March 07, 2016

Comstockery

n. zealous suppression of plays, books, etc. considered offensive or dangerous to public morals
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

Today is the birthday of Anthony Comstock in 1844. Comstock was the American incarnation of Britain’s Thomas Bowdler (see bowdlerize), and it was none other than famed playwright George Bernard Shaw who immortalized this moral zealot’s priggery when he wrote, “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.”

In 1844, many years before the Village People convinced a 1970s generation that it was fun to stay there, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was founded in London to give factory workers an alternative to a sinful life on the street. It provided prayer and Bible study to improve “the spiritual condition of young men engaged in the drapery and other trades.” It was also the same year that Anthony Comstock was born. Two decades later, after serving in the American Civil War, Comstock worked in the New York City YMCA before launching a Victorian crusade against birth control and what he deemed to be obscene literature.

In 1873 a politically savvy Comstock conceived the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and persuaded Congress to enact the Comstock Act, a federal law that criminalized sending “obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious” materials through the mail—which included not only pornography but also contraceptive “equipment” and advertisements as well as anatomy textbooks. For his definition of obscenity, Comstock relied on the standard set by the unfortunately (or aptly) named Lord Cockburn in England five years earlier. In 1868, Lord Chief Justice Alexander James Edmund Cockburn defined as obscene materials those that “deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influence.” Inspired by Cockburn’s articulations, Comstock soon became an armed U.S. Postal Inspector, conducted raids on bookstores, prosecuted more than 3,500 people, and destroyed more than 160 tons of allegedly obscene material.

Comstock attacked George Bernard Shaw’s play Mrs. Warren’s Profession in 1905 and referred to Shaw as an “Irish smut dealer,” to which Shaw responded with his now famous comment (quoted above) forever linking Comstock’s name with bigoted censorship. Not to be outdone, Comstock embraced the term and described it as “the applying of the noblest principles of law . . . in the interest of Public Morals, especially those of the young.” Referring to himself as a “weeder in God’s garden,” Comstock referred to his liberal targets as “long-haired men and short-haired women” and boasted that his prosecutions had driven at least fifteen people to commit suicide.

One hilariously titled chapter of the Comstock chronicles, however, involved a confiscated shipment of contraceptives from Japan to New York City in 1932. The slightly ribald case of United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries (diaphragms) in the U.S. Court of Appeals directly confronted the standing prohibition against importing or mailing birth control. It had been these laws that led to the decidedly not hilarious multiple arrests of Planned Parenthood founder (and coiner of the term birth control) Margaret Sanger. The ban on contraceptives was eventually declared unconstitutional, but many other portions of the Comstock Act still stand today.

Anthony Comstock died in 1915. Lawyer, author, and free speech activist Theodore Schroeder later railed that Comstock “stood at the mouth of a sewer, searching for and devouring obscenity for a salary.” It is perhaps fitting that the encyclopedic collection of pornography currently owned by the Library of Congress was established with contraband confiscated under the Comstock Act of 1873.