Anthony Comstock

The American antivice crusader Anthony Comstock (1844-1915) fought what he personally defined as immoral and obscene acts and publications. Though his crusades were somewhat fanatic, he did help clarify issues in civil liberties relating to art and free speech.

Anthony Comstock was born in New Canaan, Conn., the son of a well-to-do farmer. It has been conjectured that his deep love of his mother, who died when he was 10 years old, contributed to his intense morality. The powerful, stocky young man went to work in a general store. During the Civil War he enlisted and served without incident; he was concerned about moral fitness while in the service.

After the war Comstock became a clerk but found no fit outlet for his energies until 1868. Then, having settled in New York and inspired by activities of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), he secured the arrest of two purveyors of pornographic publications. One of them later attacked him with a bowie knife and inflicted a wound on his face, which Comstock hid under the whiskers that became his trademark.

In 1871 Comstock, with the aid of the YMCA, organized a committee to further his work. Two years later he conducted a successful campaign in Washington, D.C., for a strong Federal law (known popularly as the "Comstock Law") making illegal the transmission of obscene matter through the mails. He was appointed a postal inspector, serving without pay. In 1873 he organized the New York Society for the Prevention of Vice and made it a national symbol of tireless defense of traditional values.

In 1871 Comstock married Margaret Hamilton, a woman 10 years his senior. He was a dedicated husband and citizen. As an agent of the government and secretary of his society, Comstock was fearless and resourceful. He did patently useful work in tracking down, raiding, and prosecuting a wide variety of frauds who advertised false services, including abortions. In 1914 his annual report could note his arraignment over the years in state and Federal courts of some 3,697 persons, of whom 2,740 pleaded guilty or were convicted. Among these were a small number of persons of intelligence and moral fiber concerned for free speech or the right to disseminate knowledge respecting birth control.

But since Comstock's standards remained rigid, they became increasingly impractical. Thus in 1906 his attack, implemented by police, on the Art Students League of New York was not well regarded. Bernard Shaw's denunciation of "Comstockery" evoked considerable agreement. Comstock's 1913 crusade against an innocuous nude painting, Paul Chabas's September Morn, did nothing less than make it in reproduction a national sensation.

Comstock's last days were shadowed by reports that he was to lose his post as inspector and by his belief that he was the victim of a conspiracy. He died on Sept. 21, 1915.


Further Reading on Anthony Comstock

Anthony Comstock, Traps for the Young (1883), was edited, with an introduction, by Robert Bremmer in 1967. Charles Gallaudet Trumbull, Anthony Comstock, Fighter (1913), is a partisan account. Heywood Broun and Margaret Leech, Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord (1927), treats Comstock with sympathy and good humor.

Additional Biography Sources

Bates, Anna Louise, Weeder in the garden of the Lord: Anthony Comstock's life and career, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1995.