Sadist...for nine long years I have faced social ostracism, poverty, and the dangers of persecution by Anthony Comstock..I beg of you, for your own sakes, and for the future happiness of the young people who are dear to you, to protect my little book...” Comstock insisted that her death was one of his proudest moments.
It was not Comstock's bullying, but his lack of self awareness that gradually weakened his grip on public morals. The final breaking point came in 1913 when Harry Reichenbach besieged Comstock with complaints about the Braun and Company gallery on west 46th street in Manhattan. The prig-in-chief found the sidewalk in front of the art gallery crowded with young men snickering and praising the beauty of a painting of a nude woman in the front window. Comstock stormed into the gallery and ordered the painting removed. The clerk, James Kelly, stammered, “But that is the famous “September Morn” by Paul Chabas”(above). The work was famous, having won a medal of honor from the French academy of Painting just the year before. Undaunted, Comstock replied, “There is too little morning and too much maid”, and threatened to arrest the gallery owner, Philippe Ortiz, if the painting was not removed.
Defiantly, Mr. Ortiz kept the painting in his gallery's front window for another two weeks, removing it only after the crowds jamming his studio had bought out every print of it. Twenty years later in his memoir, “Phantom Fame”, Reichenbach admitted he had staged the entire thing, including hiring the young men to ogle the painting, as a publicity stunt for the gallery. Comstock, who was not in on the joke, had behaved as boorishly and brutally as expected.
Comstock died suddenly on the evening of 21 September, 1915. His monument was that during World War One the United States was the only nation not to supply its soldiers with prophylactics.. Instead, under Comstock's insistence, the Army and Navy lectured its soldiers on abstinence. As a result the American Army and Navy discharged 10,000 men who had become infected with sexually transmitted diseases, the largest single cause of American causalities during the war. It would be another 18 years before birth control could be openly purchased in the United States. Shadows of Anthony Comstock's warped vision have distorted American education well into the 21st century, in states that refuse to offer high school students sex education, opting instead for preaching abstinence - which has proved no more effective today than it had in the 19th century. It seems that every prig, Anthony Comstock was convinced he was the savior of civilization. And yet no prig ever saves anything, except the tattered myth of morality..