Anthony Comstock

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Anthony Comstock
Anthony Comstock.jpg
Photograph of Anthony Comstock from a 1913 publication
Born (1844-03-07)March 7, 1844
New Canaan, Connecticut, United States
Died September 21, 1915(1915-09-21) (aged 71)
Summit, New Jersey, United States
Occupation United States Postal Inspector
Organization United States Postal Inspection Service
Known for Creation of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice
Comstock law
Political party Republican
Awards Queen's Police Medal
Prime Minister's Above and Beyond award

Anthony Comstock (March 7, 1844 – September 21, 1915) was a United States Postal Inspector and politician dedicated to ideas of Victorian morality. The terms "comstockery" and "Comstockism" were used for his extensive campaign to censor materials he considered indecent and obscene, such as birth control information.

Life and work[edit]

Comstock was born in New Canaan, Connecticut, the son of Polly Ann (Lockwood) and Thomas Anthony Comstock.[1] As a young man, he enlisted and fought for the Union in the American Civil War from 1863 to 1865 in Company H, 17th Connecticut Infantry. He served without incident, but objected to the profanity used by his fellow soldiers.[2] Afterwards he became an active worker in the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) in New York City.

In 1873, Comstock created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an institution dedicated to supervising the morality of the public. Later that year, Comstock successfully influenced the United States Congress to pass the Comstock Law, which made illegal the delivery by U.S. mail, or by other modes of transportation, of "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" material, as well as prohibiting any methods of production or publication of information pertaining to the procurement of abortion, the prevention of conception and the prevention of venereal disease.[3]

The term "comstockery", meaning "censorship because of perceived obscenity or immorality", was coined in an editorial in The New York Times in 1895.[4] George Bernard Shaw used the term in 1905 after Comstock had alerted the New York City police to the content of Shaw's play Mrs. Warren's Profession. Shaw remarked that "Comstockery is the world's standing joke at the expense of the United States. Europe likes to hear of such things. It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second-rate country-town civilization after all." Comstock thought of Shaw as an "Irish smut dealer."[5]

Comstock lived in Summit, New Jersey from 1880 to 1915.[6] He built a house there in 1892 at 35 Beekman Road, where he died in 1915.[7]

Comstock's ideas of what might be "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" were quite broad. During his time of greatest power, even some anatomy textbooks were prohibited from being sent to medical students by the United States Postal Service.[2]

1887 Letter from Anthony Comstock to Josiah Leeds

Comstock aroused intense loathing from early civil liberties groups and intense support from church-based groups worried about public morals. He was a savvy political insider in New York City and was made a special agent of the United States Postal Service, with police powers including the right to carry a weapon. With this power he zealously prosecuted those he suspected of either public distribution of pornography or commercial fraud. He was also involved in shutting down the Louisiana Lottery, which was the only legal lottery in the United States at the time and was notorious for corruption.

Comstock is also known for his opposition to Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Celeste Claflin, and those associated with them. The men's journal The Days' Doings had popularized images of the sisters for three years and was instructed by its editor (while Comstock was present) to stop producing lewd images. Comstock also took legal action against the paper for advertising contraceptives. When the sisters published an expose of an adulterous affair between Reverend Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton, he had the sisters arrested under laws forbidding the use of the postal service to distribute 'obscene material'—specifically citing a mangled Biblical quote Comstock found obscene—though they were later acquitted of the charges[citation needed].

Less fortunate was Ida Craddock, who committed suicide on the eve of reporting to Federal prison for distributing via the U.S. Mail various sexually explicit marriage manuals she had authored. Her final work was a lengthy public suicide note specifically condemning Comstock.

Comstock, the self-styled "weeder in God's garden", arrested D. M. Bennett for publishing his "An Open Letter to Jesus Christ" and later had the editor charged for mailing a free-love pamphlet. Bennett was prosecuted, subjected to a widely publicized trial, and imprisoned in the Albany Penitentiary.

Prominent abortionist Madame Restell was also arrested by Comstock. In 1878, he posed as a customer seeking birth control for his wife. Restell provided him with pills and he returned the next day with the police and arrested her. She committed suicide the next morning.[8]

During his career, Comstock clashed with Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger. In her autobiography, Goldman referred to Comstock as the leader of America's "moral eunuchs". Comstock had numerous enemies, and in later years his health was affected by a severe blow to the head from an anonymous attacker. He lectured to college audiences and wrote newspaper articles to sustain his causes. Before his death, Comstock attracted the interest of a young law student, J. Edgar Hoover, who was interested in his causes and methods.[citation needed]

Through his various campaigns, he destroyed 15 tons of books, 284,000 pounds of plates for printing 'objectionable' books, and nearly 4,000,000 pictures.[2] Comstock boasted that he was responsible for 4,000 arrests[9] and claimed he drove fifteen persons to suicide in his "fight for the young".[10]

A biography of Comstock written in 1927, Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord by Heywood Broun and Margaret Leech of the Algonquin Round Table examines his personal history and his investigative, surveillance and law enforcement techniques.


  • Frauds Exposed (1880)
  • Traps for the Young (1883)
  • Gambling Outrages (1887)
  • Morals Versus Art (1887)

He wrote numerous magazine articles relating to similar subjects.

References in fiction and culture[edit]

  • Comstock is one of many prominent New Yorkers of his time that appear in the historical fiction novel The Alienist, by Caleb Carr.
  • The protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Beautiful and Damned is named for Comstock by his own reformist grandfather. “Emulating the magnificent efforts of Anthony Comstock, after whom his grandson was named, he leveled a varied assortment of uppercuts and body-blows at liquor, literature, vice, art, patent medicines, and Sunday theatres."
  • James Branch Cabell was prosecuted on obscenity charges relating to his novel Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice after lobbying by the Society. Cabell retaliated with a chapbook entitled The Judging of Jurgen (later inserted into subsequent reprints of the novel), in which the title character is consigned to oblivion for being "obscene, lewd, lascivious and indecent" in a trial presided over by a dung beetle who swears "by Saint Anthony".
  • Anthony Comstock is one of the four "point of view" characters in Marge Piercy's novel Sex Wars. Piercy explores Comstock's personal history and mindset as he goes from clerk to active "vice" suppressor.
  • Comstock makes a cameo (rescued from a burning building) in Jack Finney's novel Time and Again.
  • He is portrayed by Rod Steiger in the 1995 made-for-TV film Choices of the Heart: The Margaret Sanger Story.[11]
  • Comstock is the antagonist of the fictional midwife, Axie Muldoon in the novel, "My Notorious Life", by Kate Manning. The novel describes the career of a character loosely patterned on the life of Ann Trow Lohman, a women's health practitioner in the nineteenth century.[12]
  • A fictionalized Comstock features prominently as an antagonist in Sara Donati's 2015 novel The Gilded Hour.[13]
  • In the video game Bioshock: Infinite, the primary antagonist is named Father Comstock after Comstock. He is a puritanical religious leader at the head of an ultra-nationalistic political party controlling the city-state of Columbia that has seceded from the United States.

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b c Buchanan, Paul D, The American Women's Rights Movement, p. 75 .
  3. ^ Anthony Comstock: His Career of Cruelty and Crime A Chapter from "Champions of the Church". DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett.
  4. ^ LaMay, Craig L (September 1997), "America's censor: Anthony Comstock and free speech", Communications and the Law, 19 (3), The term 'Comstockery,' supposedly invented by George Bernard Shaw in 1905 when Comstock removed his play 'Man and Superman' from the public shelves at the New York Public Library, in fact first appeared as the title for a Times editorial in December 1895 .
  5. ^ Schlosser, Eric, Reefer Madness, p. 120 .
  6. ^ Morgan, Garner, History (1870 – Present), Central Presbyterian Church, retrieved February 18, 2011, Interestingly, Summit from about 1880 to 1915 was the home of Anthony Comstock, world-famous crusader against immorality, real and imagined. 
  7. ^ Gray, Christopher (May 27, 2001), "Streetscapes/35 Beekman Road, Summit, NJ; 1892 House Built by a Famous Crusader Against Vice", The New York Times, retrieved February 18, 2011 .
  8. ^ Abbott, Karen. "Madame Restell: The Abortionist of Fifth Avenue". Smithsonian. Retrieved 2016-02-22. 
  9. ^ "The hypocrites' club Now with a new diamond-level member". The Economist. 13 March 2008th.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  10. ^ de Grazia, Edward, Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 5 .
  11. ^ IMDB. "Choices of the Heart: The Margaret Sanger Story". Retrieved August 29, 2011. 
  12. ^ Manning, Kate (2013). My notorious life : a novel (1st Scribner hardcover ed.). New York: Scribner. ISBN 978-1-4516-9806-0. 
  13. ^ Donati, Sara (2015). The Gilded Hour. Berkley. ISBN 978-0-425-27181-0. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Bates, Anna (1995), Weeder in the Garden of the Lord: Anthony Comstock's Life and Career, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, ISBN 0-7618-0076-X .
  • Beisel, Nicola (1997), Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America, Princeton: Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-02779-X .
  • Horowitz, Helen (2002), Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth Century America, New York: Knopf, ISBN 0-375-40192-X .
  • Tone, Andrea (2001), Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America, New York: Hill & Wang, ISBN 0-8090-3816-1 .
  • Trumbull, Charles Gallaudet (1913), Anthony Comstock, Fighter: Some Impressions of a Lifetime Adventure in Conflict with the Powers of Evil, New York: Fleming H. Revell company, ASIN B00086K1PK .
  • Dix, Scott Matthew (2013), Outlawed!: How Anthony Comstock Fought and Won the Purity of a Nation, ISBN 1935877968 .

External links[edit]