Anthony Comstock (1844-1915) was a campaigner for moral standards whose efforts brought about the first federal laws to combat the pornography trade in the United States. The "Comstock Law" is still in effect in federal laws to prohibit obscenity; the laws are vigorously enforced regarding child pornography on the Internet and in print.
Comstock was born in Connecticut, and fought for the Union in the Civil War. Saddened by the irreverent and lewd speech and attitudes of his fellow soldiers, he made his first attempts to reform their behavior. He settled in New York, where, in 1873, he founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.
In 1873, Comstock was successful in pressing Congress to enact legislation (known as the Comstock Act) making it illegal to send "obscene, lewd or lascivious" items in the mail, with penalties up to ten years in prison. This included any pornography as well as information on contraception, birth control or abortion, at the time considered legally obscene and thus not protected speech under the First Amendment. Comstock was appointed Special Agent for the United States Post Office with powers to enforce the new law. Over the next forty-two years, he was responsible for the jailing of 3,600 pornographers, while a huge quantity of pornographic material, indecent articles, contraceptives and abortifacients were seized and destroyed. In one year alone, 14,200 lb of pornographic photographic plates, 134,000 lb of pornographic books, 200,000 photographs and images, 31,500 boxes of pills and potions, and 60,300 obscene articles were destroyed. It is estimated that fifteen tons of pornographic books and publications, and four million photographs, were destroyed as a result of his labors during his long career.
The Comstock Act was amended in 1923 to remove the prohibitions on distributing information on contraception and birth control advocate Margaret Sanger.
Comstock was an influence on J. Edgar Hoover, who as a young law student researched Comstock's methods of work.
- "No sect nor class has ever publicly sided with the smut dealer, except the Infidels, the Liberals and the Free-lovers"
- Beisel, Nicola. Imperiled innocents: Anthony Comstock and family reproduction in Victorian America (1998)
- Bill Bryson, Made in America (1994) pp 371-374