Anthony Comstock

Anthony Comstock

Anthony Comstock was born in New Canaan, Connecticut, on 7th March, 1844. He served in the Union Army during the American Civil War and although he attained the rank of brigadier general he did not take part in any fighting.

After the war Comstock was employed as a shipping clerk and retail salesman. He also did voluntary work with the Young Men's Christian Association in New York City and developed a strong concern with what he considered to be "obscene literature". He also campaigned for prohibition and a strict enforcement of the Sunday laws.

In 1873 Comstock founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. That year he lobbied successfully for the enactment of a federal statute known as the Comstock Law, which outlawed the transportation of obscene matter in the mails. To enforce the law, Comstock acted as an unpaid special agent for the United States Post Office.

With the financial support of rich friends such as John Pierpont Morgan, Comstock waged a vigorous crusade against books, papers, pictures and organizations that he considered to be a danger to public morals. His targets included writers, publishers and the owners of theaters and art galleries.

On one occasion he organised a raid on the Arts Students League and arrested people involved in the production of its magazine, The American Student of Art. Comstock objected to the reproductions of nudes that had been painted by the students. Comstock accepted that artists needed to paint nudes but argued that they should be kept from public view. He remarked: "Wild animals are all right in their cages, but when they break out they must be suppressed."

Another famous case involved a play written by George Bernard Shaw. A strong opponent of birth control and prostitution, Comstock lost a legal battle to ban a production of Shaw's famous play about prostitution, Mrs. Warren's Profession. He had more success with birth control and managed to have Margaret Sanger arrested and imprisoned for planning to open a birth-control clinic.

Over a forty year period Comstock secured the conviction of about 2500 people on morals charges and proudly claimed to have been responsible for driving 15 people to suicide.

Anthony Comstock died in New York on 21st September, 1915.