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Portrait of Anthony Comstock

Anthony Comstock (March 7, 1844 – September 21, 1915) was a former United States Postal Inspector and politician dedicated to ideas of Victorian morality.

Contents

Biography

Comstock was born in New Canaan, Connecticut. As a young man, he enlisted and fought for the Union in the American Civil War from 1863 to 1865 in Company H, 17th Connecticut Infantry. He served without incident, but objected to the profanity used by his fellow soldiers.[citation needed] Afterward he became an active worker in the Young Men's Christian Association in New York City.

In 1873 Comstock created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an institution dedicated to supervising the morality of the public. Later that year, Comstock successfully influenced the United States Congress to pass the Comstock Law, which made illegal the delivery or transportation of both "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" material as well as any methods of, or information pertaining to, birth control. George Bernard Shaw used the term "comstockery", meaning "censorship because of perceived obscenity or immorality", after Comstock alerted the New York police to the content of Shaw's play Mrs. Warren's Profession. Shaw remarked that "Comstockery is the world's standing joke at the expense of the United States. Europe likes to hear of such things. It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second-rate country-town civilization after all." Comstock thought of Shaw as an "Irish smut dealer."[1] The term comstockery was actually first coined in a New York Times editorial in 1895.[2]

Comstock's ideas of what might be "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" were quite broad. During his time of greatest power, even some anatomy textbooks were prohibited from being sent to medical students by the United States Postal Service.

1887 Letter from Anthony Comstock to Josiah Leeds

Comstock aroused intense loathing from early civil liberties groups and intense support from church based groups worried about public morals. He was a savvy political insider in New York City and was made a special agent of the United States Postal Service, with police powers up to and including the right to carry a weapon. With this power he zealously prosecuted those he suspected of either public distribution of pornography or commercial fraud. He was also involved in shutting down the Louisiana Lottery, the only legal lottery in the United States at the time, and notorious for corruption.

Comstock is also known for his opposition to Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, and those associated with them. The men's journal The Days' Doings had popularised lewd images of the sisters for three years and was instructed by its editor (while Comstock was present) to stop producing images of "lewd character." Comstock also took legal action against the paper for advertising contraceptives. When the sisters published an expose of an adulterous affair between Reverend Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton, he had the sisters arrested under laws forbidding the use of the postal service to distribute 'obscene material'—specifically (and ironically) citing a mangled Biblical quote Comstock found obscene—though they were later acquitted of the charges.

Less fortunate was Ida Craddock, who committed suicide on the eve of reporting to Federal prison for distributing via the U.S. Mail various sexually explicit marriage manuals she had authored. Her final work was a lengthy public suicide note specifically condemning Comstock.

Comstock claimed he drove fifteen persons to suicide in his "fight for the young"[3]. He was head vice-hunter of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Comstock, the self-labeled "weeder in God's garden", arrested D. M. Bennett for publishing his "An Open Letter to Jesus Christ" and later entrapped the editor for mailing a free-love pamphlet. Bennett was prosecuted, subjected to a widely publicized trial, and imprisoned in the Albany Penitentiary.

Comstock had numerous enemies, and in later years his health was affected by a severe blow to the head from an anonymous attacker. He lectured to college audiences and wrote newspaper articles to sustain his causes. Before his death, Comstock attracted the interest of a young law student, J. Edgar Hoover, interested in his causes and methods.

During his career, Comstock clashed with Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger. In her autobiography, Goldman referred to Comstock as the leader of America's "moral eunuchs". Through his various campaigns, he destroyed 15 tons of books, 284,000 pounds of plates for printing 'objectionable' books, and nearly 4,000,000 pictures.[citation needed] Comstock boasted that he was responsible for 4,000 arrests and 15 suicides.[4]

A biography of Comstock written in 1927, "Anthony Comstock: Roundsman Of The Lord" by Heywood Jablome and Margaret Leech of the Algonquin Round Table examines his personal history and his investigative, surveillance and law enforcement techniques.

Works

  • Frauds Exposed (1880)
  • Traps for the Young (1883)
  • Gambling Outrages (1887)
  • Morals Versus Art (1887)

He wrote numerous magazine articles relating to similar subjects.

References in fiction and culture

  • Comstock is one of many prominent New Yorkers of his time that appear in the historical fiction novel The Alienist, by Caleb Carr.
  • The protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Beautiful and Damned is named for Comstock.
  • James Branch Cabell was prosecuted on obscenity charges relating to his novel Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice after lobbying by the Society. Cabell retaliated with a chapbook entitled The Judging of Jurgen (later inserted into subsequent reprints of the novel), in which the title character is consigned to oblivion for being "obscene, lewd, lascivious and indecent" in a trial presided over by a dung beetle who swears "by Saint Anthony".
  • Anthony Comstock is one of the four "point of view" characters in Marge Piercy's novel Sex Wars. Piercy explores Comstock's personal history and mindset as he goes from clerk to active "vice" suppressor.
  • Comstock makes a cameo (rescued from a burning building) in Jack Finney's novel Time and Again.
  • Comstock Films, a company that produces erotic documentaries, is named after Anthony Comstock.
  • Through the character of Gordon Comstock, Orwell reveals his own disaffection for the society in the novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936).
  • He is portrayed by Rod Steiger in the 1995 made for TV film Choices of the Heart: The Margaret Sanger Story.[1]

Contemporary Bibliography

  • Anna Bates: Weeder in the Garden of the Lord: Anthony Comstock's Life and Career: Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America: 1995: ISBN 076180076X
  • Nicola Beisel: Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America: Princeton: Princeton University Press: 1997: ISBN 069102779X
  • Helen Horowitz: Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth Century America: New York: Knopf: 2002: ISBN 037540192X
  • Andrea Tone: Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America, New York: Hill and Wang, 2001. Available electronically at: http://books.google.com/books?id=ClHpjlw8zQEC&printsec=frontcover&dq=devices+and+desires&cd=1#v=onepage&q=&f=false

See also

References

  1. ^ Reefer Madness, by Eric Schlosser, page 120
  2. ^ Craig L. LaMay writes, "The term 'Comstockery,' supposedly invented by George Bernard Shaw in 1905 when Comstock removed his play 'Man and Superman' from the public shelves at the New York Public Library, in fact first appeared as the title for a Times editorial in December 1895." Craig L. LaMay, "America's censor: Anthony Comstock and free speech," Communications and the Law 19:3 (September 1997).
  3. ^ Girls Lean Back Everywhere, by Edward de Grazia, page 5
  4. ^ "The hypocrites' club Now with a new diamond-level member". The Economist. March 13th 2008. http://www.economist.com/world/na/displaystory.cfm?story_id=10852872. 

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