Sunday, December 9, 2012

37. God's Agent and the Hydra-Headed Monster

         New York City, mid-1870s:

         BAM  BAM  BAM.  His hard fist smote the door.

         “Open up in the name of the Law!” he yelled.

         From within, whispers, scurryings.  CRACK.  Smashed by his black boot, the door splintered, collapsed.  Lunging through with warrants in one hand, a revolver in the other, his badge agleam on his breast, the Special Agent of the Post Office and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice barked out: “Arrest those men!  Impound all smut as evidence!”

         From behind him, bluecoats rushed to obey.  Within minutes the prisoners had been led out manacled, and a printing press and tons of print carted off: another smut den closed.

         For a year the Special Agent, in drab black over stiff white over perennial red flannel underwear (his only dash of color), had crisscrossed the nation by rail, his pockets laden with handcuffs for miscreants, and cheap rubber toys for little children, whose innocence he treasured.  Caned by an abortionist, pommeled by an ex-pugilist, and stabbed in the face by a smut dealer at his third arrest, he had clapped them all in jail.

         In rare quiet moments, nursing bruises or a severed artery, he sat at his desk writing speeches for Purity Leagues, or letters to abortionists tempting them, in a small, neat script with flourishes and signed with a ladylike name, toward offenses by mail that if committed brought immediate arrest.

         In January 1874 he read his first confidential report to the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, a distinguished assembly of merchants, doctors, lawyers, and judges, itemizing his seizures in the past year:

130,000 lbs. of bound books.
194,000 bad pictures and photographs.
  60,300 articles made of rubber for immoral purposes, 
  and used by both sexes.
    5,500 indecent playing cards.
    3,150 boxes of pills and powders used by abortionists.
130,275 advertising circulars, catalogues, handbills, 
and songs.
    4,750 newspapers containing improper advertisements, 
    or other matter.
  20,000 letters from various parts of the United States 
  ordering improper articles.
  22,000 names of persons throughout the United States, 
  catalogued and sold to dealers in bad literature, as 
  persons likely upon receipt of circulars, etc., to 
  send orders.

         Of the 106 persons arrested, 37 had pleaded guilty or been convicted, 3 had been acquitted, 9 had been discharged, 9 had absconded, and 48 were awaiting trial.  The report then added tellingly:  “Three publishers, one manufacturer, one abortionist, one expressman, and one prisoner in jail, or a total of seven, have died since April, 1872” – statistics that the report’s author would attribute to divine intervention.  He then reported sentences imposed totaling 24 years and 1 month, and fines totaling $9,250.  He himself had traveled 23,500 miles by rail.  To which he added, “This work has just begun.”

         Such were the doings of Anthony Comstock early in his long career.  The smut dealers of Ann and Nassau Streets, who, long tolerated by the police, were used to displaying their wares openly, had come to know only too well this bullnecked, stocky man, dressed habitually in boiler black, his muttonchop whiskers yellow-brown in color, his hair thinning, his eyes bright with the hot blue gaze of conviction.  One after another he had approached them, bought their wares, and then immediately had them arrested, following which he began attacking the sources of those wares. 

         To few of us is it given to live out in real life, and repeatedly, our most cherished fantasies.  But Anthony Comstock, in battering down the doors of smut dens and having all the inmates arrested and their wares confiscated, was doing exactly that.  He saw his endeavors as heroic, and himself as a lone crusader fighting the armies of evil: a pose worthy of the heroes of the dime-novel adventure stories that the growing boys of the time read eagerly – novels that Comstock denounced as a species of obscenity.  But who was Anthony Comstock (1844-1915), and what had brought him to this unique vocation?  The story has been told many times (google him and you’ll see) with various shades of bias, so I’ll just discuss the start of his career.

         “Every day something for Jesus,” his diary read for New Year’s.  A farm boy from Connecticut, Comstock remembered from his earliest years shoveling through snowdrifts to get the family wagon to church, where a full day of sermons and services portrayed sinners scorched by the crackle of hellfire – a vision he would never forget.  Coming to the city to get a job in dry goods, he had been assailed on every side by gambling and billiard dens, dime novel stands, dance halls, rumholes, theaters (those sinks of sin), and the brazen tasseled legs of hussies in saloons (he may have peeked, but certainly didn’t go in).  “O make me pure!” he prayed to his stark Connecticut God, and wrote in his diary, “Tempted by Satan, did not yeild.”  (Spelling was never his strong point.)  But worse than billiards and drink, cards, faro, oyster suppers, and the Cyprians of Broadway in corrupting young men from the boarding houses, were vile books sleek with smut thrust at them by peddlers and the grimy hands of bookdealers in full view and knowledge of the Law.   

         All his life this moral crusader was obsessed with pornography.  There was little poetry in his soul, but when he described the perils imposed by smut, his imagination kindled.  Just listen to this description in his book Traps for the Young:

This moral vulture steals upon our youth in the home, school, and college, silently striking its terrible talons into their vitals, and forcibly bearing them away on hideous wings to shame and death.  Like a cancer, it fastens itself upon the imagination, and sends down into the future life thousands of roots, poisoning the nature, enervating the system, destroying self-respect….  It is honeycombing society.  Like a frightful monster, it stands peeping over the sleeping child to catch its first thoughts on awakening.

Elsewhere he describes pornography as an invisible malaria, a canker worm, a leprosy secretly wasting society.  Could anyone write so vividly, so luridly, without having experienced these perils himself?

Porn in the Mail
Senders (left); the mail system (center); a furtive recipient (right)

         To fight this insidious plague, he wrote to a group of high-principled and moneyed Christian laymen affiliated with the YMCA; a conference resulted.  Appearing before this phalanx of respectables, his upper lip drawn taut, his blue eyes bright with fervor, he probably told them a favorite tale from his youth.  At eighteen, clerking in a store in Connecticut, he had learned that a mad dog was loose in the streets, a threat to every child in the village.  At once he kneeled, prayed to He Who All Sustaineth, then took a gun, went out alone (all his friends hung back), confronted the snarling mastiff, aimed, shot it dead.  To protect the youth in this city plagued with lewdness, could not he and the gentlemen join together and by legal, forceful means shoot dead the slimy-tentacled, hydra-headed monster of obscenity?  (Yes, he often used such imagery.  A bit phallic, I think -- a notion that would have dismayed, or more likely infuriated, this tireless crusader.)

         The gentlemen had emphatically agreed.  Not only did they support his efforts locally, but in January 1873 they sent him to Washington to lobby for stiffer federal legislation to ban obscenity from the mails.  At the Capitol he met with senators and representatives (few of them, in his opinion, fit models for youth), showing them books, postcards, circulars, and immoral rubber articles seized in his raids.  Confronted with The Lustful Turk, A Peep into a Female Seminary, and The Frisky Song Book, the solons of Washington were duly shocked and set about drafting a bill.  Annoyed by the inevitable legislative delays, in February Comstock wrote ten New York State abortionists, purporting to be a poor seduced Treasury clerk begging them to send her "something that will relieve me."  Attending a reception at the White House, he was scandalized by the low-cut dresses of the women.  Further delays caused him to verge on despair.  With Congress about to adjourn, his diary tells how he was so troubled that he could not say, "Thy will be done," and went to bed beset by the Devil.  Then, the next day, a Sunday, he managed to humble himself in prayer and found peace.  That afternoon the chaplain of the Senate informed him that, in a feverish last-minute session, Congress had indeed passed the bill.  His diary records the joy in his soul.  

        When signed by President Grant on March 3, 1873, the bill became the law of the land.  Soon known as the Comstock law, it banned from the mail all obscene matter, including specifically “any article or thing designed or intended for the prevention of conception or procuring of abortion.”  By mid-April abortionists in New York and Albany were being arrested for sending ads and articles for abortion through the mail; in every case Comstock was the witness.

         With the passage of this bill, which was strictly enforced well into the twentieth century, the federal government became a censor of the mails, and standard medical treatises could no longer be mailed until certain illustrations were purged from their pages.  Soon afterward Comstock was appointed a special agent of the post office, in which capacity – at his own request, without pay – he could now pursue malefactors nationwide.  His original YMCA backers – decorous churchmen who shunned publicity – were dismayed to find they had a tiger by the tail, and he in turn was annoyed by their finicky discretion.  The situation was soon remedied to the 

Symbol of the Society
satisfaction of all when, in May 1873, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice was founded, with Comstock as agent and secretary.  Hungry for attention as well as for action, the tiger could now range freely throughout the country with warrants and handcuffs in his pockets, and leg irons in his luggage, spreading fear and dismay into the ranks of pornographers, abortionists, quacks, publishers, medical writers, “free lusters” and “infidels,” and purveyors of syringes (which, after all, could be used to procure abortion).  Let Satan’s empire quake!

           On weekends he returned to Brooklyn and the quiet woman ten years his elder whom he called with affection “little Wifey,” a tidy homemaker, small and slight, self-effacing, pale as a pressed rose.  On the piano in the parlor stood a tintype of a lovely young girl; when visitors asked who it was, Meg replied, smiling faintly, “Why, it used to be taken for me.”  Of his work he told her little, deeming it unfit for a lady's ears.  When her Tony returned from battle she gasped at his cuts and bruises, proclaimed him a “dear, sweet boy,” nursed him tenderly; he relished it.  Recovering, he brought her a basket of flowers to provoke the soft laugh that delighted him, then escorted her to picnics and church.  Whatever happened between them in the stealth of night, there was surely no mention of it by day, as was often the case in those Victorian times.

Comstock in his later years

         Such was Anthony Comstock at the beginning of his long career, which lasted until his death in 1915.  In those early years he insisted that the “best” public opinion was behind him, and he was probably right.  But over time his zeal became excessive, and he decried milk-and-water Christians who shrank from the fight, as well as lazy prosecutors and lenient judges who failed to bring malefactors to justice.  As it became clear that he made no distinction between the shabby products of the lowest smut dens and legitimate literature and art, opinion about him changed.  He was pilloried in cartoons, and George Bernard Shaw created the term “comstockery,” which passed into the language.  My Second Webster’s Unabridged defines it as follows: “a Zealous prosecution of immorality in books, papers, and pictures.  b Hence, in a derogatory sense, prudery.”  Years later in the 1980s, when I was doing research for my biography of Madame Restell, he was generally regarded as a relic of another age, one who might be dismissed as a curmudgeonly buffoon, had he not been so dangerous. 

St. Anthony Comstock, the Village Nuisance, a 1906 Puck cartoon by Louis M. Glackens.
Portrayed as a monk, Comstock reacts to displays of flesh by women, horses, 

and dogs, bathes fully dressed, and, nude, is mocked by demons.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

         This, one might assume, is the final judgment on the man, but it isn’t.  Since then, the abortion wars have heated up considerably.  Recently, when I was googling Comstock to see what information was available online, I stumbled on the website of the Christian Coalition.  There, in a book review, Comstock is hailed as a forerunner and exemplary champion of the right-to-life movement, and a worthy foe of Margaret Sanger, the birth control activist who created the term “birth control” itself and founded what became Planned Parenthood.  No judgment, however seemingly universal, is definitive.

         We will meet Anthony Comstock again in future posts, probably in two or three weeks, when the irresistible force meets the immovable object.  If you look back to the New York of the 1870s and later, he is hard to avoid.

Source note:  There is lots about Comstock online, but for the most part I have used information in my biography The Wickedest Woman in New York: Madame Restell, the Abortionist (see the source note in post #35), and, supplementing that, the meticulous notes I took on the first five annual reports of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice; Comstock’s book Traps for the Young (1884); and the Society’s record of arrests for 1872-1884 in volume 2 of their records, now preserved in their entirety in the Library of Congress in Washington.  Personal information about him, including diary entries, comes from Charles Gallaudet Trumbull's Anthony Comstock, Fighter (1913), the earliest (and least objective) biography, sanctioned by Comstock and written with his help.  

(c) 2012  Clifford Browder

No comments:

Post a Comment