The Return of Anthony Comstock, Part 1: The Prodigal Censor

Anthony Comstock has been useless for 106 years and is essentially forgotten, however currently he’s having fairly the comeback. Comstock, America’s most infamous anti-vice crusader of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is the topic of a number of current books, is featured because the villain in a feminist novel, and—oh, sure—his arguments for censorship and his techniques are being recycled by new generations of anti-free speech activists. So, who was Comstock and why does this matter?

The Copernicus of a brand new artwork and science

He was, greater than all others earlier than or after his time, the overlord of vice chasers. With non secular fervor, he crusaded mightily in opposition to any and all types of what he noticed as ethical depravity, particularly in issues regarding intercourse. Within the course of, Comstock did two issues: He launched a “tradition battle” over impurity within the minds and deeds of Individuals, and he modified the face of American legislation by stewarding a sweeping obscenity invoice that enforced personally. His battle thrived in his lifetime and continued on lengthy after his dying.

In his time, Comstock actually outlined the occupation of anti-smut activist. H.L. Mencken dubbed him “the Copernicus of a fairly new artwork and science,” and one “who first capitalized ethical endeavor like baseball or the cleaning soap enterprise, and made himself the primary of its saved professors.”

By his knack for self-promotion, Comstock was a nationwide superstar whose exploits had been adopted within the press as avidly as showman P.T. Barnum and boxing champ John L. Sullivan. He was “one of the best identified of the city vice fighters of his day” and “the foremost policeman of personal vices in America’s Gilded Age.” Harper’s Weekly famous that the identify Anthony Comstock is thought not simply “everywhere in the nation,” however “over a lot of the civilized world.”

He headed the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and was a particular agent for the U.S. Publish Workplace below a federal legislation that infamously bore his identify. Comstock terrorized writers, publishers, free thinkers, contraception advocates, and artists—jailing 1000’s and driving no less than 15 to suicide. Close to the tip of his lengthy profession, Comstock claimed to have convicted sufficient individuals “to fill a passenger prepare of sixty-one coaches, sixty coaches containing sixty passengers every and the sixty-first virtually full.” He additionally stated he had destroyed 160 tons of obscene literature and 4 million photos.

Official seal of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice

Arguably, nobody earlier than or since has affected American tradition so profoundly. Most states adopted the lead of federal legislation based mostly on reform actions led or impressed by Comstock. Artwork historian Amy Werbel aptly noticed that his literary preferences “served for forty years because the nationwide line between advantage and vice.”

Comstock’s legislation utilized to all that was obscene, lewd, or lascivious. It additionally utilized to something supposed for the prevention of conception or for procuring an abortion, or something “supposed or tailored for any indecent or immoral use.” The whole lot that Comstock thought of immoral was (by definition) obscene, and subsequently unlawful.

His idea of immorality forged a large web. Along with “pornography,” it included blasphemy, sensational novels, information tales, artwork, and even scientific and medical texts. Comstock thought of the hazard of “evil studying” to be worse than yellow fever or small pox, which is to say, Comstock thought of intercourse to be worse than lethal illnesses. Why? As a result of he noticed intercourse (and the lure of masturbation—and subsequently everlasting damnation) in every little thing.

This danger even lay hidden as a lure for the younger in newspaper accounts of crime or in tales about public speeches given by freethinkers. Such works must be seized and destroyed, Comstock wrote, lest the tales breed “scoffers” of “the candy influences of faith.” As with every little thing in Comstock’s thoughts, all of it got here again to intercourse: “Take away the considered the understanding of a remaining judgment or the existence of God from the thoughts of many youth, and you’ll have a bid for a lifetime of self-gratification and sin.”

When he died in 1915, simply days after his profitable prosecution of William Sanger for handing out one among his spouse’s pamphlets on contraception, the press lionized Comstock as a fallen “soldier of righteousness.” The New York Occasions ran a front-page obituary describing Comstock as an individual “identified the world over by means of the controversies which have adopted his crusades in opposition to books, photos and performs that he deemed indecent.” The Occasions praised him editorially as a “benefactor and hero” who “served a superb trigger with tireless devotion,” whereas the New York World referred to as him “essentially the most spectacular crusader in opposition to vice that America has identified.”

But even on the top of his powers, the heavy-set crusader with mutton-chop sideburns was the butt of public ridicule. George Bernard Shaw popularized the time period “Comstockery” to mock the distinctive mix of militant sanctimony and fascination with the lurid that marks American prudishness. Comstock ceaselessly was lampooned in illustrated comics, and in his remaining days, even his supporters distanced themselves from his extreme zeal.

His vociferous campaigns, such because the one in opposition to the New York Artwork College students’ League in 1906, or his tirade in opposition to stomach dancers on the Halfway Plaisance of the 1893 Chicago World’s Truthful, made him a frequent goal of political cartoonists, and his face grew to become the buffoonish picture of censorship.

Deliberate Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger wrote “[t]right here is nothing which causes a lot laughter or calls forth so many joking feedback by individuals in Europe as Comstockery in America.” Straightforward for her to say: she penned these phrases whereas protected in England at a time when her husband confronted trial in America for handing out one among her pamphlets. However as Comstock’s energy to inflict punishment waned and finally disappeared, the clownish elements of his campaign had been what individuals remembered.

Your Honor, this lady gave start to a unadorned youngster!
[Cartoon from The Masses, September 1915.]

Even in his lifetime, Comstock grew to become “a fable, a logo, a personified reductio advert absurdum,” wrote John Collier, a co-founder of the Nationwide Board of Censorship (which advocated for “voluntary” censorship of movement photos on the time). Upon Comstock’s dying in 1915, Collier wrote that the nice crusader was “the whipping boy of current day public opinion.” For many who nonetheless keep in mind him, Comstock continues to carry out that function. Free speech advocate Marjorie Heins has noticed that “the historic picture of Anthony Comstock is extra comedian than threatening.”

But it surely wasn’t simply Comstock’s picture that grew to become tarnished through the years. The authorized foundations of his censorship efforts crumbled as twentieth century courts interpreted the First Modification and developed strong protections for freedom of speech. And Comstock helped drive the erosion. His dogmatic and rigid insistence that the federal government has a divine mandate to censor something even remotely associated to intercourse pressured free speech advocates to sharpen their constitutional reasoning for extending First Modification safety to the topic. Though it took many years, these arguments finally prevailed in decrease courts, and eventually within the U.S. Supreme Court docket.

Even a sympathetic biographer noticed that every one the authorized positive aspects have been utterly reversed in nearly each endeavor that occupied Comstock’s lengthy profession—from attempting to outlaw most discussions or depictions of intercourse, his opposition to contraceptives and abortion, and his horror on the notion of “trendy marriage.”

If Comstock may very well be revived and transported from the grave to right this moment’s America, the biographer wrote, the outdated crusader would discover his worst fears confirmed and he would conclude “that he now stood in a really totally different nation” by which courts and legislatures “have already given their blessings to fornication, adultery, pornography, contraception, simple divorce, abortion, and sodomy.” It’s simple to think about that Comstock’s head would explode on the mere point out of homosexual marriage.

Maybe the worst destiny that befell Comstock was obscurity. The person who had craved the world’s consideration from the beginnings of his holy campaign proper by means of to its finish was in peril of changing into a historic footnote.