Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Comstockery

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 5, 2015

Comstockery is a word not often heard these days, but it’s a word that has had a serious impact on the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century.  What is comstockery?  It’s censorship on the basis that there’s perceived obscenity or immorality in a piece of art, whether it’s literature, visual arts, song, photography, or any other related domain.

While one might think that the word is an offshoot of the concept of sending someone to the stockades for public shaming after having committed a crime, the history is actually less complicated than that.  It is interesting, however, to note that both sending someone to the stockades and comstockery had to do with public shaming.

The word is directly related to Anthony Comstock.   And who was Anthony Comstock?

In 1872, using a pseudonym rather than his real name, Anthony Comstock (7 March 1844 – 21 September 1915) sent away for a copy of Victoria Woodhull’s book.  She was a women’s right activist and her book told the story of an affair between American preacher and reformer Henry Ward Beecher (24 June 1813 – 8 March 1887) — referred to in the press as America’s most famous preacher — and one of his parishioners.  It should be noted that Pastor Beecher was alleged to have strayed with three different women during his marriage to wife, Eunice Bullard White (3 August 1837 – 1897) with whom he had ten children.  He had an affair with poet, Edna Dean Proctor, and was accused of having affairs with Elizabeth Tilton (her husband, Theodore Tilton leveled the accusation in 1874), and Chloe Beach.

When he received the book, using a 1864 law that prohibited the distribution of obscene publications and images (where said definition was vague), he filed legal action against Victoria California Claflin Woodhull (23 September 1838 – 9 June 1927) and her sister Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin (26 October 1844 – 18 January 1823), who later became Lady Francis Cook by marriage.

SIDE NOTE 1:  Victoria Woodhull was the first female candidate for President of the United States, running for office in 1872.  She ran on the Equal Rights Party ticket, fifty years before American women had the right to vote.

SIDE NOTE 2:  While Victoria Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin were arrested, jailed, and prosecuted on obscenity charges leveled against them by Anthony Comstock.  They were acquitted of the charge.

SIDE NOTE 3:  Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin was the mistress of American capitalist Cornelius Vanderbilt (27 May 1794 – 4 January 1877) when she and her sister Victoria lived in New York City in the early 1870s.

Anthony Comstock founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and the year after the filing his unsuccessful action against Victoria Woodhull and her sister, Tennie, the U.S. Congress passed the “Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use” on March 3, 1873 which became colloquially referred to as the Comstock Laws.

The Act criminalized the sale and/or distribution of materials that were allegedly obscene or immoral, and made it a criminal offense to mail said materials through the federal postal system or to import said materials into the United States from abroad, whether by way of the federal postal system or any other means.  Once the Act was passed, Anthony Comstock was named a Special Agent and was made a Postal Inspector for the United States Post Office, a position he held until 1915 (forty-two years).

The Comstock Laws suppressed the works of authors such as D.H. Lawrence (11 September 1885 – 2 March 1930) and George Bernard Shaw (26 July 1856 – 2 November 1950) as well as medical texts.  Some say that George Bernard Shaw coined the term comstockery in 1905 to mock the rampant censorship that was an ingrained aspect of society.

SIDE NOTE 4:  When George Bernard Shaw was prosecuted for his 1905 play, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” he was acquitted on all charges.  The negative publicity received in the press only made the play more successful, and theater patron flocked to performances.

However, the term is found in an editorial in the New York Times dating back to 12 December 1895.  The editorial read in part:

Our esteemed contemporary the Courrier des Etats-Unis relates the melancholy sequel of Mr. COMSTOCK’S latest raid, or latest but one, in the interest of … … what will be readily understood if classified as Comstockery Justice Jerome has expressed the opinion of sane persons; and with pain that his colleagues on the bench have outnumbered him.

12 December 1895

It didn’t take long for the word to take hold (less than a year), as the Los Angeles Herald of February 28, 1897 (just over a year after the New York Times editorial was published) used it on page 20 of that edition.  The news bite originated with the New York Times, and was reprinted in the West Coast newspaper.  The news article was part of a larger column titled,”Books And Those Who Make Them” and the column was edited by Enoch Knight.  The snippet in question had to do with the Boston Bacchante at the Boston Public Library in Massachusetts.

But such a disposition is incompatible with the Puritan conscience, which refuses to be at rest until its doubts are finally laid.  When the Puritan conscience is complicated by culture, and questions arise touching the relation of art and morals, the result is very serious.  Were the trustees, after all, guilty of Philletinism and Comstockery?  Had they confounded immorality with morality, and assigned a work of art to a wrong jurisdiction?  Was there not some fourth dimension in which the postulates of the sculptor and the police can be reconciled?

Idiomation thereby pegs the word to the New York Times editorial staff on December 12, 1895 and the rest, as they say, is history.

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