History: Comstock leads anti-obscenity crusade

Anthony Comtock, crusader for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and Special Agent of the U.S. Post OfficeAnthony Comstock was born in Connecticut in 1844, one of 10 children. He began his career as a dry goods clerk, but soon recognized his real passion when he witnessed his coworkers stealthily selling what he deemed to be obscene books and pictures. Comstock reported such suppliers to the police and began a lifelong crusade against vice. After poring over an 1866 survey conducted by the Young Men's Christian Association, which mentioned young New Yorker weaknesses for gambling, prostitution and detestable periodicals and books, Comstock in 1873 launched the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an extension of a committee from that group (Boyer 5). Vice societies around the country sprouted, including what became Boston's Watch and Ward Society, which helped created the meaning behind “Banned in Boston.” The societies pushed to have sellers of obscene material arrested under current statutes, but eventually found those regulations lacking.

Comstock then passionately lobbied for legislation barring the mailing of obscene matter. His efforts were rewarded with the passage of the bill, which read:

“Every obscene, lewd, lascivious, of filthy book, pamphlet, picture paper, letter, writing, print or other publication of an indecent character … is declared to be nonmailable matter and shall not be conveyed in the mails or delivered from any post office or by any letter carrier.

Whoever knowingly uses the mail for the mailing, carriage in the mails, or delivery of anything declared by this section to be nonmailable, or knowingly causes to be delivered by mail according to the direction thereon, or at the place at which it is directed to be delivered by the person to whom it is addressed, or knowingly takes any such thing from the mails for the purpose of circulating or disposing thereof, shall be fined not more than $5,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both, for the first such offense, and shall be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both, for each such offense thereafter” (Ernst, Schwartz 32).

With the passage of the “Comstock laws,” postal authorities were the new censors, and Anthony Comstock was a new postal employee. Appointed a special agent of the Post Office, Comstock instructed postal staff on procedure and confiscated objectionable mail. By January 1, 1874 , Comstock boasted of confiscating:

194,000 obscene pictures and photographs
134,000 pounds of books
14,200 stereo plates
60,300 rubber articles (likely contraceptives)
5,500 sets of playing cards
31,150 boxes of pills (likely aphrodisiacs) (33).

Status as a literary classic did not sway him from slapping on the obscenity label. He fought Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, Boccaccio's Decameron, Arabian Nights and Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. In an 1894 ruling, Justice O'Brien of the New York Supreme Court prophetically said after clearing the way for Tom Jones that “to condemn a standard literary work because of a few of its episodes would compel the exclusion from circulation of a very large proportion of the best classics” (NYT 6/22/1894). This was a novel declaration since the courts operated on the Hicklin model for judging obscenity. Hicklin was a case in England that determined that if any part of a work could be determined obscene, the entire piece is declared obscene. (This model persisted in the United States until the 1930s, when Judge John M. Woosley ruled on United States vs. One Book Entitled Ulysses.)

Such declarations did not stop Comstock or his colleagues from waging their battles. His counterparts in Boston continued their fight as well, claiming “as early as 1885 … that obscene books had been ‘substantially suppressed'” (Boyer 12). The Watch and Ward Society managed, through complaint, to have James R. Osgood, a publisher, cancel his contract to put forth a new edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (15).

Comstock died of pneumonia in 1915 at the age of 71. The New York Times seemed to connect his death to his crusade, claiming that “his illness was brought on by over-work and over-excitement, resulting from his fight to retain his position as a Post Office Inspector” (NYT 9/22/1915). The Times attributed to Comstock the “blanks [that] occur in the translated pages of 'Zola,' of Boccaccio, and of many modern ancient classics” and noted his fights against “lotteries, policy games, and the operations of the army of ‘green goods' swindlers, who are now but a memory.”

Comstock may have died, but his vision did not. Succeeding him at the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice was John S. Sumner, a capable crusader. Sumner led the Society into and through the tumultuous 1920s, disputing books like D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love. Sumner declared that his intentions to pass new censorship laws and lambasted print media of the ‘20s: “Look at the magazines. Look at their general character and listen to some of the titles in them—these so-called sex magazines: 'Patricia's Nightie,' 'Virtue's Leave of Absence,' 'Playthings of Passion,' Almost Innocent,' 'Wolves of Desire,' 'The Pink Silk Negligee' and 'Sex Is Trumps.' These things are put out for one purpose, and that is to appeal to the baser passions” (NYT 11/9/1924). Headlines in the Times reflected his success: “Seize 772 Books In Vice Crusade Raid” (7/12/1922) and “Seize 3,000 Books As Indecent Writing” (10/5/1929). He took his battle to the New York stage as well, taking aim at indecent plays. His group enjoyed much success during the ‘20s. It was not until 1933 that the vice societies felt substantial governmental backlash, and the seeds for that battle were lain in 1918.

Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap edited The Little Review, a slightly avant-garde journal that published prose, and in March 1918, the journal began to publish serially the latest work in progress by the Irish author James Joyce. When a chapter from the forthcoming Ulysses dubbed “Nausicaa” (which featured the protagonist Leopold Bloom masturbating on a beach) was published in the July-August issue of 1920, Sumner launched his attack. The issue at question was confiscated and burned. Sumner lodged an official complaint in the fall of 1920, and a trial began in February 1921. The editors were convicted and fined $50 apiece. Before Joyce had even finished writing the novel, the United States deemed Joyce's Ulysses as obscene. Sumner and his vice society won the first battle, but the 1930s would not be so gracious.