Sarah Blakesley Chase 1850? – 1930? graduated from the Cleveland Homeopathic College and the Alfred University in Allegany County. Sarah ran a constant battle with Anthony Comstock for selling contraceptive devices, such was the mood of the time.
A graduate of the Cleveland Homeopathic College, Chase had moved to Manhattan with her young daughter in 1874, earning a living lecturing on physiology and sexology to men’s and women’s groups at church and meeting halls. At the conclusion of her talks, Chase sold birth control, which she also advertised in circulars sent through the mail.
Chase’s activities violated an 1873 federal law that banned the dissemination and distribution of contraceptives through the mail or across state lines. In 1878 its chief enforcer, Anthony Comstock, chief agent of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV) and postal inspector by congressional appointment, plotted her arrest.
Adopting the pseudonym Mr. Farnsworth, he wrote Chase and arranged a meeting at her home to purchase a douching syringe for his wife. The day after the sale, Anthony Comstock returned to Chase’s dwelling with the detective James G. Howe of the Twenty-sixth Precinct, who pretended to need a syringe for his wife too.
When Chase sold him one, Howe disclosed his true identity, served her with an arrest warrant, and seized six other syringes found on the premises. Comstock and Howe escorted Chase to the Tombs, the city jail, where she was released on fifteen hundred dollars bail.
In a letter to his boss at the United States Post Office, Comstock derided Chase’s gullibility. The contraceptive entrepreneur had misjudged her ability to “keep out of the clutches of the law.”
But it was Comstock who had miscalculated. At Chase’s hearing, an all-male grand jury decided there was insufficient evidence to warrant a trial. Comstock was outraged and demanded a second hearing.
The prosecuting attorney refused. Not to be thwarted, Comstock sneaked into the grand jury room and persuaded the foreman to sign two bills of indictment Comstock had prepared. The prosecutor reprimanded him and then entered a nolle prosequi for both indictments at Chase’s arraignment, formally dismissing all charges.
Chase picked up where the prosecutor left off. She filed a ten thousand dollar civil suit against Comstock for false arrest. Although Chase lost the countersuit, it was she, not Comstock, who emerged the victor in their frequent skirmishes.
Between 1878 and 1900 Chase was arrested five times. Only once, when a patient died following an abortion, did arrest lead to a jail term for Chase; that conviction was not for birth control, but for abortion (though there is some suggestion that Chase was trying to help the woman after an orthodox doctor performed the abortion. Homeopaths were quite against abortion at this time).
Significantly, Chase’s imprisonment did not affect her views or business practices. After her release she resumed her open endorsement and sale of contraceptives.
On June 4, 1900, she was again arrested by Comstock on the charge of circulating articles to prevent conception. Once again, a grand jury refused to indict her.
As in the past, Chase’s brush with the law left her free to continue her trade in black market birth control.
We know little about Sarah Chase and other contraceptive entrepreneurs who carried on their businesses after birth control became a crime. Scholars who have studied the modern birth control movement have typically framed its history as a tale of physicians, policy makers, and reproductive rights activists.
As a result, we know a lot about such figures as Margaret Sanger, legal impediments to reproductive rights, and the medicalization of contraception but little about the business of birth control as it evolved from an illicit trade into one of the most successful “legitimate” industries in American history.
Sarah Blakesley Chase of Brownhelm, Loraine county, O., was born in Richmond, Clermont county, O., January 18th, 1837. She was the daughter of a Presbyterian clergyman, who, after spending some time in missionary labor among the colored population of Jamaica, W. I., settled in Broome county, where the subject of our sketch was raised.
She early manifested a brilliant intellect, and a persevering disposition that indicated success in all her pursuits. At the age of twelve, she manifested a strong desire, to become a missionary, and to obtain a classical and medical education, in order to be able to minister to the physical and mental wants of her fellows.
Numerous obstacles stood in her way, among them the foolish prejudice against women engaging in such employments, and, not the least, soul-humbling poverty. Funds she had none, and her father could afford her very little assistance. Yet she bravely met and conquered all her difficulties.
At sixteen she commenced teaching, at the same time studying ; thus alternating between teacher and pupil she passed her time. At the age of twenty-one, she graduated at the Alfred University, Allegheny county, N. Y.
One point was gained, but her conquest was scarcely half won ; to obtain a medical education was more difficult than a classical. In spite of opposition, she continued teaching, supporting herself and raising funds for study.
At twenty-three, she married (homeopath) Hazard D. Chase, a student of Michigan University. In a few mouths he enlisted in the Union Army, leaving her for four years to struggle with unheard of privations and difficulties. When her husband returned, both resumed the study of homœopathy with Dr. Bosler, of Dayton, O.
In the fall of 1868, they entered the Cleveland Hospital College, attended two courses of lectures, and graduated in 1870. They then opened an office in Cleveland, where they commenced the homœopathic practice. She devoted herself to instructing her sex in the nature of their peculiar diseases and organization, for which purpose she lectured in the churches of Cleveland and the adjoining towns, always to appreciative and approving audiences.
The severe labor to which these lectures subjected her, undermined her health, and made a removal to Ziterville, Pa., necessary. Unfortunately this removal neither lessened their labors, nor improved her condition.
Finally it became necessary to abandon all business, and seek some retreat, where she might restore her overworn faculties, and fit them for future usefulness.
They removed to Brownhelm, O., where they at present reside and practice, beloved and respected by all who know them. Mrs. Chase was the first woman admitted into the Medical Society of Cleveland, and Homœopathic Association of Ohio.
If devotion to the interests of her sex, perseverance in qualifying herself to befriend them, and the endurance of herculean labors in their cause, entitle to veneration and gratitude, the ladies of our country owe to Mrs. Chase a debt of infinite dimension and boundless extent.
was arrested for publishing the issue of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly distributed October 28 that detailed the purported adulterous affair of Henry Ward Beecher, pastor of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church and one of the best-loved preachers in the United States, with Elizabeth Tilton, one of his congregants and the wife of his champion, the writer and reformer Theodore Tilton.
Unable to get the district attorney to prosecute Woodhull for violating state law, Anthony Comstock, using an alias, requested the issue by mail. When it was sent, he had federal marshals arrest Woodhull.
This moment of high drama throws into relief the conflicts over sexuality in nineteenth-century America. When Victoria Woodhull and Anthony Comstock confronted each other in 1872, they embodied the extreme ends of a lengthy and complex conversation about sexual representation.
Unlike the largely verbal exchanges of unofficial adversaries engaged in an informal war of words, theirs was a public struggle that involved federal marshals, prison, and the courts. The stakes were high—both for the protagonists and for their society.
Although the story has been told before, it bears revisiting. For a student of history such a public conflict illumines what is often obscured from view. In this case Comstock’s arrest of Woodhull reveals the fault lines rumbling beneath the surface of America’s sexual culture.
To understand the division between Woodhull and Comstock, we must imagine anew the complicated and intriguing discussions about sexuality in the United States from the early nineteenth century until 1872.
Emma Goldman (June 27, 1869 – May 14, 1940) was an anarchist known for her political activism, writing, and speeches. She was lionized as a free-thinking “rebel woman” by admirers, and derided as an advocate of politically-motivated murder and violent revolution by her critics.
Margaret Higgins Sanger (September 14, 1879 – September 6, 1966) was an American birth control activist, an advocate of negative eugenics, and the founder of the American Birth Control League (which eventually became Planned Parenthood). Initially met with fierce opposition to her ideas, Sanger gradually won some support, both in the public as well as the courts, for a woman’s choice to decide how and when she will bear children. Margaret Sanger was instrumental in opening the way to universal access to birth control.
Comstock also went after Ida Craddock, who unfortunately committed suicide as a result:
In her twenties, Craddock was recommended by the faculty for admission into the University of Pennsylvania as its first female undergraduate student after having passed the required entrance exams. However, her entrance was blocked by the University’s Board of Trustees in 1882. She went on to publish a stenography textbook, Primary Phonography, and teach the subject to women at Giraud College.
She tried in her writings to synthesize translated mystic literature and traditions from many cultures into a scholarly, distilled whole. As a freethinker, she was elected Secretary of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Secular Union in 1889.
Although a member of the Unitarian faith, Craddock became a student of religious eroticism and declared herself a Priestess and Pastor of the Church of Yoga. Never married, Craddock eventually claimed to have a blissful ongoing marital relationship with an angel named Soph.
Her mother responded by threatening to burn Craddock’s papers and unsuccessfully tried to have her institutionalized.
Craddock moved to Chicago and opened a Dearborn Street office offering “mystical” sexual counseling to married couples via both walk-in counseling and mail order. She dedicated herself to “preventing sexual evils and sufferings” by educating adults, achieving national notoriety with her editorials in defense of Little Egypt. This was a controversial belly dancing act at the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago during 1893.
A gifted and compelling writer, Craddock wrote many serious instructional tracts on human sexuality and appropriate, respectful sexual relations between married couples. Among her works were Heavenly Bridegrooms, Psychic Wedlock, Spiritual Joys, The Wedding Night and Right Marital Living.
These sex manuals were all considered obscene by the standards of her day. Their distribution led to numerous confrontations with various authorities, often initiated by Craddock herself. She was held for up to several months at a time on morality charges in five local jails as well as the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane.
Mass distribution of Right Marital Living through the U.S. Mail after its publication as a featured article in the medical journal The Chicago Clinic led to an 1899 Chicago Federal indictment of Craddock. She pled guilty and received a suspended sentence.
A subsequent 1902 New York Federal trial on charges of sending The Wedding Night through the mail during a sting operation ended with her conviction. She refused to plead insanity as a condition to avoid prison time.
At age forty-five, she saw her five year sentence as a life term and so committed suicide, by slashing her wrists and inhaling natural gas, on October 16, 1902 the day before reporting to Federal prison.
Comstock first opposed Craddock almost a decade before over the Little Egypt act and effectively acted as her prosecutor during both Federal legal actions against her. He had sponsored the Comstock Act under which she was repeatedly charged.
Today Ida Craddock’s manuscripts and notes are preserved in the Special Collections of the Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Her battle with Anthony Comstock is the subject of the 2006 stage play Smut by Alice Jay and Joseph Adler, which received its world premiere at Miami’s GableStage in June 2007.
Comstock also went after George Bernard Shaw:
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.
Bernard Shaw, by no means a saffronised, communal, superstitious and obscurantist half-savage Hindu, 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 also went after DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett:
D. M. Bennett was the founder and editor of The Truth Seeker from 1873 until his death in 1882. He was the country’s leading publisher of freethought literature and a lightening rod for controversy.
Bennett was the most revered and reviled publisher during the Gilded Age. To his thousands of supporters he was a free-speech martyr; to others Bennett was the “Devil’s Own Advocate.”
DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett was born on December 23, 1818, in Springfield, New York. At 15 he joined the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, or Shakers as they were commonly known.
Bennett was a devout member of the celibate communitarian society for 13 years and worked as an herbalist, physician, and ministry-appointed scribe. Bennett recorded “divinely inspired” messages during the Era of Manifestations, the Shakers’ decade-long spiritualistic revival period.
When the revival subsided, some of the younger members lost their religious fervor including Bennett and his future wife Mary Wicks, a schoolteacher, with whom he eloped in 1846. And while their apostasy and marriage was a shocking event for everyone involved, the couple stayed on friendly terms with the Shakers for the remainder of their lives.
“They [Shakers] are industrious, frugal and honest people,” Bennett wrote. “And so far as religion is concerned they probably have an article that is as practical, as useful and as sincere as any in the world.”
For the next 27 years the couple moved around the country and invested in various business ventures, owned drugstores, and successfully marketed Dr. Bennett’s Family Medicines. During this period he read “infidel” publications and the works of Voltaire, Charles Darwin, and Thomas Paine, whose book The Age of Reason converted Bennett to a freethinker and unremitting skeptic.
Bennett and many of his fellow freethinkers were former devout Christians who retained a good deal of the religion’s moral spirit. “Without doubting,” Charles Darwin asserted, “there can be no progress.”
Freethinkers argued that doubt was the first step to knowledge and they were convinced that man’s well-being was best served by rationalism and total separation of church and state.
In 1873 while living in Paris, Illinois, Bennett got into a spirited debate with clergymen over the efficacy of prayer. After the local newspapers refused to print some of his “infidel” letters, Bennett founded The Truth Seeker, and devoted it to Science, Morals, Freethought and Human Happiness.
“We embrace, as in one brotherhood Liberals, Free Religionists, Rationalists, Spiritualists, Unitarians, Friends, Infidels, Freethinkers and in short all who care to think and judge for themselves,” Bennett declared in The Truth Seeker.
Later that year, Bennett moved The Truth Seeker to New York City where for nearly a century it continued to provide a forum for freethinkers. Bennett transformed The Truth Seeker into the best known and most controversial reform journal in America.
He called Christianity the “greatest sham in the world, without truth in its history, without loveliness in its doctrines, without benefit to the human race, and without anything to sustain it in the hold it has upon the world.”
Bennett’s “journalism was of the sort called personal,” one of his successors noted. “The Truth Seeker was Bennett, and in advertising himself he advertised the paper.”
The Truth Seeker had 50,000 devoted readers and several illustrious subscribers including Mark Twain, Clarence Darrow, and Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll, “the Great Agnostic.” Bennett’s weekly was the official organ of the National Liberal League, an association of freethinkers devoted to complete separation of church and state.
The enterprising editor popularized the Darwinian discoveries and promoted birth control. Bennett opposed dogmatic religion and took great pride in debunking the Bible and exposing hypocritical clergymen. He was the first editor in America – perhaps the world – who routinely reported misdeeds by the clergy and published them in Sinful Saints and Sensual Shepherds.
At the same time Bennett began publishing The Truth Seeker, free speech came under attack by Anthony Comstock, America’s self-appointed arbiter of morals. Comstock was a “special agent” of the U.S. Post Office and secretary and chief vice-hunter for The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an organization that was part of the social purity crusade.
A religious zealot, Comstock waged war on “obscene” books (including some classic works of literature), freethinking writers, and publishers. Comstock arrested “liberal” publishers and birth control advocates mislabeling the latter “abortionists.” According to Comstock, the editor of The Truth Seeker was “everything vile in blasphemy and infidelity.”
Some of the country’s most powerful and pious citizens backed Comstock, who routinely terrorized his victims and bragged about driving fifteen people to suicide in his mission to “save the young.” There was little protest against the nebulous Comstock Laws in the nation’s newspapers and magazines.
Like politicians, most publishers felt that opposing the vice hunter and his often ballyhooed “fight for the young” might be interpreted as tolerating crime.
Censorship and church hypocrisy, however, were two of Bennett’s favorite subjects. In Comstock and his “Vice Society,” as the editor dubbed it, he found both.
Bennett persistently scrutinized, ridiculed, and challenged “Saint Anthony” and soap tycoon Samuel Colgate, the President of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.
“Worse than all other mean acts are those performed by hypocrites under the cloak of purity and virtue,” is a quote attributed to Bennett.
Bennett was a prolific and provocative writer whose publications were prohibited from the mail and newsstands long before moralists coined the phrase “banned in Boston.” He was vilified by religionists for his lecture “An Hour With The Devil” and article “Was Jesus Christ a Negro?”
Bennett’s incendiary “An Open Letter to Jesus Christ” was extremely offensive to Christians. In his “Open Letter” (sold as a pamphlet and published in The Truth Seeker) he referred to Christianity as the “youngest mythology” and asked a series of over 200 rhetorical questions.
Bennett wondered if Christ participated in the crusades or approved of the “Holy Inquisition…. Has not the religion called after your name caused more bloodshed, more persecution, and more suffering than all the other religions of the world?”
In 1877 Anthony Comstock arrested Bennett for selling a scientific tract (written by a former minister) and “An Open Letter to Jesus Christ.” (The charges against the editor were dropped after Robert Ingersoll, the famous lecturer and eminent attorney, interceded on his behalf.)
Bennett was also arrested at a freethought convention for selling Cupid’s Yokes, a prosaic sociological pamphlet written by Ezra Heywood, a free-love advocate. In the nineteenth century, free-love proponents believed marriage was similar to slavery or prostitution and advocated commitment based on individual choice and love, not on legal restraints. (The case never came to trial.)
“The charge is ostensibly ‘obscenity,’” Bennett wrote. “But the real offense is that I presume to utter sentiments and opinions in opposition to the views entertained by the Christian Church.”
A month before his trial, Bennett wrote his “Open Letter to Samuel Colgate” that was published in The Truth Seeker and mailed (along with Cupid’s Yokes) to the soap manufacturer. Bennett accused Colgate of mailing a booklet with “prohibited information” advertising vaseline as a form of birth control.
“You violated the law,” Bennett wrote, “yet you escape, while you are trying to send me to prison for not breaking the law at all. If this is justice, it must be Christian justice, or Colgate justice, which will not bear investigation.” (Bennett’s expose incited freethinkers to boycott Colgate products for years.)
Bennett’s 1879 “obscenity” trial was “one of the most important of the day,” the New York Sun reported. Samuel Colgate attended the trial in support of the prosecution’s sole witness, Anthony Comstock. (Bennett’s “Open Letter to Samuel Colgate” was introduced into evidence by the prosecutor.)
Comstock often boasted that he never failed in Judge Benedict’s court. The four-day trial and sensational standing-room-only press reports of the prosecution of the “blasphemous” publisher sold newspapers, including The Truth Seeker.
The Hicklin standard – introduced in America at Bennett’s trial – was based on a British case from 1868 and was an ambiguous “test” for obscenity that permitted work to be judged by introducing only isolated passages and not the intention of the author.
Judge Benedict would not permit Bennett’s attorney to read Cupid’s Yokes in its entirety in order to put the purported “obscene” passages into context. The Hicklin standard’s ambiguity caused concern for most justice-loving Americans – but not Anthony Comstock.
“If this law is good enough for Great Britain and the United States of America, it ought to be good enough for a handful of mongrels calling themselves Liberals!”
Judge Benedict, however, allowed the prosecuting attorney to refer several times to Bennett’s authorship of “An Open Letter to Jesus Christ.” The sixty-year-old editor was convicted of sending prohibited matter through the U.S. mail, fined $300, and sentenced to thirteen months of hard labor at the Albany Penitentiary.
Judge Benedict’s ruling, a Washington Capitol newspaper reporter opined,
“surpassed anything of the sort since Pontius Pilate, and would make it dangerous to mail a Bible or a copy of Shakespeare to anyone.”
Bennett’s conviction and imprisonment became a cause celebre for freethinkers and freedom of speech proponents. Authors, abolitionists, reformers, and suffragists supported Bennett’s “cause” for “free speech, a free press, and mails free from espionage and Comstockism.”
A petition with over 200,000 names was sent to President Rutherford B. Hayes asking for a pardon for the elderly editor. (It was the largest petition campaign of the nineteenth century.)
Ironically, even the Shakers signed the petition and championed Bennett, whom they considered “an illustrious martyr, suffering from acts of the most devilish bigotry of our day.” The Shakers visited Bennett in prison and expressed their indignation in The Truth Seeker and their own periodical The Shaker Manifesto.
One prominent Shaker defended Bennett’s right to doubt, and proclaimed:
“It is not the ‘faithful believers’ that have advanced the world. History tells us it is to the doubters – the ‘infidels’ – that the world owes the greatest debt of gratitude.”
Robert Ingersoll, who campaigned for Hayes in 1876, met with the president and informed him that Cupid’s Yokes was not obscene and asked him to pardon “the poor old man.” (Hayes had already pardoned Ezra Heywood, the author of Cupid’s Yokes.)
Ingersoll provided the president, who, according to his diary, knew that Cupid’s Yokes was sold “by the thousand,” with a list of New York booksellers who openly sold the booklet. The president also met with Anthony Comstock who presented petitions signed by prominent religious leaders and Sunday school children.
“The religious world are [sic] against the pardon, the unbelievers are for it,” Hayes wrote in his diary.
Hayes was feeling “heat” on both sides of the issue. The most influential member of the “religious world” was Mrs. Hayes, a devout Methodist called “Lemonade Lucy” because of her no-alcohol policy at White House social occasions.
The First Lady, who was known to have considerable influence over her husband, received “advice” from her pastor and a long petition from Sunday school children opposing a pardon.
“Was Bennett pardoned?” Anthony Comstock asked and answered in his book Frauds Exposed.
“No, not even with the most extraordinary petition of 200,000 names. Why? We have a clean man for President. It needs no word of mine to sound his praise.”
Bennett languished in the Albany Penitentiary and despite suffering from the stigma attached to selling “obscenity” and near his death from harsh prison conditions, he managed to write numerous letters while incarcerated. The long unrepentant letters were initially published in The Truth Seeker and later compiled and published as From Behind The Bars, A Series of Letters Written in Prison.
A few days after his release from prison, Bennett was given a hero’s reception at New York’s prestigious Chickering Hall. Three thousand supporters attended the sold out event that The New York Times characterized as
“a queer Sunday night meeting – listening for two hours to some plausible talk and more blasphemy and filth denouncing Anthony Comstock and the Republican party.”
Bennett dismissed the Times as “a semi-religious panderer.”
Three months later Bennett sailed to Europe to represent American Liberals at the Congress of the Universal Federation of Freethinkers in Brussels, Belgium. His letters from Europe were published as An Infidel Abroad. He traveled abroad for a year and chronicled his journey in A Truth Seeker Around The World.
During his visit to India he joined the Theosophical Society whose motto is: “There is no religion higher than truth.”
On December 6, 1882, a few months after returning home, D.M. Bennett died in New York City. Another firestorm of controversy erupted when Bennett’s friends planned to erect a memorial to “The Defender of Liberty and Its Martyr” in Green-Wood Cemetery.
The rumor of a monument containing blasphemous inscriptions caused controversy for the officials of the Brooklyn cemetery filled with crosses, praying cherubs, and mourning angels. Nevertheless, the monument is still standing today and the granite is inscribed with Bennett’s philosophical principles and proclamation:
“When The Innocent Is Convicted, The Court Is Condemned.”
“Mr. Bennett was a deeply religious man,” a close friend declared at the dedication of the monument erected to honor the founder ofThe Truth Seeker.
The woman went on to explain her statement by quoting Thomas Paine’s motto: “To do good is my religion.” If that was Paine’s highest work she asserted, it made it his religion. “It is in this sense that Mr. Bennett was a religious man; and if we measure his religion by the measure of his devotion to his work, he was a deeply religious man.”
A decade after Bennett’s death, Anthony Comstock went to Fremont, Ohio to preach at a Presbyterian Church. While in Fremont, he paid a visit to Rutherford B. Hayes, the president he lauded as a “clean man” during the Bennett petition drive.
Once again Comstock praised the former president for his decision not to pardon Bennett. Hayes, however, was not as “satisfied” with his decision as the obsequious crusader.
“‘Cupid’s Yokes’ was a free-love pamphlet of bad principles, and in bad taste,” Hayes wrote in his diary. “But Colonel Ingersoll had abundant reason for his argument that it was not, in the legal sense, ‘an obscene publication.’”
“Mr. D. M. Bennett was a man wholly extraordinary, and his career was not less so.”
James Parton, the famous nineteenth century biographer wrote about his friend and added:
“He was not a perfect character as he well knew and frankly acknowledged; but his merits, considering all things, were very great and very rare… His wonderful labors have made the escape of others easier than he found it. He embraced an unpopular cause; he made it less difficult for others to do so…”
Comstock also went after Ann Trow Lohman also known as Madame Restell:
At sixteen she married a widowed tailor, Henry Summers, and thus became the stepmother of his daughter Caroline. The family migrated in 1831 to New York City, where two years later Summers died, the cause variously described as yellow fever, typhoid, and alcoholism.
For a time Ann worked as a seamstress, but in 1836 she was married to “Dr.” Charles R. Lohman, a newspaper compositor turned quack physician, and joined him in selling various medications purported to inhibit conception and abort unwanted fetuses.
The compounds were prepared by Ann’s brother, Joseph F. Trow, who had emigrated to New York shortly after his sister and had secured work in a pharmacy.
Soon advertisements for “Madame Restell, female physician and professor of midwifery,” began to appear in the newspapers and city directories, and Ann Lohman was launched on the career which was to make her famous.
She quickly attracted the unfavorable notice of such groups as the American Female Moral Reform Society, and her first recorded brush with the law came in 1841, when she was tried and convicted on a charge of performing an abortion which resulted in a woman’s death.
A more publicized case began in February 1846 when a seventeen-year-old Philadelphia girl, the mother of a baby born at Madame Restell’s Greenwich Street establishment and then given for adoption against her will, complained to William F. Havemeyer, the newly elected mayor of New York.
A trial ensued but when Madame Restell was acquitted the newspapers charged that her liberal political contributions had helped her cause. On Feb. 22 an angry mob, inflamed by a lurid editorial published in the National Police Gazette the preceding day, besieged Madame Restell’s house.
Peace was restored only after a personal pledge by Mayor Havemeyer to do his best to send her to prison. The following month a new law was enacted under which the abortion of a quickened fetus was punishable as manslaughter.
In September 1847 Madame Restell was arrested under this law, charged with having performed an abortion upon Marie Bodine, the mistress of a Walden, N.Y., factory agent. The trial, in which Madame Restell was represented by two well-known attorneys drew large crowds and was reported in the Police Gazette and other periodicals with both moral indignation and full clinical detail.
After conflicting medical testimony Madame Restell was convicted on a lesser misdemeanor charge. She served a year at the Blackwell’s Island prison, where the special treatment she received became so notorious that near the end of her term the board of aldermen investigated and dismissed the warden.
Upon her release the Lohmans resumed their profitable activities in a new and larger location on Chambers Street. It is said that Madame Restell presented her stepdaughter with $50,000 and a European honeymoon when she was married about 1854. Another arrest, on a challenge similar to that in the 1846 case, occurred in 1855, but the matter was settled out of court.
In 1864, following the fashionable trade uptown, the Lohmans moved into a four-story brownstone at 52nd Street and Fifth Avenue. They continued to operate the Chambers Street establishment, which had been remodeled into a”hospital,” and to conduct an extensive mail-order business in various nostrums.
Madame Restell openly advertised in the newspapers, especially James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald. Although William M. Tweed, the political boss of New York City from about 1859 until his downfall in 1873 refused both her contributions and invitations to visit her socially, he did nothing to hinder her activities.
It was widely believed that George W. Matsell, for many years New York’s police superintendent, was on her payroll.
Periodic public agitation and pulpit denunciations by Archbishop John J. Hughes and other clerics left her untouched. Indeed, it is traditionally said that she chose the Fifth Avenue site in part to annoy the archbishop, who was erecting St. Patrick’s Cathedral nearby.
At least two sensational books on Manhattan devoted chapters to her as “The Wickedest Woman in the City.” Although her social ostracism was so complete that the houses adjacent to hers stood vacant for want of buyers, she furnished her “mansion” in tawdry opulence, maintained a full complement of servants, and frequently rode in Central Park with a liveried footman.
After the death of her husband in 1876 Madame Restell seemed ready to retire. Estranged from both her brother and her stepdaughter, she lavished affection upon her grandchildren, Charles Robert and Caroline Summers Purdy, who lived with her and for whom she was said to harbor high social aspirations.
Early in 1878, at Madame Restell’s residence, Caroline Purdy was married to William B. Shannon, the son of a New York attorney. In February 1878, however, Madame Restell was approached by Anthony Comstock secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, who represented himself as a customer for contraceptive materials.
After making an initial purchase, Comstock secured a search warrant and found sufficient evidence to bring Madame Restell to trial under a recent law barring the possession of any articles used for “immoral” purposes.
The efforts of her attorney were unavailing and, after preliminary legal maneuvering, the trial was set for Apr. 1. In the early morning of that day, after a night of intense agitation, Ann Lohman slit her throat with a carving knife in her bath. There was no funeral service. She was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Tarrytown, N.Y., beside her husband. Her estate, estimated at from $600,000 to $1,000,000, went to her grandchildren, with a $3,000-a-year annuity to her stepdaughter.
The suicide was dismissed by Comstock as “a bloody ending to a bloody life,” but a number of newspapers questioned whether his trapping her with a lie was morally justifiable.
Madame Restell played a part in a largely hidden drama of the nineteenth century. The decline in the American birth rate, particularly striking in cities, was accomplished without any dependable mechanical or chemical methods of contraception. It was achieved by delay of marriage, “voluntary restraint,” and what was probably an extremely high rate of abortion.
The precise nature of Ann Lohman’s activities has been obscured by the haze of rumor and tradition, compounded by her own silence and a contemporary semantic confusion between contraception and abortion. Considerable evidence suggests that she was less an abortionist than a dispenser of contraceptive materials and mistress of a clandestine maternity hospital and adoption agency.
She seems to have been puzzled and distressed by the universal contempt in which she was held.
“Everything that the papers published she read with intense interest,” said her attorney after her death. “She was deeply affected by all that was said against her” (New York Tribune, Apr. 2, 1878) .
She flourished in a society which, having failed to live up to its own rigid sexual code, resolved the dilemma by outlawing_but then tolerating_the troubling forms of behavior. Madame Restell, if not quite a tragic heroine, was a victim of the literal minded Anthony Comstock’s refusal to accept this social hypocrisy.
Anthony Comslock made it his life’s work to purify this nation, to protect the young from such sights as might lead them into paths that would corrupt their souls and eventually lead them into the yawning pit.
He was very certain that he was doing the work of the Lord, and almost singlehandedly for more than forty years he conducted a campaign against wickedness that not only swept in many real offenders against decency but also landed some pretty small fry whose sins appear almost nonexistent to a less discerning eye than Comstock’s.
He liked to visualize his accomplishments and in an interview in 1913, two years before he died, said:
“In the forty-one years I have been here I have convicted persons enough to fill a passenger train of sixty-one coaches, sixty coaches containing sixty passengers each and the sixty-first almost full. I have destroyed 160 tons of obscene literature.”
All but the closing years of Comstock’s career coincided with that period known as the Victorian Age. We know it as a time of genteel prudery, yet Comstock’s trainload of sinners and his tons of confiscated pornography suggest that it was not all a time of strawberry festivals and looking at stereopticon slides of the Holy Land.
Something must have been going on under the purple plush surface.
The Victorians went to great lengths to insure that nothing untoward would happen, nothing indelicate be seen or heard. Chaperons became necessary for young couples, and strict codes of behavior were enjoined on young ladies:
“Do not suffer your hand to be held or squeezed, without showing that it displeases you by instantly withdrawing it. If a finger is put out to touch a chain that is round your neck, or a breast-pin that you are wearing, draw back, and take it off for inspection. Accept not unnecessary assistance in putting on cloaks, shawls, overshoes, or anything of the sort. …”
Fig leaves were pasted on classical nude statues. And euphemism was carried to a fine art. This was the time when legs disappeared, to become “limbs”; trousers were “unmentionables” or “nether garments”; bull became “gentleman cow”; cockroach was shortened to plain “roach”; and some lady guests, in an excess of delicacy, would ask to be served a bit of the “bosom” of the turkey.
Puritanism and Victorianism have been equated, but although there is a kinship, there is also a difference. One depended on religion to enforce its strictures, the other mainly on the pressures of society.
The Puritan divines thundered against sex outside of marriage as sinful, but they were realists, fully aware that women as well as men are moved by physical appetites, and they hoped only to keep such urges confined to the nuptial bed.
After the American Revolution religion lost its power as an enforcer of moral restraints, and for a time there was a period of relative tolerance. Then the heavy hand of repressive morality began to weigh down again, but now the sanctions were not from the church but from society and, particularly, from the middle class.
What would your neighbors think? What would Mrs. Grundy say?
Victorian woman, unlike her Puritan forebear, was desexed and placed on a pedestal. While her husband went out to fight the dragons of business and commerce every day, she took command of hearth and home and became the protector of family morals, the guardian of spiritual values. It was tacitly recognized that the male was driven by carnal urges, but woman, pure and high-minded, was unmoved, if not actually repelled, by “that sort of thing.”
Yet in a wonderfully contorted bit of reasoning Victorian society believed that woman, although so much purer than man and lacking the same animal desires, must be carefully protected from temptation lest she succumb and fall into the depths of degradation.
There was a great deal of ferment under the bland surface respectability. Pornography flourished as it never had before. Authors of popular novels, though they and their editors carefully excised any word or phrase that might possibly offend, were skillful in insinuating eroticism into chapters that outwardly seemed to drip with sentimentality and to preach virtue.
Prostitution flourished; a physician claimed in 1869 that there were twelve thousand known prostitutes in Philadelphia, seven thousand in Chicago, and twice as many per capita in Chicago as in New York. As for New York, it, too, was well served.
In 1866 the chief of police admitted that there were 62 i houses of prostitution and 96 houses of assignation; one of the more elegant brothels regularly sent its business card to men registering at the better hotels.
This, then, was the hypocritical world of which Anthony Comstock appointed himself chief censor and in which he set for himself the herculean task of trying to make Victorian America conform to the image of rectitude and virtue to which it pretended.
In later years he liked to say that for forty years his station had been “in a swamp at the mouth of a sewer,” but it requires no deep understanding of psychology to see that, albeit unconsciously, he enjoyed being at the mouth of the sewer.
For what other man had his opportunity to pore over the nation’s pornography, to study at length the obscene products of Victorian frustrations—and to do it self-righteously in the name of duty? And, such are the secret workings of the human mind, he undoubtedly never admitted even to himself that he took any prurient pleasure in looking on the things he was denying to others.
There are those who have delved into Anthony Comstock’s early history, hoping to learn what made him so implacable in hounding depravity to its lair. They have found no overwhelming experiences or traumatic events that set his feet on the path they were to follow, only the usual boyish pranks and vices; but these probably worked hard on his conscience, for Comstock was a boy in whom the repressive doctrines of his New England upbringing found soil more fertile than usual.
Anthony Comstock was born in New Canaan, Connecticut, on March 7, 1844, the son of Polly and Thomas Anthony Comstock. Thomas Cornstock was comfortably established in his community; he owned a hundred sixty good acres and also operated two sawmills. The couple had ten children, of whom seven survived infancy, and all took their place in the farm economy.
Young Anthony, as soon as he was old enough, had to get up at four o’clock each morning to feed the farm animals and do other chores, but it was no more than any New England farm boy was expected to do. Sunday was no day of rest, for family and farm hands drove two and a half miles to the Congregational church.
After church there was Sunday school, and after a lunch eaten in the horse sheds came the afternoon preaching service. Even this was not always the end; after dinner at home some of the family often drove back for the evening church service.
The religion that Anthony Comstock learned in church was a bleak sort. It told of hellfire and damnation always waiting for him who gave in to temptation—and with so many things included in its catalogue of sins it is not surprising that Anthony sometimes succumbed to temptation and then saw the pit open and the fires glow red.
Nor were Sundays only devoted to religion. There were prayers before breakfast every morning, and Mrs. Comstock told Bible stories to her children in the evening. Occasionally her stories were from other sources, but, as Comstock later told his authorized and worshipful biographer, Charles Trumbull, “always with moral courage as their key-note.”
Polly Comstock died when Anthony was ten; for the rest of his life he idealized her above all other mortals.
On the last day of December, 1863, Comstock enlisted in the 17th Connecticut Regiment to take the place of his older brother Samuel, who had been mortally wounded at Gettysburg. Anthony faced few battlefield dangers; he saw only minor skirmishing and spent most of his time on garrison duty in Florida.
But there were other battles, and he fought again and again with the Devil and did not always win. His diary contains many entries confessing sin and wallowing in repentance:
Again tempted and found wanting. Sin, sin. Oh flow much peace and happiness is sacrificed on thy altar. Seemed as though Devil had full sway over me today, went right into temptation, and then, Oh such love, Jesus snatched it away out of my reach. How good is he, how sinful am I. I am the chief of sinners, but I should be so miserable and wretched, were it not that Clod is merciful and I may be forgiven. Glory be to God in the highest.
O I deplore my sinful weak nature so much. 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. …
This morning were severely tempted by Satan and aller some time in my own weakness I failed.
The sin against which the young volunteer strove with such dubious success was, beyond doubt, what once was euphemistically known as self-abuse—although Anthony did succumb occasionally to other temptations; he admitted that he wasted part of one day reading a novel.
To strengthen himself against the Devil he went to church and prayer services sometimes eight or nine times a week. He worked hard but was not popular with his fellow soldiers; he was too sanctimonious, too censorious, too intolerant. T
The men, for instance, received a whiskey ration; Anthony accepted his with the rest but then would pour it out on the ground in front of his comrades, refusing to give it to them.
Such gestures did not tend to create warm friendships.
After the war Comstock came back to New Canaan to stay with his brother Chester, but there was little to hold him. The family farm was gone, the mortgage foreclosed—according to biographer Trumbull by southern sympathizers because Comstock boys had enlisted in the Union Army.
After periods of clerking in a New Haven store and working on a government project in Tennessee, Anthony returned to New Canaan briefly, and then, as many an ambitious Connecticut boy was doing, went to New York to make good in business.
After four or five years as a shipping clerk and dry-goods salesman he was earning enough to buy a small house in Brooklyn and to fall in love. The light of his life was Maggie Hamilton, the wispy, faded daughter of a merchant who had failed in business; she was ten years Comstock’s senior and so sensitive about the age difference that she never had a photograph made after the marriage.
She was apparently an eminently forgettable character, for of two men who had known her as Comstock’s wife, one recalled only that she weighed eighty-two pounds, the other that she dressed always in black and seldom spoke.
Comstock often likened this shadowy creature to his deified mother and loved her deeply; in his diary he called her “little Wifey” and always missed her when trips kept him away from home. They were married in January, 1871, and the following December their first and only child was born, a girl who lived only six months.
Not long after her death a combination of business and accident took Comstock to a tenement district and the bedside of a dying woman and her illegitimate baby daughter. On the mother’s death he took the infant home and legally adopted her. The child, Adele, grew up subnormal and troublesome and in her forties had to be placed in an institution when Cornstock died.
It is said that he never knew she was different from other children. Comstock had a soft spot where all children were concerned; no matter how cantankerous he might be with others, he always had time for a crying child and carried rubber toys in his pocket to pass out to chance small acquaintances.
Three years before his marriage Comstock took the first steps along the path he would follow the rest of his life. The young shipping clerk from Connecticut had already seen around him, as Trumbull in his biography puts it, young businessmen
“whose lives were plainly being ruined by their interest in the obscene pictures and literature and other devilish things that they had easy access to.”
Moreover, “one of his friends had been led astray and corrupted and diseased.” Comstock learned that a man named Charles Conroy had sold the devilish things to his friend. Thereupon he too bought an obscene book from Conroy and took it to the police, who arrested the dealer and seized his books and pictures. Soon after, Comstock made a similar successful foray against another dealer in smut, in the process getting a patrolman who tried to warn the pornographer suspended.
There were few encomiums. Instead newspapers criticized Comstock for causing the policeman to lose his job. Later, as his efforts continued, they suggested that it was ridiculous to attack only minor dealers in pornography when bigger and busier places flourished on New York’s Ann and Nassau streets.
Comstock accepted the information and asked the New York Tribune for a reporter to accompany him when he quietly invaded the area collecting evidence. Their complaints to the police led to seven arrests, a good day’s work for a man still new at this sort of thing.
In 1871, a few months after his marriage, Comstock joined battle with the peddlers of rum. Two saloons operated less than a block from his home; the proprietor of at least one of them, a bad-mouthed bully named Chapman, operated openly on Sunday, thanks to police protection. When Comstock complained to the authorities, Chapman paraded in front of the Comstock home, came to the door and threatened personal violence, and retreated only when Comstock displayed a pistol.
In the midst of the lengthy legal battle that ensued, the other saloonkeeper, McNamara, dropped dead behind his bar, and Comstock calmly accepted it as a judgment from on high. He was eventually successful; after many postponements the case came to court, and Chapman lost his license.
It was no doubt a satisfying victory, but to Anthony Comstock liquor was never the menace that sex was. His diary shows that he did not hesitate to use liquor medicinally, and he wrote at least once of drinking beer during an evening of jollification. Moreover, in his office it amused him when playful to pretend to be intoxicated, and one does not joke about something one abominates.
Obscenity was something else again. Comstock wrote a book called Traps for the Young, in which he exposed the multitudinous snares set by the Devil for youth, from dime novels and the theatre to rum and shooting pool, but it was pornography that he considered the most direct route to damnation. His long and graphic description of the effects of lewd literature said, among many other things:
… Passions that had slumbered or ‘lain dormant are awakened, and the boy is forced over a precipice, and death and destruction are sure, except the grace of God saves him. An indelible stain has been placed upon the boy’s imagination, and this vision shall be kept like a panorama, moving to and fro before his mind until it has blotted out moral purity. …
Many a parent sends away the child [to boarding school] pure, fresh, and vigorous. He comes back, after a few years’ absence, with pale cheeks, lustreless and sunken eyes, enervated body, moody, nervous, and irritable—a moral wreck—and the parents mourn “that the child has studied too hard.”
If they could get at the real trouble, it would be found that the child had fallen into one of these lust-traps, or death-traps by mail.
Comstock’s several attacks on dealers in pornography so far had been extracurricular activities, for he still earned his bread selling dry goods. His small crusades, moreover, had produced quite debatable results; already he had had one man arrested a second time for peddling pornography, and it was plain that the only way to strike at the heart of the problem was to put the publishers of the stuff out of business.
Comstock soon discovered that three publishers accounted for 167 pornographic books then in circulation. He had hardly begun his investigations when the most prominent of the three, William Haynes, was called before that higher tribunal that Comstock liked to talk about.
The popular but unlikely story was that Haynes had been warned to lie low because Comstock was on the prowl and that same night, fearing the nemesis, took his own life. But his printing plates survived, and Comstock wanted to get these from his widow before they fell into other hands.
In the spring of 1872 Comstock wrote to the New York Young Men’s Christian Association asking for help. Morris K. Jesup, Y.M.C.A. president, saw the letter and was so impressed that he invited Comstock in and heard from him his story of how he had fought the smut dealers and how the publishers were still operating.
Comstock could be a very persuasive speaker; often when he described the evil he was fighting and the way it was sending unsuspecting youths into the fiery pit, tears would stream down his face. Jesup was convinced and gave Comstock a check for six hundred fifty dollars. He was not only a Victorian but a wealthy one and would back Comstock as long as he lived.
Shortly afterward the Y.M.C.A. formed the Committee for the Suppression of Vice to “engage in a still-hunt” against pornography. Its leaders, in other words, were against sin but did not want their names publicized in connection with the ugly word. Comstock, as their agent, would work for them, but quietly. They did not yet know their man.
Almost at once Comstock received help from on high. He was on his way to work one morning when—as he told it—an insistent inner voice told him to see Haynes’s widow. He had work to do in the city and no immediate reason to see Mrs. Haynes, but the voice would not be denied. He took the trolley to the Haynes house. He had been there only a few minutes when through the window he saw a wagon loaded with boxes of stereotype plates arrive. He did not hesitate. In a moment he was outside and had taken the reins.
“I’ll take charge of those,” he said to Mrs. Haynes, and rattled off to Y.M.C.A. headquarters, where the plates were stored until they were destroyed. Comstock paid Mrs. Haynes four hundred fifty dollars for the plates, which were worth thirty thousand. The delighted officers of the Committee for the Suppression of Vice gave Comstock five hundred dollars, and the young sin-fighter, equally happy, noted in his diary that God had had a hand in this bounty.
Comstock took after the other publishers. The first, George Ackerman, he cornered after a cat-and-mouse game during which Comstock played a drunk to avoid suspicion as he trailed his man through dark streets and Ackerman masqueraded as an Episcopal clergyman to elude his pursuer. Ackerman surrendered his entire stock in trade: printing plates, books, “French” post cards. Shortly after, he died of causes unrecorded.
The third publisher, Jeremiah H. Farrell, left his illicit business and fled south when he learned that Comstock was after him. Two weeks later he too was dead. Comstock took in stride these deaths, along with those of a drayman charged with hauling indecent goods and of a maker of “obscene rubber articles” (undoubtedly contraceptives). Others might have considered the string of deaths either eerie or strangely coincidental; Comstock saw only the hand of God.
Even among those who regarded Comstock as a meddler and snooper there were many who gave him grudging respect for his effectiveness in drying up the sources of pornography. Then in the fall of 1872 his zeal caused him to joust with women, a very bad mistake. Two sisters were involved, Victoria C. Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin. These beautiful, fascinating, and unconventional women had a background of travelling medicine shows and spiritualistic séances.
Victoria had been married at fourteen, divorced, and remarried, in a day when divorce was somewhat of a scandal. Tennessee was married but had chosen to retain her maiden name, which no lady would do in the 1870s. They were fervent supporters of women’s rights, and their married condition did not prevent them from vigorously espousing free love. Victoria, thirty-four and the elder, was a person of exceptional dynamism and in spite of her irregular views was nominated for the Presidency by the Equal Rights Party—though by election time her supporters were having second thoughts about her.
When Victoria and Tennessee came to New York, they set themselves up as stockbrokers and, with the advice of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, did quite well. They also began publishing a paper, Woodhull and Claflins Weekly, in which they aired their views on women’s rights, the spirit world, free love, and other unorthodox subjects.
At this time there were persistent rumors that the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, the respected pastor of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church, was having an affair with the wife of Theodore Tilton, one of his parishioners. Tilton tattled to Victoria, who printed the sordid little story in the November 2, 1872, issue of the Weekly. Victoria did not cluck at Beecher’s conduct; on the contrary, she found his “immense physical potency” admirable and attributed his success as a minister to his strong “physical amativeness.”
The only thing she found reprehensible was the secretiveness of Beecher and Mrs. Tilton, when they should have been broadcasting their love to the world.
This issue of the Weekly did not fail to catch the eye of Anthony Comstock, who was already scandalized by the doings of the sisters. When the district attorney refused to bring action under the New York obscenity law, Comstock brought suit under a federal statute that prohibited the mailing of obscene publications.
The sisters, along with Victoria’s second husband, Colonel James H. Blood, who was managing editor, were indicted and the offending issue suppressed. Victoria and Tennessee refused to post bail and went to jail for four weeks, where they were regaled with every kindness by their wardens. Comstock was not pleased by the levity with which the newspapers treated developments.
He was even more unhappy that the public should feel sympathy for the notorious ladies and that he should be looked on as their persecutor.
The sisters were released on bail after a month, were arrested again when Comstock, using an assumed name, trapped them into sending him copies of the proscribed issue, were released, arrested, released again—and at each court hearing Comstock was battered about a bit more, ridiculed, accused of harassment, and even heard himself called an “obscene man.”
He became so heartily sick of the affair that when the sisters in bold defiance reprinted the entire Beecher piece in the Weekly, he chose to ignore it. When the end came in June, 1873, it was anticlimax. The case was dismissed, the judge ruling that the federal law applied only to books, pamphlets, and pictures and did not expressly include newspapers.
Comstock had known that existing federal law was weak, and even while the case against Victoria and Tennessee was dragging its slow way through the courts he had (Directed that Haw. Early in 1873, with the blessings of the Committee lor the Suppression of Vice, he had gone to Washington to show his exhibits to members of Congress and tell his stories of young men corrupted and lives ruined by such indecent material.
The bill he proposed was passed with virtually no debate, and it was a strong one, prohibiting the mailing of any obscene, lewd, lascivious, or filthy matter. No loopholes were left like the one in the former law that had let Victoria and Tennessee escape; every possible kind of material was specified.
Contraceptives and abortifacients and advertisements for them were also included in the scope of the law. The one thing the bill did not do was den ne “obscene,” “lewd,” “indecent,” and “lascivious.” Courts have been struggling with that problem ever since.
Comstock’s cup ran over when he was appointed a special postal agent to enforce the new law. He asked that he be paid no salary, so that the office would not liecome a political plum. His only income from fighting sin was the hundred dollars a year the Y.M.C.A. gave him as partial compensation for lost commissions on dry-goods sales.
That arrangement came to an end a few months after passage of the Cornstock Law. Many members of the Y.M.C.A. had become embarrassed by Comstock’s rampaging, publicityattracting methods of fighting sin, so some of the more stout of heart reorganized the Committee (renamed the Society) for the Suppression of Vice and divorced it completely from the Y.M.C.A.
Comstock was made chief special agent and secretary and was paid a salary—modest but yet a salary. He gave up the dry-goods business completely, which was not much of a sacrifice, for by then he was spending so much time as special postal agent and in suppressing New York vice that he could not have had much time left for selling cloth.
Although the Y.M.C.A. had found him an embarrassment, it was not unaware of what he had accomplished; in January, 1874, it issued a private report showing that in little more than a year as agent for the defunct committee Comstock had seized 134,000 pounds of obscene books, 194,000 lewd pictures and photographs, 14.200 pounds of stereotype plates, 60,300 “articles made of rubber for immoral purposes,” 5,500 sets of playing cards, and 31,15o boxes of pills and powders (mostly “aphrodisiacs”).
In fact, Comstock had been so thorough that from then on his confiscation of obscene material followed a curve of diminishing returns, and the take grew smaller each year. By 1881 the society could boast of having seized only twenty pounds of obscene books and a mere twenty-five indecent pictures, Comstock undoubtedly considered it worth the effort, for it was his conviction that “a single book or a single picture may taint forever the soul of the person who reads it”—a hypothesis that is still being debated.
While Comstock did not differentiate between obscenity and works of literary merit, not much was lost to the world of letters during his early crusading. The books he suppressed ran almost entirely to such titles as Peep Behind the Curtains of a Female Seminary; Curtain Drawn Up, or the Education of Laura; and Isabel Manton, the Beautiful Courtesan. Nor did the great part of the pictorial art he destroyed leave the world any poorer.
It was inevitable, though, that with his lack of ability to discriminate and his heavy-handed approach he was bound to gather up works of literary and artistic merit along with the garbage. And because he drew no distinctions, he effectively terrorized most publishers and booksellers and for years made them afraid to sell anything but the blandest of material.
At the same time Comstock had a great deal of cooperation from like-minded judges and prosecuting attorneys. Courts accepted the rule that a work need not be examined on its overall intent but that findings of obscenity could be brought on the basis of isolated paragraphs, sentences, and even words. The Bible would not have passed this test.
Judges also ruled in many cases that material under consideration was too lewd to go into th public record, and bewildered juric had no choice but to bring in a guilt verdict, without ever having been permitted to see the material on whicl their decision was being made.
Comstock’s duties brought him into conflict with gambling. In New York he drove the Louisiana Lotten out of business, though it was receiving protection in high places, and he was offered a bribe of $25,000 to forget the entire thing. He led an attack on Long Island (lit) poolroom gambling houses, and his accounts of the raids leave little doubt that he thoroughy enjoyed kicking down doors and facing antagonistic crowds.
Certainly he was well equipped for physical confrontation. Trumbull describes him in the vigor of manhood:
Standing ahout five feet ten in his shoes, he carries his two hundred and ten pounds of muscle and hone so well that you would not judge him to weigh over a hundred and eightv. His Atlas shoulders of enormous hreadth and squareness, his chest of prodigious girth, surmounted by a bull-like neck, are in keeping with a biceps and a calf of exceptional size and iron solidarity. His legs are short, and remind one somewhat of tree trunks. …
Yet though he enjoyed the physical contact, he could not get greatly exercised about gambling. The great evil was sex. After it became legal to bet on horses in New York State, he had no appetite for moving against off-track locations where bets could be made illegally.
“It doesn’t seem fair to let a man bet at the track and to arrest another for doing the same thing in some place outside the race course,” he said.
But fairness was the least of Comstock’s worries when there was important game afoot. He spent a great deal of time answering advertisements—and newspapers then accepted advertising that would be proscribed in this permissive age—for everything from “Peephole rings, Sultry Sue magnified 50 times” to those that offered “Confidential solutions to women’s problems” and were nothing more or less than abortionists’ come-ons. Comstock wrote his letters under aliases, and as soon as he had the necessary evidence, he moved in on the culprit. These methods did not endear him to the public, however productive they may have been, and for this and other reasons he became widely despised.
One of Comstock’s most notorious cases of entrapment involved an abortionist, a Cockney woman named Ann Lohman, who, with success in her practice, had achieved a fine house on New York’s Fifth Avenue and had come to call herself Madame Restell. Comstock never denied that he had gone after Madame Restell because others had told him he would not dare attack anyone so well protected.
There is also some evidence that this woman had all but retired and was about to attempt to move into polite society. Comstock approached her in the guise of a man whose wife was pregnant with an unwanted child, and when Restell demurred at helping him, he beseeched her aid, so she said, by claiming that he was all but destitute and that another mouth to feed would ruin him. Only then did she give him her medicines, not so much for money as out of compassion.
Then Comstock arrested her. She was out on bail shortly, but back in her Fifth Avenue home she contemplated her future, and it was bleak. She was sixty-seven years old, and the prospect of exchanging the comfort with which she had surrounded herself for a cell must have been cheerless indeed. She went into her marble bathroom and cut her throat.
The editorial outcry against Comstock was vociferous, but it glanced off the armor of his righteousness. “A bloody ending to a bloody life,” he summed it up briefly, and later said, half boasting, that Madame Restell’s death was the fifteenth suicide he had caused.
There were to be others. In 1902, long after the Restell affair, a booklet called The Wedding Night caught Comstock’s vigilant eye. It was the work of a Miss Ida Craddock, who, though mentally deranged, had a brilliant mind within the limits of her affliction. The unfortunate woman believed she was the espoused of an angel, and from the erotic hallucinations of her marital relations with this heavenly being came a number of writings, including, oddly, a defense of the belly dance, as well as The Wedding Night, a small volume of advice to the newly married.
Comstock found it obscene and had her arrested, and a New York court sent her to jail for three months. When she was released, Comstock had the poor woman arrested again on a federal charge of sending indecent matter through the mails. The judge, as so often happened, found the pamphlet too obscene to enter in the court records, and the jury, without having seen the evidence, was forced to find Miss Craddock guilty. She chose, while awaiting sentencing, not to go back to jail again and turned on the gas in her little apartment.
Miss Craddock had many friends, and the clamor against Comstock was so great that it penetrated even his thick skin. He asked Miss Craddock’s pastor for a chance to give his side of the story but was ignored. He was shrewd enough not to make any statement saying that Miss Craddock got what she deserved. Nor did he ever mention how she ranked in the number of suicides he had caused.
Bearing the banner of the Lord, as Comstock did, had its risks. In 1874 an enraged smut dealer slashed his face with a knife, leaving a scar he carried the rest of his life. On another occasion he was kicked down a flight of stairs by a doctor he was trying to arrest and broke three ribs, and in a number of other encounters he suffered various abrasions and contusions.
There were less open attempts to do him harm. Once he was sent an infernal machine whose main element was an explosive surrounded by pieces of broken glass and a bottle of sulfuric acid; only a malfunction of the crude firing mechanism kept it from going off. On another occasion Cornstock received a small package of smallpox scabs; he and his wife were immediately vaccinated and escaped the disease. Yet another time he received through the mail, according to biographer Trumbull, an infected porous plaster, which, when he picked it up, gave him a peculiar “boring” sensation in the pores of his hands and face. Modern medicine seems unable to name any agent that could cause such a physiological effect, but Cornstock had his skin and office disinfected at once and had no further bad effects. His assistant, not so fortunate, contracted blood poisoning and was ill for a year.
Comstock became even more rigid in his later years, if that was possible, and some of his more foolish tiltings at windmills occurred when society was beginning to shed a few of the repressions of the Victorian Era. In 1906 his busy eye chanced to fall on a brochure of the New York Art Students’ League, and he was horrified to see there reproductions of studies of nudes.
Remembering his past unhappy experiences where women had been involved, Comstock did his best to find a man to arrest but was finally forced to take into custody a nineteen-year-old girl who was giving out the brochures at League headquarters. It did the aging sin fighter no good when the girl became so upset in court that a doctor had to be called, and the newspapers chortled when the frustrated Comstock called for the young lady’s employer to show up.
“I want to get at the sneaking hounds behind this woman’s skirts,” he said.
Ultimately Comstock was happy to have the case against the girl dismissed after the pamphlets were seized, but others did not forget so easily. The Art Students’ League, which had been mailing similar brochures for years with—they claimed—full knowledge of postal authorities, caricatured Comstock mercilessly, newspapers used the episode as a subject for cartoons, and he was accused of being a lewd-minded old man.
This had not been his first raid on serious art. As early as 1887 he had moved against the old and respected gallery of Herman Knoedler in New York and had confiscated a hundred seventeen photographs of masterpieces by Bouguereau, Henner, Perrault, and other living French artists many of which had hung in the Paris Salon.
“The morals of the youth of this country are endangered by obscenity and indecency in the shape of photographs of lewd French art—a foreign foe,”
Comstock proclaimed, alerting the nation to the enemy from without. It is possible that he did not quite understand what the Paris Salon was, for in one report he listed among his accomplishments the seizure of photographs of paintings “which had been exhibited in the Saloons of Paris.”One of his most publicized and silly acts was his attempt in 1913 to suppress September Morn, a Paris Salon medal-of-honor winner by Paul Chabas. A print of the picture was exhibited in the window of a New York art dealer, and though the picture portrays a nude so chaste that even Comstock and an assistant agreed action could probably not be brought in court, Comstock demanded that it be taken out of the window.
“It is not a proper picture to be shown to boys and girls,” he told the dealer. “There is nothing more sacred than the form of woman, but it must not be denuded. I think everyone will agree with me that such pictures should not be displayed where school children passing through the streets can see them.”
Comstock almost alone made September Morn an overnight success. The manager refused to be intimidated, Comstock became an object of ridicule, and September Morn sold in quantities far beyond its value as art or any slight ability to titillate.
He did the same valuable service for Bernarr Macfadden, the apostle of physical fitness. In 1905 Macfadden advertised his Mammoth Physical Exhibition in Madison Square Garden, with posters that showed photographs of young ladies attired in what today would be called long Johns. Comstock, shocked, found the posters “lewd,” “vile,” “degrading,” and another contribution to “the harvest of minds debauched, lives wrecked, and souls damned.”
He impounded the posters and arrested Macfadden, and as a result of the publicity and clamor five thousand were turned away from the doors of an exhibition that would not have threatened the morals of the most unsophisticated country boy.
Comstock, in his last years, battled at gnats. He railed against French and Italian novels. He became upset by visiting British suffragettes, especially when they brought to this country copies of their paper containing articles on prostitution. He stopped the fund-raising activities of many Roman Catholic churches, which even then were using raffles, if not bingo, to replace worn-out furnaces and repair leaking roofs. He forced a garment maker to remove unclothed manikins from his window. He even had a woman arrested because on a post card she had called her husband a “spitzbub,” or rascal, very likely meaning it as a term of endearment.
He quarreled with people in his office and sometimes—and not always in the line of duty—got involved in physical altercations that left him bruised and bloodied.
One of his last great crusades was against birth control, and his special target was Margaret Sanger, the pioneer in that field. In 1915 he went to her home pretending to be an impoverished father and obtained a pamphlet from her husband, who was arrested and served a month in jail.
That July, a month after Sanger’s trial, the champion of decency went to the International Purity Congress in San Francisco, an American delegate appointed by President Wilson. It was a busy and exciting time for a man not quite as spry as he had been—he was then seventy-one—for he was kept busy attending meetings and making speeches extolling purity, but it was a bit too much for him. He caught cold, and though he returned to his desk in late August, he soon became ill with pneumonia. On September 21, 1915, he went to receive his reward.
By the time he died, Comstock had already become an anachronism. During his heyday the majority of the American public undoubtedly approved his aims if not always his methods. In his last years they were beginning to be bored by the old man and to find him a bit of a nuisance. Young couples were dancing to a syncopated beat, snuggling up to each other in the turkey trot and the bunny hug, even doing the sinful tango.
In the sophisticated cities the sight of a young lady joining her escort in a cigarette and a cocktail no longer created a scandal. The narrow, expurgated world of Anthony Comstock was crumbling fast.
The process of disintegration has gone a long way since then. Motion pictures playing to mixed audiences portray scenes that not long ago could be seen only at stag parties. Nudity and obscenity are common on the stage. There are virtually no themes and no words that cannot be used in a novel today.
Night clubs offer topless waitresses and bottomless entertainers. Contraception and abortion, which Comstock fought bitterly for years, have been sanctioned by the courts.
Although the seeds of the sexual revolution were beginning to sprout even before World War I, the greatest change has been in the last ten years or so. Our society, increasingly preoccupied with war and civil unrest, oppressed by a feeling of rootlessness and of helplessness before the dehumanizing influence of modern technology and supercorporations, has leaned toward total permissiveness.
The recent Supreme Court decision recognizing the right of states to prohibit material that is “patently offensive” to “contemporary community standards” is a step in the other direction. It remains to be seen whether a chaos of nonuniformity is preferable to a chaos of permissiveness, however, for as the Court itself recognized, what is patently offensive in Oshkosh may be quite acceptable in Las Vegas or New York City.
Still, it does seem that it is time again to set some standards of behavior and lay out some limits to license, however difficult questions of definition may be.