Anthony Comstock
Anthony Comstock was a United States Postal Inspector
United States Postal Inspection Service
The United States Postal Inspection Service is the law enforcement arm of the United States Postal Service. Its jurisdiction is defined as "crimes that may adversely affect or fraudulently use the U.S...

 and politician dedicated to ideas of Victorian morality
Victorian morality
Victorian morality is a distillation of the moral views of people living at the time of Queen Victoria's reign and of the moral climate of the United Kingdom throughout the 19th century in general, which contrasted greatly with the morality of the previous Georgian period...



Comstock was born in New Canaan, Connecticut
New Canaan, Connecticut
New Canaan is a town in Fairfield County, Connecticut, United States, northeast of Stamford, on the Fivemile River. The population was 19,738 according to the 2010 census.The town is one of the most affluent communities in the United States...

. As a young man, he enlisted and fought for the Union in the American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

 from 1863 to 1865 in Company H, 17th Connecticut Infantry. He served without incident, but objected to the profanity used by his fellow soldiers. Afterward he became an active worker in the Young Men's Christian Association
The Young Men's Christian Association is a worldwide organization of more than 45 million members from 125 national federations affiliated through the World Alliance of YMCAs...

 in New York City.

In 1873, Comstock created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice
New York Society for the Suppression of Vice
The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice was an institution dedicated to supervising the morality of the public, founded in 1873. Its specific mission was to monitor compliance with state laws and work with the courts and district attorneys in bringing offenders to justice. It and its...

, an institution dedicated to supervising the morality
Morality is the differentiation among intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good and bad . A moral code is a system of morality and a moral is any one practice or teaching within a moral code...

 of the public. Later that year, Comstock successfully influenced the United States Congress to pass the Comstock Law
Comstock Law
The Comstock Act, , enacted March 3, 1873, was a United States federal law which amended the Post Office Act and made it illegal to send any "obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious" materials through the mail, including contraceptive devices and information. In addition to banning contraceptives, this...

, which made illegal the delivery or transportation of both "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" material as well as any methods of, or information pertaining to, birth control
Birth control
Birth control is an umbrella term for several techniques and methods used to prevent fertilization or to interrupt pregnancy at various stages. Birth control techniques and methods include contraception , contragestion and abortion...

. George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw was an Irish playwright and a co-founder of the London School of Economics. Although his first profitable writing was music and literary criticism, in which capacity he wrote many highly articulate pieces of journalism, his main talent was for drama, and he wrote more than 60...

 used the term "comstockery", meaning "censorship because of perceived obscenity or immorality", after Comstock alerted the New York police to the content of Shaw's play Mrs. Warren's Profession
Mrs. Warren's Profession
Mrs Warren's Profession is a play written by George Bernard Shaw in 1893. The story centers on the relationship between Mrs Kitty Warren, a brothel owner, described by the author as "on the whole, a genial and fairly presentable old blackguard of a woman" and her daughter, Vivie...

. 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." The term comstockery was actually first coined in an editorial in The New York Times
The New York Times
The New York Times is an American daily newspaper founded and continuously published in New York City since 1851. The New York Times has won 106 Pulitzer Prizes, the most of any news organization...

in 1895.

Comstock lived in Summit, New Jersey
Summit, New Jersey
Summit is a city in Union County, New Jersey, United States. At the 2010 United States Census, the city's population was 21,457. Summit had the 16th-highest per capita income in the state as of the 2000 Census....

 from 1880 to 1915. He built a house there in 1892 at 35 Beekman Road, where he died in 1915.

Comstock's ideas of what might be "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" were quite broad. During his time of greatest power, even some anatomy
Anatomy is a branch of biology and medicine that is the consideration of the structure of living things. It is a general term that includes human anatomy, animal anatomy , and plant anatomy...

A textbook or coursebook is a manual of instruction in any branch of study. Textbooks are produced according to the demands of educational institutions...

s were prohibited from being sent to medical students by the United States Postal Service
United States Postal Service
The United States Postal Service is an independent agency of the United States government responsible for providing postal service in the United States...


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 up to and including the right to carry a weapon. With this power he zealously prosecuted those he suspected of either public distribution of pornography
Pornography or porn is the explicit portrayal of sexual subject matter for the purposes of sexual arousal and erotic satisfaction.Pornography may use any of a variety of media, ranging from books, magazines, postcards, photos, sculpture, drawing, painting, animation, sound recording, film, video,...

 or commercial fraud
In criminal law, a fraud is an intentional deception made for personal gain or to damage another individual; the related adjective is fraudulent. The specific legal definition varies by legal jurisdiction. Fraud is a crime, and also a civil law violation...

. He was also involved in shutting down the Louisiana Lottery
Louisiana State Lottery Company
The Louisiana State Lottery Company was a private corporation that in the mid-19th century ran the Louisiana lottery. It was for a time the only legal lottery in the United States, and for much of that time had a very foul reputation as a swindle of the state and citizens and a repository of...

, the only legal lottery in the United States at the time, and notorious for corruption.

Comstock is also known for his opposition to Victoria Woodhull
Victoria Woodhull
Victoria Claflin Woodhull was an American leader of the woman's suffrage movement, an advocate of free love; together with her sister, the first women to operate a brokerage in Wall Street; the first women to start a weekly newspaper; an activist for women's rights and labor reforms and, in 1872,...

 and Tennessee Claflin, and those associated with them. The men's journal The Days' Doings had popularized lewd images of the sisters for three years and was instructed by its editor (while Comstock was present) to stop producing images of "lewd character". 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
Henry Ward Beecher
Henry Ward Beecher was a prominent Congregationalist clergyman, social reformer, abolitionist, and speaker in the mid to late 19th century...

 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.

Less fortunate was Ida Craddock
Ida Craddock
Ida C. Craddock was a 19th-century American advocate of free speech and women's rights.-Early life:Ida Craddock was born in Philadelphia; her father died when she was two years old...

, 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 claimed he drove fifteen persons to suicide in his "fight for the young". He was head vice-hunter of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice
New York Society for the Suppression of Vice
The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice was an institution dedicated to supervising the morality of the public, founded in 1873. Its specific mission was to monitor compliance with state laws and work with the courts and district attorneys in bringing offenders to justice. It and its...

. Comstock, the self-labeled "weeder in God's garden", arrested D. M. Bennett
D. M. Bennett
DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett was the founder and publisher of The Truth Seeker, a radical freethought and reform American periodical. Bennett was a devout member of the Shakers for 13 years before evolving into a "freethinker", founding The Truth Seeker newspaper in 1873...

 for publishing his "An Open Letter to Jesus Christ" and later entrapped the editor for mailing a free-love pamphlet. Bennett was prosecuted, subjected to a widely publicized trial, and imprisoned in the Albany Penitentiary.

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
J. Edgar Hoover
John Edgar Hoover was the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation of the United States. Appointed director of the Bureau of Investigation—predecessor to the FBI—in 1924, he was instrumental in founding the FBI in 1935, where he remained director until his death in 1972...

, interested in his causes and methods.

During his career, Comstock clashed with Emma Goldman
Emma Goldman
Emma Goldman was an anarchist known for her political activism, writing and speeches. She played a pivotal role in the development of anarchist political philosophy in North America and Europe in the first half of the twentieth century....

 and Margaret Sanger
Margaret Sanger
Margaret Higgins Sanger was an American sex educator, nurse, and birth control activist. Sanger coined the term birth control, opened the first birth control clinic in the United States, and established Planned Parenthood...

. In her autobiography, Goldman referred to Comstock as the leader of America's "moral eunuch
A eunuch is a person born male most commonly castrated, typically early enough in his life for this change to have major hormonal consequences...

s". 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. Comstock boasted that he was responsible for 4,000 arrests.

A biography of Comstock written in 1927, "Anthony Comstock: Roundsman Of The Lord" by Heywood Broun
Heywood Broun
Heywood Campbell Broun, Jr. was an American journalist. He worked as a sportswriter, newspaper columnist, and editor in New York City. He founded the American Newspaper Guild, now known as The Newspaper Guild. Born in Brooklyn, New York, he is best remembered for his writing on social issues and...

 and Margaret Leech
Margaret Leech
Margaret Kernochan Leech also known as Margaret Pulitzer, was an American author and historian, who won two Pulitzer Prizes in history, for her books Reveille in Washington and In the Days of McKinley .She was born in Newburgh, New York, obtained a B.A...

 of the Algonquin Round Table
Algonquin Round Table
The Algonquin Round Table was a celebrated group of New York City writers, critics, actors and wits. Gathering initially as part of a practical joke, members of "The Vicious Circle", as they dubbed themselves, met for lunch each day at the Algonquin Hotel from 1919 until roughly 1929...

 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.

Contemporary Bibliography

  • Anna Bates: Weeder in the Garden of the Lord: Anthony Comstock's Life and Career: Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America: 1995: ISBN 076180076X
  • Nicola Beisel: Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America: Princeton: Princeton University Press: 1997: ISBN 069102779X
  • Helen Horowitz: Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth Century America: New York: Knopf: 2002: ISBN 037540192X
  • Andrea Tone: Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America, New York: Hill and Wang, 2001. ISBN 0809038161

See also

  • Birth control movement in the United States
    Birth control movement in the United States
    The birth control movement in the United States was a social reform campaign to make contraception legal in America. The movement began in 1914 when a group of radicals in New York City, led by Emma Goldman, Mary Dennett, and Margaret Sanger, became concerned about the plight of poor women, who...

  • Comstock Act
  • New York Society for the Suppression of Vice
    New York Society for the Suppression of Vice
    The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice was an institution dedicated to supervising the morality of the public, founded in 1873. Its specific mission was to monitor compliance with state laws and work with the courts and district attorneys in bringing offenders to justice. It and its...

  • Jack Thompson (activist)

External links

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