Enter Anthony Comstock, the Chief Special Agent for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Comstock was a media darling of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His crusades against pornography, alcohol, tobacco, birth control and abortion made headlines for more than 30 years.
In 1872, Comstock accompanied a police captain and a reporter for the New York Tribune on a raid of two stationery stores where he had purchased pictures and books that he declared obscene. Six people were arrested, and Comstock made headlines. Eager to build upon his success, he took a suitcase filled with the pornographic items he had collected to Washington, DC, where the Congress was dealing with some much more serious scandals of its own involving bribes of its members by the construction company Crédit Mobilier and fraud involving congressional underwriting of the expansion of the Union Pacific Railroad.
The legislators seized this opportunity to divert the attention of the press and the public from these growing political scandals and crimes. They embraced Comstock’s cause, and passed legislation which he had written (known today as the Comstock Act) that prohibited the possession, advertising, sale and interstate transport of “obscene” materials, as well as information on contraception and abortion.
Then, as now, politicians and other public officials recognized that they could gain tremendous political leverage by rallying to protect children from both real and imagined threats to their innocence and virtue. The press flocked to such stories, no matter how little data supported the sometimes-outrageous fears and claims. Few people dared to point out the flaws, for doing so exposed them to the risk of being labeled “anti-child.”
The Congress of 1872 took full advantage of this hysteria to deflect attention from its members’ financial and ethical transgressions. They appointed Anthony Comstock a Postal Inspector, which gave him broad police powers that he exercised with great vigor and much press coverage. His motto was “Morals, not art or literature.” By the year 1900, according to a report of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, he had arrested 2,385 people and destroyed 73,608 pounds of books, along with many other items.
But Comstock’s concerns were not limited to sex. He worried that the crimes depicted in dime novels—including those stories aimed specifically at girls—would lead to copycat murders, burglaries, abductions and counterfeiting. In his 1883 book Traps for the Young, Comstock referred to dime novels and storypapers as “evil reading [which] debases, degrades, perverts, and turns away from lofty aims to follow examples of corruption and criminality.” He added with typical melodramatic flair that such “vile books and papers are branding-irons heated in the fires of hell, and used by Satan to sear the highest life of the soul.”