The Liberty to Argue Freely: 19th Century Prosecution of Free Thinker D.M. Bennett

By Roderick Bradford | September 2014
The Truth Seeker

D.M. Bennett’s 1879 “obscenity” trial was “one of the most important of the day,” the New York Sun reported. His conviction and imprisonment became a cause celebre for freethinkers and freedom of speech proponents. Robert Ingersoll met with President Rutherford Hayes and asked him to pardon “the poor old man.” The First Lady, who was known to have considerable influence over her husband, received “advice” from her pastor and a long petition from Sunday school children opposing a pardon. Bennett languished in the Albany Penitentiary.

The past has witnessed many brutal deeds done in the name of God, but it was reserved for the nineteenth century to witness in the freest land under the sun, one which, in infamy and refinement of cruelty, rivals them all. The Protestant Church has striven hard to make her record equal in blackness the Catholic, and at last she has succeeded.

Eugene Macdonald

After the solemn five-hour train ride from New York, D.M. Bennett, in the custody of a deputy marshal, took a carriage for the twenty-minute trip to the Albany Penitentiary located southwest of the city. The Albany Penitentiary, opened in 1846, had a dark history of overcrowding, water torture, and even death as a form of punishment. During the Civil War, the penitentiary held Confederate prisoners who fell victim to plague and were buried in the prison yard. Known to locals as the “castle on the hill,” the prison was home to about nine hundred inmates in the fall of 1879. “It looked as though it might be a college or some other institute of learning,” Bennett observed as they neared the bleak fortress sitting at the end of a wide tree-lined avenue. “But the lessons taught here are not pleasant to take.”

The new inmate’s first lesson in Albany Penitentiary was that it was a Christian institution. He was commanded to hand over the books, newspapers, and pamphlets that he brought and hoped to read during his incarceration. Confiscated were Greg’s Creed of Christendom, Christian and Deist, Supernatural Religion, pamphlets by Annie Besant, weekly papers, and copies of the Truth Seeker. When asked whether he was a Protestant or Catholic, he responded, “Neither.” The puzzled official inquired, “What are you, then, if you are neither a Protestant nor a Catholic?” Bennett declared, “I am an unbeliever, commonly called an Infidel, and that is why I am here.”

Bennett was again informed that the prison was a Christian institution and conducted upon Christian principles. After being shaved and having his hair cut close by the barber, the new inmate was issued prison garb and taken to his cell, where he was served his supper. “Having had no breakfast but two slices of toast and a cup of tea at the Ludlow Street Jail in Manhattan, and no dinner,” he confessed, “the slice of bread and molasses which was handed in for supper I ate with a fair relish.”

The next day the 60-year-old prisoner was taught how to march and was assigned to a special overseer who made him stand for hours facing “the corner of the room like a little criminal in school.” After suffering a few painful hours, the elderly prisoner asked the man if he could sit down. “Do as you are told!” he was instructed. Weighing nearly two hundred pounds and with a lame foot from a childhood accident, he complained to the overseer who told him that he would “have to put up with it.” Later that day Bennett was assigned a job in the shoemaking shop where for the first two days he had to stand for the duration of his shift. Only after his feet became inflamed and blistered was he allowed a stool. Because of his bad eyesight he was given the task of applying cement to the soles of the shoes. Considering that he was sentenced to hard labor, the work was comparatively light he thought. “Perhaps Judge Benedict and Comstock had better look into it and see that I have harder labor to perform,” he wrote. “Perhaps Mrs. Hayes might be induced to lend her influence in that direction.”

The prisoner was held incommunicado for the first thirty days at the penitentiary. The earliest report to his friends and anxious readers about his status was from George Albert Lomas, an old fellow Shaker from New Lebanon. The Shaker elder and editor of the Shaker Manifesto, a monthly publication, was able to visit Bennett in the penitentiary as it was located only a few miles south of the Watervliet Shaker village. In a rare touching letter to the Truth Seeker, Lomas described his brief interview with the prisoner and reported “the old hero was in a most undaunted mood” and likely to remain so. Lomas reported that the prisoner’s uniform was “coarse but comfortable.” The Shaker was especially gratified that the outfit was not the traditional half black and half red, but all one color—Confederate gray. “But it was terrible to my feelings, when [Bennett] said, with deepest emotion: ‘You know Albert, I have not been used to being treated and spoken to like a dog.’”

Bennett was appreciative of the support he received from the Shakers and felt especially indebted to George Albert Lomas. In one of his letters from prison, printed in the Truth Seeker, he thanked the Shaker community and its leaders. And although he admittedly “fell from the faith” and became a “backslider,” the Shakers stood by him and he prized their friendship, constancy, and integrity. The Shaker’s undying support was not limited to only prison visits and letters to the Truth Seeker. Lomas went to Albany and met with one of the city’s most eminent attorneys who told him, “Bennett’s trial exhibited the most audacious proceedings for a court of justice; and no greater tyranny had been exercised since the days of Jeffreys.” Concurring with the attorney’s opinion, Lomas promised the readers of the Truth Seeker that he would continue his support for the editor, whom he called “an illustrious martyr, suffering from acts of the most devilish bigotry of our day.”

D.M. Bennett. Screenshot from Beloved Infidels (trailer about the founders).
D.M. Bennett. Screenshot from Beloved Infidels (trailer about the founders). A prolific and provocative writer, Bennett was vilified by religionists for denouncing Christianity, which he called “the greatest sham in the world”.

Elijah Myrick was another prominent Shaker who came to Bennett’s defense. A skilled craftsman, writer, businessman, and spiritual leader, Myrick was an outspoken liberal Shaker who was a respected elder and trustee. His forceful, compassionate letters from Ayer, Massachusetts, often appeared in both the Shaker Manifesto and the Truth Seeker. In a letter to Lomas dated August 14, 1879, Myrick expressed his concern about Bennett’s well-being. He inquired if Lomas was able to see the prisoner and wondered how the warden and officers were treating him. He instructed Lomas to influence them “to treat him kindly, as a noble human being which he is,” and added, “Who knows but some of us will be behind the bars?” Myrick’s letter, printed in the Manifesto under the heading, “The Inquisition,” also criticized the clergy, the God-in-the-constitution advocates, and Hayes. He expressed disdain for the “subsided” president “bowing reverently to the dictum of church authority.” He defended Bennett’s right to doubt and eloquently proclaimed, “It is not the ‘faithful believers’ that have advanced the world. History tells us it is to the doubters—the ‘infidels’—that the world owes the greatest debt of gratitude.”

Eugene Macdonald, the Truth Seeker’s acting editor, was also fiercely defending Dr. Bennett in the columns of the weekly. He informed readers that Anthony Comstock instigated the editor’s Watkins’ arrest. (The source of the information was the vice-hunter’s estranged and destitute father.) Eugene argued that Bennett was jailed because of his infidelism and that his pardon was denied because of Christian influence on a cowardly president who was afraid to pardon him. Yes, afraid is the word,” Eugene averred, “and just the word.”

On August 28, 1879, Eugene Macdonald accompanied Mary Wicks Bennett to Albany for their first visit to the prison. Shaker Elder Lomas and Elder Giles B. Avery met them at the depot and eliminating military chaplaincy; for escorted them to the penitentiary. Avery, a long time friend and fellow Shaker, was now the leader of the Mount Lebanon Shaker community. It was hoped that the presence of the two Shakers would help calm a severely distraught Mrs. Bennett. Lomas had visited on several previous occasions and was familiar with the gloomy institution, but the other three visitors were not prepared for the harsh interior of the dismal and notorious castle on the hill.

The prison clerk greeted the visitors and tersely asked Mary Bennett, “I suppose you want to see your husband?” Anxious and too emotional to speak, she could only motion her consent. After she was permitted to meet alone with the prisoner for a few minutes, Lomas signaled the others to enter the room. Eugene observed his imprisoned mentor and described the scene for readers: “Sitting on the opposite side of the room was the noble old man, but so changed in appearance that we hardly knew him, although we have seen him every day till his imprisonment for the last six years. His beard was shaved, and the stubble of a week’s growth rendered his face rough. His jacket was of coarse dark blue, his shirt was of the cheapest and coarsest cotton, his pants were of gray shoddy.”

After a firm handshake, Eugene and the others gathered around Bennett, who emotionally described prison conditions. A prison clerk who was listening to the conversation warned the new inmate that it was no use telling his grievances. Nevertheless, Bennett continued voicing his complaints without fear of reprisal. “He does not know what fear is, and he never seeks favors by fawning,” Eugene reported, adding, “We never more fully realized the greatness of the man than at this interview, although it was a very sad one.”

Bennett poured his heart out to his friends for nearly an hour discussing the details of the prison’s indignities. Eugene witnessed that “the monstrous injustice of his conviction came over him … and as he saw his weeping wife, the moistened eyes of his friends, his lip quivered, his form shook, and he wept with us.” Immediately following the emotional encounter, he commanded Eugene, “Don’t you again ask Hayes to pardon me; I shall be out of here one of these days, and I would rather be in my place than his.” Turning to the officious prison clerk, Bennett defiantly announced that he was going to write about prison conditions and tell the truth about the Albany Penitentiary.

Concerned about the food that was being served in the prison, Mary brought along a basket of apples, peaches, grapes, and canned meats. As she was tenderly handing a peach to her husband, the clerk grabbed the fruit and said, “Excuse me, madam; we will give them to him by and by.”

As the prisoner was taken away, Elder Lomas advised Eugene to prevent Mary from watching her husband through the grated window. “It was a cruel sight, and one we shall never forget,” Eugene lamented. “Going along the walk was Mr. Bennett, his arms folded and his eyes immovably fixed upon the ground before him. Posted at different points were armed keepers watching him to see that he did not look around. Had he done so he would have been punished. It was a humiliating spectacle and well calculated to make one curse the tyranny which seems inborn in Christianity.”

During the visit Eugene learned that one of the prison authorities commented after learning Bennett was an infidel, “I don’t care any more for him than I do for a dog!” Some of the strong language used by Bennett and Macdonald shocked the two passive Shakers. Eugene apologized and said, “We are of the world and usually say what we think.”

The next issue of the Truth Seeker contained Eugene’s report of their visit. He thanked the two Shakers and invited them to visit New York, which he called, the city of magnificence and squalor. The twenty-four-year-old acting editor’s increasing disdain of Christianity was expressed in a bitingly hostile attack on his and his mentor’s enemies: “We do not envy the church the enemy she is making. Cruel has been her sowing, bitter will be the harvest. The locks and bars of her hate will not always shut him from the world. When he once more resumes his place his hatred of the church will be unbounded. The mental torture and physical pains he is undergoing will not tend to soften his attacks upon that religion whose judges are tyrannical prosecutors, and whose ministers gloat over the sufferings of the innocent.”

Macdonald’s impassioned weekly editorials generated support for the imprisoned publisher. Touching accounts of Bennett’s cruel imprisonment written by sympathizers appeared in the Truth Seeker, the Shaker Manifesto, and various New York newspapers. Donations streamed into the publication’s office and were acknowledged weekly. James Parton, the biographer, began a defense fund that included some sizable amounts from libertarians who pledged to contribute monthly. The September 6 issue reported a hundred-dollar contribution.

On September 11, 1879, Eugene and Mrs. Bennett made their second trip to the penitentiary and were again met at the depot by Elder Lomas, whom Eugene called “the staunch and indefatigable friend of Mr. Bennett.” At their second visit they found the prisoner in a happier mood than on the previous meeting. Mary was pleased to learn that the apples she brought would be given to her husband. Although the editor welcomed the news that twenty-five thousand names had been added to the petition, he instructed Eugene not to send them to Hayes, who could “go to the devil.”

Bennett’s second letter from Albany Penitentiary, written ten days later, revealed a troubling turn of events. He had suffered from an attack of vertigo and was placed in the prison hospital. Otherwise, he reported his health was fair and he was able to sleep nearly ten hours a night. In the hospital he was allowed to receive books and papers and to write a monthly letter on a single piece of paper. He wrote the words so closely with a sharpened pencil that they became almost solid black and held more than three thousand words. After a few months, with practice, he was up to 3,250 words that occupied more than a page of the Truth Seeker.

The editor’s writing output while in prison was remarkable and included his Behind the Bars: A Series of Letters Written in Prison, and a colossal two-volume compilation, The Gods and Religions of Ancient and Modern Times. James Parton generously praised the work and found it amazing that it could be accomplished under prison conditions and in only eleven months. “I should have wanted twenty-five years for it,” he wrote, “and then [it] should not have been half as interesting as you have made it.” Commenting on the book’s frontispiece photo of Bennett dressed in prison garb, Parton teased, “The dress becomes you. It brings out your bland and benevolent traits, and gives you a kind of grand-pontiff expression.” About the work he wrote: “Your example, I hope, will make many men not afraid to touch the idol and help level it with the dust. But when the idol is overthrown, the great problem of human happiness will remain. Never forget that.”

In his relentless crusade to preserve purity, Anthony Comstock forgot about the Constitution that guaranteed freedom of thought. Decades later, Comstock’s biographer asserted that the vice-hunter made a serious mistake by attacking freethinkers like Truth Seeker publisher D.M. Bennett, who, “had legions of words at their command.” Comstock, he said, “had been so unwise as to make a few martyrs.”

Excerpted from D.M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker by Roderick Bradford. Copyright © Roderick Bradford / Prometheus Books, 2006. All rights reserved.

Roderick Bradford is a freelance writer and independent video producer, who has written articles for Free Inquiry, American History, The Quest, Truth Seeker, and American Atheist. He is the author of the book D.M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker, a contributor to The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (Prometheus Books, 2007), and the producer of a film about D.M. Bennett, which won the Grand Prize for Best Feature-Length Film at the 2011 Portland Humanist Film Festival. He has also written, produced, and directed a four-part American Freethought film series about the history of unbelief in the United States from the late 1700s to the mid-1930s. Bradford became the editor of the Truth Seeker in 2014.

For nearly a century and a half, the Truth Seeker has promoted women’s rights, birth control, free speech, science, separation of church and state, and exposed religion as against reason. It counted among its illustrious subscribers and progressive writers Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, Clarence Darrow, and Robert Ingersoll. Each elegantly designed issue of the Truth Seeker offers a unique blend of contemporary, thought-provoking editorials and historical Freethought articles, archival photographs, irreverent cartoons, along with book and film reviews. A high-definition video preview of each January, May, and September issue is online at thetruthseeker.net.

The 141st Anniversary Issue (September 2014) includes

— James Hervey Johnson on religion
— Part One of Freethought, Anarchism, and the Struggle for Free Speech, a series on Thomas Paine by Gary Berton
— Paul Krassner’s article on Lenny Bruce’s fight for free speech
— Excerpts from American Freethought series and D.M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker by Roderick Bradford, and From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act by Christopher M. Finan

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