The citizens of Washington, D.C., prepared feverishly for Ulysses S. Grant's second inauguration on March 4, 1873. Shopkeepers hung brightly colored fabrics on store windows. Construction crews scrambled to build viewing platforms and string streamers and flags along the procession route, which extended from just outside Georgetown to the Capitol. A week before the official festivities were scheduled to begin, the crowds started to arrive. Trains brought in well-wishers and invited guests: noisy West Point cadets sporting new gray uniforms; a car of musicians and soldiers from New York; a fire company from Philadelphia. By March 3, hotels and boardinghouses in the nation's capital had filled to capacity.
In the midst of this excitement, a distracted Congress hurried to complete unfinished business before it adjourned on March 4. A series of scandals involving financial schemes profiting prominent Republicans and their business cronies had cast a pallor over Washington politics and fueled the reformer Horace Greeley's unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1872. Laboring under a cloud of suspicion, the Forty-second Congress now worked overtime to end the session with a spate of creditable legislation, as presumably befitted hardworking politicians worthy of the public trust. In the final hours of the term, Congress passed some 260 acts, the precise provisions of which remained unknown to many members. So impressed with their industriousness were these gentlemen that one of the last things they did before adjourning was to vote themselves a pay raise of twenty-five hundred dollars, retroactive for two years.
One measure passed in this last-minute frenzy was an anti-obscenity bill approved in the early-morning hours of Sunday, March 2. Commonly called the Comstock Act after its chief proponent, the morals crusader Anthony Comstock, the statute, embedded in a broader postal act, passed after little political debate and was signed into law along with 117 other bills on March 3. The Comstock Act defined contraceptives as obscene and inaugurated a century of indignities associated with birth control's illicit status. Invoking its authority to regulate interstate commerce and the U.S. postal system, Congress outlawed the dissemination through the mail or across state lines of any "article of an immoral nature, or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever for the prevention of conception." At the time, the act largely eluded public comment. Over the next century, however, its impact on birth control would be profound.
It was not the first time Congress had made obscenity a crime or had sought to regulate what was sent through the mails. In 1835, President Andrew Jackson, courting slaveholder support, recommended that Congress prohibit "the circulation in the Southern States through the mail of incendiary publications intended to incite slaves to insurrections." Seven years later, Congress enacted its first anti-obscenity law, passing without explanation a tariff act authorizing customs officials to seize "obscene or immoral" imported prints and pictures (but not printed matter). Implicitly identifying pornography as a foreign, primarily European, phenomenon, the 1842 statute strove to protect republican virtue from the sexual wickedness presumed to be festering overseas.
By the 1860s, a lively domestic trade in tawdry novels, pamphlets, and photographs had revealed not only that the Tariff Act had failed but also that native, not foreign, hands were to blame. Those who doubted Americans' complicity in the pornography boom that swept the country in the 1850s and 1860s had only to survey return addresses on mailed matter to know better; most hailed from New York, not London or Paris. Improvements in printing technology and reductions in postal rates had made possible the widespread diffusion of titillating publications, and the migration of single men to cities had created an expanding urban market for their consumption. Leisure patterns during the Civil War exacerbated the trend. Divided in their politics, soldiers shared common ground in making mail-order pornography a vibrant part of camp life.
By 1865, Congress had become fed up. Senator Jacob Collamer of Vermont, postmaster general during the Taylor administration, demanded that the power of the federal government be harnessed to stop this spreading social menace. "Our mails," he seethed, "have been made the vehicle for the conveyance of great numbers and quantities of obscene books and pictures . . . and that is getting to be a very great evil." Collamer's bill, enacted on March 3, 1865, made the mailing of any "obscene book, pamphlet, picture, print, or other publication . . . [of ] vulgar and indecent character" a misdemeanor punishable by a fine not to exceed five hundred dollars or by imprisonment for no longer than a year. It was left to individual postmasters, who could scrutinize return addresses and look inside printed publications (typically sent open at one end, enabling one to discern the contents without breaking the seal), to exclude materials they considered offensive. In 1872, Congress strengthened the 1865 law, adding envelopes and postcards to its list of "suspicious" articles."
The Comstock Law thus continued a policy of federal obscenity regulation that in 1873 was more than thirty years old. It expanded the scope of the 1872 law by eliminating loopholes and codifying an extraordinarily long list of "obscenities." Ominously, contraceptives made the list for the first time. The decision to include them was Anthony Comstock's.
Comstock was born in 1844 in the countryside of New Canaan, Connecticut, about eight miles east of the New York state line. His father was a prosperous farmer, his mother a devout Congregationalist who died when Comstock was ten. After his mother's death, Comstock remained a zealous devotee of the church, attending services and Sunday school regularly. Throughout his life, he clung to the austere, fire-and-brimstone faith of his childhood. The devil was real, omnipresent, and ready to suck souls into the fiery pits of hell. Abstaining from all things evil was one's only hope for salvation. Impure thoughts and behavior anything that might derail one from a straight-and-narrow path were as ruinous in Comstock's eyes as lack of faith. Even church-inspired worldliness was suspect. Once, after attending a Catholic midnight Mass out of curiosity, he confided in his diary that he was "disgusted. Do not think it right to spend Sunday morn. in such manner. Seemed much like Theater."
After his older brother died at Gettysburg, Comstock enlisted in the Seventeenth Regiment of the Connecticut Infantry. He passed most of his one and a half years in the Union Army in a peaceful section of Florida, far removed from the skirmishes of battle. Perhaps he felt, as many men who came of age after the Civil War would later, a hollowness for having missed the "good fight." Perhaps it was this void that turned him into a lifelong crusader. He certainly loved to battle, and nothing could restrain him if he believed Satan, masked as a Confederate, a pornographer, or a bottle of gin, was his foe. Freed from combat with Confederates, Comstock launched a private war against tobacco, alcohol, gambling, and atheism. He joined the Christian Commission, an organization that distributed temperance and religious tracts to soldiers, and established prayer meetings for his regiment, which he attended four to nine times a week. Although some recruits appreciated formal opportunities for worship, most felt differently about Comstock's refusal to drink whiskey and, even worse, his uncharitable habit of pouring his ration onto the ground. When Comstock left the Army in 1865, he did so, by his own admission, an unpopular man.
After holding short-term posts in Connecticut and Tennessee, Comstock moved to New York City seeking fortune. There, the Connecticut farm boy entered a world radically different from anything he had previously encountered. New York in the 1860s and early 1870s was the center of commercialized sex in the United States, home to a wide array of erotica well integrated into the city's economy and public culture. Once sequestered in brothels, assignation houses, and isolated residential districts, commercial sex in postbellum New York had gone public. Sex was easily viewed and consumed on streets and in hotels, shops, and saloons throughout the city. Prostitutes roamed neighborhoods freely, and posted pictures, window modeling, and even newspaper ads promoted their specialties and rates. Local printers sold pornographic books, pamphlets, drawings, and photographs. Stage shows in concert saloons combined alcohol, food, dance, loud music, and heterosexual and homosexual pleasures. Alone or in groups, entertainers would dance, strip, gyrate suggestively, or insert accoutrements like rubber dildos or cigars into various orifices to tease and tempt the crowds. Masked balls, which enjoyed their peak in popularity after the Civil War, permitted men and women of varying social status to transgress traditional boundaries of public sexual behavior." As they danced about the hall, participants would take advantage of their anonymity to engage in flirting, touching, kissing, and even group sex.
Alone and jobless, the newly arrived Comstock rented a room in a cheap lodging house on Pearl Street near City Hall. He soon found work: first as a porter, then as a salesman for Cochran, McLean and Company, a dry-goods notion house. Nights passed in unkempt boardinghouses and days spent walking the streets gave Comstock firsthand exposure to the traffic in sex. His travels took him around Broadway and Pearl, Warren, Nassau, and Grand Streets, areas where the sale of contraceptives, abortion services, and erotica thrived. What he saw disgusted him, as did the behavior of his young business associates, who gawked at pornographic books and pictures.
Comstock's reactions to this sexualized economy influenced his anti-vice campaign. To ignore that the sex trade was first and foremost a trade is to miss an important part of the Comstock story. Vice, as he understood it, would forever be entangled in the commercialized state in which it was consumed. Weeding it out meant destroying an industry.
In 1868, Comstock went on the offensive, making the first of what would be hundreds of arrests during his lifetime. Largely through the efforts of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), the New York legislature had recently passed its own anti-obscenity statute. With this for ammunition, Comstock went vice hunting. When a friend blamed a lewd book for luring him to a brothel, where he contracted a venereal disease, Comstock became furious. He pursued the supplier, a book dealer named Charles Conroy, whose business was headquartered in a basement a block away from where Comstock worked. Comstock bought one of Conroy's sexually explicit books and showed it to the captain of the local police precinct; together they arrested Conroy and seized his stock. As he would with other "vice entrepreneurs" he apprehended, Comstock monitored Conroy's subsequent business dealings and in 1874 arrested the book dealer for the third time. An irate Conroy fought back, slashing the face of the man whose relentless pursuit of vice criminals had already become legendary.
*Endnotes were omitted.
Copyright © 2001 Andrea Tone