America's Censor: Anthony Comstock and Free Speech

By LaMay, Craig L. | Communications and the Law, September 1997 | Go to article overview

America's Censor: Anthony Comstock and Free Speech

LaMay, Craig L., Communications and the Law

There are people whose passage through history is so virtuous, scandalous, or loud that their names become synonymous with their activities. Anthony Comstock is known, if at all, as America's most formidable prude and energetic censor during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He lives on in this manner, his name coined in the pejorative by a newspaper editorial and later given currency by playwright George Bernard Shaw: "Comstockery." Merriam-Webster defines the term as "strict censorship of materials considered obscene" or "censorious opposition to alleged immorality."

A man possessed of no conspicuous talents and having boundless energy, Comstock was the foremost policeman of private vices in America's Gilded Age. Beginning in the 1860s, he became actively concerned with the moral decadence of New York City (where he worked as a dry-goods salesman), targeting in particular the purveyors of what he considered to be obscenity, from imported penny postcards to serious and scientific literature on sexuality. In the early 1870s he began a long association with the New York chapter of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), and formed an affiliate organization, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which he served as its most active and visible executive. In 1873 Comstock went to Washington, DC, where he lobbied for (and won) the federal obscenity statute that he would devote the rest of his life to enforcing.(1) Passed under the aegis of the Post Office Department, the law provided for enforcement through the creation of special agents,(2) a position to which Comstock was appointed and which he held until his death in 1915. Combining the resources of his Vice Society and the legal authority of the Post Office, Comstock spent the next 42 years acting not only as a censor of the mails, but as a policeman of public and private morals, confiscating tons of materials, from literature to condoms, and arresting thousands of people, from pornographers to physicians. The scope of his activities and his skill at self promotion were such that he remains perhaps the best known of the urban vice fighters of his day.

In the scholarly literature on free speech and censorship, however, Comstock's career has until recently received scant attention. For many years there were only two book-length biographies available, Charles Trumbull's laudatory Anthony Comstock Fighter,(3) which was written in 1913, while Comstock was still alive; and Heywood Broun and Margaret Leech's Anthony Comstock Roundsman of the Lord,(4) a some what more critical book published in 1927. A very critical biography of the man was written in 1878 by one of his principal enemies, DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett; it is more polemic than biography.(5) There is a compact article on Comstock in The Dictionary of American Biography(6) written by the eminent historian Mark Van Doren. Finally, there are two unpublished dissertations on Comstock's censorship activities: One is available from the University of Wisconsin at Madison,(7) the other from the library of Teachers College in New York City.(8) More recently, three doctoral dissertations have examined the politics of censorship and contraception that occupied Comstock and his contemporaries.(9) While most of these materials are cited in this article, as well as some other books on censorship, American literature, and regulation of sexual activity, only the three most-recent works look at how Comstock's contemporaries understood the issues that concerned him or attempt to place them in social or historical context. The prevailing scholarly view is that public attitudes about sexuality in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were varied and complex, and that the public did not universally share Comstock's strong views on the subjected.(10)

This article does not quarrel with that assessment, but it examines Comstock's career and public reaction to it from a different perspective: primarily, that of the daily newspapers and magazines which covered his work; and secondarily, of those who most vigorously opposed him. …

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