MARCH 2020

MARCH   2020
The Lawyers Carve Up the Golden Goose


Friday, August 14, 2015


I have absolutely no sympathy for Anthony Comstock (above),  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,  because they trade human lives for a tattered myth of morality.
- 30 -

Wednesday, August 12, 2015


I think the best way to describe the ceremony was a short, sad funeral. It was held Tuesday noon, 21 July, 1858, in London's park like Brompton Cemetery. There was not a cloud in the sky. The temperature was in the mid-nineties Fahrenheit, and the formalities for the dearly departed Doctor John Snow, who had died of a stroke the week before, were as brief as decorum would allow. 
Many admired the “austere and painfully shy” man who would one day be called the “greatest physician of all time”, who founded not only anesthesiology but epidemiology as well. But on this day the stench overwhelmed grief and respect.
The stench wafted from the river which snaked through the capital of the British Empire, 300 yards from Brompton Cemetery. In an average year, the river's current was dwarfed by the twice daily 23 foot tides. But in 1858 the last rain in the Thames valley had been in March - over three months ago – and Old Man Thames had become a warm stagnant open air cesspit, it's swelling twice a day merely rearranging the human and animal waste piling up across the 700 foot wide 6 foot deep tidal flats, crossed by the new London Bridge.
Twelve years before, in 1842, the city had outlawed the municipal cesspits that were overflowing into the streets and polluting the 17,000 wells used by the 2 ½ million residents of London for drinking and cooking. Civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette would report: 'Within a period of about six years, thirty thousand cesspools were abolished, and all home and street refuse was turned into the river'" Now 250,000 tons of sewage was being poured directly into the Thames every day. Then, at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851, some 827,000 curious paid a penny each to use a flush toilet for the first time. These proved so popular they were kept open for a year, earning over £1000 at a penny a flush. The public's apatite for indoor plumbing accelerated the transfer of poo from human bottoms to river bottom, which is why Dr. John Snow had opposed closing the cesspits.
Dr. Snow had identified the source of an August, 1854 Cholera outbreak that killed over 600 people, as a cesspit contaminated public pump in the poverty crippled Soho section of London. “I found that nearly all the deaths had taken place within a short distance of the pump...that the deceased persons used to drink the pump water from Broad Street, either constantly or occasionally.” But even after identifying water as the means of transmission, Dr. Snow had cautioned against the outlawing of cesspits, because he knew without a sewer, that would merely postpone the problem.  His stand had earned him the enmity of most of the socially progressive scientists of the day, such as Dr William Murdoch and the great chemist Michael Faraday, who still ascribed the source of pestilence to mal-aria, or “ bad air”, and miasmas, disease carrying odors.
In July of 1855, Faraday wrote to the London Times, describing a boat trip down the Thames. “The whole of the river was an opaque pale brown fluid....I tore up some white cards...and then dropped some of these pieces into the water...before they had sunk an inch below the surface they were indistinguishable...Near the bridges the feculence rolled up in clouds so dense that they were visible at the surface, even in water of this kind.” In June of 1858 “blackish-green” water was reported by Health Officer Dr. Murdoch. “It is quite impossible to calculate the consequences of such a moving mass of decomposition... as the river at present offers to our senses”  Dr. Snow had warned about turning the river into an open sewer, but even in sewers the waster flows. The eight weeks of June-July 1858, when the Thames stopped flowing, came to to be called “The Great Stink”
Solutions to the problem of air or water born disease had been debated for almost two decades, through five Prime Ministers, two of them Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby. Whatever solution was offered, there were always objections to paying for it. In 1848 the conservative editors of “The Economists” turned to the Old Testament:: “Suffering and evil...cannot be gotten rid of: and the impatient attempts of benevolence to banish them from the world by legislation... have always been more productive of evil than good”. No proof was offered for this contention. But the defenders of doing nothing went further. It was claimed new sewers would be an invasion of person freedom, a big government intrusion, a tax and spend liberal fraud. Filthy water was not the problem. And even the revered Dr. Snow was against big government sewer projects, claimed the opponents.
The latter argument was not quite true, but Snow's position was nuanced enough to be obscure  In fact he suggested it would be a good idea to end "that form of liberty to which some communities cling, the sacred power to poison to death not only themselves but their neighbors” Still the opponents confused enough of the public as to muddy the already filthy waters.  In 1855 Charles Dickens had satirized the opponents by describing a mythical pro-stink campaign rally. “Ratepayers... Health is enormously expensive. Be filthy and be fat. Cesspools and Constitutional Government! Gases and Glory! No insipid water!!” Dickens was kidding, but even to him the stench was no joke. He wrote a friend, “I can certify that the offensive smells...have been of a most head-and-stomach-distending nature” And still the opponents cautioned delay after delay, spreading confusion and misinformation much like modern day climate change deniers do – proving again that we have not changed since leaving our Garden of Eden toilet.
Few would ever see the wiggling predators in a drop of Thames water under a microscope. But in the summer of 1858 everyone could smell the stench. It was, in the words of author David Barnes, “catastrophic...a devastating and even incapacitating onslaught. The stench was intolerable.” Wrote a reporter for the Illustrated London News, “The intense heat had driven our legislators from those portions of their buildings (Westminster) which overlook the river. A few members...ventured into the library, but they were instantaneously driven to retreat, each man with a handkerchief to his nose.”
The absentee tenant representing Leitrim, Ireland, John Brady, asked Lord John Manners, the Commissioner of Works and Public Buildings in Derby's second government, if anything could be done. Lord Manners replied the Thames was not under his “jurisdiction.” . Four days later another minister returned to the topic, and Lord Manners again avoided it, insisting, “Her Majesty's Government have nothing whatever to do with the state of the Thames".
Although Smith-Stanley was the Prime Minister in 1858, he sat in the House of Lords. The leader of the House of Commons was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Benjamin Disraeli, the most capable politician of his generation. And Disraeli realized the stench was growing stronger than the opposition. The desperate politicians were spending £1,500 per week to shovel 250 tons of lime across the mud flats at low tide. Under the direction of engineer Goldsworthy Gurney, curtains soaked in chloride were draped over the windows of Westminster to block the stench.  Nothing seemed to help. In mid-June Gurney had to warn the Commons, he could “no longer be responsible for the health of the house.” On 11 June, 1858 even the official diarist of the House of Commons was forced to note, “Gentlemen sitting in the Committee Rooms and in the Library were utterly unable to remain there in consequence of the stench which arose from the river.”
Finally, on 15 June, Disraeli brought the latest version of the “do something about the stench” bill up for debate, recalling the ancient river Styx, the river of death, and referring to the Thames as a “ a Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors".  The cost would be a special 3 pence tax on all London households for the next 40 years - £3 million to rebuild the sewers of London.  Noted The Times of London, “Parliament was all but compelled to legislate upon the great London nuisance by the force of sheer stench” .
Wrote the London Globe, “Disgust, alarm, and reasonable precautions induced members” to finally take action. The Times wrote, “Gentility of speech is at an end – it stinks; and who so once inhales the stink can never forget it and can count himself lucky if he lives to remember it.”
The sewer plan, after almost two decades of design and redesign, was simple, as explained by Joseph Bazalgette, the man who would be responsible for building it. “The existing streams and drains all ran down to the river on both sides”, he wrote.   
First, the Thames -  that “pestiferous and typhus breeding abomination” -  was to be walled off by massive embankment, built atop new intersecting sewers (above, right center)  on either shore  “ as to intercept those streams:”  Atop the embankments new roads could be built, and parks and open spaces. It promised a better world, a world of light and fresh air and ease of commute. But most of all it promised and end to the stench. 
The waste was not to be treated. It was merely to be dumped somewhere else, farther away, down stream, out to sea.  English humans were still searching for the Garden of Eden, where their poop would remain out of sight, sight of mind, out from under their noses and out of their drinking water.
The massive tax increase passed in just 18 days,  from creation, consideration, amendments, debate and passage. Usually only declarations of war received such quick treatment. It would have been cheaper to have fixed the problem earlier, and Lord knows most people wanted to fix it sooner. Uncounted lives would have been saved. The economy would have been improved, along with the health of the citizens, by following the simple rule of never shitting where you eat.  But it did not pass until the richest who refused to pay for the improvements, could no longer say no while holding their noses. It would take another twenty years to complete the work, but at last it was begun in August of 1858, just before the rains came back..
The London sewers did not return English men and women to the Garden of Eden. None of us ain't ever going to get back there. And yet, we never seem to stop trying.
- 30 -

Sunday, August 09, 2015


I am amazed by how much America has changed since the first decades of the nineteenth century. The 1810 census recorded the nation's population as just over 7 million. The industrial revolution was still two generations away.  But more fundamentally, in 1800, for the only time in American history, the old adage about land being the one thing “they were not making any more of” was not true. For that was exactly what was being created on the American frontier. Land, as a commodity, was being created every day. And yet, curiously, land prices remained extremely  high.
The reason was Alexander Hamilton's great compromise. He exchanged establishing the Federal Capital between Virginia and Maryland, two states which had little debt,  for allowing the Federal Government to take over all the States' debts. This put the American economy on a solid financial footing. But the downside was Hamilton meant to pay off the debts by selling public land as quickly as possible, "Even if" as Donald Holtgrieve explained in 1975,  "speculators would also profit greatly from land sales...over one-half of the land disposed of by the federal government in the history of this country went through the hands of professional land dealers before it was occupied.”
What this meant for early America was noted by Krout and Fox in their seminal 1944 book, “The Completion of Independence”. “The price of farmland, except near cities, averaged between ten and fifteen dollars per acre...Many an Eastern farm must have sold in 1800 at a higher price than it did, with better buildings, in 1900.”  The values of actual sales were in direct contrast with the official price, set in 1795 at a mere $2 an acre. But those official bargains were only available in parcels of 320 acre lots."
And as was, again, noted in “The Completion...” “The common Carey Plow (above) was made entirely of wood, save for an iron collar to cut the sod...With such an implement an acre was a good days work." In other words, any farm over forty acres was simply of no use to a family depending upon farming for its livelihood.
The only ones who could afford to buy in the Federal auctions were wealthy speculators and corporations of speculators, who re-surveyed and subdivided the land, and then re-sold it to smaller speculators, who re-surveyed and re-sold it to, eventually, actual farmers. Of course, most of these "after market sales" were made with borrowed money, usually borrowed from the previous owner. And should a speculator be caught short on a payment, the lands would return to the lender. So, many land sales were foreclosed upon again and again. And at the bottom of this pyramid of profit it was possible for yeoman farmers to pay as much as 40% interest to buy their farms. "Farmers were thus forced to grow (not food for their own tables, but )cash crops like tobacco or cotton, to pay their debts.” And even if, “...a farmer who found a desired piece of land became a squatter by clearing and planting it with the hope of one day purchasing the acres he had improved... when the cleared lands went up for auction, a speculator could out-bid the squatter....”  And often did.
George Washington was a speculator, as was Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Andrew Jackson, and Meriwether Lewis. And none of these leaders were above hiring thugs to drive squatters off “their” land. It was the speculators who drove Abraham Lincoln's father off his farm in Kentucky, and again off his farm in Indiana and eventually drove him to Illinois, where Abraham gave up farming entirely. As another source writing about this unromantic American frontier points out, “As a consequence of monopolistic tactics and official fraud, northern Alabama lands were overwhelmingly engrossed by absentee speculators and wealthy settler elites.”  The leveling process of the American frontier was largely a myth, created by the wealthy in a natural effort to romanticize their past. On the frontier, as in the Eastern cities, money talked. America did not have to be settled in this fashion. But it was.
The image was that everyone seemed to be getting rich in land speculation. But the reality was that a majority of speculators lost money. And the farther you were down the food chain from the original government auction, the less chance you had to see a profit. Like the stock market bubbles of later generations, those drawn into the land market bubble had to quickly sell at profit or they went broke. That drove the prices up, which made the almost unlimited American lands, painfully expensive. As it was in 2000, so it was in 1800; the only guarantee of a profit was to be a banker, or to have one as a partner.
It was this reality which faced Governor Meriwether Lewis as he first stepped onto the docks of St. Louis.
Lewis did two things immediately which almost assured he would be a failure as a Governor. First he announced that should he be out of the territory for any reason, then his old comrade William Clark (whom Jefferson had named the Indian Agent for the upper Louisiana Territory) would serve as acting Governor. This made sense to Governor Lewis because he was new to the territory and he knew and could trust Clark. But it was also a disaster, because Frederick Bates was the Lieutenant Governor, and had been the acting Governor for almost a year while Lewis had slowly made his way west. Bates was, officially,  the man who was legally required to be the acting Governor should Lewis be out of the territory. And it was Bates who had filled the government offices, making the power structure loyal to him.  So naming Clark as acting Governor was an insult Lewis was not required and had probably not intended upon making. But from that moment forward Fredrick Bates was Lewis' sworn enemy. He would prove to be an effective opponent - for Frederick Bates was a very good at being an unpleasant man.
As Bates wrote to his brother, “My habits are pacific. Yet I have had acrimonious differences with almost every person with whom (I) have been associated in public business…But before God I cannot acknowledge that I have been blamable in one instance.” And he never would admit it.
A few weeks later, Bates (above) related how he was getting along with Lewis. “Sometime after this there was a ball in St. Louis, I attended early, and was seated in conversation with some gentlemen when the Governor entered. He drew his chair close to mine – there was a pause in the conversation – I availed myself of it – arose and walked to the opposite side of the room...He knew my resolution not to speak to him except on business, and he ought not to have thrust himself in my way.”
And these two men now found themselves in charge of dispensing millions of acres of land to the hundreds of speculators who had flocked to St. Louis to avail themselves of the bounty. And there were new natural resources to be exploited, lead and tin mines just discovered beneath the rolling Louisiana territory (below). With that much profit to be made, such a pair of offended egos did not portend a profitable future for any one not skilled at bureaucratic infighting. 
- 30 -

Blog Archive