American Censor: Anthony Comstock Part 1

About Anthony Comstock, a United States Civil War veteran and censorship movement leader.

ANTHONY COMSTOCK (1844-1915). American censor.

A veteran of the Civil War, a stalwart of the YMCA, he embarked on a lifetime crusade to remove all that was "lewd and lascivious" from art and literature. Born on a 160-acre farm in Connecticut, he was of Puritan ancestry. His mother died when he was 10, and he determined to dedicate his life to pursuits that would honor her memory. At 18, remorseful at having got drunk for the 1st and the last time in his life, he broke into the local liquor store, opened the spigots on the kegs, and let the liquor pour out on the floor. With Demon Rum out of the way, pornography was his next target. At 24, learning that a friend had been "led astray and corrupted and diseased" by an erotic book, Comstock determined to avenge this wrong. In so doing, he found his lifelong vocation. Until then, he had worked at a variety of clerking jobs. Now he became a full-time censor.

Comstock established the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1873. Later, he became an official agent of the U.S. Post Office. He alone was responsible for obtaining the stronger laws that barred obscenity from the mails. As a result, publishers were forced to convert explicit language in their books into euphemisms--"pregnant" fell from their pages to be replaced by "enceinte."

Among the books Comstock successfully had banned or destroyed were Fanny Hill, The Lustful Turk, Peep Behind the Curtains of a Female Seminary, A Night in a Moorish Harem, Love on the Sly. Despite rising opposition--"Jesus was never moved from the path of duty, however hard, by public opinion," said Comstock--he was responsible for the censorship of 500,000 reproductions of drawings or paintings, among them the innocent candy-box nude, September Morn by Paul Chabas. Comstock's idea of what was wrong in art was simple. As he told a reporter: "Anything which tends to destroy the dignity of womanhood or to display the female form in an irreverent manner is immoral. No one reveres the female form more than I do. In my opinion there is nothing else in the world so beautiful as the form of a beautiful maiden woman--nothing. But the place for a woman's body to be--denuded--is in the privacy of her own apartments with the blinds down."

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