The Comstock Anniversary

Tom Hymes
The anniversary of one of the most execrable laws ever passed by Congress occurred two days ago.

The year was 1873, not the best of times for the United States, mired as it was not only in a stock market crash and resulting depression, but also the second corruption-ridden presidential term of Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant.

Perhaps to take citizens' attention off these and other national woes, Congress passed The Comstock Act, which became law on March 3 and outlawed the distribution through the U.S. Postal Service of "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" materials, including any information about birth control and abortion.

The law was the brainchild of Anthony Comstock (1844-1915, pictured above), a former dry goods clerk who, earlier that same year, had founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

A passionate defender of public morality, Comstock not only convinced Congress to pass the law named after him, but he also took personal responsibility for enforcing it, at one point even contacting the New York City police about the contents of George Bernard Shaw's play, Mrs. Warren's Profession. In retribution, Shaw coined the term "comstockery," defined as "censorship because of perceived obscenity or immorality."

The following is partial text of the Comstock Act:

"Be it enacted... That whoever, within the District of Columbia or any of the Territories of the United States...shall sell...or shall offer to sell, or to lend, or to give away, or in any manner to exhibit, or shall otherwise publish or offer to publish in any manner, or shall have in his possession, for any such purpose or purposes, an obscene book, pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular, print, picture, drawing or other representation, figure, or image on or of paper of other material, or any cast instrument, or other article of an immoral nature, or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever, for the prevention of conception, or for causing unlawful abortion, or shall advertise the same for sale, or shall write or print, or cause to be written or printed, any card, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement, or notice of any kind, stating when, where, how, or of whom, or by what means, any of the articles in this section…can be purchased or obtained, or shall manufacture, draw, or print, or in any wise make any of such articles, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction thereof in any court of the United States...he shall be imprisoned at hard labor in the penitentiary for not less than six months nor more than five years for each offense, or fined not less than one hundred dollars nor more than two thousand dollars, with costs of court."

It took until 1971 for Congress to remove the prohibition on birth control. Today, we are still fighting the forces of intolerance and comstockery directed at sexual expression and identity.