American Censor: Anthony Comstock Part 2

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

ANTHONY COMSTOCK (1844-1915). American censor.

His censorship was indiscriminate. His 5' 10", 210-lb. blunderbuss presence, his muttonchop whiskers and black frock coat (Bible in its pocket) could be seen everywhere, as he flayed out, smashing the good along with the bad. He was instrumental in getting Margaret Sanger's books on birth control banned in New York. He had the Dept. of the Interior fire Walt Whitman for Leaves of Grass. He had 3,000 persons arrested for obscenity. They ranged from Victoria Woodhull, female candidate for President, to Margaret Sanger's Husband, who was charged with selling his wife's books. Only 10% of these victims were eventually convicted. Proudly, he took credit for hounding 16 persons to their deaths, some through fear, others from suicide, all sacrificed to his fanatical puritanism.

In 1913, he told the New York Evening World: "In the 41 years I have been here I have convicted persons enough to fill a passenger train of 61 coaches, 60 coaches containing 60 passengers and the 61st almost full. I have destroyed 160 tons of obscene literature."

One of the few times that he met his match was when he tried to remove George Bernard Shaw's play, Mrs. Warren's Profession, from the stage. Enraged, Shaw thundered back: "Comstockery is the world's standing joke at the expense of the U. S. It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a 2nd rate country town."

Comstock's only relaxations were his wife and his hobbies. He had married Margaret Hamilton, daughter of a Presbyterian elder, when he was 27. His senior by 10 years, she weighed 82 lbs., always wore black, rarely ever spoke a word. He had one child by Margaret, a daughter Lillie, who died at 6 months. He and his wife then adopted a newborn girl, Adele, who turned out to be retarded, although he never admitted this fact. (After his death, 40-year-old Adele was confined to an institution.) His other loves were his collections of postage stamps and Japanese vases.

In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Comstock U. S. delegate to the International Purity Congress meeting at the San Francisco Exposition. At the convention, he weakened himself by "overdoing," contracted pneumonia, returned home, and died. He was buried in Brooklyn's Evergreen Cemetery. His tombstone bore the epitaph: "In memory of a fearless witness."

But columnist Heywood Broun wrote a less sentimental obituary: "Anthony Comstock may have been entirely correct in his assumption that the division of living creatures into male and female was a vulgar mistake, but a conspiracy of silence about the matter will hardly alter the facts."

--I.W.

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