Little Bits of History

Comstock Law

Posted in History by patriciahysell on March 3, 2011

The symbol of Comstock's Society for the Suppression of Vice.

March 3, 1873: The Comstock Law is enacted in the US. It is an amendment to the Post Office Act passed the year before. The Comstock Law made it illegal to send any “obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious” materials through the mail. Contraceptive devices as well as information concerning the topic were included in this category. Information on abortion was also included. The Comstock Law was only enacted if materials crossed state lines, so 24 states also passed similar laws to include mailing within their borders. These laws are collectively known as Comstock laws.

The federal law was supported by and named for Anthony Comstock, a United States Postal Inspector. Comstock was born in 1844 and served in the Union Army during the US Civil War. It was said he was disgusted by the profanity used by his fellow soldiers. After the War, he became active in the Young Men’s Christian Association in New York City. In 1873, he created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. This was to be the voice of those who knew better, the ones who could supervise the morality of the gutter-dwelling public. Comstock banned George Bernard Shaw’s work which provoked Shaw to invent a new word – Comstockery.

Comstock himself was despised by early civil libertarians, although church groups tended to support him. He was powerful in New York City and reached the level of United States Postal Service special agent. With this position, he was able to prosecute and persecute all those he deemed unsavory and sullying the morals of others. He went after commercial fraud and pornography with the same zeal. He also managed to shut down the Louisiana Lottery, the only legal lottery at the time – again for moral considerations.

He vigilantly pursued Victoria Woodhall, an early women’s liberation person. He repeatedly tried to shut down her paper and managed to do so after she printed an expose on the illicit affair between Reverend Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton. Woodhall stood up to Comstock and won her case. Ida Craddock committed suicide rather than appear in court and be ruined. She had authored and sent a marriage manual via the post. Comstock bragged that drove 15 people to suicide, apparently missing the irony.

“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.” – George Bernard Shaw

“As to the evil which results from a censorship, it is impossible to measure it, for it is impossible to tell where it ends.” – Jeremy Bentham

“Censorship always defeats it own purpose, for it creates in the end the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion.” – Henry Steele Commager

“Censorship feeds the dirty mind more than the four-letter word itself.” – Dick Cavett

Also on this day:
Vincent van Gogh – In 1853, Vincent van Gogh was born.
Soccer rules – In 1891, Penalty Spot Kicks were introduced for soccer.

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  1. Comstock Law | Free Legal News said, on March 3, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    […] unknown posted about this interesting story. Here is a small section of the postThe federal law was supported by and named for Anthony Comstock, a United States Postal Inspector. Comstock was born in 1844 and served in the Union Army during the US Civil War. It was said he was disgusted by the profanity used by his … […]

  2. GYSC said, on March 3, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    As a confessed Wikipedia addict (I don’t WANT therapy!) I have never even heard of the Comstock Law. Comstock Lode, yes. Thanks for the great post. Loved the financial angle on the Barings Bank Collapse last post. The fall of LTCM is even more exciting.


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