Born in rural Connecticut in the middle of the nineteenth century, Anthony Comstock (March 7, 1844 – Sept. 21, 1915) and his older brother were brought up by a strict Puritan mother. She taught the boys to follow God on a righteous path, avoiding sins such as gambling, and sexual deviousness, instead using His teachings to better society. His mother’s religious convictions stuck with him to adulthood – “He had real, not theoretical or academic, trust in God” observed his friend and biographer Charles Gallaudet Trumbull1 – and led him to enlist in the Union army at the onset of the Civil War (1861-1865).
Following the end of the war Comstock arrived in New York City, a town that was seeing a boom in businesses of all types but especially in “institutions of sin” such as gambling halls and saloons. Comstock started a dry goods business, but his passion lay in social and reform work. During the war Comstock openly objected to the profanity used by his fellow soldiers, and in New York, he saw the same kinds of objectionable behavior throughout the streets. Comstock was attracted to the Young Man Christian’s Association (YMCA) who, in 1866, issued a report declaring that the increase of sinful institutions, or “traps of immorality,” in New York City were dangerous to young American men while obscene literature was “the feeders of brothels.”2 Comstock attended YMCA meetings regularly and quickly became a prominent figure within the organization.
With the support of the YMCA, he created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1872, an institution dedicated to supervising public morality. In the ensuing months Comstock and the Society conducted hundreds of raids and gathered thousands of obscene books, photographs, and printing plates. Even with the raids and in spite of the 1865 legislation, however, much of the objectionable material was still reaching American homes through the mail, a result of reduced postage rates and the railroad expansion during the 1850s. Comstock believed federal regulation was the answer to his anti-vice crusade so he set his sights on the creation of a federal anti-obscenity law within the Post Office Department.
Financial backers of the Society drew from the wealthiest and most elite of New York City, but when he went to his committee for support, the majority “disapproved of making any attempt to secure federal legislation at that time.”3 Their apprehension was cemented by the intense ridicule of Comstock’s antics from New York newspaper editors and daily death threats from disgruntled business owners.
Despite their lack of support, Comstock went to Washington, D.C. where he drafted his own federal anti-obscenity bill. One of his powerful friends introduced him to legal experts who helped refine the bill and introduced him to Speaker of the House James Blaine, who agreed to help push the bill through Congress. Hearings on the legislation began in early 1873. “The home is sacred,” declared a Congressman in support of the bill. “The protection of children is crucial to the preservation of the American Way.”4
The bill was passed in the early morning of March 3, 1873; only 30 congressmen voted against it. Nicknamed the “Comstock Act,” the the law closed all mail to material relating to fraudulent lotteries, gift concerts, and other vice enterprises. Violators were subject to a large fine, while the postmaster general with evidence “satisfactory to him” received power to stop registered letters and money orders addressed to any illegal lottery.5
1) Charles Gallaudet Trumbull, Anthony Comstock, Fighter: Some Impressions of a Lifetime Adventure in Conflict with the Powers of Evil (New York, 1915), 19.
2) Young Men’s Christian Association of the City of New York, A Memorandum Respecting New-York as a Field for Moral and Christian Effort Among Young Men; Its Present Neglected Condition; and the Fitness of the New-York Young Men’s Christian Association as a Principal Agency for Its Due Cultivation (New York: The Association, 1866), 6.
3) Trumbull, Anthony Comstock, Fighter, 14.
4) Speech of Clinton L. Merriam, 1 March 1873, Congressional Globe, Forty Second Congress, Third Session, Appendix 169.
5) Wayne E. Fuller, Morality and the Mail in Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 197.