Academic journal article Journalism History

Physicians and Obscenity: A Struggle for Free Speech, 1872-1915

Academic journal article Journalism History

Physicians and Obscenity: A Struggle for Free Speech, 1872-1915

Article excerpt

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, literature that reflected changing attitudes toward sexuality, religion, marriage, and government fell victim to the Comstock Act and related state laws on obscenity. Among the earliest individuals convicted was Dr. Edward Bliss Foote for a brochure that promoted birth control, and, he and his son, Dr. Edward Bond Foote, challenged obscenity legislation in Congress, state legislatures, and courts and also offered personal assistance to defendants in free speech cases. From 1872 to 1915, they waged a campaign against obscenity prosecutions that they considered unfair and advocated the right to freely discuss reform issues of the day, many of them sex-related. This study documents the Footes' free speech work, which brought them into contact with notable personalities of the day.

According to a fable written in 1881, a venomous cast a web over the insect community, keeping alien moths out of the garden paradise but trapping buttetflies, which were important for pollination. The bumblebee lawmakers, enough to fly through the web, ignored complaints from the garden's weaker residents about the harsh methods used by the spider, which bore "on his broad dark back a growth of dirty white down, forming for all the world hieroglyphics which could be clearly interpreted as the letters A and C."1

The A and C stood for Anthony Comstock, the moralistic New York crusader who spearheaded national laws on obscenity in 1873. Congress gave postal officials the right to remove materials from the mail that were deemed "obscene, lewd or lascivious" and "of an indecent character" as well as items used to prevent conception, cause abortion, or promote either of them.7 The spider fable, written by Dr. E.B. Foote (1829-1906), warned readers of the dangers imposed by the Comstock Act on freedom of the press, especially for literature on sex education and other reform issues of the day. In 1881, he explained that the cause was personal for him because he had felt the sting of Comstock's pursuit when convicted in 1876 for promoting birth control.3

Foote and his son, Dr. E.B. Foote, Jr., (1854-1912), spent the rest of their lives - more than forty years - opposing Comstock (1836-1915), helping defend others prosecuted for obscenity, and advocating free speech. Their campaign began in 1872, when the father first lobbied against Comstock, and lasted until 1915, when funds left in the son's will supported a defendant. This study focuses on their free-speech work through three organizations and their involvement in the private lives of defendants, all of which brought them into contact with notable people of the day.

Prominent businessmen, such as financier J. P. Morgan and soap magnate Samuel Colgate, supported Comstock substantially in his fervent campaign against obscenity through the Young Men's Christian Association in New York City/ Together, they formed the New York Committee for the Suppression of Vice, which was later renamed the Society for the Suppression of Vice. From their local success in shutting down pornographers, Comstock collected stories of men and women who he claimed had been ruined by pornographic pictures, books, and other materials used for immoral purposes, and he would later use these items to punctuate his call for beefed-up obscenity laws. Even when he addressed Congress in 1873, he illustrated his points with contraceptives, abortioncausing devices, and items used for masturbation that he had gathered.''

Throughout his career as a public censor, Comstock clung to his strict religious upbringing in New Canaan, Connecticut, describing his efforts as "weeding in the Garden of the Lord." After the Civil War, when he worked in New York City as a store clerk, he found activities that affronted traditional Victorian moral standards: drinking, gambling, prostitution, and public entertainment of all sorts. Even as a Union solider, he had poured out his daily rations of liquor to the dismay of other soldiers and had taken it upon himself to find ministers to conduct religious services, which he attended from four to nine times a week. …

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