Anthony Comstock

Anthony Comstock (March 7, 1844 – September 21, 1915) was an anti-vice activist, United States Postal Inspector, and secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV), who was dedicated to upholding Christian morality. He opposed obscene literature, abortion, contraception, gambling, prostitution, and patent medicine.

Anthony Comstock
Anthony Comstock.jpg
From Anthony Comstock, Fighter (1913) by Charles Gallaudet Trumbull
Personal details
Born(1844-03-07)March 7, 1844
New Canaan, Connecticut, US
DiedSeptember 21, 1915(1915-09-21) (aged 71)
Summit, New Jersey, United States
Political partyRepublican
Spouse(s)Margaret (nee Hamilton)[1]
ChildrenLillie (died as infant); Adele (adopted)[1]
OccupationUnited States Postal Inspector
Known forCreation of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice
Comstock law
Military service
Allegiance United States
Branch/serviceSeal of the United States Board of War and Ordnance.svg U.S. Army (Union Army)
Unit17th Connecticut Infantry Regiment

The terms "comstockery" and "comstockism" refer to his extensive censorship campaign of materials that he considered obscene, namely anything remotely discussing sex publicly, including birth control advertised or sent by mail. He used his positions in the U.S. Postal Service and the NYSSV (in association with the New York police) to make numerous arrests for obscenity and gambling.

Life and workEdit

Comstock was born in New Canaan, Connecticut, the son of Polly Ann (née Lockwood) and Thomas Anthony Comstock.[2] As a young man, he enlisted and fought for the Union in the American Civil War from 1863 to 1865. He served without incident in Company H, 17th Connecticut Infantry, but objected to the profanity used by his fellow soldiers.[3] Afterwards he became an active worker for the YMCA in New York City.[4]

Comstock lived in Summit, New Jersey, from 1880 to 1915.[5] In 1892, he built a house at 35 Beekman Road, where he lived until his death there in 1915.[6]

Efforts for censorshipEdit

Christian religiosityEdit

Motivated by first-hand experience with what he saw as a constant barrage of debauchery among fellow Union soldiers during the Civil War, when he gained power it was not long before Comstock aroused intense loathing from early civil liberties groups and strong support from church-based groups that were worried about public morals.[4] Comstock, the self-styled "weeder in God's garden", arrested D. M. Bennett for publishing "An Open Letter to Jesus Christ" and later had the editor charged for mailing a free-love pamphlet. Bennett was prosecuted, subjected to a widely publicized trial, and imprisoned in the Albany Penitentiary.[7]

During his career, Comstock made many and diverse enemies, such as Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger. In her autobiography, Goldman referred to Comstock as the leader of America's "moral eunuchs." In later years his health was affected by a severe blow to the head from an anonymous attacker. He lectured to college audiences and wrote newspaper articles to sustain his causes. Before his death, Comstock attracted the interest of a young law student, J. Edgar Hoover, who showed interest in his causes and methods.[8]

U.S. government servicesEdit

In 1873, Comstock created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an institution dedicated to supervising the morality of the public.[4] Later that year, Comstock successfully influenced the United States Congress to pass the Comstock Law, which made illegal the delivery by U.S. mail, or by other modes of transportation, of "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" material, as well as prohibiting any methods of production or publication of information pertaining to the procurement of abortion, the prevention of conception and the prevention of venereal disease.[9]

Comstock's ideas of what might be "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" were quite broad. During his time of greatest power, even some anatomy textbooks were prohibited from being sent to medical students by the United States Postal Service.[3][4]

1887 letter from Anthony Comstock to Josiah Leeds

He was a savvy political insider in New York City and was made a special agent of the United States Postal Service with police powers, including the right to carry a weapon. With this power, he zealously prosecuted those that he suspected of either public distribution of pornography or commercial fraud. He was also involved in shutting down the Louisiana Lottery, which was the only legal lottery in the United States at the time and was notorious for corruption.[4]

Opposing suffragettesEdit

Comstock was also opposed to woman suffragists, notably Victoria Claflin Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Celeste Claflin. The men's journal The Days' Doings popularized images of the sisters for three years and was instructed by its editor (while Comstock was present) to stop producing lewd images. Comstock also took legal action against the paper for advertising contraceptives. After the sisters published an exposé of an adulterous affair between the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton, he had the sisters arrested under laws forbidding the use of the postal service to distribute "obscene material", specifically citing a mangled quotation from the Bible that Comstock found obscene. They were later acquitted of the charges.[10]

Less fortunate was Ida Craddock, who died by suicide on the eve of reporting to federal prison for distributing via the U.S. mail various sexually explicit marriage manuals that she had written.[10] Her final work was a lengthy public suicide note specifically condemning Comstock.

Comstock also arrested the prominent abortion care provider Madame Restell. In 1878, he posed as a customer seeking birth control for his wife. Restell provided him with pills and he returned the next day with the police, and arrested her. She committed suicide the next morning.[11]

Destruction of booksEdit

Through his various campaigns, he destroyed 15 tons of books, 284,000 pounds of plates for printing "objectionable" books, and nearly 4,000,000 pictures.[3] He claimed that "books are feeders for brothels."[12]

Comstock boasted that he was responsible for 4,000 arrests[13] and claimed he drove 15 persons to suicide in his "fight for the young".[14]

Comstock died on September 21, 1915 at the age of 72 in Summit, N.J. According to one obituary, he left behind a large collection of pictures, prints, and other literature that he had seized during his career, "which is said to contain a sufficient amount of real pornographic material."[15]


  • Frauds Exposed (1880)
  • Traps for the Young (1883)
  • Gambling Outrages (1887)
  • Morals Versus Art (1887)

He wrote numerous magazine articles relating to similar subjects.


The term "comstockery", meaning "censorship because of perceived obscenity or immorality", was coined in an editorial in The New York Times in 1895.[16] George Bernard Shaw used the term in 1905 after Comstock had alerted the New York City police to the content of Shaw's play Mrs. Warren's Profession. Shaw remarked that "Comstockery is the world's standing joke at the expense of the United States. Europe likes to hear of such things. It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second-rate country-town civilization after all."[4] Comstock thought of Shaw as an "Irish smut dealer."[17]


Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord by Heywood Broun and Margaret Leech of the Algonquin Round Table examines his personal history and his investigative, surveillance, and law enforcement techniques. It was written in 1927.

Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock presents a colorful journey through Comstock’s career that doubles as a new history of post–Civil War America’s risqué visual and sexual culture.[18] It was written by Dr. Amy B. Werbel[19] and published by Columbia University Press in 2018.

The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, And Civil Liberties In The Gilded Age focuses on Comstock's impacts on society, the Comstock Laws, and eight women charged with violating the law.[20] It was written by Amy Sohn and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2021.[21]

References in fiction and cultureEdit

  • Comstock is one of many prominent New Yorkers of his time who appear in the historical novel The Alienist, by Caleb Carr.
  • The protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Beautiful and Damned is named for Comstock by his own reformist grandfather. "Emulating the magnificent efforts of Anthony Comstock, after whom his grandson was named, he leveled a varied assortment of uppercuts and body-blows at liquor, literature, vice, art, patent medicines, and Sunday theatres."
  • James Branch Cabell was prosecuted on obscenity charges relating to his novel Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice after lobbying by the Society. Cabell retaliated with a chapbook titled The Judging of Jurgen (later inserted into subsequent reprints of the novel), in which the title character is consigned to oblivion for being "obscene, lewd, lascivious, and indecent" in a trial presided over by a dung beetle who swears "by Saint Anthony".
  • Anthony Comstock is one of the four "point of view" characters in Marge Piercy's novel Sex Wars. Piercy explores Comstock's personal history and mindset as he goes from clerk to active "vice" suppressor.
  • Comstock makes a cameo appearance, being rescued from a burning building, in Jack Finney's novel Time and Again.
  • He was played by Rod Steiger in the 1995 made-for-TV film Choices of the Heart: The Margaret Sanger Story.[23]
  • Comstock is the antagonist of the fictional midwife, Axie Muldoon, in the novel My Notorious Life by Kate Manning. The novel describes the career of a character loosely patterned on the life of Ann Trow Lohman, a women's health practitioner in the 19th century.[24]
  • A fictionalized Comstock features prominently as an antagonist in Sara Donati's 2015 novel The Gilded Hour.[25]
  • In the video game BioShock Infinite, the primary antagonist is named Zachary Hale Comstock. He is a puritanical religious leader at the head of an ultra-nationalistic political party controlling the city-state of Columbia, which has seceded from the United States.
  • Aleister Crowley makes reference to Comstock in his novel Moonchild.
  • Annalee Newitz has an alternate timeline version of Anthony Comstock as the main villain in the novel The Future of Another Timeline.[26]
  • In the U.S. version of The Office, the uptight character Angela Martin owns a cat called Comstock.[27]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Malladi, Lakshmeeramya (2017-05-23). "Anthony Comstock (1844–1915)". Embryo Project Encyclopedia. Arizona State University. School of Life Sciences. Center for Biology and Society. ISSN 1940-5030.
  2. ^ Comstock, C. B. (Cyrus Ballou) (15 May 2018). "A Comstock genealogy; descendants of William Comstock of New London, Conn., who died after 1662: ten generations". New York, The Knickerbocker Press. Retrieved 15 May 2018 – via Internet Archive.
  3. ^ a b c Buchanan, Paul D, The American Women's Rights Movement, p. 75.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Leonard, Devin (2016). "Chapter 3: Comstockery: The Life and Times of a True American Moral Hysteric". Neither Snow Nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service. New York, NY: Grove Atlantic, Inc. ISBN 978-0-8021-2458-6.
  5. ^ Morgan, Garner, History (1870 – Present), Central Presbyterian Church, archived from the original on 2011-07-25, retrieved February 18, 2011, Interestingly, Summit from about 1880 to 1915 was the home of Anthony Comstock, world-famous crusader against immorality, real and imagined.
  6. ^ Gray, Christopher (May 27, 2001), "Streetscapes/35 Beekman Road, Summit, NJ; 1892 House Built by a Famous Crusader Against Vice", The New York Times, retrieved February 18, 2011.
  7. ^ "The Albany Penitentiary"
  8. ^ Papke, David Ray. "Anthony Comstock". Retrieved 2021-05-07.
  9. ^ Bennett, De Robigne Mortimer (15 May 1878). "Anthony Comstock: his career of cruelty and crime; a chapter from The champions of the Church". New York, Liberal and Scientific Publishing House. Retrieved 15 May 2018 – via Internet Archive.
  10. ^ a b Newitz, Annalee (September 20, 2019). "The 19th-Century Troll Who Hated Dirty Postcards and Sex Toys: Before Gamergate, Anthony Comstock was the original anti-feminist crusader". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved September 22, 2019.
  11. ^ Abbott, Karen. "Madame Restell: The Abortionist of Fifth Avenue". Smithsonian. Retrieved 2016-02-22.
  12. ^ Kaminer, Wendy (2009-08-24). "The Banality of Censorship". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2018-09-10.
  13. ^ "The hypocrites' club: Now with a new diamond-level member". The Economist. 13 March 2008.
  14. ^ de Grazia, Edward, Girls Lean Back Everywhere, p. 5.
  15. ^ "Obituary: Anthony Comstock". American Art News. 13 (37): 7. October 2, 1915. Retrieved 13 January 2022.
  16. ^ LaMay, Craig L (September 1997), "America's censor: Anthony Comstock and free speech", Communications and the Law, 19 (3), The term 'Comstockery,' supposedly invented by George Bernard Shaw in 1905 when Comstock removed his play 'Man and Superman' from the public shelves at the New York Public Library, in fact first appeared as the title for a Times editorial in December 1895.
  17. ^ Schlosser, Eric, Reefer Madness, p. 120.
  18. ^ "Lust on Trial". Columbia University Press. Retrieved 19 July 2021.
  19. ^ Werbel, Amy. "Amy Werbel, PhD". Fashion Institute of Technology. Retrieved 19 July 2021.
  20. ^ "How An Anti-Vice Crusader Sabotaged The Early Birth Control Movement". Fresh Air. Philadelphia, PA, USA. July 7, 2021. Retrieved July 7, 2021.
  21. ^ Sohn, Amy. "Books". Amy Sohn. Archived from the original on 2012-06-22. Retrieved 30 June 2021.
  22. ^ Kabaservice, Geoffrey (September 26, 2021) [September 24, 2021]. "Review: Woke academics, Donald Trump and George Will's ire". The Washington Post. p. B8. Retrieved 2021-09-26.
  23. ^ IMDb. "Choices of the Heart: The Margaret Sanger Story". Retrieved August 29, 2011.
  24. ^ Manning, Kate (2013). My notorious life : a novel (1st Scribner hardcover ed.). New York: Scribner. ISBN 978-1-4516-9806-0.
  25. ^ Donati, Sara (2015). The Gilded Hour. Berkley. ISBN 978-0-425-27181-0.
  26. ^ Newitz, Annalee (2019). The Future of Another Timeline (1st Tor hardcover ed.). New York: Tor. ISBN 978-0-7653-9210-7.
  27. ^ "New Guys". The Office (American TV Series). Season 9. September 20, 2012. NBC.

Further readingEdit

  • Bates, Anna (1995), Weeder in the Garden of the Lord: Anthony Comstock's Life and Career, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, ISBN 0-7618-0076-X.
  • Beisel, Nicola (1997), Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America, Princeton: Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-02779-X.
  • Dix, Scott Matthew (2013), Outlawed! How Anthony Comstock Fought and Won the Purity of a Nation, ISBN 978-1935877967.
  • Horowitz, Helen (2002), Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth Century America, New York: Knopf, ISBN 0-375-40192-X.
  • Leonard, Devin (2016), Neither Snow Nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service, New York: Grove Atlantic, ISBN 978-0-8021-2458-6.
  • Tone, Andrea (2001), Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America, New York: Hill & Wang, ISBN 0-8090-3816-1.
  • Trumbull, Charles Gallaudet (1913), Anthony Comstock, Fighter: Some Impressions of a Lifetime Adventure in Conflict with the Powers of Evil, New York: Fleming H. Revell, ASIN B00086K1PK
  • Werbel, Amy (2018), Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock, ISBN 0231175221

External linksEdit