Anthony Comstock  

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"In 1881, after his society had been active for only eight years, it had, Comstock proudly reported, destroyed precisely 27,584 pounds of books and confiscated 203,238 "obscene" pictures as well as 1,376,939 songs, circulars, poems and catalogues." --Schnitzler's Century, Peter Gay

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Anthony Comstock (March 7, 1844 – September 21, 1915) was a former United States Postal Inspector and politician dedicated to ideas of Victorian morality. He was a moral crusader and iconic figure in the history of American censorship. He passed the Comstock laws and came to the international attention with the "September Morn" case.



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

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

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

Comstock aroused intense loathing from early civil liberties groups and intense support from church based groups worried about public morals. He was a savvy political insider in New York City and was made a special agent of the United States Postal Service, with police powers up to and including the right to carry a weapon. With this power he zealously prosecuted those he suspected of either public distribution of pornography or commercial fraud, his twin obessions. His efforts to suppress public information on sex education materials and birth control is now often viewed as misguided and medically irresponsible. He was also involved in shutting down the Louisiana Lottery, the only legal lottery in the United States at the time, and notorious for corruption.

Comstock is also known for his persecution of Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, and those associated with them. The men's journal The Days Doings had popularised lewd images of the sisters for three years and was instructed by its editor (while Comstock was present) to stop producing images of "lewd character". Comstock also took legal action against the paper for advertising contraceptives. When the sisters published an expose of an adulterous affair between Reverend Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton, he had the sisters imprisoned under laws forbidding the use of the postal service to distribute 'obscene material' - though they were later found 'not guilty'.

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

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

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

During his career, Comstock clashed with Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger. Through his various campaigns, he caused the arrest of more than 3,000 persons, destroyed 15 tons of books, 284,000 pounds of plates for printing 'objectionable' books, and nearly 4,000,000 pictures. [1]

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

References in fiction and culture

  • Comstock is one of many prominent New Yorkers of his time that appear in the historical fiction novel The Alienist, by Caleb Carr.
  • The protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Beautiful and Damned is named for Comstock.
  • James Branch Cabell was prosecuted on obscenity charges relating to his novel Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice after lobbying by the Society. Cabell retaliated with a chapbook entitled The Judging of Jurgen (later inserted into subsequent reprints of the novel), in which the title character is consigned to oblivion for being "obscene, lewd, lascivious and indecent" in a trial presided over by a dung beetle who swears "by Saint Anthony".
  • Anthony Comstock is one of the four "point of view" characters in Marge Piercy's novel Sex Wars. Piercy explores Comstock's personal history and mindset as he goes from clerk to active "vice" suppressor.
  • Through the character of Gordon Comstock, Orwell reveals his own disaffection for the society in the novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936).
  • Earl Comstock, a US Army officer who later founds the NSA, is a character in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon.


He wrote numerous magazine articles relating to similar subjects.

See also

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