He called himself “the weeder in God’s garden.”
April 7, 2015 2:27 AM   Subscribe

Amy Werbel on America's most influential censor: Searching for Smut: Hot on the trail of Anthony Comstock (1844-1915). Comstock wielded the 1873 Comstock Act (named for him) like a cudgel to improve the morals of the nation, protect children, and stamp out indecency.

The law banned contraceptives, abortifacients, lewd and lascivious materials (especially pornography), anything having to do with sex, and any and all information about those things from being sent via the U.S. Postal Mail.

Let's hear from the man himself: 1915 Harper's Weekly interview with the man. In the same year, Margaret Sanger (who'd do much to fight and defang the law in regard to contraception, birth control, and female health) wrote an article, Comstockery in America, about his impact.
posted by julen (15 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe he was a nice person in private, but Comstock had a severely negative public impact.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:02 AM on April 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

Very interesting: thanks for the links. Comstock must have been a remarkably effective activist: from being a censorious clerk in 1872, to getting federal legislation passed just the following year… From the Harper’s interview, I was struck by the phrase ‘his faith looks forward to a time when there shall be in all the world not one object to awaken sensuous thoughts in the minds of young people.’

Alarmingly, in the wikipedia article about him it’s related that ‘Comstock claimed he drove fifteen persons to suicide in his ”fight for the young.”’ One of these being Ida Craddock, whose Letter to the Public on the Day of her Suicide condemns Comstock & Comstockism.
posted by misteraitch at 4:15 AM on April 7, 2015 [5 favorites]

Today I learned how Comstock Films (the linked page is SFW, but the rest of the site isn't) got their name.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 4:59 AM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Comstock must have been a remarkably effective activist

The history of the US is rife with people who obtained the support of others by postulating their mutual moral superiority to (a) the poor souls in need of the Good News or (b) the evil manipulators who were leading those poor souls down the road to perdition. Fred Clark talks about this all the time; search his site for "evil Satanic baby killers" for numerous examples. It is, unfortunately, a strategy that works very well.
posted by Ipsifendus at 5:03 AM on April 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Alarmingly, in the wikipedia article about him it’s related that ‘Comstock claimed he drove fifteen persons to suicide

Inquisitors like Comstock are always ready to have other people die for the Inquisitor's beliefs. What's the point of being an Inquisitor if you don't get the auto-da-fé?
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:14 AM on April 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

The Sanger article is sobering in the way those attitudes survive to today.
posted by Slothrup at 5:14 AM on April 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

"Nonetheless, in 1915, President Wilson appointed Comstock a delegate to the International Purity Congress in San Francisco. There Comstock initiated a prosecution of department-store window dressers for garbing nude mannequins in full view of the public. A local judge dismissed the charges, saying, "Mr. Comstock, I think you're nuts." Exhausted by the struggle to impose purity on an impure world, he returned home to die, of pneumonia, on September 21, 1915."
posted by iviken at 5:36 AM on April 7, 2015 [7 favorites]

I appreciate the Harper's interview, as I mostly know about Comstock through the travails of the people he targeted. Such as Elmina D. Slenker, who at age 60 was arrested and tried for private correspondence giving advice on sexuality & marriage.
posted by audi alteram partem at 6:25 AM on April 7, 2015

Shocked to find such works as "The Lustful Turk" widely available through stationers and pushcart vendors, he spearheaded the YMCA's efforts to suppress pornography.

And it stayed suppressed, never to appear again.
posted by maxsparber at 6:32 AM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

One of these being Ida Craddock, whose Letter to the Public on the Day of her Suicide condemns Comstock & Comstockism.

From her letter:
Dear fellow-citizens of America, for nine long years I have faced social ostracism, poverty, and the dangers of persecution by Anthony Comstock for your sakes. I had a beautiful gospel of right living in the marriage relation, which I wanted you to share with me. For your sakes, I have struggled along in the face of great odds; for your sakes I have come at last to the place where I must lay down my life for you, either in prison or out of prison. Will you not do something for me now? ... I beg of you, for your own sakes, and for the future happiness of the young people who are dear to you, to protect my little book, "Right Marital Living."
Ida Craddock, "The Wedding Night" and "Right Marital Living." More about Craddock's own unusual marital arrangements.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:59 AM on April 7, 2015 [5 favorites]

In one of Bill Bryson's books, he says that Comstock had a woman fined for calling a man a "spitzbub" on a postcard. Which I think is a kind of cookie, and not code for anything, though to a power-crazed puritan like Comstock, I'm sure that didn't matter.
posted by emjaybee at 7:06 AM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Comstock was also recently the subject of an episode of The Dollop which is a comedy-history podcast with Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds. (The whole podcast is highly recommended, though very NSFW.)
posted by komlord at 7:44 AM on April 7, 2015

Mod note: A few comments deleted; let's not start this off with a pointless fight about "what Metafilter is like" etc.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 7:51 AM on April 7, 2015

Of course, he wasn't alone.
posted by BWA at 9:08 AM on April 7, 2015

Ira Craddock was ahead of her times in many ways, but from reading the links that MonkleyToes provided, most of her "practical" advice has not aged well.

Her suggestions in The Wedding Night are mostly sweet and well intentioned stuff: husband and wife should not rush into "genital union" and should not, in fact, consummate their marriage on their wedding night but should rather wait a few days until the woman is comfortable being alone in a locked room with her husband, etc. Take it slow and make sure the wife is both comfortable and aroused before proceeding, etc. Again, this is sweet and well intentioned.

Her advice in Right Marital Living, however, is packed with WTF moments. Not the least of which is that her militant advocacy of (or for, I suppose) what we might popularly call "tantric sex", which is rooted in her belief in the need for men to preserve the purity of their essence ("paging Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper to the FPP..."):
It is popularly, but mistakenly, supposed that the semen is an excretion which a man needs to get rid of periodically. But the reverse is the truth. "The male semen," says Dr. W. Xavier Sudduth, a well-known nervous specialist of Chicago, "is an acknowledged tonic, ready prepared for absorption into the system." Every expenditure of semen means a loss of nerve energy. Instead of its being thrown forth upon the slightest emotional provocation, it should be reabsorbed through the lymphatic vessels which are so abundant in the walls of the vesiculae seminales and the vas deferens, in order that it may circulate in the blood throughout the entire body, nourishing the vocal organs which make a man's voice deep and masculine, nourishing the roots of the beard, building up brain and nerves, and intensifying his virility and manly bearing....

Some years ago, Dr. Brown-Sequard discovered that the voluntary suppression of the ejaculation of semen, just at the last moment, strengthens a man and conduces to long life. He wrongly inferred, however, that the strengthening effect of this suppression was due entirely to the semen, thus returned to the body; whereas it seems to be largely due to the mental act of self-control in accomplishing the suppression, which thus acts as a tonic for the nervous system.

An impression prevails among both physicians and the laity, that to exercise the organs of the love function without also at least an abortive attempt on the man's part at exercising the parental function, will be prejudicial to his nervous system, and, consequently to his health. That is, that it is dangerous to suppress the ejaculation of semen during coition. This may be true, if the act of suppression be performed merely as a means for bodily, sensual enjoyment. It is not true, however, if the mentality (which, in its turn, as we all know, governs the nervous system) be kept in a state of serenity and exaltation, so that the inner spiritual forces may be brought into play.
There's more ("During the nursing period, it is unwise to unduly excite the mother sexually, as it is apt to render the milk feverish, and this will injuriously affect the infant."), but, well, you get the idea. I salute her frankness and her willingness to take on even crazier chucklefucks like Anthony Comstock, but it's worth noting that just because she was frank with her advice doesn't mean that advice was always firmly grounded, or even backed by factual evidence.
posted by mosk at 10:50 AM on April 7, 2015

« Older Sisters are doing it for themselves   |   Defending Darwin Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments