Anthony Comstock’s early life experiences fueled his fight against immorality in the 19th century, and his efforts can still be seen today.
Within the past 150 years, no figure is more identified with sexual repression and the movement for moral purity than Anthony Comstock. His efforts to eradicate sex and indecency from America’s consciousness launched the anti-vice movement in late nineteenth century New York City, and the results of his work can still be felt.
Comstock’s Childhood and Early Philosophy
Comstock was born on March 7, 1844, in New Canaan, Connecticut. His father, Thomas, was an affluent landowner with a farm and two sawmills; he and Anthony’s mother Polly descended from old Puritan families. The seven Comstock children endured an austere Protestant upbringing, and Anthony in particular loved to read Bible stories with his mother. Unfortunately he never excelled in secular subjects and was a particularly terrible speller.
But Comstock was absolutely suited for a purpose that did not require hours of book-learning: doing the Lord’s work, as he interpreted it. At school, Anthony often encountered advertisements for French decks (playing cards with photographs of nude women) or other salacious amusements for gentlemen. The presence of sexuality for sale directly opposed Anthony’s infallible sense of Godly propriety: he was developing his view that women and children were to be protected from men’s lusts at all costs; that their innate innocence was the ultimate example of God’s wisdom and grace, and must be preserved from male desire.
Epiphany in the War
Anthony Comstock volunteered for the Union Army in 1863 and saw light combat while stationed in northern Florida. His biggest concern and danger, as seen in his wartime diary entries, was not the Rebel Army but the intemperance of his fellow Union soldiers. Comstock’s Christian devotion became the butt of many pranks. It appears, however, that he found success in convincing some of his peers to abstain from the tobacco and whiskey that formed part of their usual rations. “O how much we need the arm of God to comfort and sustain us,” Comstock wrote in his diary on January 8, 1864. “3 out of the 7 [soldiers] that accompanied me [out of the barracks] Pledged themselves to me that they would not swear, drink nor chew tobacco while we were in the army (for 3 yrs).”
But Comstock himself was not free of wickedness. He struggled with the nearly-impossible goal of absolute Godliness made all the more difficult by his surroundings in the war. “Again tempted and found wanting,” he lamented in 1864. “Sin, sin. Oh how much peace and happiness is sacrificed on thy altar.” Another entry confesses, “This morning were severely tempted by Satan and after some time in my own weakness I failed.” Some scholars have interpreted this “weakness” as masturbation, which in the nineteenth century was considered horrific self-abuse to be avoided at all costs.
The Beginning of the Crusade
After his discharge from the army, Anthony Comstock settled in New York City—perhaps an odd choice for someone who abhorred sin as much as he did. Antebellum New York was a wildly diverse metropolis, with an abundance of commercialized sex in the forms of street prostitution, brothels and parlor houses, concert saloons (where alcohol and the white sex slave trade could be found) and a lively publishing industry of erotic postcards, photography and books.
But the time was also ripe for reform. Comstock’s zeal against all kinds of vice led him to assume the position of morality cop—in a milieu where actual cops were frequently in cahoots with commercial vice. Comstock began his modest crusade while employed in a dry-goods shop in lower Manhattan. The shop next to his sold obscene books and pictures; several times Comstock called the police to arrest the proprietor, a Mr. Conroy. The courts’ inability to keep Mr. Conroy behind bars fueled Comstock’s distrust of the police, whom he considered far too secular to ever abide by God’s standard of decency and sexual morality.
By 1871, Comstock’s name appeared in New York newspapers as an anti-vice crusader, with articles noting his pugnacity and supreme confidence in his work. But Comstock was just getting started: for the next forty years, his influence on the crackdown on purveyors of vice would swell as quickly as his infamy.
- Broun, Heywood and Margaret Leech. Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord. New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1927.