Anthony Comstock knew obscenity when he saw it, and the famous anti-vice crusader saw it everywhere. From the 1870s into the early 20th century, the dry goods salesman-turned-self-appointed-censor was a man on a mission—to impose his sense of morality on what Americans read, saw and even did in their own bedrooms.
Though not an elected legislator, the devout Protestant, who was appalled by the sexual permissiveness he witnessed in New York City, largely rewrote federal postal laws "to prevent the mails from being used to corrupt the public morals." And he got a compliant Congress to pass them. Some historians suggest that the politicians were looking for an issue that would divert public attention from the Credit Mobilier scandal, in which many of them were involved.
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While there were already laws on the books against obscenity, Comstock managed to expand the scope of “obscene, lewd or lascivious” material to include information on birth control and abortion.
The post office made him a special agent, with the power to conduct raids and arrest suspected violators. He exercised that authority with gusto for the next 42 years, claiming credit for nearly 4,000 convictions, 160 tons of destroyed books and other materials and at least 15 suspects driven to suicide.
Up to his death in 1915, Comstock was admired in some quarters for his moral rectitude—and ridiculed in others as a prig and a busybody. Today, he may seem like a relic of the Victorian Age, but his laws affected American life for decades and his spirit lives on in the never-ending battles over censorship, free speech, the right to privacy and the proper role of government in citizens’ lives.
Comstock’s ‘Chamber of Horrors’
In 1872, Comstock began visiting Washington, D.C. to lobby lawmakers for stricter vice laws. In one celebrated show-and-tell presentation in Vice President Schuyler Colfax’s office, he wowed Senators with a selection of dirty books, pornographic playing cards and contraceptive devices. He referred to the collection as his “Chamber of Horrors.”
Comstock had already made a name for himself in New York as the leader of the YMCA’s Committee for the Suppression of Vice. He used his position to confiscate and destroy books and other materials he believed could corrupt the morals of young men. The law that allowed him to carry out his raids, New York’s Obscene Literature Act of 1868, also gave him a cut of any fines.
But Comstock had grander ambitions—not just to clean up New York, but the entire country.
In 1873, he got his way when Congress passed An Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use. It became commonly known as the Comstock Act.
Days after the law passed, the post office gave him the authority to enforce his own rules. While other obscenity laws allowed Comstock to conduct raids on booksellers and publishers and harass art gallery owners with nude paintings on exhibit, the Comstock laws technically required that the material pass through the mail before he could take action.
Rather than wait for that to happen, Comstock would send away for materials on contraception and other forbidden topics using assumed names. “In some cases, he concocted entire families, individuals sharing a last name, living in the same town,” Amy Sohn reports her 2021 book about Comstock, The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship and Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age. When the packages arrived, he pounced.
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Comstock Laws Spread to the States
The federal Comstock laws weren’t universally loved, and there were numerous attempts to repeal them on the federal level. Many state legislatures embraced them with enthusiasm, however, and more than half the states enacted their own Comstock laws in succeeding years. Some were harsher than the federal original.
Meanwhile, legislators continued to tinker with the 1873 law. In 1908, for example, it banned as “indecent” any material that might “incite arson, murder or assassination.” This was an era when concern over anarchism and socialism ran high and, as Sohn notes, Comstock’s law was “evolving to meet the times.”
Women Fight Back
Comstock’s attacks on contraception happened to coincide with the growing women’s rights movement, for which family planning and women’s control of their own bodies were core issues.
The anarchist activist Emma Goldman and the birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger were two of his more prominent targets, and they returned the favor by denouncing him in their publications and from the lecture stage.
In 1914, he arranged to have Sanger indicted over the contents of her magazine The Woman Rebel, which he called “obscene, lewd and lascivious.” Threatened with a potential 45-year prison term, she fled the country, but returned to face trial in 1915. The case was dismissed the following year when the government dropped the charges.
Meanwhile, Comstock died of pneumonia in September 1915, at age 71. He had continued his crusade to the end, sometimes to the point of absurdity. Appointed by President Woodrow Wilson as U.S. delegate to the International Purity Conference in San Francisco, he was disturbed to see naked mannequins in department store windows there (apparently still being worked on by window-dressers) and decided to make a federal case of it. He lost.
Comstock Laws After Comstock
Over the course of the 20th century, court rulings would gradually whittle away at the original Comstock laws and their state imitators. But every now and then, publishers and the public would be reminded that the law was still on the books.
In 1943, the postmaster general moved to take away Esquire magazine’s second-class mailing privileges on the grounds that some of its cartoons and other contents were obscene. (Less-expensive second-class mail was vital for many magazines’ survival.) The case dragged on until 1946 before the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s verdict in Esquire’s favor.
In 1955 a new postmaster denied Playboy magazine’s request for a second-class permit, prompting publisher Hugh Hefner to remark that, “We don’t think Postmaster General Summerfield has any business editing magazines. He should stick to delivering mail.” Like Esquire, Playboy prevailed in court.
These days, the postal laws rarely make headlines or lead to major court cases. While would-be censors of various political persuasions periodically call for greater restraints on social media and the Internet, that cause has yet to find its own Anthony Comstock.