Comstock, the POD and the Battle Against the Lottery

The Hydra of Louisiana Politics

Refer to caption
A ticket of the Louisiana Lottery

Just as the Donaldson Chief predicted, the fight to end lotteries in the United States was long and arduous. From lottery companies in Houston, Texas to Juarez, Mexico, postal inspectors and postmasters general had their hands full with investigations against various lottery companies who either exploited loopholes in the 1873 Act or ignored the law altogether.1

The Louisiana Lottery Company, however, proved the hardest to abolish. Started initially as a syndicate from New York, the Louisiana Lottery was founded in August 1868 by two businessmen, John A. Morris and Charles T. Howard. A native of New Jersey, Morris was a prominent figure in the thoroughbred horse racing business. Howard, from Baltimore, moved south to work as a newsdealer and then eventually for the Alabama and Kentucky state lotteries. Morris and Howard partnered and were granted a 25-year charter from the Louisiana General Assembly for their lottery.

From the beginning, the Louisiana Lottery Company was rife with controversy. With the initial passing of the charter all other organized gambling was made illegal, and there were rumors that the legislators of the General Assembly had been bribed into a corrupt deal. Morris and Howard hired former and respected Confederate Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Jubal A. Early to hold the drawings in an attempt to add credibility to their institution, but according to reports at the time, they were paid quite handsomely for their few day’s work. “Did you ever study the building of the lottery as it stands on the corner of St. Charles and Union Streets?” wrote Reverend Mr. Carradine, an opponent of the Louisiana Lottery. “Look carefully and you will discover that its foundations rest on human misery.”2

During its first decade of operation the Louisiana Lottery became so enormously rich and powerful that the postmaster of New Orleans estimated that at least three thousand people were dependent upon the sale of tickets for their livelihoods. At each monthly drawing Beauregard and Early would preside over a room filled with anxious spectators, after which around five thousand letters, presumably containing prizes and results, would be sent around the country.3 With its partner headquarters in New York, the Louisiana Lottery’s influence was felt in both regions of the United States.

The first shot against the “hydra of Louisiana politics” was fired by Comstock in 1877. After months of detective work, Comstock arrested twenty-five persons associated with Louisiana and other large state lotteries. While his arrests shook the lottery directors, Comstock still believed that federal regulation was needed to be truly effective.4

The issue of lotteries and their use of the POD was brought before Congress in almost every postmasters general report during the 1880s, thanks, in large part, to the urging of Comstock. The issue, according to the reports, was the use of the word fraudulent in the original law. Although lottery directors were not allowed to use the mail, it was nearly impossible for postmasters general to differentiate legal and illegal business letters. Congress needed to erase the word from sections 3929 and 4041 of the revised statutes to “suppress all such abuses of its mails.” Only then would postmasters general have real power to stop letters mailed to the lottery.5 In the spring of 1884 such a bill was proposed by Republican lawmakers in the House as well as a Senate bill banning newspapers and other publications that used the mail from printing lottery advertisements.6

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An official drawing from the Louisiana Lottery

The bills were met with a great outcry from the Democratic controlled House of Representatives. There were protests that the proposed legislation meant too much centralization and would violate freedom of the press. They argued that to require newspapers to exclude lottery advertisements would render the First Amendment a dead amendment. “The freedom of circulation by the ordinary channels of communication is the very essence of the press’s freedom,” argued one Democratic congressman.7 Many other congressmen opposed the law on the ground of state’s rights. All bills concerning the lottery were pigeonholed for the next three consecutives Congresses.

Following the failure of the bills, Comstock’s focus from the Louisiana Lottery shifted to other matters of obscenity, specifically indecent literature and pornography distributed through the mail. In 1885 Congress raised the weight limit of first-class letters from one half to one full ounce, making it easier for pornographers, who sent thousands of obscene circulars in sealed envelopes, to send such material to pornography dealers.8 While he no longer crusaded on the front lines for anti-lottery legislation, Comstock’s original battle against the Louisiana Lottery helped tip the scales in favor of the POD.

1) Marshall Cushing, The History of Our Post Office: The Greatest Government Department in All Its Phases (Boston, 1893), 527.

2) Ibid., 517.

3) Anthony Comstock, Traps for the Young, ed. Robert Bremner (New York, 1883), 66.

4) Ibid., 66.

5) Report of the Postmaster General, 1885, 56-57.

6) Fuller, Morality and the Mail, 205.

7) Dorothy Ganfield Fowler, Unmailable, (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1977), 81.

8) Fuller, Morality and the Mail, 227.