Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Anthony Comstock & The Comstock Act

In the early 1870’s a social crusader, Anthony Comstock lead the anti-obscenity movement in the United States. He lived in New York City and thought it was a den filled with sinners. He felt that the reason was because people were exposed to lewd material and pornography. This material according to him was found in books sold in Manhattan. He believed that no one should be able to get contraceptives because that prompted lust in the individual or those women should be allowed to have abortions.

Three years later, a twenty-seven-year-old dry-goods clerk named Anthony Comstock sought on his own initiative to enforce the YMCA-sponsored law against a stationer who sold dirty books

Comstock would expose bookstores that were selling what he determined to be erotic material. He would seek to enforce on his own a law established in 1868 that said that the spread of obscenity was a determent to single men living in boarding houses. This made him a hero in the eyes of the New York Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). He would appeal to the YMCAS for support in his fight of obscene material. His first test case came when he wanted to stop the distribution of a book by Victoria Woodhull that described an affair between a minister and one of his parishioners. He was able to make the case that this book was obscene and that since it was since it was using the U.S. mail as a means of distribution and that it violated an 1864. He was successful and won this case.

These successes lead the YMCA to making him the secretary of their group, a very powerful position. Comstock used this new power to lobby for stricter obscenity rules and laws and in 1873 the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use law was passed. This law was then referred to as the Comstock Act. Comstock was made a special agent of the Post Office and over the next 40 years acted as the governments censor claiming to have destroyed over 160 tons of obscene literature.


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