Anthony Comstock (1844–1915)

2012-06-07 10:58:45

Vice crusader Anthony Comstock was born in Connecticut in 1844. His father was Thomas Anthony Comstock, a farmer and sawmill owner, and his mother was Polly Lockwood. Comstock’s mother died when he was ten, and he attended public schools in his youth in New Canaan and New Britain. During the Civil War, he served in the Union army for two years. After the war, he held a variety of jobs across New England and the South before settling in New York City. In 1871, he married Margaret Hamilton, and after their only child died in infancy, they adopted a daughter.

Comstock was deeply impressed, and even obsessed, with the disparities he saw between the moral ‘‘values’’ he believed most Americans possessed and the behavior that the government, meant to ‘‘protect’’ the people, would tolerate. Particularly concerned by growing urban centers that seemed large, impersonal, amoral, and indifferent to the ‘‘innocents’’ moving into them, Comstock set out to change governmental response to such immorality. Comstock won the support of influential persons who helped him organize a special committee of the Young Men’s Christian Association to conduct a war on vice and, in essence, entrap criminals. When some YMCA members balked at such action, Comstock and friends formed the autonomous committee known as the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. For the rest of his life, Comstock would serve as the society’s secretary and principal agent with his friends providing him money, respectability, and influence. In 1873, together they persuaded Congress to strengthen the law against sending obscene material through the U.S. mail. Congress appointed Comstock as special agent of the U.S. Post Office with broad responsibilities for prosecuting the law’s violators. Comstock held this position until his death.

In 1880, Comstock published a memoir of his tenyear crusade against vice entitled Frauds Exposed; or, How the People are Deceived and Robbed, and Youth Corrupted, being a Full Disclosure of Various Schemes Operated through the Mails, and Unearthed by the Author. In the book, he attacked lotteries, bogus banks, jewelry frauds, real estate scams, and false plans for medical aid to the poor. In all his work, Comstock consistently upheld his often-deviant means of entrapping violators, making strong-armed arrests, and his merciless persecution of violators in the courts. Some findings suggest that Comstock enjoyed somewhat widespread support. A special committee of the New York legislature not only absolved him of wrongdoing but also concluded that his work was vital and essential to the community’s safety and decency, despite a petition circulating at the time signed by fifty thousand citizens calling for the repeal of all Comstock laws.

Later in his life, Comstock became obsessed with what he thought was a rising tide of obscenity. He managed to remove tons of pamphlets and paraphernalia from the U.S. mails pertaining to Birth Control and abortion. He prosecuted abortionist and contraceptionist Ann Trow Lohman (also known as Madame Restell) and rejoiced when she chose suicide over facing trial. Comstock also prosecuted Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin for publishing an account in their newsletter Weekly of Henry Ward Beecher’s extramarital affairs. Comstock also increasingly prosecuted artists and critics. In 1887, he raided a reproduction of French paintings, including many nudes, at Knoedler’s Gallery in New York City. In response, the Society of American Artists condemned Comstock’s interference. Comstock countered by publishing a pamphlet, Morals vs. Art, in which he delineated that morality overrode all other considerations, and art was only desirable if it promoted, or at least did not counter, morality.

Comstock also attacked books, including the popular turn-of-the-century dime novels that he believed led youths down a path of crime and asserted that even many literary classics should only be read by mature scholars. He also protested against exotic dancers, plays, and many other public amusements that he felt corrupted morality. Aware that his crusades actually drew much more attention to these ‘‘immoral’’ acts than would have otherwise with no such publicity, Comstock seemed to care little, deriving satisfaction from the many convictions he won, fines collected, and in general, vice suppressed. Comstock continued his crusade for moral absolutism until his death, influencing the federal government and many states to pass more stringent antiobscenity laws. He helped form other vice societies such as the New England Watch and Ward Society, and the Society for the Suppression of Vice remained in existence long after his death. He died in New Jersey in 1915.


References and Further Reading

  • Beisel, Nicola Kay. Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.
  • Broun, Heywood. Anthony Comstock, Roundsman of the Lord. Literary Guild of America, 1927.
  • Pivar, David. Purity Crusade: Sexual Morality and Social Control, 1868–1900. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973.

See also Obscenity