21st-Century Comstockery: Does History Repeat Itself?

BY DAVID ROSEN

Photograph Source: The symbol of Comstock’s New York Society for the Suppression of Vice – Public Domain

Marx once observed, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” One can only wonder if history repeats itself a third time will it be as vengeance?

Today, the U.S. is witnessing a third repeat of a long-fought morality war, this one being played out not only at the Supreme Court but in local and state legislations throughout the country. It involves abortion and gun ownership as well as a host of other “culture war” issues, including immigration, racial equality, voting rights, gay/trans rights, “critical race theory” and censorship at schools and libraries.

Today’s struggle may be considered the third battle over moral values during America’s “modern” and “postmodern” eras – this one marked by vengeance. The second battle took place during the post-WW-II period and involved struggles over dissent (i.e., “communism”) and immorality, including pornography, comic books (dubbed “Marijuana of the nursery”) and illicit sexuality, including prostitution, homosexuality and s&m/leather fetishes. Often forgotten, the nation’s first modern morality war took place in the post-Civil War era and culminated with the passage of the Comstock Act in 1873.

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In 1868, just three years after the Civil War ended, the New York legislature passed what legal scholar Elizabeth Hovey describes as the state’s “first obscenity statute.” It was an incredibly broad law to suppress what was described as obscene materials. It included all materials and devices that dealt with conception, birth control and other sexual matters, be they medical or erotic.

The statute was actively promoted by the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and one of its members was Anthony Comstock (1844-1915). Born to a prosperous farmer family in New Canaan, CT, he was a devout Congregationalist. While serving in the Union Army, Comstock was stationed in Florida and was active in what was known as the “Christian Commission” that supported the war effort and advocated against the use of tobacco, alcohol, gambling and atheism.

According to one account, “In 1868, a close friend of Comstock’s was led down the path of moral decay by reading obscene materials. Comstock went on the offensive and with the help of the YMCA he began vice hunting.”’

One of America’s great post-Civil War matchups pitted the country’s leading moral crusader, Comstock, against two indomitable free-love and free-speech advocates, the sisters Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin. Woodhull was an advocate for the end to traditional, patriarchal marriage and Thomas Nast, the great 19th century illustrator, dubbed her “Mrs. Satan.” Their publication, the Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, generated a national stir with its frank discussions of forbidden topics like women’s suffrage, prostitution, sex education and short skirts. In 1872 Woodhull ran for president of the United States on behalf of the Equal Rights Party; the party drafted Frederick Douglass for vice president.

The showdown between Comstock and the Woodhull-Claflin sisters occurred when the women published a story about an illicit sexual relation involving the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. He was one of America’s leading theologians, bishop at Brooklyn’s Plymouth Congregational Church and served a role analogous to that played by Jim Bakker in the 1980s and Ted Haggard in the early-2000s.

In 1872, the Weekly exposed the details of an affair between the good pastor and one of his parishioners, Mrs. Elizabeth Tilton. Comstock had the sisters arrested, not because of Rev. Beecher’s hypocrisy, but because information about his dastardly deeds was available for everyone to read. Both New York and federal authorities charged them with circulating obscene materials.

At their trial, the sisters were acquitted when the judge noted that the original New York obscenity law did not cover newspapers. After more than a year of legal wrangling in which the sisters were repeatedly imprisoned, Woodhull and Claflin were set free, their lives ruined and the obscenity loophole closed.

In 1873, the Christian morality movement was strong enough to have the U.S. Congress enact what became popularly known as the Comstock Act, legislation that stands as the most sweeping, omnibus anti-obscenity law in American history. The laws, in effect, extended New York State prohibitions to all interstate commerce and communications.

The Comstock Act covered nearly every form of exchange then known or anticipated:

… no obscene, lewd, or lascivious book, pamphlet, picture, paper, print, or other publication of an indecent character, or any article or thing designed or intended for the prevention of conception or procuring of abortion, nor any article or thing intended or adapted for any indecent or immoral use or nature, nor any written or printed card, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement or notice or any kind giving information, directly or indirectly, where, or how, or of whom, or by what means either of the thing before mentioned may be obtained or made, nor any letter upon the envelope of which, or post-card upon which indecent or scurrilous epithets may be written or printed, shall be carried in the mail …

Comstock was appointed a special officer of the U.S. postal system and given the power to seize what he labeled as obscene materials as well as arrest those he identified as pornographers.

The law was so effective that within the first six months of passage, Comstock boasted that it led to the seizure of 194,000 pictures and photographs, 14,200 stereopticon plates and 134,000 pounds of books and other media. In the 1910s near the end of his life, Comstock claimed that he had destroyed 3,984,063 photographs and 160 tons of “obscene” literature.

The Comstock law would remain in force until the mid-1930s, when the Supreme Court partially reversed its coverage of medical and scientific materials. It would take another three decades until literature and art were given comparable freedom. As late as 1962, the “liberal” Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, relied on the law in his victorious censorship battle against Ralph Ginsburg and Eros magazine.

In 1877, Comstock arrested Ezra Heywood for publishing Cupid’s Yokes, or, The Binding Forces of Conjugal Life. It was an attack on traditional marriage and Comstock’s repressive campaign. Heywood was convicted but Pres. Rutherford B. Hayes intervened and pardoning him in 1878. After his pardon, Heywood continued to challenge conventional moral standards.

In the 1880s, Heywood was again arrested for publishing an obscene mailing—and again found innocent. Comstock’s obsession intensified, arresting Heywood three more times. In 1890, Heywood was finally convicted for publishing a discussion of oral-genital sex. At age sixty-one, he was sentenced to two years of hard labor and forced to serve his full sentence. A broken man, he died shortly after his release.

Comstock claimed he never read more than forty lines of Walt Whitman. Nevertheless, the censor was obsessed by the poet’s erotic sensibility. In 1881, while he was persecuting Heywood, Comstock assisted Boston District Attorney Oliver Stevens in an effort to suppress the publication of Leaves of Grass by the Boston publisher, James R. Osgood & Co. Aided by the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice, Stevens formally requested that Osgood edit the manuscript, removing what he—and Comstock—considered obscene passages.

Comstock bragged that he had personally intervened to force Whitman out of his position at the Department of Interior during the Civil War. Ironically, Leaves had been originally published in 1855, twenty-eight years earlier. Osgood requested changes from Whitman, who refused. Osgood pulled the book; America’s greatest work of verse was suppressed.

The suppression of Leaves of Grass precipitated a fierce national scandal over freedom of expression. While many among “better” society shared Comstock’s concerns about vice, they had second thoughts because it was Whitman. He was the author of “Oh Captain, My Captain,” the nation’s great ode to the fallen Lincoln, a figure who remained part of the living memory of many. Like Einstein a century later, Whitman symbolized wisdom and humility. Charges against Leaves were ultimately dropped, as part of one of Heywood’s not-guilty decisions.

During the post-Civil War era, numerous moral reformers took up the morality wars. In 1873, Comstock founded his own group, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV); E. T. Gerry’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) was founded in 1875; the Society for the Prevention of Crime (SPC) was founded by Howard Crosby, minister of the Fourth Avenue Presbyterian Church in 1878, Charles Parkhurst became the group’s president in 1891; Rev. Benjamin DeCosta established the White Cross Society promoting purity (i.e., sexual abstinence) until marriage in 1884; Parkhurst’s City Vigilance League was founded in 1893; and the Committee of Seventy was established in 1894 by Cornelius Vanderbilt and William E. Dodge.

Comstock’s last battle was over birth control, targeting the activists Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger. In the early-1910s, they worked together providing women with birth-control information. Sanger founded the monthly publication The Woman Rebel, that included birth control information. In 1913, she was indicted under the Comstock Law for mailing obscene materials and, to avoid arrest, fled to Europe.

Sanger returned to New York 1915 and, the following year, her husband, William Sanger, was arrested for distributing a pamphlet, “Family Limitation,” written by Margaret. She went on trial in 1916 and among those who attended were Alexander Berkman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Carlos Tresca, turning it into a national forum on birth control. She was acquitted in part due to the death of her daughter from pneumonia. Sanger, together with her sister, Ethel Byrne, a registered nurse, opened the nation’s first birth control clinic in the U.S. on October 16, 1916, in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

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Comstock and his fellow moral crusaders represented a new generation of American Puritans. They fought against prostitution and “white slavery,” obscene literature and birth control, race mixing, homosexuality and alcohol consumption. And they achieved notable successes; for example, Parkhurst’s battle against vice and corruption culminated in the establishment of the New York State Lexow Committee in 1894 to investigate police corruption.

The Comstockian crusaders efforts signaled a shift in the nation’s belief system, the transition from “suasion” to “regulation.” Traditionally, ministers believed that the power of belief — of being able to convince someone to be a better, God-fearing person — could change a person’s unacceptable behavior. However, belief was giving way to one in which Christian conservatives – following Comstock – increasingly sought to use the power of the state to enforce moral order, whether involving unacceptable practices, products or expressions.

Their efforts led to the passage of the Mann Act (1910) barring interstate sexual commerce; the 18th Amendment prohibiting the manufacture, importation, distribution and sale of alcohol products; and the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, thus – as male moralists expected — adding female, white, conservatives to the electorate. Their efforts were a heroic campaign that proved an historic failure; one can only hope the same fate awaits today’s conservative culture worriers.

A surprise to many – and quite an historical irony — burlesque made its U.S. debut in New York City in 1868, the same year that New York State adopted its first anti-obscenity laws. On the evening of September 28th, British star Lydia Thompson took to the stage of George Wood’s Broadway Theatre to perform in Ixion.

The 800-seat house was sold out and the audience was delighted, according to a New York Times report, by a star “of the purest type, saucy, blue-eyed, golden-haired and of elegant figure.” The production included the dancing of the cancan, only recently introduced in Paris, and “jigs, hornpipes, and parodies of minstrel show numbers.” Thompson was a national sensation and, almost single-handedly, instituted a new, popular art form that competed with traditional legitimate theatre.

Morality wars have long pitted crusaders for virtue against the practitioners of the illicit, vice — and long defined the changing character of sexualized social life in America. In the good-old-days of the Puritans, two offenses were most upsetting: bestiality involving young men and sexual witchcraft among older women. Today, take your pick from an ever-growing list local and state rules, laws, ordinances and directives seeking to – yet again – restrict erotic life, of how people live, love and reproduce.

Marx observed, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” The Comstock era could be defined by “tragedy,” the end of the pre-industrial confronting an increasingly urban, manufacturing and monopoly-capital driven new world order. The post-WW-II/Cold War era of the “American Dream,” represented by the ever-increasing popularity of porn. This was facilitated by an increasingly more sexualized media and popular culture. It was a pathetic “farce,” with the forces of yesterday’s moral order but a thumb in the dyke of a market-economy driven nation. This era saw capitalism eroticize the marketplace.

And today? One can only wonder if history is repeating itself, but this — the third time — as vengeance? Does the failed January 6th insurrection; the increase in mass killings, especially by young race nationalists and apparently unhappy, troubled men; the far-right turn of the Supreme Court; increased global instability; and deepening economic insecurity represent signs of the early phase of an era of vengeance? Are we witnessing a return of a new generation Comstockian moralists with more power to implement a program of vengeance? Stay tuned.

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