No. 522
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
May 17, 2021

Comstockery.

Anthony Comstock was on a personal mission to protect America from vice.
May 1, 2012
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The following tale comes from that classic collection of mostly first-hand accounts of supernatural encounters, "Lord Halifax's Ghost Book."  It was related to Lord Halifax in 1920 by his nephew, Charles Dundas.  Dundas had recently heard the tale from a renowned Royal Air Force pilot named Edward Villiers.  (Later Sir Edward Villiers.)  It is one of the briefest stories in the "Ghost Book," but
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Strange Company - 5/17/2021

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LOOK OUT FOR "SOAPY" SMITHSt. Louis DispatchSeptember 23, 1897(Click image to enlarge) e reported himself in good health and money."   New information showing that Soapy Smith did go to St. Louis to check up on his ailing wife, Mary, after leaving Skagway.  Below is the transcription of the article from the St. Louis Dispatch, September 23, 1897. LOOK OUT FOR “SOAPY” SMITH ― The Smooth Man
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 5/11/2021

Born in 1870 and completed 13 years later (at a cost of $15 million and with more than 20 worker deaths), the Brooklyn Bridge is marking its 138th birthday this week. What better way to honor an icon than with a brilliant lithograph produced by a Pearl Street publisher depicting the fireworks, ship parade, and […]
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Ephemeral New York - 5/17/2021
Youth With Executioner by Nuremberg native Albrecht Dürer … although it’s dated to 1493, which was during a period of several years when Dürer worked abroad. November 13 [1617]. Burnt alive here a miller of Manberna, who however was lately engaged as a carrier of wine, because he and his brother, with the help of […]
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Executed Today - 11/13/2020
The crack of gunfire startled the residents of 88 Merrimack Street, a boarding house in Lowell, Massachusetts, around 10:00, the night of  August 31, 1876. The boarders rushed to Lulu Martin’s room on the third floor, where the shot was fired. The door was locked; they heard a man inside shouting, “Go for the police! She has shot me! I will hold her! Break open the door!”A group of men broke in
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Murder By Gaslight - 5/15/2021

Along with Bertie Whitehead, Abby’s half-sister, May 13th was also the birthday of Helen Craig, famous stage actress best-remembered for Johnny Belinda. Helen Craig, who played Abby in The Legend of Lizzie Borden was born May 13, 1912, a month after Titanic sank. Helen Craig was not a great beauty by Hollywood standards, but a very fine actress. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0185871/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1 Her portrayal of Abby Borden as a mean, greedy glutton, more than any other thing, has affected the way most people think of Abby Borden. Sadly it was not an accurate portrayal. Helen did some television in her later career, most notably The Waltons. She died in New York City in 1986. She was married to stage and film actor John Beal who played Dr. Bowen in Legend of Lizzie Borden. They are seen together in the publicity photo below.
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Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 5/13/2021
[Editor’s note: Guest writer, Peter Dickson, lives in West Sussex, England and has been working with microfilm copies of The Duncan Campbell Papers from the State Library of NSW, Sydney, Australia. The following are some of his analyses of what he has discovered from reading these papers. Dickson has contributed many transcriptions to the Jamaica Family […]
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Early American Crime - 2/7/2019
Saloons and Houses of Ill-Fame. | Melancholy Boat Accident.

Comstockery.

Anthony Comstock, founder of The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, was on a personal mission to protect America’s youth from any art or literature which he deemed objectionable. His name became so tightly bound to the war on smut that one of Comstock’s famous targets, George Bernard Shaw, named this peculiarly American censorship crusade, “Comstockery.”

comstock Anthony Comstock

Comstock first became interested in dirty books in1868 after a friend of his contracted a venereal disease from a visit to a brothel.  Comstock believed that his friend’s moral downfall had begun with the purchase of an obscene book. He paid a visit to the bookseller, purchased and obscene book himself, then reported the transaction to the police and had the seller arrested.

NYSSV NYSSV

Comstock repeated this operation in bookstores throughout New York City and in 1872 he got the attention of the Young Men’s Christian Association, whose Committee for the Suppression of Vice was perusing an anti-smut campaign of its own. The committee funded Comstock’s crusade and eventually became an independent organization, New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, with Comstock as its head. The NYSSV became a quasi-official law enforcement organization and under its aegis, Comstock arrested at least three thousand people for obscenity.

The campaign was begun to protect American youth from the corrupting influence of lower-class pornography, but Comstock soon realized that some literary classics also contained corrupting influences. He expanded his campaign against smut to include authors such as Ovid, Boccaccio, and Walt Whitman. When it became clear that not all of Comstock’s financial backers would agree to the banning of classics, Comstock explained that it was not the works, per se, that were objectionable, but how they were presented to the public, saying:

“These works, heretofore carefully concealed from public view, and kept by booksellers only to meet what some consider the legitimate demand of the student, or gentlemen’s library, are now advertised and sold by certain parties as “rich, rare, and racy” books, “amorous adventures,” “spicy descriptions,” “love intrigues on the sly,” etc.”

Nude-Art

Comstock had a similar approach to the visual arts: he did not object to elite society viewing nude paintings in the context of a museum, but when a gallery began selling photographic reproductions of nude paintings to the masses, he shut them down.

In 1873 Comstock and his organization sponsored a set of federal laws—commonly known as the “Comstock Laws”—which made it a federal crime to send “obscene, nude or lascivious” material through the U. S. Mail. This included information about birth control and abortion. Anthony Comstock was appointed a special agent of the Post Office to enforce the laws.

While publications like The National Police Gazette still routinely ran advertisements for racy pictures, abortifacients, and rubber goods (condoms), Comstock claimed to have seized 130,000 pounds of books, 194,000 “bad” pictures, 5,500 indecent playing cards, and 3,150 pills and powders used by abortionists, in the first year alone.

Comstock2

Expanding the campaign to include birth control and abortion set him against a whole new class of notorious opponents. Pretending to be seeking birth control information for his wife, Comstock entrapped Madame Restell, New York’s most infamous abortionist. While out on bail she committed suicide by cutting her throat. He brought legal proceedings against George Bernard Shaw and got the city of New York to ban Margaret Sanger’s work on family planning. When free love advocate, Victoria Woodhull, published a story charging Reverend Henry Ward Beecher with adultery, Comstock had her arrested. Woodhull, who at the time was the presidential candidate for the short-lived Equal Rights Party, had to spend Election Day in jail.

Comstock fought his last battle in San Francisco while attending the International Purity Congress. He initiated prosecution against a San Francisco department store for dressing nude mannequins in the store window in public view. He lost the case and never recovered from the ridicule that it generated.

Though Anthony Comstock died in 1915, his laws lived on. The Comstock Laws were not fully repealed until the 1990s.

 

  


Sources:

 

  • Beisel, Nicola Kay. Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and family reproduction in Victorian America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.
  • Miller, Neil. Banned in Boston: the Watch and Ward Society's crusade against books, burlesque, and the social evil. Boston: Beacon Press, 2010.
  • Sante, Luc. Low life: lures and snares of old New York. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1991.