Anthony Comstock and Free Speech in America

By Christopher M. Finan | September 2014 Issue
The Truth Seeker

Through his various campaigns, Anthony Comstock 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 and claimed he drove fifteen persons to suicide in his “fight for the young”.


Christopher M. Finan

It was Anthony Comstock, a young Civil War veteran, who exploited the sexual anxieties of his age to create a national censorship regime for the first time in American history. He was not the first to censor material with sexual content. Twenty states and four territories banned the publication and sale of obscene material before the Civil War. But it was Comstock who capitalized on the growing fear of sex by targeting books. “The effect of this cursed business on our youth and society, no pen can describe,” Comstock wrote, then described it:

It breeds lust. Lust defiles the body, debauches the imagination, corrupts the mind, deadens the will, destroys the memory, sears the conscience, hardens the heart, and damns the soul. It unnerves the arm, and steals away the elastic step. It robs the soul of many virtues, and imprints upon the mind of youth, visions that throughout life curse the man or woman. Like a panorama, the imagination seems to keep this hated thing before the mind, until it wears its way deeper and deeper, plunging the victim into practices that he loathes.

It is masturbation that starts youth down the road to ruin, and therefore even the smallest temptation could be his undoing. “The mind must not be permitted to dwell for a moment upon improper subjects,” Comstock insisted. “All reading and conversation must be of the most pure and elevating character.” Inevitably, books, because they could be perused privately, became the main focus of the anti-pornography crusade. “[B]ad books are worse, far worse, than bad companions,” one purity advocate proclaimed.

In the beginning, Comstock’s crusade was a one-man affair. Born in Connecticut, he shared the conviction of his Puritan ancestors that it was the duty of government to curb the behavior of naturally sinful men. He also possessed a strong sense of personal responsibility and the courage to back it up. At five feet, ten inches tall and 210 pounds, Comstock was powerfully built. At the age of 18, he raided a saloon in his hometown, dumping the liquor on the ground. After he moved to New York City, he began to push the police to arrest booksellers, printers and other distributors of books and “rubber goods”–condoms, diaphragms and masturbatory aids. He soon came to the attention of the Young Men’s Christian Association, which had recently pushed a strengthened obscenity law through the New York legislature. In 1872, Comstock went to work as an investigator for the YMCA’s Committee for the Suppression of Vice. Only a year later, using the influential connections of his organization and a display of the erotica that he had seized in raids, he persuaded Congress to strengthen the federal obscenity law by passing what became know as the Comstock Act. At the same time, it created the new position of special agent in the United States Post Office with the power to confiscate obscene mail and arrest the senders. Comstock was only 28 when he was appointed to the post. A few months later, he also became the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

For the next 42 years, Anthony Comstock would police the American marketplace. As the years passed, he would seem increasingly old-fashioned with his luxuriant side whiskers and clean-shaven chin. He was ridiculed for his excesses, including his attack on playwright George Bernard Shaw as “this Irish smut dealer” and the arrest of a secretary in the Art Students’ League in New York for mailing a pamphlet that included drawings of nudes. But his influence was profound. The Comstock Act made it a crime to mail a broad range of sexual material: erotica; contraceptive medications or devices; chemicals that could be used to cause abortions; sexual implements, including dildos and other masturbatory aids; contraceptive information; and advertisements for contraception, abortion or sexual implements. Other cities soon followed the example of New York, and anti-vice societies began operating in
Boston, St. Louis, Chicago, Louisville, Cincinnati and San Francisco. Forty five states passed “little Comstock” laws. Where the federal law banned the mailing of obscene material, these statutes made it a crime to actually sell it in a bookstore or on a newsstand.

Comstock’s career was not without frustrations. The reports of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice repeatedly complained about New York City prosecutors who failed to vigorously pursue obscenity cases. Ultimately, Comstock’s most impressive and personally satisfying victories were not against pornographers but men and women who were philosophically opposed to his view of sex. Beginning with his prosecution of feminist Victorian Woodhull in 1872, Comstock had used the obscenity laws to persecute those he condemned as “free lusters” for advocating changes in the relationship between the sexes and the institution of marriage that he believed would destroy society through sexual licentiousness. He accused Woodhull of violating the law by writing about the alleged adultery of Henry Ward Beecher, a prominent Brooklyn minister. She escaped on a technicality, but he succeeded in convicting a doctor for mailing a pamphlet that contained birth control information (he was fined $3,500); an advocate of the view that sexual relations were no business of the state (he was released by presidential pardon); and a lawyer who protested Comstock’s crusade by selling a free love tract that had already been declared obscene (he served 13 months in prison). Comstock’s prosecutions of the sex radicals led to the first national protest against a censorship law in 1878 when nearly 70,000 people signed a petition to Congress urging the repeal of the Comstock Act. But Congress ignored the petition, and Comstock succeeded in his effort to suppress the discussion of sex that threatened the status quo. In 1899, the New England Watch and Ward Society claimed to have cleaned up Boston so well that “nothing further being needed but constant watchfulness.”

Margaret Sanger and colleagues.

Margaret Sanger first ran afoul of Anthony Comstock in 1913 when he forced the Socialist newspaper, the New York Call, to drop an article about venereal disease that she had written as part of a series called “What Every Girl Should Know.” But the 34-year-old Sanger was only getting started. The next year she published her own magazine, The Woman Rebel, which promised to serve as the voice of working women, including prostitutes. What women needed was complete moral autonomy, Sanger wrote. To be a woman rebel is “to look the whole world in the face with a go-to-hell look in the eyes; to have an ideal; to speak and act in defiance of convention. What rebel women claim is the right to be lazy. The right to be an unmarried mother. The right to destroy. The right to create. The right to live. The right to love.” Sanger promised that in future issues she would advocate the principle of contraception as well as describe how to practice it. She never got the chance. The United States Post Office refused to mail Woman Rebel and confiscated the copies that had been submitted to it. Sanger tried to sneak copies through by mailing small bundles at scattered locations but was caught and indicted on four counts of obscenity. As her trial approached, she decided to flee the country rather than face as many as 45 years in jail.

For Anthony Comstock, there could be no compromise on the issue of birth control. Protecting against conception was simply an incitement to sexual intercourse. “Are we to have homes or brothels?” he asked in 1915 shortly after he had helped indict Sanger’s husband, William, who had been caught distributing his wife’s pamphlet, Family Limitation. “Can’t everybody, whether rich or poor, control themselves?” Comstock died a few weeks after William Sanger was sentenced to 30 days in jail. But public opinion was beginning to shift. After ten months of exile in Europe, Margaret returned to the United States to stand trial. As her trial approached, Sanger became a celebrity. With red hair and green eyes, the slight and attractive defendant soon found the newspapers describing what she was wearing. When the prosecutors decided to drop the charges in February 1916, Sanger’s star rose still higher. She immediately embarked on a speaking tour, addressing sold-out auditoriums in many of the leading cities. She would continue to encounter opposition. Efforts to deny her a platform in St. Louis led Roger Baldwin, who would found the American Civil Liberties Union, to organize his first free speech demonstration. Only a few months later she would be arrested for opening the nation’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. But Sanger had won an important battle in the fight for birth control—and free speech.

This is an excerpt from Chris Finan’s From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America (Beacon Press, 2007), which won the American Library Association’s Eli M. Oboler Award. Finan is the president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the bookseller’s voice in the fight against censorship.

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

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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