The combative life of a man who “spread shame.”
For 40 years, Anthony Comstock (1844-1915) mounted a vigorous, often obsessive campaign, in the courts and in the press, to stamp out vice. For much of his notorious career, he was the sole arbiter of obscenity. Werbel (History of Art/Fashion Institute of Technology; Thomas Eakins: Art, Medicine, and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia, 2007) offers a richly detailed examination of Comstock’s life and mission, which she presents as a cautionary tale for our own time, when evangelical Christianity seeks to impose its values on the nation. For Comstock and his supporters in the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, repressing sexuality was “the only solution to pressing social problems.” He opposed women’s empowerment, condemned abortions and the women who died from botched procedures, and viewed “child sex trafficking as largely the fault of the victims.” Fueled by religious zeal and supported by others who shared his Christian ideology, Comstock worked to initiate and expand state and federal anti-obscenity statutes that criminalized “anyone who facilitated the arousal of lust and sexual gratification other than for procreative purposes within marriage.” As Secretary of the NYSSV, he energetically ferreted out lust, collecting material from a wide range of sources, including publishers, artists, photographers, merchants, theatrical producers, brothels, men’s clubs, and art galleries. By 1876, he had sent to pulp mills more than 21,000 pounds of books and 202,000 images and photographs. For the bulk of the book, Werbel draws on Comstock’s three-volume “Records of Arrests,” his detailed chronicle of his “efforts to defeat Satan in America.” This material reveals the trajectory of Comstock’s influence and power, which plummeted after 1884, when artists, wealthy art collectors, and lawyers, judges, and juries thwarted him, questioning his credibility as a judge of “depravity.” He became a butt of jokes, skewered in derisive cartoons and criticized widely in the press.
An incisive history of the futility of censorship.