All Bets Are Off:
Anthony Comstock, the Post Office Department and the Battle Against the Lottery


Introduction

“Lotteries are the most extensive and far-reaching of all gambling schemes. They prey upon the unwary. They break up steady habits, waste property, and displace industry. They extend, by assistance of so-called respectable newspapers, into all sections of the country… It is too late in the history of the world to regard lotteries as respectable or honest.”
—Anthony Comstock, Traps for the Young
A drawing of Rev. Mr. Carradine’s conception of the lottery
A drawing of Rev. Mr. Carradine’s conception of the lottery
A drawing of Rev. Mr. Carradine’s conception of the lottery

In February 1865, senator and former Postmaster General Jacob Collamer warned his fellow senators that traffic of obscene material in the mail was “getting to be a great evil.” Heeding his advice, the next month Congress outlawed any “obscene book, pamphlet, picture, print, or other publication of a vulgar indecent character” to pass through the mails. It marked the beginning of the long, tumultuous relationship between obscene material, Victorian morality and the United States Post Office Department (POD) during the nineteenth century.

A part of the obscenity controversy focused on the lottery and lottery directors’ use of the postal service for business transactions. Anthony Comstock, a deeply religious man and founder of New York’s Society for the Suppression of Vice, viewed the lottery as an abomination and used his special position within the POD to help eliminate the lottery within the United States.

The POD’s toughest adversary was the Louisiana Lottery Company, a corrupt and powerful lottery that operated out of New Orleans and New York City. The Louisiana Lottery fought Comstock and the POD tooth and nail for almost three decades until eventually, lotteries were banned from the United States and would not legally reappear until the 1960s.

By Aleida Fernandez