America's ethics watchdog declared war on greed

Bold books, sex toys and belly dancing were among the targets of Comstock's postal police. Towards the end of the 19th century, his morality police confiscate 30,000 dildos – driving…

Bold books, sex toys and belly dancing were among the targets of Comstock’s postal police. Towards the end of the 19th century, his morality police confiscate 30,000 dildos – driving many women to commit suicide.

Anthony Comstock pulls his collar up over his thick and impressive red beard so that no one at the gathering notices him. The 33-year-old Civil War veteran is well-known in American society, where for almost five years he has fought fiercely against what he calls “obscene, irresponsible and lustful” behavior.

Since the so-called Comstock Act was enacted in 1873, it has been illegal to send so-called sexual material through the mail, and armed with this law, the postal police can now open any package and arrest the violators.

On November 2, 1877, on November 2, 1877, Comstock arrived in Boston, Mass., where publisher Ezra Haywood was giving a lecture on “Sexual Self-Determination.”

Comstock has long wished to put Haywood behind bars for his sinful thoughts about natural lust – and not long ago the agent had the publisher send out pornographic books.

“It was too disgusting – I had to leave the meeting in a hurry”

Anthony Comstock after he attended a lecture on love outside of marriage.

Armed with an arrest warrant, Comstock appears in the hall. From there, he can see “lust shining from every face” in the audience while shameful words like “penis” and “sexual intercourse” are heard from the pontoon.

“It was too disgusting – I was forced to leave the meeting in a hurry”, the agent later recorded in his diary. When the lecture is over, Comstock follows Haywood backstage. The publisher is displeased and does not want to follow him, but Comstock grabs him by the scruff of the neck and drags him down the stairs. The postal policeman throws his prisoner into a horse-drawn carriage and sends the guilty seal to the nearest prison in the city.

“The Devil’s Flagger is now finally in custody”, says this thoughtful moral knight of the postal service.

Comstock has now caught yet another criminal, but he knows there are countless others with lustful thoughts out there. From 1873 to 1915, he is awake and asleep in seeking out scandalous writings and pictures, and the postal agent does not intend to stop this work until all “sex freaks” are punished.

“Sir. judge, that woman gave birth to a naked child!” Comstock says in this satirical cartoon from 1915.

Comstock moved to the den of sin

Anthony Comstock grew up on a very religious farm in New Canaan, Connecticut, where his mother read the Bible daily and on Sundays all family members attended church.

Contempt for all sexual material was acquired through mother’s milk, and piety followed Comstock when he enlisted in the Union army during the American Civil War in 1863. When the whiskey bottle was passed around the campfire, Comstock poured his portion on the ground instead of giving the wine. In this way, he soon got many people against him, but he didn’t care.

“Can I sacrifice my principles and my conscience for popularity?” NEVER!” he wrote in his journal.

For Comstock, alcohol was just like sexual desires, a test that a person had to pass. That’s why he was shocked when, at the age of 22, he moved to New York to look for work. Young men in the city of millions sought out erotic pictures and books, and in the bars the waitresses constantly flirted with the customers.

Young people engaged in extramarital sex, while dubious types secretly sold ‘syphilis bags’ – condoms – and so-called lady covers (the cap) and injections to prevent disease and pregnancy.


In the Christian youth organization Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) Comstock found rich support to fight against this disgrace in New York. The organization was connected to many powerful people, especially politicians.

As early as 1868, Comstock and the YMCA managed to force a law through the city that prohibited the display, sale, and advertising of “every obscene and irresponsible book,” which also included pamphlets and bold pictures. Books on subjects such as abortion and contraception were thus considered unacceptable.

After a great struggle, in 1873, the US Senate passed the legislation “Act of Obscene Litterature and Articles of Immoral Youths”, which later went by the name of the Comstock Act. Now all citizens should find their way back to a dignified life.

The New York Society for the Suppression of Wives (NYSSW) was founded by Comstock in 1873 and survived until the 1950s, long after his death.

Mail deliveries monitored

Ulysses S. Grant had barely signed these new laws when Comstock appeared at the forefront of maintaining these new laws. He had an entire army with him to investigate, seize, and even arrest people for indecency. For each person arrested, that person received half of the fine payment.

Comstock was especially pleased that he now had the power to read the mail of his countrymen, because they could send obscene material “secretly” through the mail.

Whenever Comstock’s snoopers tipped him off about a person sending obscene material or irresponsible books in the mail, he tore open the letter or package to bring down the offender. All such pictures and books were traditionally burned.

“He had a disgustingly pornographic figure – a huge cock inside a phone box.”

Comstock about a scary insertion he saw in a bar in Brooklyn.

He and his moral police used to go to newsstands to investigate whether magazines and newspapers were printing anything objectionable. In the spring of 1873, newspapers such as The New York Herald and The Sun were ordered to remove advertisements for midwives, because Comstock thought they were clever.

Bars and hotels were also patrolled and obscene items were seized. If anything resembled a penis, it was removed, and at one bar owner in Brooklyn, Comstock encountered a frightening sight.

“He had a disgustingly pornographic figure – a huge cock inside a telephone booth.” He wanted to stage this disgusting phenomenon in order to attract business or certain customers”, said the agent.

However, trade in bold images took place secretly between people in order to avoid fines. Comstock and his men now had to use more cunning methods to lure the outlaws out of hiding. They went into convenience stores and to barbers who often ran such illegal sales and asked for nude photos. If, for example, the shop owner offered them a pack of cigarettes with bold pictures inside, the seal was quickly arrested.

Comstock used the same tactics in 1877 when he arrested the book publisher Ezra Haywood. The agent had sent him a letter under a false name praising his work as an advocate for sexual freedom. On the same occasion, Comstock asked to be sent two books in the mail – pornographic books.

When Comstock received the books, he was able to arrest Haywood himself in Boston. A court sentenced the publisher to two years in prison and fined him one hundred dollars.

Comstock feared gins and books on medicine

For nearly 50 years, Anthony Comstock hated anything he considered immoral. Even gins and textbooks in medicine and biology were clever in his mind.

The dildo poisoned the soul

Comstock called the “rubber phenomenon with an immoral end” one part of the “self-poisoning of women.” The courts thought he had the right to stand and sentenced the dildo seller to fines. He seized a total of 30,000 of them.

Medical books under the microscope

“The way to brothels is through books,” said Comstock. He sought not only bold stories but also educational books. Even books on anatomy did not find favor with the postal service.

Belly dancing was degenerate

At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Comstock saw a “shameful example of moral degeneration” when he watched the belly dance. It was decided that dancers could not wear translucent clothing.

No dicks at the academy

In 1906, Comstock tried to have nudes banned from art colleges. He found it disturbing that students were drawing naked bodies – especially if young women had to look at penises. However, the court dismissed the case.

Gins lead people into trouble

Over the past ten years, Comstock has led a campaign against women wearing corsets and belly belts in shop windows. He wanted to have all this banned in the whole country, but failed in his mission.

Women fall into Comstock’s clutches

While Comstock mainly sought out men in the early years, after the arrest of Ezra Haywood, his attention was now focused on the so-called free lovers who believed, just like Haywood, that the state should not interfere with people’s sexual lives.

“These are weaklings, lazy, indolent and corrupt types, devoid of all decent morals,” declared Comstock, who also believed that such people “belong in a pigpen.”

Women’s rights activist Sara Chase, who gave a lecture on sexuality, was one of them. In 1878, the agent arrested her for selling an injection that, in addition to preventing diseases, could be used as contraception. However, Chase escaped punishment because it was not possible to prove that she had sold such an injection to promiscuous women. In order to mock this infamous law, Chase subsequently marketed the syringe under the name “Comstock Syringe”.

Ann Trow Lohman, better known as Madame Restell, was a well-known abortionist in the United States. She was arrested several times and described as a murderer in the press. LOOK

Women of less stature than Chase, however, often succumbed to Comstock’s furious attacks. In 1878, the 65-year-old Ann Trow Lohman, who helped women with abortions, was visited by a wealthy man she did not know. The gentleman – Comstock in disguise – requested birth control to prevent his wife from becoming pregnant. The woman agreed to this request and sold him some pills and a potion.

A week later, the man reappeared accompanied by two police officers and two journalists to arrest Lohman.

“What I worry about tomorrow” she told her son-in-law the day before she was due to appear in court.

Lohman’s fear of spending the last days of her life in prison was so great that she took her own life that very night.

This suicide made no difference to Comstock’s devout allies on the political right. Sure, his methods were ruthless, but the results spoke for themselves.

By 1893 he had more than 1,000 Americans tried, 800,000 obscene pictures seized, and about 100,000 objects of questionable character destroyed.

The song raged for 100 years

Although Comstock died in 1915, he did not take the law with him to the grave. His censorship policy lived on for half a century, and no less a man than FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover took advantage of his methods.

When Anthony Comstock died, he had lost some of his power in American society. Nevertheless, it took more than half a century for his censorship to end.

Not only did the Comstock Act survive for decades with very little relaxation—FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover also used Comstock’s methods. As a young law student, Hoover had been inspired by the postmaster general, and when he was director of the FBI, he saw in his own hands that the monitoring of communications was an important task in running the country. Hoover reinforced this methodology when he began eavesdropping on human conversations.

Over time, opposition to the Comstock Act grew. In the early 1950s, Hugh Hefner came out with his Playboy magazine, but despite the fact that the postal service initially seized the magazines due to pornographic content, Hefner sued the postal service and won. The verdict was a coup d’état for the Post’s censorship policy.

However, it was not until 1972 that Comstock’s law was repealed when the last restrictions on birth control were deemed unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court.

Comstock dethroned

While Comstock had initially sought out people at the bottom of society, power gradually got to his head, and from the end of the 19th century, the upper classes could also feel his breath on the back of their necks. Even the finest art galleries were not safe from the visits of Comstock, who tore down irresponsible pictures from the walls. But this progress of his was to be his downfall. The upper class – who lived by their own moral code – sued him and this guardian of morality now lost the political support of many people.

In 1913, New Jersey’s Passiac Daily News stated that Comstock “has so often made a nuisance of himself in the city that these military expeditions of his no longer attract attention.” Cartoonists portrayed him as a monk, and people had fun naming him “Saint Anthony.”

This constant policy of prohibition by Comstock made him a laughing stock in the press. Here he is depicted as a monk who is afraid of jinns.

In 1915, the 71-year-old Comstock finally retired, and three months later he died of pneumonia. According to himself, after 42 years of working at the post office, he had seized more than 160 tons of pornographic books and other material and had sentenced 2,740 people to a total of 566 years in prison.

The fact that 15 of those arrested committed suicide did not concern Comstock at all – in one annual report he wrote that hearing of their deaths was like “reading a pornographic story”.

Read more about Anthony Comstock

  • Amy Sohn: The Man Who Hated Women , Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021
  • Amy Werbel: Lust on Trial , Columbia University Press, 2018

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