The Life & Times of Anthony Comstock, Moral Crusader
by Allan Carlson
The foes of nineteenth-century purity crusader Anthony Comstock commonly spoke in fulminations. His “free love” contemporary D. M. Bennett called Comstock “a first-class Torquemada” who had shown “the same energy, the same cruelty, [and] the same intolerance” as “the envenomed persecutors of the past centuries.” Bennett continued: “It is seriously doubted whether the church has ever had a cruel zealot in its employ who has labored with more resolution and zest than this active agent of the Young Men’s Christian Association.” Another “free love” advocate, Ezra Hervey Heywood, called Comstock “a religio-monomaniac” whom the United States Congress and “the lascivious fanaticism of the Young Men’s Christian Association” had empowered to suppress free thought.
Even Comstock’s political “descendants” in contemporary America, the socially conservative Religious Right, are largely oblivious of his legacy. My informal survey of a dozen contemporary American pro-family leaders found only one who had even heard of him; this despite the fact that Comstock succeeded in almost every aspect of his purity campaign: from crushing the pornography industry to suppressing abortion and contraception. Indeed, under any fair comparison, the current pro-family and pro-life movements have been failures.
Who Was Comstock?
Biographers Heywood Broun and Margaret Leech are correct to say that Comstock was not really born for the late nineteenth century. Living out of time, “he was the apotheosis, the fine flower of Puritanism.”
Comstock was a product of Connecticut. During the 1840s, this state held the reputation of being the most socially conservative and religiously orthodox corner of the land; and its many Congregationalist churches were still predominantly conservative in theology and evangelical in spirit.
Born March 7, 1844, in New Canaan, Comstock claimed Puritan ancestry on both sides of his family. His father Thomas was a successful farmer. His mother—Polly Lockwood Comstock—was the real influence in his life. Bearing ten children, she reared them in the stern Puritan faith most recently invigorated by the spiritual enthusiasms of the Second Great Awakening. While Polly Comstock died when Anthony was only age ten, her Bible readings, morality tales, prayer life, and frequent church attendance profoundly shaped his character.
Young Comstock attended the district school near his farm and then enrolled in the New Academy run by the New Canaan Congregational Church. Here, he learned writing and gained his frame of reference, his vocabulary, and his perception of duty. His Christian faith was strong. Common to him were the sentiments he recorded in his diary in Spring 1863, at age 19: “One of the sweetest days of my life, so near to Jesus. . . . Not myself, not a whit, but all, all in Christ. His grace shed abroad in my heart. O to praise him with a pure heart in Spirit and Truth.”
Into the YMCA
Shortly thereafter, Comstock’s older brother Samuel died from wounds received at Gettysburg, and Anthony felt duty-bound to enlist in his place. He mostly saw occupation duty in a peaceful corner of Florida. Appalled by “the oaths of wicked men” heard in the barracks, he recruited a circle of about 25 young soldiers who took a contrary oath that “they would not swear, drink, nor chew tobacco.” Comstock’s lack of compassion for public sinners showed as he poured his whiskey and rum rations on the ground before his drinking comrades-in-arms. During the last few months of his enlistment, Comstock became an agent of the Christian Commission, a ministry to the military organized by the new and ambitious Young Men’s Christian Association.
The years immediately following the Civil War were in their own way harrowing and disturbing, nowhere more so than in New York City. Memories of that city’s anti-draft riots of July 1863 were still vivid, when mobs roamed the streets, sacked homes, stores, and armories, and killed eighteen people. A semblance of calm came only after federal soldiers shot 400 rioters dead. City authorities faced the “dreadful revelations” that “a great, ignorant, irresponsible class” and “the fires of a social revolution” lay “just beneath their feet.” There was a veritable explosion in the number of New York saloons, gambling halls, and houses of prostitution. As Margaret Leech has ably summarized: “All that was vulgar in the Republic, all that was raw and crude, rose to the surface and floated there.”
Yet this was also a time of evangelical excitement. Strong currents of the Second Great Awakening, launched from Yale Divinity School around 1800, continued to flow. Between 1850 and 1890, the number of church edifices grew by 272 percent. Church membership and attendance figures soared. Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey, fresh from success in Great Britain, brought their Revival Crusade back to America in 1873. Millions responded.
The Young Men’s Christian Association was—in one historian’s words—“in the vanguard of the ‘evangelical empire’ in an increasingly Christian America.” Launched in London in 1844, the first American YMCA was organized in Boston in 1851; the New York branch came a year later.
The YMCA’s core task was to save the young males pouring into the cities from the “traps of immorality” awaiting them. In 1866, the New York YMCA issued a report on that city “As a Field for Moral and Christian Effort Among Young Men.” Concerning “obscene books and papers,” it reported:
Into this situation stepped Anthony Comstock. In 1866, he joined the flow of war veterans into New York City. He took a job as a porter for a dry goods establishment, earning $12 a week. Later, he became a clerk. In these early months, he spent many lonely evenings, fearing “for his soul, and for the souls of the young men he boarded with.” He soon joined the YMCA, finding direction in its lectures and pamphlets. Two years later, he attended a lecture on obscene literature, and left very disturbed.
Comstock’s early arrests as a “volunteer detective” set a pattern for his later life. His first action took place in 1868, apparently after a friend had purchased a pornographic book, visited a brothel, and contracted a venereal disease. Comstock blamed the original book merchant, Charles Conroy. He tracked him down, made a citizen’s arrest, and turned him over to the police.
Several years later, he launched a successful campaign against two saloons in his neighborhood that openly violated the Sunday closing law. Lending him legal and financial support were Mr. and Mrs. H. B. Spelman, prominent New Yorkers whose daughter would later marry a Rockefeller. Comstock wrote in his diary: “Give me a man who dares to do right and one ready at all times to discharge his duty to the community and to God.”
In early 1872, Comstock sought to expand his volunteer work for the YMCA. He wrote a clumsy letter to YMCA Secretary Robert McBurney, describing the horrors of the trade in obscene books and materials in New York, and asking for the organization’s help in suppressing this business. The letter came to the attention of the YMCA’s new president, Morris K. Jesup, who was also accumulating a fortune as a merchant, banker, and railroad financier (later he became the founder and chief benefactor of the American Museum of Natural History). Intrigued by Comstock’s spirit, Jesup invited the young man to an interview in his Madison Avenue mansion.
In response to Comstock’s urging, the New York YMCA created a secret Committee for the Suppression of Vice in March 1872. Comstock’s career as a Christian warrior against all forms of vice would soon commence. While others backing Comstock grew cold feet at various points, Jesup supported him without reservation for 43 years. As Comstock noted in his diary: “Only one Man thinks as I do and that is Mr. Jesup. He is alive!”
Historian Nicola Beisel correctly argues that Comstock’s intellectual and political achievement “was to link abortion and contraception to the availability of obscene literature in city streets.” In Comstock’s mind, all his work focused on the protection of the young. As he explained to his colleagues, children were the devil’s first target: “We have been assigned by the Great Commander to constantly face some of the most insidious and deadly forces of evil that Satan is persistently aligning against the integrity of the children of the present age.”
While using different language, Comstock would agree with contemporary theorists about the addictive nature of pornography, particularly when introduced to the young. As he wrote in 1880: “The susceptible mind of the boy receives impressions that set on fire his whole nature. His imagination is perverted. A black stain is fixed indelibly upon it, and conscience, once a faithful monitor, is now seared and silenced.”
The post-1865 surge in obscene materials was driven largely by new technologies—notably photography and vulcanized rubber—which entrepreneurs in the sex trade quickly exploited. Were these items truly pornographic? Historian Richard C. Johnson thinks so: “the vast majority of the materials which [Comstock] found were . . . specifically and without question designed to take commercial advantage of prurience.” James Petersen, a longtime editor of Playboy, writes: “Comstock never described the objects he suppressed, but some pictures survive. Even today these postcards have the power to arouse.”
All the same, Comstock’s linkage of obscenity to birth control and of birth control to abortion seems to modern minds unclear and disjointed. What were his beliefs regarding contraception?
To begin with, Comstock had at least a rough sense of a natural law that encompassed human sexuality. In chiding a young female journalist, he appealed to “Nature’s law,” adding:
Second, his practical experience showed that dealers in obscene books and prints also commonly sold contraceptives and abortifacients.
Third, Comstock believed that the availability of contraceptives encouraged immoral behavior. In an early report to his backers, Comstock explained how obscene words and pictures were “cunningly calculated to inflame the passions and lead the victims from one step of vice to another, ending in utmost lust.”
Finally, Comstock linked abortion and contraception together for the common danger they posed to women’s health. In this view, Comstock actually stood in solidarity with the cutting-edge medical authorities of his day.
During these years, the ancient practice of midwifery was giving way to the modern discipline of gynecology. A key figure in this transition was D. Humphreys Storer, M.D., Professor of Midwifery at Harvard University. In 1855, he gave the introductory lecture to the new medical class at Harvard, entitled “Two Frequent Causes of Uterine Disease.” He pointed first to the growing practice among new brides of turning “to means, readily procurable, to destroy the life within her”—namely, abortion. The second cause, he reported, was “the means so extensively employed to prevent conception.”
In a prize-winning 1865 essay for the American Medical Association, Storer’s son, Horatio Robinson Storer, M.D., concluded: “Intentionally to prevent the occurrence of pregnancy, otherwise than by total abstinence from coition, intentionally to bring it, when begun, to a premature close, are alike disastrous to a woman’s mental, moral, and physical well-being.”
In 1870 Augustus K. Gardner—Professor of Diseases of Females and Clinical Midwifery at New York Medical College—asserted in Conjugal Sins that “inquiry of any gynecologist will convince the most skeptical that the general employment of any means for the prevention of conception is fraught with injury to the female.” The same year, the French physician L. F. E. Bergeret, in The Preventive Obstacle, or Conjugal Onanism, based on a lifetime of clinical work, concluded that “genesiac frauds [contraception] may provoke in [the woman] diseases of the genital organ, from simple inflammation to the most serious degenerations,” especially cancer.
In short, Comstock could see his suppression of contraceptives as an act in line with the very best medical advice and for the protection of women’s health.
What was Comstock’s alternative to birth control for persons facing the “hard cases”? His answer was simple: “Can they not use self-control? Or must they sink to the level of the beasts?” This had been the orthodox Christian answer for about 1,800 years.
At first, Comstock served the new YMCA Committee as a volunteer, while continuing to earn his living as a dry goods clerk. However, in early 1873 he became an employee of the YMCA. During its 22 months of operation, the Committee reported the following seizures:
Despite these impressive numbers, there was trouble within the Committee. Jesup grew discouraged over jealousies among its members. Some thought that Comstock had been too aggressive in several of his arrests. Defending a civilization, it turned out, was a task only for extraordinary men. And so the Committee resolved to spin this work off from the YMCA, creating an independent New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The new entity received its charter from the New York state legislature on May 16, 1873.
This Society has gone down in mainstream American history as a den of fanatics. Yet, as Paul Boyer has put it, if the founders of the anti-vice society “were moral fanatics . . . they were at least highly successful ones.” Joining Jesup and McBurney as incorporators were the rising financier J. Pierpont Morgan and copper magnate William E. Dodge. Samuel Colgate, head of his family’s soap business, became the first president of the New York Society, serving until his death in 1898. Other early officers included textbook publisher Alfred S. Barnes (of Barnes and Noble) and Killean Van Renssalear, representing one of New York’s oldest and most prestigious families. Donors to the Society included Andrew Carnegie, John Wanamaker, and Louis C. Tiffany.
In May 1878, Comstock spoke in Boston and enlisted prominent figures to create the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice (later renamed the Watch and Ward Society). Vice Presidents of this Society included the presidents of Amherst College, Yale University, Brown University, and Dartmouth. The Society’s contributors’ list soon sported names such as Abbott, Beebe, Cabot, Coolidge, DeWolf, Eliot, Endicott, Fletcher, Forbes, James, Lodge, Lowell, Lyman, Peabody, Pickering, Tufts, and Wigglesworth: in one historian’s words, “almost a roll call of the [New England] Brahmin aristocracy.”
Beyond this extraordinary support from America’s most prominent families, there is another curiosity about the anti-vice societies: the all-male cast of leaders. Most social reform movements of the late nineteenth century were dominated by women: consider the prohibition and anti-child labor campaigns. Not in this case. Some historians have sought to explain this by casting Comstock’s work as “a campaign to ensure the reproduction of the families . . . of the upper and middle classes.” Stripped of neo-Marxist language regarding socio-economic class, such interpretations are probably correct—and not terribly shocking: these were men attempting to protect their homes and children from corrupting influences.
Comstock was also a skillful lobbyist. He traveled to Washington in January 1873 with a proposed new federal anti-obscenity law and a cabinet of horrors as evidence: a collection of recently seized obscene prints, postcards, books, and assorted “rubber items” which he used to educate members of Congress on the nature and scope of this crisis.
Comstock worked the Washington system. US Supreme Court Associate Justice William Strong helped him refine the language of his bill and served as a liaison with friendly congressional elements. Senator William Windom of Minnesota used his position on the Committee on Appropriations to secure money for a special postal agent to enforce the pending law, on the promise of the Postmaster General that Comstock would be appointed to the position.
Comstock also had several private meetings with James C. Blaine, the Speaker of the House. At a key point in the deliberations, Blaine received personal telegrams from Mr. Jesup and Mr. Dodge in New York, stressing their “personal interest” in Comstock’s bill. Comstock’s diary that day records Blaine promising that he would “put my bill through sure tonight.”
The key innovations in Comstock’s bill were passages that banned the import and distribution through the mail of:
Congress rushed the bill through, and President Grant signed it on March 3. The New York Times declared that Congress could now be forgiven its recent financial scandals, since it had “powerfully sustained the cause of morality. . . . Those wretches who are debauching the youth of the country and murdering women and unborn babes, will soon be in the strong grip of government.”
Later that week, Comstock received his commission as Special Agent of the U.S. Post Office, charged with enforcing his own law. He carried a document requiring all mail-carrying American railroads to give him free passage on demand. During his first ten months in office, he traveled 23,000 miles.
Comstock carried his advocacy to the states, eventually winning passage of “mini-Comstock” laws in 22 of them. Judicial interpretations of the federal law extended similar provisions to another 24 states.
D. M. Bennett, twice jailed by Comstock for publishing obscene works, later complained that passage of the federal Comstock law had taken place in the closing hours of the Congressional session, when “some two hundred and sixty acts were hurried through without inquiry or consideration.” The state Comstock laws, he continued, had passed “by a similar style of tactics,” with little debate and considerable backroom political maneuvering.
Many twentieth-century historical accounts cast Comstock’s anti-obscenity laws as strange flukes or accidents of the legislative process, adopted against the will of the people. Yet the fact remains that attempts to repeal “the Comstocks,” or even amend them in a meaningful way, repeatedly failed. Upon his death in 1915, Comstock’s legal empire was intact. How can this durability be explained?
To begin with, Comstock’s values and initiatives were wholly in line with the progressive currents of his age. Essentially, Comstock and his allies learned how to repackage the Puritan moral values of the seventeenth century in the language of “social reform.”
Comstock’s work drew repeated praise from the progressive social and educational elites of his day. In 1898, Harvard Professor Francis G. Peabody, famed for his course on social reform, compared the anti-vice associations with the abolitionist crusade: Both were typical of “the American way of social reform.” In 1911, former Harvard President and social reformer Charles William Eliot declared Boston’s Watch and Ward Society to be a “thoroughly scientific charity.” In his Presidential Address to the new American Social Hygiene Association, Eliot urged that the organization “always be ready to take part in the persecution of men or women who make a profit out of obscene publications.” Others saw Comstock as standing shoulder to shoulder with Jane Addams and Jacob Riis as reformers battling the poverty, crime, and violence of the cities.
The anti-vice groups were adept at framing their mission as “preventive social policy,” then the rage among progressives. The Watch and Ward Society explained: “The old idea of ‘charity’ . . . has gradually given way to a larger conception . . . to prevent the moral diseases which lead to misery and crime.” As the organization stated elsewhere:
Three months before Comstock’s death, The New Republic—a voice for the progressive cause—ran an editorial praising the old reformer. It described the post-Civil War flow of obscene books into schools, adding: “The idea of giving up your life to suppressing these dirty trades probably would not ever occur to you. Anthony Comstock is the exceptional man to whom this idea did occur and who acted on it.” Only those who knew the magnitude of the problem fifty years before and “how difficult and risky this trade has been made nowadays, can realize the vast amount of good Mr. Comstock has accomplished.”
Progressive supporters for Comstock’s work also included the feminists of his day. Figures such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton never publicly opposed the Comstock laws, largely because they themselves disapproved of contraception. Some prominent feminist voices directly endorsed his campaign. For example, the first American woman to receive a medical degree, Elizabeth Blackwell, shared Comstock’s view about the effects of “vicious literature” on the young.
Moreover, Comstock received the quiet support of America’s literary establishment. As Paul Boyer notes in Purity in Print, the great American publishing houses between 1865 and 1915 practiced a form of self-censorship, which sought elevating themes while condemning the “bad book.” This censorship “was simply the sum total of countless small decisions by editors, publishers, booksellers . . . critics, and—occasionally—vice societies, all based on a common conception of literary propriety.” Writing in 1913, Paul Elmer More, editor of The Nation, condemned writers who did not realize that readers “still require such old themes as home and mothers and love’s devotion.” Even librarians worked relentlessly to keep “bad books” off their shelves.
Comstock also enjoyed uniform support from America’s churches. American religious bodies took no formal part in passing or enforcing the Comstock laws between 1873 and 1900; leading theological journals rarely mentioned the birth control or pornography questions during these years. Yet this was at least partly because evangelical “para-church” organizations—the YMCA and its spin-off anti-vice societies—were effectively addressing the questions. On the issues of contraception, abortion, and obscene literature, Roman Catholics, Evangelical Protestants, and even the emerging “Social Gospel” Protestants stood in effective harmony.
In 1892, on the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the YMCA Committee for the Suppression of Vice, Anthony Comstock’s admirers threw a party for him at Carnegie Hall. As a gift, they presented the culture warrior with an elegant dinner service of hand-painted china. According to the New York Mail and Express: “It was a testimonial of admiration for his splendid career and of respect for the intrepidity, sincerity and self-sacrifice of the man who twenty years ago set out almost single-handed to fight the battle for purity and cleanly lives.” Five years later, a second celebration occurred at Carnegie Hall. Jesup and his business friends presented Comstock with a gift of $5,000.
Later, there would be rumors that he was about to fall from grace. The suicide of a scatter-brained author under indictment, Ida Craddock, hurt Comstock’s public reputation. So did a raid in 1906 to seize pamphlets with nude sketches from the Art Students League, which made him a laughing-stock among sophisticates. Enemies whispered that he was about to lose his commission from the Post Office. Instead, Postmaster-General George B. Cortelyou publicly praised Comstock’s “war upon impurity and obscenity,” declaring that “he has stood as a barrier between the youth of the land and a frightfully demoralized traffic, and . . . he has had and will continue to have the hearty support of this department.”
As late as 1915, President Woodrow Wilson named Comstock to lead the American Delegation to the International Purity Conference, held that year in—amazingly—San Francisco. As one unfriendly historian concedes, of the 4,000 international Purity delegates present, “there were probably not two persons who did not unreservedly share his point of view.”
Indeed, Anthony Comstock—aging prophet and moral advocate—could bask in the sunlight of almost complete success in the realm of public policy. Regarding the suppression of contraception, historian (and later federal judge) John T. Noonan notes that the Comstock laws, in penalizing the trade in birth control devices and information, “went further than any Pope or canonist.” According to historian James Reed, Comstock made it dangerous “to discuss contraception in print.” Even medical books written prior to 1873 edited out discussions of birth control in subsequent editions.
So, too, regarding abortion. The record shows that between 1873 and 1877, this reformer—in one historian’s words—“probably prosecuted more abortionists . . . than any other person in the United States.” After five years of aggressive action, “abortion-related advertising declined precipitously throughout the nation.” Indeed, historian James Mohr concludes that because of Comstock’s work, “abortion’s period of commercial visibility, which had lasted since the 1840’s, was over.”
Almost single-handedly, Comstock shut down the pornography trade. Early on, he had learned that “to attack a book or paper, and not carry through the prosecution to success in the courts, was to secure . . . a large ground of free advertising for the offensive material.” He rarely lost. In 1888, he took 103 cases to trial, with 101 convictions; the next year, 127 cases and 125 convictions; in 1890, 156 cases and 155 convictions. These came on top of earlier, more local successes. The New York City “porn library” of 1872 numbered 144 books. By 1880, only two were still in print. The next year, the New York Society could report but 20 pounds of seized books, and a mere 25 improper pictures to be destroyed. Boston’s Watch and Ward Society reported in 1885 that the trade in obscene books had been “substantially suppressed.”
By 1877, he had ended the corrupt black market lottery, or numbers game, in New York City. In an era with little consumer protection, Comstock’s successful campaign against medical quacks and the purveyors of patent medicines even drew the praise of his most vociferous opponents. Indeed, virtually all of the “contraceptives” and “abortifacients” on the open market in 1872 were, at best, ineffective; at worst, poisons.
Anthony Comstock died at the right time: 1915, the last year of the old world order. The Great War in Europe was just turning into the senseless slaughterhouse that would bring vast political and moral revolutions.
In retrospect, one can see an aging Comstock and his allies struggling to comprehend new challenges. The Watch and Ward Society explained in 1909 that “as the twentieth century swings into its second decade, the tone of much of its clever fiction is depressing; it is unbelieving; it seems to be written in a spirit of revolt against the old ideals of chivalry and chastity.” Biographers Broun and Leech note that “the advocates of birth control had always evoked Comstock’s wrath. In his old age he saw these people growing more numerous, more brazen.”
This new threat was soon embodied in the person of Margaret Sanger. In a symbolically rich manner, Comstock’s last campaign was an attempt to put this woman in prison.
In 1913, Sanger published a pamphlet, Family Limitation, which described the relative merits of various contraceptive techniques. Comstock went after her. Using a fake passport, she left her husband and children and fled to Canada. She eventually arrived in England, where she became a protégée (and perhaps a lover) of the so-called sexologist Havelock Ellis.
In January 1915, a secret agent of the Society for the Suppression of Vice approached her husband, William, who gave the agent the offending pamphlet. Arrest followed. Comstock tried to use the threat of prison to get William Sanger to divulge his wife’s location, but he refused and stood trial in September. Comstock, in perhaps his last appearance as a court witness, testified against Sanger. The judge told the jury, “In my opinion, this book is contrary not only to the law of the state, but to the law of God.” They found Sanger guilty.
According to some accounts, Comstock took a chill at the Sanger trial, which turned into pneumonia. Others attribute the initial cold to his trip to San Francisco to attend the International Purity Conference. Whatever the cause, Anthony Comstock died quite suddenly on the evening of September 21, 1915. He was buried in Evergreen Cemetery, Brooklyn, beneath the epitaph, “In memory of a fearless witness,” and words from Hebrews 12: “Lay aside every weight—looking unto Jesus—despising the shame.”
If it were possible to whisk the aging Anthony Comstock forward to the year 2009, what would he think? Most likely, he would find both his own worst fears and his own opinions fully confirmed:
He would note, I think, that allowing married couples to gain legal access to birth control had inevitably resulted in the same access being extended to unmarried adults, then to youth, and finally to children.
He would point out that legalizing birth control would never have been enough for the sexual modernists; they must also have, and so did gain, legalized abortion.
He would show how deliberately separating sexuality from procreation, through birth control and intentionally childless marriages, had cleared the path to a normalization of homosexuality, bisexuality, transexuality, and so on.
He would explain that “modern” marriage, focused on sexual companionship rather than procreation, must have resulted in the effective abolition of true marriage, through easy divorce, the rough equation of cohabitation with marriage, and an end to the legal concept of “illegitimacy.”
He would show that by allowing “free speech” and a “free press” in sexual matters, pornography of the worst sort had quickly found its way into most households, most recently—and effectively—through the Internet.
He would identify a strange new sentimentality among twenty-first-century Americans, which made it impossible for them to comprehend, let alone enforce, the historic Christian sexual code.
He would blast twentieth-century Evangelical leaders for spinelessness in their legitimizing of birth control, rather than holding firm to the ancient Christian consensus regarding the practice as immoral and a danger to society.
He might be grimly amused to see twenty-first-century social conservatives making their last stand over the odd issue of “same-sex marriage.”
And he would certainly conclude that he now stood in a very different country. •
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