The only effective laws
suppressing birth control information and devices in American history were pure
products of evangelical Protestant fervor; nary a single Roman Catholic was
involved. In key respects, these measures were actually the
construct of one man: Anthony Comstock, a son of
Connecticut, the last and—in a certain respect—the greatest of the Puritans.
He won passage of a sweeping federal measure that banned nationwide the
import, sale, and distribution of contraceptive devices or information; another
24 state laws that effectively banned their possession or use: and judicial
determinations that spread similar provisions to still another 22 states.
Adopted mostly during the 1870’s, none of these measures had been either
repealed or significantly amended prior to his death in 1915; some residual
aspects of the federal “Comstock Law” survive to this day.
Comstock’s foes 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” of “the envenomed
persecutors of the past centuries.” Bennett continued:
“He has evinced far too much pleasure in bringing his fellow beings into
the deepest sorrow and grief,” and added: “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.
More recently, literary
historian Robert Bremner places Comstock as a featured exhibit in his supposed
“national rogues’ gallery of reformers.” Biographers
Heywood Broun and Margaret Leech, while not without a certain sympathy toward
their subject, find Comstock to be “naïve beyond all other” late 19th Century
reformers. Reflecting the worldview of a more sophisticated
America, they are amused by: his effort to shut down Turkish
belly-dancing and “hootchie-coochie” shows at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair; his
attempted suppression of George Bernard Shaw’s play on prostitution, Mrs.
Warren’s Profession (which led the British
playwright to label “Comstockery...the world’s standing joke at the expense of
the United States”); his denunciation of art “which had been exhibited in the
Saloons [sic] of Paris”; and his dismissal of French and Italian novels as
“little better than histories of brothels and prostitutes in these lust-cursed
nations.” Historian Paul Boyer finds Comstock to be “devoid
of humor, lustful after publicity, and vastly ignorant.”
Even Comstock’s political
“descendants” in contemporary America, the socially conservative Religious
Right, are either oblivious to or somewhat contemptuous of his legacy.
This author’s own rough survey of a dozen contemporary pro-family leaders
found not a one who had even heard of Anthony Comstock.
Journalist Marvin Olasky, reputed architect of President George W. Bush’s
“compassionate conservatism,” does briefly describe Comstock’s work in his
pro-life history of abortion in America. While the moral
reformer supervised the arrest and conviction of over 90 abortionists during the
1870’s and the successful suppression of the trade in New York City, Olasky is
unimpressed, complaining that the Comstock laws “unwisely included contraceptive
information and devices on its forbidden list.”
Who was Anthony Comstock?
The Flower of Puritanism
Biographers Broun and
Leech are correct that Comstock was a man not really born for the late
Nineteenth Century. Living out of time, “[h]e was the
apotheosis, the fine flower of Puritanism.” They elaborate:
No other person
connected with the cause of purity was so forthright, so colorful, so
extravagant and fanatical. The square energetic figure, the passionate,
whiskered face—here, at least, was a symbol, a caricature, a physical embodiment
of the entire cause of purity and puritanism.
Comstock was a
product of Connecticut. During the 1840’s, this state still held the
reputation of being the most socially conservative and religiously orthodox
corner of the land. Born March 7, 1844, in the village of New Canaan,
Comstock claimed Puritan ancestry on both sides of his family, the first of whom
had arrived in America in 1661. His father Thomas was a successful farmer,
owning 160 acres and two saw-mills, with 30 employees. His mother—Polly
Lockwood Comstock—was the real influence in his life. Bearing ten children
(seven of whom survived to adulthood), 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 age ten, her Bible
readings, morality tales, prayer life, and frequent church attendance profoundly
shaped his character. Over a half-century later, Comstock would tell an
interviewer that the “whole purpose of his life” had been to honor the memory of
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
something of writing (he went on to author several popular books and numerous
articles, although spelling would be a lifelong problem) and gained his frame of
reference, his vocabulary, and his perception of duty.
Commenting on his Church’s 150th anniversary, Comstock explained:
“I carried into my daily life the lessons I learned here, and if I have
accomplished anything in the cause of moral purity..., it is because I
have...been true to the principles taught me here.”
His faith was indeed strong. Common to him were the sentiments he recorded
in his diary in Spring 1863, then 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.”
thereafter, Comstock’s older brother Samuel died from wounds received at
Gettysburg, and Anthony felt duty-bound to enlist in his place in the
Seventeenth Connecticut Regiment. 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 while we were
in the army.” Comstock became a sort of volunteer chaplain and recruited
nearby clergymen to preach to his group. He attended four to nine such
services a week. He also taught newly freed slaves how to read and
spell[!]. 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. His diary entries from this time reveal a young man
struggling with his own temptations: “If I could but live without sin, I
should be the happiest soul living: but Sin, that foe is ever lurking,
stealing happiness from me.” 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.
Down at the YMCA
years immediately following the Civil War were in their own way harrowing and
disturbing, nowhere moreso than in New York. 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. Only the
dispatch of federal troops and the deaths of 400 rioters finally brought some
order. City authorities faced the “dreadful revelations” that “a great,
ignorant, irresponsible class” and “the fires of a social revolution” lay “just
beneath their feet.”
More broadly, the late
1860’s launched the reign of the Robber Barons within a web of rampant financial
speculation; the emergence of female emancipation, personified in New York by
the “wild” sisters Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, who managed to
combine stock speculation, socialism, spiritualism, and free love; widespread
political corruption, seen in New York’s Boss Tweed ring and Tammany Hall;
political scandals such as the Credit Mobilier affair; justice for sale, via
bribe-taking police and judges; and a veritable explosion in the number of New
York saloons, gambling halls (2,000 and climbing by 1870), and houses of
prostitution. As Margaret Leech has ably summarized: “Social
behavior, notoriously lax in the years succeeding war, dissolved in the easy
warmth of plentiful money. All that was vulgar in the Republic, all that
was raw and crude, rose to the surface and floated there.”
At the religious level,
evangelical Christians faced fresh challenges as well, notably the fundamental
theological problems posed by Charles Darwin and by the new historicist critics
of the Bible. All
the same, the strong currents of the Second Great Awakening, launched from Yale
Divinity School around 1800, continued to flow. The number
of church edifices was 38,183 in 1850; by 1890, 142,521, an increase of 272
percent. Church membership and attendance figures also
soared. Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey, fresh from unanticipated
success in Great Britain, brought their Revival Crusade back to America in 1873;
Moody explained: “I do not know of anything that America needs more today
than men and women on fire with the fire of heaven.” Millions responded.
The Young Men’s Christian
Association (YMCA) “was in the vanguard of the ‘evangelical empire’ in an
increasingly Christian America.” Across the country,
religious societies or parachurches were mushrooming, all seeking to carry the
Gospel from the churches into the streets. Among these
Christian Industrial Clubs, Magdalen Homes, Purity Alliances, Reserve Midnight
Missions, White Cross Clubs, Salvation Armies, and temperance societies, the
YMCA and its sister, Young Women’s Christian Association, stood out as
“prestigious organizations for directing the evangelistic fervor.”
Launched in London in 1844, the first American YMCA 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.”
As of 1860, males aged 15-40 formed 46 percent of New York’s population.
“Many are utter strangers from the country and Europe,” while employers
no longer looked after “the social and moral interests of young men”; they “are
consequently led to frequent saloons and like places, where they are exposed to
the most contaminating influences.” The YMCA report
precisely counted 3,417 female prostitutes in the city (many disguised as
“pretty waiter girls”), 653 billiard tables in the saloons, and bar rooms
serving 600 barrels of beer a day. Turning to “Obscene Books
and Papers,” it continued:
The traffic in these is most extensive. They
are to be obtained at very many newspaper stands....[A]t one place, on a
principal thoroughfare, there are openly exposed for sale two vile weekly
newspapers, which can be purchased at ten cents a copy, and more than fifty
kinds of licentious books, each one illustrated by one or two cuts... [T]he
proprietor will [also] show [an interested buyer] a catalogue of a large number
much more vulgar and atrocious, illustrated with the most obscene cuts....
The debasing influence of these publications on young men cannot be
overestimated: they are the feeder of brothels.
the YMCA sent lobbyists to Albany in 1866, seeking a state law for “the
suppression of obscene literature.” Two years later, such a bill passed.
However, convictions were few, and by 1871, “the traffic was more open than
Into this situation
stepped Anthony Comstock. His family farm in Connecticut had
been lost in the war; and his father had remarried. Comstock
moved to Tennessee and worked for a time as a construction superintendent at
Lookout Mountain. Disliking the trade, in 1866 he joined the
flow of war veterans into New York City. He took a job as a
porter for Ammidon, Lane & Co., 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 of his 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: “They both seem so earnest....
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.”
Throughout his career, Comstock skillfully recruited such wealthy and
In January 1871, Comstock
married Margaret Hamilton, daughter of a Presbyterian elder whose business had
failed. At age 36, she was ten years his senior.
“Maggie” nonetheless filled him with joy. “O so
bright, so sweet,” he confided in his diary. “O let me
consecrate myself to the one who has bestowed all this upon me.
Let my home, my all, be his.... It is so bright and
sweet now to live.” In December, Maggie bore a daughter,
Lillie; the baby died the following summer. “The Lord’s will
be done,” Comstock wrote on the night of her death. They had
no other natural children. However, Comstock and Maggie did
soon after adopt a newborn found beside its dying mother in a Chinatown
tenement. Named Adele, Comstock’s chief biographers report
(in strangely uncharitable words) that she “was never very bright.
She grew into a straggling, subnormal child.”
(Shortly after Comstock’s death, a judge placed Adele—now age 43—in an
institution.) During the first years of their marriage,
the Comstocks lived in a house in Brooklyn. Later, joined by
Maggie’s invalid sister, the family moved to a New Jersey suburb.
In early 1872, Comstock
sought to expand his volunteer work for the YMCA. He wrote a
clumsy letter to YMCA Secretary Robert McBurney, describing his own take on the
horrors of the trade in obscene books and materials in New York, and asking for
the organization’s help in suppressing this business.
McBurney sent the letter back to Comstock, asking that it be rewritten.
Meanwhile, the YMCA’s new President Morris K. Jesup had seen the letter
on McBurney’s desk. Intrigued by Comstock’s spirit, Jesup
visited the young man in the store where he worked. A more
thorough interview took place in Jesup’s Madison Avenue mansion.
Comstock’s career as a Christian warrior against all forms of vice, including
most especially contraception, would soon commence.
Obscenity and Contraception
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.” Countless
observers have pointed to both aspects of this linkage—abortion equals
contraception and both acts equal obscenity—as naïve, foolish, and the product
of raw ignorance. In truth, Comstock’s views on
contraception were framed by his sense of the dangers facing children and by his
own psychology of the human mind; and they enjoyed the full support of a new and
progressive American medical leadership.
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.”
In defending his “sting”-like detective practices before a hostile judge,
Comstock declared that “my integrity is an essential element in the success of
the defence of the twenty millions of children in this country from the moral
‘cancer planters’....” Writing for the North American
Review, Comstock reiterated the number of children at risk: “upwards
of twenty million of youth and children are in the plastic, or receptive state,
open to every insidious teacher, and subject to every bad influence—a period of
life when character is forming.”
Indeed, while using
different language, Comstock would have agreed with contemporary theorists about
the addictive nature of pornography, particularly when introduced to the young.
As Comstock 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
indeliably upon it, and conscience, once a faithful monitor, is now seared and
silenced.” Later, he elaborated:
In the heart of every child there is a chamber of imagery,
memory’s storehouse, the commissary department in which is received, stored up
and held in reserve every good or evil influence for future requisition....
If you allow the devil to decorate the Chamber of Imagery in your
heart with licentiousness and sensual things, you will find that he has
practically thrown a noose about your neck and will forever exert himself to
draw you away from the ‘Lamb of God which taketh away sins of the world.’
If you open the
door to anything, the filth will all pour in and the degradation of youth will
Comstock reported how one
obscene book, “in thirty-six hours after it had been delivered in a sealed
package from the mails to a boy to whom it had been sent, was found to have
passed through thirteen different boys’ hands,” so doing “its work of
destruction and defilement.” The suppression of this
trade, he argued, must be thorough and complete.
It is important to note
that the post-1865 surge in obscene materials was driven in large part 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 says “yes”:
“the vast majority of the materials which [Comstock] found
were...specifically and without question designed to take commercial advantage
of pruience.” A more authoritative answer comes from James
Petersen, a longtime editor of Playboy
and author of that magazine’s “history of the Sexual Revolution,” entitled
A Century of Sex. He writes: “Comstock never described the
objects he suppressed, but some pictures survive. Even today these
postcards have the power to arouse.” Among others, Petersen describes “a
series from San Juan” which shows a bemused nude woman in a straw hat aiming a
stars-and-stripes “rubber object” at her male partner.
All the same, Comstock’s
linkages of obscenity to birth control and of birth control to abortion seem to
modern minds unclear and disjointed. Broun and Leech note
that “[i]n no cause did he show a more passionate zeal than in the fight against
the purveyors of contraceptive remedies or devices.” And
yet, there is little evidence that other leaders in the anti-obscenity campaign
shared the same animus, beyond a vague association between obscene books and
improper devices. Comstock, in historian Janet Brodie’s
words, was clearly “hostile to abortion and the prevention of conception, and it
was largely his focused energy that secured the criminalization of reproductive
control” at both the federal and state levels. She goes on
to suggest that Comstock’s own near-childlessness had a psychodynamic effect,
creating “hostility toward women who could bear children but chose not to.”
While this may have been a factor, simpler and more direct explanations
also exist. What were Anthony Comstock’s beliefs regarding
To begin with, Comstock
had at least a rough sense of a natural law that encompassed human sexuality.
In chiding a young female journalist for seeking a decriminalization of
contraception, Comstock appealed to “Nature’s law.” He
of conception would work the greatest demoralization. God has set certain
natural barriers. If you turn loose the passions and break down the fear
you bring...disaster.... It would debase sacred things, break down the
health of women, and disseminate a greater curse than the plagues and diseases
Second, his own practical
experience showed that dealers in obscene books and prints also commonly sold
contraceptives and abortifacients. As he wrote about one of
his early arrests for the YMCA, pornographic books “were publicly advertised and
sold in connection with articles for producing abortion, prevention of
conception, articles to aid seductions, and for indiscrete and immoral
purposes.” Other early arrests involved a mix of printed
items together with immoral “rubber goods” [this phrase encompassed masturbation
aids and early condoms and diaphragms] and syringes for abortion.
Comstock and his allies also associated contraception with prostitution
because such pleasure houses frequently sold birth control potions and devices
on the side.
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 tied to birth control and promiscuity.
Such literature, he said, was “cunningly calculated to inflame the passions and
lead the victims from one step of vice to another, ending in utmost lust.”
With victims “polluted in thought and imagination,... the authors of
their debasement [then] present a variety of implements by the aid of which they
promise them the practice of licentiousness without its direful consequences.”
Birth control allowed the despoilers of the innocents “to minister to the most
degrading appetites” and “conceal the crime which may be contemplated or per
chance already committed.”
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
gynaecology. A key figure in this transition was D.
Humphreys Storer, MD, 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.” Storer
underscored “the probability of there being increased detriments and
irretrievable harm” to the woman’s own body. The second
cause of an upswing in uterine disease, he reported, was “the means so
extensively employed to prevent conception.” While some
doctors who rejected abortion accepted contraception, Storer insisted that
interference of any sort with the sexual act would produce trouble:
“If...the operations of nature are interrupted, different results must
follow.... [N]umberless cases of induration, and finally of organic
disease, must be the inevitable consequences.”
For unclear reasons,
Harvard suppressed publication of the lecture for fifteen years.
However, Storer’s son, Horatio Robinson Storer, MD, kept the issue alive.
He played a key role in guiding the American Medical Association [AMA] to
a fresh condemnation of abortion, except to save a mother’s life.
In his prize-winning 1865 AMA essay, “The Criminality and Physical Evils
of Forced Abortions,” the younger Storer also 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.”
A year later, E.M.
Buckingham, MD, writing in The Cincinnati Lancet and Observer, added his
voice: “The evil results of the whole system of avoiding offspring in the
married state are so palpable and so gross, that one can scarcely find language
strong enough to denounce it in suitable manner.” He cited the “catalogue
of the female diseases” caused by these practices.
These architects of
modern gynaecology received important support from two major works published in
1870. In Conjugal Sins,
Augustus K. Gardner—Professor of Diseases of Females and Clinical Midwifery at
New York Medical College—asserted that “Local congestions, nervous affections
and debilities are the direct and indisputable results of coitus imperfecti....”
Whenever contraceptives were used, “sexual congress is thus rendered but
a species of self-abuse.” Gardner concluded:
“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 certainly, if not to the other sex also.”
In The Preventive Obstacle, or Conjugal Onanism,
the French physician L.F.E. Bergeret used a lifetime of clinical work to
conclude that “Genesiac frauds [contraception] may provoke in [the woman]
diseases of the genital organ, from simple inflammation to the most serious
degenerations.” Regarding uterine cancer, for example, he
reported that “[w]hen I review in my memory all the cases of cancers of the womb
which have come under my observation, I do not really recall one which was not
preceded by sexual frauds [another term for birth control].”
Blurring distinctions still more, Bergeret declared that “[e]very fraud is an
indirect infanticide; a germ lost and made unproductive.”
Despite his dismal
reports, Bergeret refused to despair. He doubted that
ancient morals had been any better than those of modern times.
Indeed, “[m]orals have undoubtedly improved with time; but there remain
some ancient errors to reform.” He called on all physicians
to proclaim “that man cannot with impunity transgress that great behest of
nature, that imperative law presiding over the propagation of the human race...:
‘Crescite et multiplicamini’ [be fruitful and multiply].”
In short, Comstock could see his own suppression of contraceptives as an
act in line with the very best medical advice, for the protection of women’s
health, and as an expression of future hope.
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?” And in truth, this had been the orthodox
Christian answer for about 1800 years.
The Consummate Advocate
From the initiation of
his legislation through its passage and implementation, Comstock provides a
textbook example of successful policymaking by a non-legislator; or better put,
of highly effective lobbying. By comparison, today’s
socially conservative Religious Right has largely failed.
Why did he succeed?
To begin with, Comstock
was larger than life: a figure right out of the “dime
novels” of his era that he deplored, a stirring champion of virtue against a
terrible enemy. He was physically imposing, one biographer
describing him as having “Atlas shoulders of enormous breadth and squareness,” a
“chest of prodigious girth surmounted by a bull-like neck,” and short legs that
“remind[ed] one somewhat of tree trunks.” Throw in his
signature mutton-chop whiskers, and you have a mythic physique.
Comstock employed colorful language in describing his foes and their
work: “pathways of lust,” “abortionists’ pimps,” “putrifying
sores,” “diabolical trash,” and “jackals.”
And he was a leader. “Even among the righteous, zealots are few,” note
Broun and Leech. “But Comstock’s burning words kindled fires of righteous
As a leader, Comstock
also believed in personal action and responsibility. He was
directly involved in almost every legal case brought under the federal and New
York State Comstock laws: from investigation through arrest
to witness for the prosecution. His office blotter can be
found in the Library of Congress. Numerous notations simply
read: “No warrant. Arrested by Comstock
in the act of violating the law.”
Two early actions on
behalf of the YMCA show both his honesty and relentlessness.
Using detective methods, Comstock had identified four New York publishers
largely responsible for all of the obscene books to be found in the city.
Titles included The Adventures of a French Bedstead,
Lord K’s Rapes and Seductions,
and Peeps into the Boraglio.
Comstock personally arrested the four in a single day; before being
caught, one malefactor had sent a note to another: “Get out
of the way. Comstock is after you. Damn
fool won’t look at money.” In a letter to his chief
Congressional patron, Clinton L. Merriam, Comstock reported the results:
There was one
year ago published in and about New York and vicinity one hundred and forty four
different obscene books. I have seized the stereotype plates, steel and
copper plate engravings, & c for one hundred and forty-two of these books.
There were four publishers on the 2d of last March, today three are in their
graves, and it is charged by their friends that I worried them to death.
Be that as it may, I am sure the world is better without them.
The same qualities could
be seen in his arrest of Madame Restell, the purveyor of abortions to New York’s
rich and famous. Said to have accumulated a fortune of $1.5
million, the 66-year-old woman lived in a prominent Fifth Avenue mansion.
Comstock came to her home, posing as a man who had impregnated his lover.
After Madame Restell sold him an abortion potion, he arrested her. She
offered him $40,000 to forget the matter, a huge sum for the time. He
refused the bribe. Comstock’s notes on the case tell the result:
“[Restell] committed suicide by cutting her throat [the] morning of trial.
A bloody ending to a bloody life.”
Comstock’s success also
came from his single-minded focus on protecting the young from vice.
For example, he never entered into the anti-socialist agitation of his
time, something that would certainly have endeared him to his wealthy
supporters. And while personally a non-drinker, Comstock had
little to do with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and its crusade for
prohibition. As one WCTU leader complained: “The trouble with Mr.
Comstock is that he thinks no one has a right to work for social purity without
first obtaining permission from him.”
Many 20th Century
accounts of Anthony Comstock cast his anti-obscenity laws as strange flukes or
accidents of the legislative process, adopted against the will of the people.
In truth, he should be seen as the point man for a powerful group of
backers, evangelicals all, who repeatedly encouraged his work.
Following on its 1866
report, and in response to Comstock’s urging, the New York YMCA created a secret
Committee for the Suppression of Vice in March 1872. The
key mover here was Morris K. Jesup, the young YMCA president who was also
accumulating a fortune as a merchant, banker, and railroad financier.
Jesup shared a background with Comstock. Born into a
devout Congregationalist home in small town Connecticut, Jesup too had lost a
parent when young. In later years, he became president of
the New York State Chamber of Commerce, a key mover in preservation of the
Adirondacks, and the founder and chief benefactor of the American Museum of
Natural History. While others backing Comstock grew cold
feet at some point, 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. Jessup [sic]. He is alive!”
At first, Comstock served
the Committee as a volunteer, while continuing to earn his living as a dry goods
clerk. However, in early 1873 he left that work to become an
employee of the YMCA. During its 22 months of operation, the
Committee spent only $8,498.14. The results, though, were
impressive. Now going public, the 1874 YMCA Report claimed
the following seizures:
13,000 lbs. of
bound books, containing from 150 to 300 pages each; 4,000 lbs. of the same books
in process of manufacture; 199,500 pictures and photographs; 6,250 microscopic
pictures; 625 negative, photographic plates; 350 engraved steel and copper
plates; 501 engraved wood-cuts and electrotype plates; 14,200 lbs. stereotype
plates, for printing 145 different books; 20 lithographic stones; 60,300
improper [rubber] articles; 700 lbs. of lead molds; three establishments for the
manufacture of these were closed; 130,275 circulars, catalogues and songs;
...20,000 letters from various parts of the United States ordering goods, 6,000
names of dealers....
Despite these imposing
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.
McBurney, the YMCA Secretary, was distraught over publicity surrounding
Comstock’s handling of the Woodhull-Claflin case (see p. 43).
In the end, the committee agreed that “...the matters with which
[Comstock] had to deal were too unpleasant to be touched by persons of sensitive
feeling.” Defending a civilization was a task only for
extraordinary men. 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, and was operational by the following
This Society has gone
down in American mythology as a den of fanatics. Yet, as
historian 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 New Jersey soap business, became the first
president of the New York Society, so serving until his death in 1898.
Other early officers were textbook publisher Alfred S. Barnes (of later
Barnes and Noble fame); Killean Van Renssalear, representing one of New York’s
oldest and most prestigious families; and attorney William Beecher, son of the
celebrated preacher Henry Ward Beecher. Subsequent donors to
the Society included Andrew Carnegie, John Wanamaker, Mrs. Russell Sage, Louis
C. Tiffany, and Joseph H. Choate.
In May 1878, Comstock
spoke in Boston and enlisted equally prominent figures to create The New England
Society for the Suppression of Vice (later renamed The Watch and Ward Society).
Dr. Homer P. Sprague, principal of the Girls High and Normal School,
became its president. Vice presidents of the Society
included the president of Amherst College, Rev. Julius Seelye; the president of
Yale University, Rev. Noah Porter; the president of Brown University, Rev. E.G.
Robinson; and the president of Dartmouth, Rev. S.C. Bartlett.
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: “almost a roll
call of the [New England] Brahmin aristocracy.”
Beyond this extraordinary
support from America’s most prominent families, both “old” money and “new,”
there is another curiosity about the Anti-Vice Societies:
the all-male cast of leaders. Most social reform movements
of the late 19th Century were heavily 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 and
the social world of the upper and middle classes.” Nicola
Beisel argues that Comstock and company sought to keep “children and homes
morally pure—a task predicated on, but not confined to, the labors of moral
mothers.” Boyer suggests that these men were especially
uneasy about their own offspring: “Would the temptations of
wealth seduce their children from the stern morality by which they themselves
had been reared?” 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 influence.
Mr. Comstock Goes to Washington
United States government entered the anti-vice business through the Tariff Act
of 1842, which empowered the Customs Office to seize and bring suit to destroy
“obscene or immoral” prints and pictures. In 1857, Congress
added obscene “images,” including photographs and daguerrotypes, and “obscene
articles” to the prohibited list. Reports of nasty materials being mailed
to soldiers led Congress in 1865 to ban obscene publications from the U.S.
mails. Comstock complained that only items “obscene on their face” were
stopped by this measure. Amendments adopted in 1872 strengthened the law
In early 1873, few
members of the still extant YMCA Committee for the Suppression of Vice wanted to
pursue the matter further. Comstock, though, insisted.
He wanted the law extended to outlaw obscenity in newspapers and
advertisements and—notably—to ban contraceptive devices and abortifacients.
As he explained in a letter to Congressman Merriam:
...there are scores of men that are supporting themselves and
families to-day by sending out these rubber goods, &c, through the mails that I
cannot touch for want of law. There are men in Philadelphia,
in Chicago, in Boston and other places who are doing this business, that I could
easily detect and convict if the law was only sufficient.
To an unusual degree,
then, the law that emerged was Comstock’s work. As Bremner
puts it, “no one else had the wile and experience to devise such a cunning,
wide-mouthed trap for evil-doers.”
Historian Carol Flora Brooks reports that “[a]ll accounts agree” about the
validity of Comstock’s claiming the bill was his own.
Comstock’s first task was
to blend together his proposed measure with two other pending bills, one dealing
with the possession of obscene items in the District of Columbia and the federal
territories and a second that would increase penalties under the existing act.
Attorney Benjamin Vaughan Abbott, the brother of theologian and Christian
journalist Lyman Abbott, performed this task. The result
became what Comstock always called “my bill.”
He traveled to Washington
in January 1873, with his bill and a cabinet of horrors as evidence:
a collection of recently seized obscene prints, postcards, books, and
“rubber items” used to educate members of Congress on the nature and scope of
this national emergency. As Comstock reports in a diary
entry for February 3:
About 11:30 went up to the Senate with my exhibits.
[Journalist] A.H. Byington of Norwalk very kindly aided me by securing the
Vice-President’s room and inviting Senators out to see me. I spent an hour
or two, talking and explaining the extent of the nefarious business and
answering questions. [Senators] Buckingham, Pratt, Ames, Ramsey, Cole and
numerous others were present. All were very much excited, and declared
themselves ready to give me any law I might ask for, if it was only within the
bounds of the Constitution. I also saw the Vice-President.
As this extract suggests,
Comstock worked the Washington system in extraordinary fashion.
Connecticut Senator (and wartime Governor) William A. Buckingham was his
chief Senate sponsor; Congressman Merriam of New York took that role in the
House of Representatives. Astonishingly, U.S. Supreme Court
Associate Justice William Strong helped Comstock to refine the language of his
bill and served as a liaison with friendly Congressional elements.
Another powerful Senator, William Windom of Minnesota, used his position
on the Committee on Appropriations to secure $3,425 for a special postal agent
to enforce the pending law, on the promise of the Postmaster General that
Comstock would be so appointed. Comstock had several
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 records Blaine promising that he would “put my bill
through sure tonight.” During these weeks, Comstock even attended a
reception at the White House, where he met President Grant (the young New Yorker
was unimpressed by the women of Washington, though, finding them “brazen—dressed
extremely silly—enameled faces and powdered hair—low dresses—hair most
ridiculous [sic] and altogether most extremely disgusting to every lover of
pure, noble, modest woman”).
The key innovation in
Comstock’s bill were passages that banned the import and distribution through
the mail of:
Every obscene, lewd, or lascivious, and every filthy book,
pamphlet, picture, paper, letter, writing, print or other publications of an
indecent character, and every article or thing designed, adapted, or intended
for preventing conception or producing abortion, or for any indecent or immoral
use; and every article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine, or thing which is
advertised or described in a manner calculated to lead another to use or apply
it for preventing conception or producing abortion, or for any indecent or
immoral purpose. [Emphasis added.]
More broadly, Section One
of the bill prohibited the distribution by any means of such materials in
Washington, DC, and the federal territories. Section Two
prohibited the use of the U.S. mails for such distribution.
The third section prohibited the importation of contraceptive devices and
provided for their confiscation. Section Four created
sanctions for officials who knowingly aided such trade. And
the fifth section authorized writs for search and seizure.
As journalist Mary Alden Hopkins would later put it, the measure “covers—well,
Birth control advocate
Mary Ware Dennett, in her sharply critical 1926 book on the Comstock laws,
describes legislative action on the federal bill. “There was
practically no discussion on the subject matter,” she notes.
“There were no speeches delivered, until after the bill was passed.
The measure was granted unanimous consent action in the Senate, and was
passed under a suspension of rules in the House. It slipped
under the wire for the President’s signature on the very last day of the
session.” And, she adds: “the control of
conception was not once mentioned by any member on the floor of either House.”
This account is essentially true. Comstock’s bill was
part of a flood of legislation that Congress considered in a push toward
adjournment by March 1, and the bill’s chief sponsors—particularly Congressman
Merriam—ably manipulated the resulting, but all too common, confusion.
Several odd things did
occur. On February 11, the Vice President referred
Comstock’s bill to the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads.
In committee, an amendment was adopted that would have granted an
exception to the ban on selling contraceptives and abortifacients in the
District of Columbia and territories, through “a prescription of a physician in
good standing.” The bill reported to the Senate on February 18 included
this change. When one Senator asked for time to read the measure, Senator
Buckingham agreed to put off consideration for a while. It appears that
Comstock lobbied frantically to strike the exception. In any case, on
February 20 the bill was called up again, with the physicians’ provision gone.
When Senator Conkling asked what changes had been made, Buckingham replied “that
there is no material alteration in the section. It is rather to strengthen
it than otherwise.” When pressed, he noted that the “words in the
thirteenth line are stricken out. I cannot give the details without
looking at the bill.” While at least one other Senator urged caution here,
the missing words were not identified, and the amendment to the Amendment was
approved. A day later, “the bill was read the third time, and passed,”
with no actual vote recorded.
On the House side,
meanwhile, Rep. Merriam bided his time, much to Comstock’s frustration.
Finally, on the last day of the session, Merriam moved for a vote on the
Senate bill, which did not have the physicians’ exemption.
Congressman Kerr tried to refer the bill back to the Committee on the Judiciary,
arguing that “[i]ts provisions are extremely important, and they ought not to be
passed in such hot haste.” A curious exchange followed:
MR. COX: Is debate in order?
THE SPEAKER: It is
MR. MERRIAM: I move
to suspend the rules and pass the bill with my amendment.
MR. KERR: Is my
motion in order?
THE SPEAKER: Not
under that motion.
The House divided; and there were—ayes
52, noes 79, no quorum voting
MR. KERR demanded tellers.
Tellers were ordered; and MR. KERR and
MR. MERRIAM were appointed.
The House again divided; and the tellers
reported—ayes 100, noes 37.
voting in favor thereof) the rules were suspended, and the bill as amended was
President Grant signed
the measure the same day.
It has been said that
law-making, like sausage making, is a process best not closely observed.
In any case, Comstock got his law. Referring to the
ongoing Credit Mobilier bribery scandal, The New York Times
declared that Congress could now be forgiven its improprieties, 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.
In subsequent years, Comstock carried his advocacy
to the states. In his home of New York, Comstock and his
YMCA associates drafted a bill, and he appeared in Albany in 1873 along with his
cabinet of obscenities. The measure’s chief innovation would
be to ban the sale, gift, or exhibiting of contraceptives and abortifacients.
Only one assemblyman appears to have opposed the bill: “a Methodist
exhorter” in the import business. Comstock privately charged that “obscene
rubber goods were among the articles in which he traded,” which the reformer
threatened to reveal. Several assemblymen intervened to spare their
colleague “disgrace and exposure.” Opposition dissolved, and the bill
The push for a
“mini-Comstock” law in Massachusetts coincided with the founding of the New
England Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1878, noted earlier.
Legal historian Thomas Dienes reports that like the federal law, this measure
“was sweeping in character and passed with maximum dispatch.” Also
prohibiting the sale, gift, or exhibiting of contraceptives, the bill was
introduced in the Assembly on February 5 and approved on February 28.
There is no extant evidence of either debate or dissent. The Senate
approved the measure on March 20, and six days later the Governor signed it into
law. Comstock’s “free love” foe Ezra Heywood fulminated again: “No
citizen of Massachusetts asked for the passage of the ‘law’; it was slyly worked
through by Comstock himself.... What do the Republican Party and Governor
Talbot mean by importing this pious scamp from Brooklyn to ‘regulate’ morality
The push for a new law in
Connecticut appears to have been sparked by still another speech by native son
Anthony Comstock. The whole purpose of the measure was to
add an anti-contraceptive provision to the state’s existing obscenity statute.
The key provision reads:
Every person who shall...use any drug, medicine, article or
instrument whatsoever for the purpose of preventing conception, or causing
unlawful abortion, shall be fined not less than fifty dollars nor more than one
hundred dollars, or imprisoned not less than sixty days, nor more than one year
Amazingly, The New
York Times reported that no less a figure
than Phineas T. Barnum, the celebrated showman, was responsible for moving
Comstock’s bill through the legislature. Recently the mayor of Bridgeport,
Barnum now served in the Connecticut House, where he chaired the Committee on
Temperance. The actual legislative history is sparse, but this was the
Committee which did report out Comstock’s bill. While somewhat at odds
with the Congregationalism of his day, Barnum was “a religious and God-fearing”
man, noted for his opposition to tobacco and alcohol and for an earlier campaign
against prostitution. Sympathy for Comstock’s work would have come
naturally. Deemed by a House colleague to be “in the interest of the
highest morality and against crimes of the worst sort,” the measure passed
without apparent opposition.
mini-Comstock laws which went beyond the federal statute had emerged in about
half the other states. Twelve of these—Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota,
Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington,
and Wyoming—made illegal the verbal transmission of information on contraception
and abortion. Eleven states deemed the possession of instructions for
preventing conception a criminal offense. Four states—Colorado, Idaho,
Iowa, and Oklahoma—legalized search and seizure for contraceptive information.
Connecticut’s law alone criminalized use. In another twenty-two states,
existing obscenity laws were interpreted in light of the federal statute.
By 1900, about 75 percent of anti-vice arrests nationwide occurred through these
A Man of His Time
Bennett, twice jailed by Comstock for publishing obscene works, complained in
1878 that passage of the federal Comstock law took place in the closing hours of
the Congressional session, “when the House was in the wildest state of
confusion, [when] numbers of the members were under the influence of ardent
spirits, [and 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. All of
this was, in a way, true. Yet the fact remains that attempts
to repeal “the Comstocks,” or even amend them in a meaningful way, repeatedly
failed. On his death in 1915, Comstock’s legal empire was
intact. Indeed, a significant weakening of the
anti-contraceptive clauses came only in the 1930’s, and then only through court
decisions. How can this durability be explained?
To begin with, Comstock’s
values and initiatives were wholly in line with the right-thinking and
progressive currents of his age. Essentially, Comstock and
his allies had learned how to repackage the moral values of the Seventeenth
Century in the language of “Reform.”
Among the progressive
social and educational elites of his day, Comtock’s work drew repeated praise.
In 1898, Harvard Professor Francis G. Peabody, famed for his course on social
reform, favorably compared the anti-vice associations with the abolitionist
crusade: both were typical of “the American way of social reform.”
In 1911, former Harvard President 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 three years
later, Eliot urged that the organization “should always be ready to take part in
the persecution of men or women who make a profit out of obscene publications.”
In 1903, settlement house leader Robert A. Woods praised the anti-vice societies
as “a sort of Moral Board of Health” which made a “profound contribution to the
work of every uplifting agency.” Other contemporaries saw Comstock
standing shoulder to shoulder with Jane Addams and Jacob Riis as reformers
battling the poverty, crime, and violence of the city.
The anti-vice groups were
particularly 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:
[W]hile others endeavor to remedy the effects of crime, we strive
to remove the causes.... [E]very successful blow at immoral literature,
the brothel, or the gambling hall goes far to remove the necessity for the
hospital, the asylum, and the charity ward.
The suppression of
obscenity fit in neatly with other campaigns for poor relief, the protection of
children, prison reforms, and labor laws to prevent the exploitation of women.
Three months before Comstock’s death, The New Republic—a fresh
journalistic 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: “[t]he 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.”
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, seeing the
practice as a threat to their vision of “voluntary motherhood.”
Historian Nicola Beisel effectively refutes allegations that Comstock’s
“real aim was the control of women.” She notes that neither
his laws nor the rhetoric behind them ever reflected this goal.
In fact, Comstock carefully avoided any criticism of the women’s suffrage
movement. And some prominent feminist voices at least indirectly endorsed
his campaign. For example, the first American woman to receive a medical
degree, Elizabeth Blackwell, MD, shared Comstock’s view about the effects of
“vicious literature” on the young: “The permanent and incalculable injury
which is done to the young mind by vicious reading, is proved by all that we
know about the structure and methods of growth of the human mind.”
enjoyed 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.”
Authors and journalists joined in as well. The feminist
writer Julia Ward Howe argued that literature “must bring pure and beautiful
ideals to...the human mind” while avoiding “the brutal, the violent, [and] the
excessive.” Princeton English Professor Henry Van Dyke
stated in 1905 that the only enduring literature “is that which recognizes the
moral conflict as the supreme interest of life, and the message of Christianity
as the only real promise of victory.” 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. In 1908,
American Library Association President Arthur Bostwick called for the
suppression of books of an “immoral tendency.” Facing a
“menacing tide” of obscene literature, each librarian must declare: “This far
shalt thou go and no further.”
Comstock also enjoyed
uniform support from America’s Christian churches. It is
true, as Brooks notes, that American religious bodies took no formal part in
passing or enforcing the Comstock laws between 1873 and 1900 and that leading
theological journals rarely mentioned the birth control question during these
Yet this was at least partly because evangelical “para-churches”—the YMCA and
its spin-off anti-vice societies—were effectively attending to the question.
Johnson is closer to the truth when noting that “Protestant and Catholic
churches were united in their common concern over public immorality” in this
era. Indeed, on the specific issue of contraceptives, Roman Catholics,
conservative Evangelical Protestants, and even the emerging “Social Gospel”
Protestants stood in effective harmony. “This broad front of religious
concern could hardly be called narrowly sectarian.”
The “Free-Love” Liberals
equal importance, perhaps, Comstock faced no important opposition.
His most vociferous foes tended to be in the small “free love” movement,
a campaign essentially seeking the abolition of marriage laws.
Such repeal, advocates held, would promote the “nobility of sexual love,
individual health, social purity, and harmony.” Early on,
Comstock tangled with Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, bringing an
indictment against their Weekly newspaper for publishing the details of
an adultery charge leveled against the sainted preacher Henry Ward Beecher.
The sisters denounced Comstock as “this illiterate puppy,” relabeled the
YMCA the “Young Mules’ Concubine Association,” and stated that “the new order of
Protestant Jesuits, called the Y.M.C.A., is dubbed with the well-merited title
of the American Inquisition.” The two eventually left for
England (where they did make good marriages!). Comstock also
suppressed Ezra Heywood’s 1876 volume, Cupid’s Yoke, essentially a
manifesto for “free love.”
The reformer had a low
opinion of these foes. As he wrote in his diary regarding
the April 1873 trial of George Francis Train: “There were
present the most disgusting set of Free-lovers. The
women-part, thin-faced, cross, sour-looking, each wearing a look of ‘Well, I am
boss’ and ‘Oh, for a man.’ The men, unworthy the name of
men, licentious looking, sneakish, mean, contemptable [sic]....”
On June 25, 1878, Heywood
received a sentence of two years at hard labor and a $100 fine for mailing
copies of Cupid’s Yoke.
In early August, Heywood’s supporters held an “Indignation Meeting” in
Faneuil Hall, Boston. Nearly 6,000 persons attended.
The presiding officer denounced Comstock as the lying employee of a
“bigoted and aggressive religious sect.” A letter from
Theron C. Leland, read into the record, called Heywood’s punishment “the work of
the Christian church,” adding: “The Church owns Comstock and
he runs the United States Courts.” A.L. Rawson said from the
podium that the YMCA was “as sincere as were the managers and tools of the
Inquisition of the Catholic Church, who believed that by roasting one man they
evangelized many others.” To roaring applause, he concluded:
...if there is an endless hell, where the devil reigns because he
is the greatest sinner that ever lived—when Anthony goes to that place, his
Satanic Majesty will arise, doff his hat, make his lowest bow, and say, “Mr.
Comstock, you have beaten me; please take the chair.”
The meeting endorsed by
acclamation a resolution calling for Comstock’s dismissal from government
employment, citing his repeated attempts “to suppress free thought, free speech,
and free press” and his “despicable and immoral methods.”
The meeting also launched the National Defense Association, to give legal
support to those charged under the Comstock laws. Comstock
kept his job and the National Defence Association proved ineffective.
Another Comstock opponent
was the National Liberal League, formed in 1870 to advance secularism.
Its original causes included the repeal of Sunday closing laws and the
abolishment of official religious holidays. Within a few
years, though, the League routinely took on Comstock. In his
book, Frauds Exposed, the reformer
wrote: “It is not a strange thing, then, that of all the
different religious or irreligious bodies...the only ones that shield and defend
the smut dealers, and oppose the laws for their suppression and punishment, are
the National Liberal League, its auxiliaries, and the Free Lovers.”
Comstock’s successful prosecution of Heywood actually split the League.
A radical faction led by Bennett sought not only the dismissal of
Comstock, but also a repeal of his various laws. A
conservative faction, led by Francis Abbott and the famed atheist Robert
Ingersoll, opposed repeal. The radicals prevailed, Abbott
and Ingersoll resigned from the organization, and the League circulated a
petition to Congress, eventually gaining 50,000 signatures demanding repeal.
A House of Representatives panel rejected the petition, stating:
“In the opinion of the committee, the post office was not established to
carry instruments of vice or obscene writings, indecent pictures, or lewd
books.” This was the last serious effort at repeal that
Comstock would personally face.
An Exercise of Power
reformer also knew how to accumulate power and to use it toward his ends.
As special agent for the U.S. Post Office, Comstock refused for
thirty-three years to take his appropriated salary. “Give me
the Authority that such an office confers,” he confided in his diary, “and the
Salary and honors may go to the Winds.” His paycheck
actually came from the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, giving him
a certain independence in his public actions. As postal
inspector, he held a document requiring all mail-carrying American railroads to
give him free passage on demand. During his first ten months
in office alone, he traveled 23,000 miles. Comstock had the
power to “make searches for mailable matters transported in violation of law,”
to “open pouches and sacks to examine the mail therein,” and to “seize all
letters and bags, packets or parcels, containing letters which are being carried
contrary to law.”
Comstock also served as
secretary and chief operating officer of the New York Society for the
Suppression of Vice. Its legislative charter essentially
made police departments within the state of New York subordinate to the Society:
The police force of the city of New York, as well as of other
places,...shall, as occasion may arise, aid this corporation, its members or
agents, in the enforcement of all laws which now exist or which may hereafter be
enacted for the suppression of the acts and offenses designated in Section 3 of
Moreover, agents of the
Society duly recognized by the sheriff of any New York county “may...make
arrests and bring before any court...offenders found violating...any law for the
suppression of the trade in and circulation of obscene literature...and articles
of indecent or immoral use.” Remarkably, the same charter
declared that “One half of the fines collected through the instrumentality of
the Society, or its agent, for the violation of the laws in this act..., shall
accrue to its benefit.” Virtue now had a financial
As Comstock’s foes knew
all too well, most federal and state courts actually stood behind the anti-vice
crusader. Comstock had his favorite judges:
Federal District Judge Charles L. Benedict of New York, “in whose court
Comstock claimed to have never lost a case”; and Federal Judge Daniel Clark
of Boston who, in giving his charge to the jury in the Heywood case, stated in
characteristic manner that the defendant’s free love ideas would transform
Massachusetts into a brothel.
In this case, as in many others dealing with obscenity, the judge refused to let
the jury even see the offending items, deeming them “too obscene.”
Accordingly, the sole issue before the jury was whether the defendant had indeed
mailed the item in question. By mid-1915, Comstock had won a total of
3,873 arraignments, with 2,881 guilty pleas or convictions. His greatest
successes came with obscenity arrests, which were successfully prosecuted in
over nine of ten cases. His least success came with charges dealing with
gambling, where juries tended to be more forgiving.
The U.S. Supreme Court
indirectly affirmed the constitutionality of the federal Comstock Act through an
arbiter decision in Ex Parte Jackson
(1877). The case actually involved the dispatch of lottery
materials in the mails. In its decision, though, the Court
cited Comstock’s law as a positive example of Congress’ authority to police the
mails, so confirming its validity. The Supreme Court
considered the Comstock law directly in the case Rosen
v. United States (1896).
In sustaining the act, the Court adopted “the Hicklin
standard,” articulated by Britain’s Chief Justice Cockburn in the case
Queen v. Hicklin
(1868): the test of obscenity is “whether the tendency of
the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are
open to immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort
might fall.” Indeed, it was with scant exaggeration that
Assistant District Attorney William P. Fiero, in the trial of Mr. Bennett, could
Now, gentlemen, this case is not
entitled “Anthony Comstock against D.M. Bennett”; this case is not entitled “The
Society for the Suppression of Vice against D.M. Bennett”....
It is the United States against D.M. Bennett, and the United States is one great
society for the suppression of vice.
The sexual morality of
Evangelical Protestantism, including its opposition to birth control, had
The Old Prophet
1892, on the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the YMCA Committee for the
Suppression of Vice, Anthony Comstock’s admirers feted 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.
“Crowds filled the edifice,” while Jesup and his business friends presented
Comstock with a gift of $5,000. As his biographers conclude, “he had seen
his dream fulfilled—the dream of an ambitious Puritan, if ever there was one.
He was recognized as the champion of purity.... Good folk were on his
side, the Christian laymen, many of the clergy, mothers and fathers, school
teachers—all right thinking people, in fact.”
would be rumors that he was about to fall from grace. The unfortunate
suicide of a scatter-brained author under indictment, Ida Craddock, hurt his
reputation. So did a raid in 1906 to seize pamphlets with nude sketches
from the Art Students League, which made him a laughing-stock. 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 “[h]e has stood as a barrier
between the youth of the land and a frightfully demoralized traffic, and I want
him to know that... he has had and will continue to have the hearty support of
this department.” In 1913, the New York Society appeared to pressure him
to cede day-to-day operations of the anti-vice campaign to a younger, more
flexible man, John S. Sumner. Yet in early 1915, President Woodrow Wilson
named Comstock to lead the American Delegation to the International Purity
Conference, held that year in San Francisco[!]. As historian Paul Boyer
concedes, of the 4,000 delegates present “there were probably not two persons
who did not unreservedly share his point of view.”
Comstock—the 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.
One volume simply left blank pages. Comstock’s work
also “exacerbated tensions in the [modern] companionate family” focused on the
adult relationship, so reinforcing the preservation of the more traditional,
procreative family form. Mary Ware Dennett, a fierce
critic of Comstock’s work, correctly notes that under the federal and state
Comstock laws, not even parents could lawfully advise their married children on
how to space babies; nor could doctors lawfully study the control of conception,
or advise their patients on the matter. Federal law, in
particular, made no exceptions. Comparing results to
goals, then, Comstock’s achievement was huge.
So, too, regarding
abortion. Despite Marvin Olasky’s fairly dismissive
treatment of Comstock, the record shows that between 1873 and 1877, this
reformer “probably prosecuted more abortionists...than any other person in the
United States.” After his five years of aggressive action,
“abortion-related advertising declined precipitously throughout the nation.”
Indeed, historian James Mohr concludes that because of Comstock’s work,
“[a]bortion’s period of commercial visibility, which had lasted since the
1840’s, was over.” Another historian of the abortion
issue, Leslie Reagan, concludes that abortion was off the agenda of organized
religion until the late 1950’s simply because, “for nearly a century, abortion
was a crime and no social movement suggested otherwise.”
Again, for Comstock, this was a large achievement.
Comstock also shut down the American trade in hard-core pornography.
Early on, Comstock 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.” On
such matters, Comstock rarely lost. In 1888, he took 103 of
these 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. As noted
before, 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.
Up in Boston, the Watch and Ward Society reported in 1885 that the trade in
obscene books had been “substantially suppressed.” By 1899, the Society
declared that “nothing further” was needed except for “constant watchfulness.”
Comstock could count
other policy achievements, as well. 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. Comstock
insisted that “such a mighty medium, power, and agency” as the newspapers “ought
not to become the tool of the villain, the vampire, nor the ghoul, to rob the
simple-minded, honest laborer; or oppress, curse, and destroy the sick and
More than anyone else of his generation, he put teeth into such words.
A Last Crusade
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. Even so, there had already been signs of a
culture in flux: art such as Cubism which abandoned
classical forms; the music of Igor Stravinsky and the choreography of Rudolf
Nijinsky, combined in The Firebird (1912), which mocked Western
ideals of beauty; and the emergence of “sexology” among writers such as
England’s Havelock Ellis.
Prior to 1915, these
changes were more obvious in Europe than in America. Yet in
retrospect, one can see an aging Comstock and his allies struggling to
comprehend these new challenges. It was the Watch and Ward
Society which 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.”
Past foes such as “free lover” Ezra Heywood were actually chaste in comparison
to those now emerging. Heywood and his wife, despite their rejection of
marriage, were apparently faithful to one another throughout their lives and
produced four children; and they actually opposed contraception as degrading.
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 symbolically
rich manner, Comstock’s last campaign was an attempt to put this woman in
Historian Janet Brodie
actually suggests that it was Comstock’s very success in suppressing
contraceptive information that had turned Sanger, a nurse, into a birth control
advocate. Following the reputed death of a pregnant woman in
her care, through a botched self-abortion, Sanger launched in 1913 a search in
the Library of Congress, the New York Academy of Medicine, and the Boston Public
Library for information on how to control reproduction. As
she wrote in her autobiography, “At the end of six months I was convinced that
there was no practical medical information on contraception available in
drives home the point: “the most dramatic legacy of the new social and
legal policies of Comstockery was the void Margaret Sanger found where once
there had been information.”
Sanger soon 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 behind and fled the country
through Canada. Sanger eventually arrived in England, where she became a
protégée (and perhaps a lover) of 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 bring William Sanger to divulge
his wife’s location. He refused, and stood trial in September. In
perhaps his last appearance as a court witness, Comstock testified against
Sanger. The judge in the case told the jury that “[i]n my opinion, this
book is contrary not only to the law of the state, but to the law of God.”
The jury found Sanger guilty. Despite his earlier protest that he was the
father of “three lovely children,” he chose to spend 30 days in jail rather than
pay a $150 fine.
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 California to attend the International Purity Conference.
Whatever the case, 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.”
Back to the Future
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
• He would note 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, &c.
• 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 “illegitimate.”
• 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 21st Century Americans, which made it
impossible for them to comprehend, let alone enforce, the historic Christian
• He would excoriate 20th
Century Evangelical leaders for spinelessness in legitimating 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 21st 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.
1 D. M. Bennett, Anthony Comstock:
His Career of Cruelty and Crime
(New York: Liberal and Scientific Publishing House, 1878):
2 From: Heywood Broun and Margaret
Leech, Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord
(New York: The Literary Guild, 1921):
3 Robert Bremner, “Editor’s Introduction,” in Anthony
Comstock, Traps for the Young,
(Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967 ):
4 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock,
pp. 21, 228-229, 240-241.
5 Paul Boyer, Purity in Print:
The Vice-Society Movement and Book Censorship in America
(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968):
6 Marvin Olasky, Abortion Rites: A
Social History of Abortion in America
(Washington, DC: Regnery, 1992):
7 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock,
pp. 89, 189-190.
8 In Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock,
p. 36. Also: Richard Christian Johnson,
“Anthony Comstock: Reform, Vice and the American Way,”
Doctoral Dissertation, The University of Wisconsin, 1973, p. 17.
9 From Johnson, “Anthony Comstock,” p. 19.
10 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock,
11 Ibid., pp. 26,
33, 45-47; and Janet Farrell Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in
Nineteenth Century America (Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Press, 1994): 259.
12 Boyer, Purity in Print,
13 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock,
p. 75; also C. Thomas Dienes, Law, Politics, and Birth Control
(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972):
14 Dienes, Law, Politics and Birth Control,
15 Mark Noll, et al,
Eerdman’s Handbook to Christianity in America
(Grand Rapids, MI: William
B. Eerdmans, 1983): 284.
16 Dienes, Law, Politics and Birth Control,
17 A Memorandum Respecting New-York as a Field for
Moral and Christian Effort Among Young Men; Its Present Neglected Position; and
the Fitness of the New-York Young Men’s Christian Association As a Principle
Agent for Its Due Cultivation (New York:
Published By the Association, 1866): pp. 3-6.
18 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock,
19 Anna Louise Bates, Weeder in the Garden of the Lord:
Anthony Comstock’s Life and Career
(Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1995):
20 Bates, Weeder in the Garden,
21 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock,
22 Ibid., p. 64.
23 Ibid., p. 67.
24 Bates, Weeder in the Garden,
25 Nicola Beisel, Imperiled Innocents:
Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997):
26 Quoted in Mary Alden Hopkins, “Birth Control and Public
Morals,” Harper’s Weekly 60 (May 22,
27 Anthony Comstock, Defense of Detective Methods.
An Open Letter to Judge Jenkins of Milwaukee, Wis.
(New York: The Christian At Work, 1892):
28 Anthony Comstock, “Vampire Literature,” North
American Review 153 (August 1891):
29 From the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice,
Sixth Annual Report (New York, 1880):
11; in Dienes, Law, Politics and Birth Control,
30 Quoted in Hopkins, “Birth Control and Public Morals,”
31 Comstock, A Defence of Detective Methods,
32 Johnson, “Anthony Comstock,” p. 79.
33 Petersen, The Century of Sex,
34 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock,
35 Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth
Century America, pp. 262-263, 274.
36 Hopkins, “Birth Control and Public Morals, p. 490.
37 In Hopkins, “Birth Control and Public Morals,” p. 489.
38 Beisel, Imperiled Innocents,
39 James Reed, From Private Vice to Public Virtue:
The Birth Control Movement and American Society Since 1830
(New York: Basic Books, 1978): 39.
40 The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice,
Second Report (1876); in Beisel,
Imperiled Innocents, p. 40.
41 Ibid., p. 41.
42 D. Humphreys Storer, “Two Frequent Causes of Uterine
Disease,” The Journal of the Gynaecological Society of Boston
6 (March 1872 ): 195-203.
43 Horatio Robinson Storer, MD, “The Criminality and
Physical Evils of Forced Abortions [Prize Essay to Which the American Medical
Association Awarded the Gold Medal for MDCCCLXV],” Transactions of the
American Medical Association 16 (1866):
741. Emphasis added.
44 E.M. Buckingham, “Criminal Abortion,” The Cincinnati
Lancet and Observer 10 (1867):
45 Augustus K. Gardner, Conjugal Sins Against the Laws
of Life and Health (New York:
J.S. Redfield, 1870): 230-31.
46 L.F.E. Bergeret, MD, The Preventive
Obstacle, or Conjugal Onanism: The Dangers and
Inconveniences to the Individual, to the Family, and to Society, of Frauds in
the Accomplishment of the Generative Functions,
trans. By P. DeMarmon, MD (New York:
Turner and Mignard, 1870): 13, 43, 158.
47 Bergeret, The Preventive Obstacle,
pp. 8, 165.
48 In Hopkins, “Birth Control and Public Morals,” p. 490.
49 In Bates, Weeder in the Garden,
50 From Mary Ware Dennett, Birth Control Laws:
Shall We Keep Them, Change Them or Abolish Them
(New York: The Grafton Press, 1926): 37.
51 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock,
52 Bremner, “Editor’s Introduction,” p. xvii.
53 Bates, Weeder in the Garden,
pp. 58-59; Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock,
54 Appendix to The Congressional Globe, Third Session,
Forty-Second Congress, March 1, 1873, p.
55 As related in Beisel, Imperiled Innocents,
56 In Bremner, “Editor’s Introduction,” p. xxvii.
Also: Johnson, “Anthony Comstock,” pp. 119, 125.
57 For example, see: Dennett, Birth
Control Laws, p. 7.
58 L.L. Doggett, Life of Robert R.
McBurney (New York:
Association Press, 1917): 108.
59 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock,
p. 152. Comstock never did learn how to spell his patron’s
60 Twenty-First Annual Report of the Young Men’s
Christian Association of the City of New York, Presented January, 1874
(New York: Published by the Association, 1874):
61 From William Adany Brown, the biographer of Morris K. Jesup; noted in Broun
and Leech, Anthony Comstock, p. 153.
62 Boyer, Purity in Print,
63 Ibid., p. 8;
and Carol Flora Brooks, “The Early History of the Anti-Contraceptive Laws in
Massachusetts and Connecticut,” American Quarterly
18 (Spring 1966): 6
64 Beisel, Imperiled Innocents,
pp. 49, 57.
65 Boyer, Purity in Print,
66 Hal D. Sears, The Sex Radicals:
Free Love in Victorian America (Lawrence:
The Regents Press of Kansas, 1977): 70.
67 Congressional Globe, Third Session, Forty-Second
Congress, Appendix, March 1, 1873
(Washington: Office of the Congressional Globe, 1873):
68 Bremner, “Editor’s Introduction,” p. xiii.
69 Brooks, “The Early History of the Anti-Contraceptive
Laws,” p. 5.
70 In Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock,
p. 131. Emphasis added.
71 Dienes, Law, Politics and Birth Control,
72 From his diary, in Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock,
pp. 134, 139.
73 Dienes, Law, Politics and Birth Control, pp.
74 Hopkins, “Birth Control and Public Morals,” p. 490.
75 Dennett, Birth Control Laws,
pp. 21, 24.
76 Congressional Globe. Third
Session, Forty-Second Congress, 20
February 1873: 1525.
77 Congressional Globe. Third
Session, Forty-Second Congress, 1 March
78 New York Times
(8 Mar 1873), p. 7, col. 2.
79 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock,
p. 148; Dienes, Law, Politics and Birth Control,
80 Dienes, Law, Politics and Birth Control, pp.
81 Brooks, “The Early History of the Anti-Contraceptive
Laws,” pp. 10-13; and Neil Harris, Humbug: The Art of
P.T. Barnum (Boston:
Little, Brown, & Co, 1973): 14-15.
82 Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth
Century America, pp. 256-258.
And James P. Petersen, The Century of Sex:
Playboy’s History of the Sexual Revolution
(New York: Grove Press, 1999): 13.
83 Bennett, Anthony Comstock: His
Career of Cruelty and Crime, p. 1017.
84 Boyer, Purity in Print,
pp. 13, 22, 24, 27-28; Johnson, “Anthony Comstock,” p. 130.
85 Boyer, Purity in Print,
pp. 13-14, 25.
86 “Editorial,” The New Republic
3 (June 19, 1915): 100-101.
87 Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in
Nineteenth-Century America, p. 280.
88 Beisel, Imperiled Innocents,
89 In Boyer, Purity in Print,
90 Ibid., pp.
16-17, 20-21, 30-32.
91 Brooks, “Early History of the Anti-Contraceptive Laws,”
92 Johnson, “Anthony Comstock,” p. 106.
93 Sears, The Sex Radicals,
94 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock,
95 Proceedings of the Indignation Meeting held in
Faneuil Hall, Thursday Evening, August 1, 1878, To Protest Against the Injury
Done to the Freedom of the Press By the Conviction and Imprisonment of Ezra H.
Heywood (Boston, MA:
Benj. R. Tucker, 1878): 4, 6, 47-48, 53, 62.
96 Anthony Comstock, Frauds Exposed, or How the People
Are Deceived and Robbed, and Youth Corrupted
(New York: J. Howard Brown, 1880): 446.
97 In Beisel, Imperiled Innocents,
pp. 92-95; and Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth
Century America, p. 279.
98 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock,
pp. 136-137; Dennett, Birth Control Laws,
99 Dennett, Birth Control Laws,
100 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock,
101 Beisel, Imperiled Innocents,
102 Hopkins, “Birth Control and Public Morals,” p. 489.
103 Sears, The Sex Radicals,
104 Quotation in Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock,
105 Ibid., pp.
106 Boyer, Purity in Print,
p. 28; and Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock,
pp. 219-220, 258-259.
107 John T. Noonan, Contraception: A
History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists
(Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University
Press, 1986): 412.
108 Reed, From Private Vice to Public Virtue,
109 Dennett, Birth Control Laws,
pp. 3-4, 7, 42.
110 James C. Mohr, Abortion in America:
The Origin and Evolution of National Policy, 1800-1900
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1978):
111 Leslie J. Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime:
Women, Medicine and Law in the United States, 1867-1973
(Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1997): 6-7.
112 Comstock, “Vampire Literature,” p. 161.
113 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock,
114 Boyer, Purity in Print,
115 Bremner, “Editor’s Introduction,” p. xviii.
116 Comstock, Frauds Exposed,
117 See also: Broun and Leech,
Anthony Comstock, p. 161; and Johnson,
“Anthony Comstock,” pp. 101-102.
118 In Boyer, Purity in Print,
119 Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock,
120 Margaret Sanger, My Fight for Birth Control
(Fairview Park, Elmsford, NY: Maxwell Reprint Co., 1931):
121 Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in
Nineteenth-Century America, p. 288.
122 Reported in Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock,
123 Reed, From Private Vice to Public Virtue,
124 This is the view of Broun and Leech, Anthony Comstock,