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


The Battle Against the Lottery

Job Robert Tyson's small book had a big influence on Anthony Comstock and popular opinion.
Job Robert Tyson's small book had a big influence on Anthony Comstock and popular opinion.
Job Robert Tyson's small
book had a big influence on
Anthony Comstock and
popular opinion.

While numerous historians have focused on Comstock’s battle against obscene literature, few have noted his long-fought battle against the lottery. Gambling in the United States had its roots as far back as the 1600s, and in most colonies, gambling was seen as a harmless distraction as long as it was played in a gentlemanly manner. Lotteries were even used as a revenue source to help fund the colonies, and early American legislators commonly authorized lotteries to fund schools, roads, bridges and other public works.1

In the 1830s, however, Evangelical reformers began denouncing lotteries on moral grounds. Job Robert Tyson, a Philadelphia Quaker, led the shift in popular opinion with his small book, A Brief Survey of the Great Extent and Evil Tendencies of the Lottery System as Existing in the United States (1833). Filled with statistics of lottery debts and stories of lives ruined by the lottery, Tyson’s book was mailed by the thousands throughout the country and inspired lawmakers across the country to outlaw lotteries.2

Comstock’s disdain for the lottery, unlike Tyson, did not stem from a disapproval of wealth. On the contrary, Comstock had no problem with possessing riches if those riches were obtained by hard work. But as Comstock wrote in his 1880 book, Frauds Exposed: How People are Deceived and Robbed, and the Youth Corrupted, “the promise of getting something for nothing” – as playing the lottery promised – led to laziness and laziness was the work of the devil. Like Tyson, Comstock believed that the lottery was, at its core, a scam to all classes, races, gender and age. Comstock observed in Frauds Exposed that tickets were sold in the “lowest dens” to women, children, and young girls – those who were supposed to be most innocent and pure in society. “It is too late in the history of this country and of the world to regard lotteries as respectable or honest,” proclaimed Comstock. “Their record has been made; this history is written.”3

In 1873 the Comstock Act banned every fraudulent lottery in the United States. While many lotteries in the early 1870s had only tenuous or no grounds to legality, the abundance of them made it impossible for postmasters to discern the legal from the illegal. Comstock believed he could fix this problem as easily as he had in 1873. Others, however, saw things differently. “Comstock succeeded in breaking up the sale of obscene literature but he will fail in his attack upon the lotteries,” lamented the Donaldson Chief. “The lottery people are rich and well organized, and the business of gulling fools is too profitable to be given up without a fight.”4


1) Charles T. Clotfelter and J. Philip Cook, Selling Hope: State Lotteries in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 10.

2) Fuller, Morality and the Mail, 193-194.

3) Anthony Comstock, Frauds Exposed: How the People are Deceived and Robbed, and Youth Corrupted, (New York, 1880), 351.

4) The Donaldson Chief, Oct. 27, 1877.