There’s a coda popular amongst the atheist, skeptic, humanist culture of the day, often delivered with a cadence that mimics specifically Christopher Hitchens, who was so fond of repeating it. The line is a translation of the description of an etching by Goya: The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.
In this, the spookiest of months, it is a neatly appropriate time to spread back the curtain and look at our traumas, to strip off our flesh and dance in our skeletons, even for those of us who can’t dance because our feet were broken. It’s a time to look at ourselves and our culture, and to look at monsters.
I want to tell you about a monster; but not one who wore a mask and swung a knife. Not one of your bowler-hatted serial killers to give squeals and chills. No. I want to tell you about a monster of hatred, who killed people with slow-motion violence, and who cast a long, grim shadow.
Content warning: Sex, alcohol, abuse, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, suicide, weaponised suicide, religious puritanism. I’m not going to get into anything explicit, per se, but it’s definitely going to dredge up that kind of stuff.
Most of what’s going to come out of this is really the story of one man. Great man history is a really flawed way to view history – you know, guys like Alexander the Great and Napoleon didn’t actually change the world as much as their movements are the most visible parts of changes that were happening anyway, kinda. But in modern days, with industrialised systems in place that let us make the actions of a small number of people into rules that impact thousands of people, over dozens of years, you can often look to single people who planted the flags that everyone else then moved around until people got around to moving them. Bear that in mind as we talk about Anthony Comstock.
Anthony Comstock was born in 1844 to Polly Ann and Thomas Anthony Comstock, in Connecticut. In the 1860s, he served in the Union army in the Civil War, which means there’s at least one fight he wasn’t on the wrong side of. Comstock was a remarkably puritanical man, who would regularly write complaints to his commanding officers about the foul language of other soldiers, and, when they ignored him, wrote letters home to his family complaining about it. When the soldiers were allocated their liquor rations, Comstock would wait until everyone had partaken of theirs, then make a public showing of pouring his on the ground. Comstock was in this early stage of his life an already impressively sanctimonious dick.
When the war was over, Comstock took up a variety of legal jobs, working in part as the front-end of a puritanical crusade to try and diminish smut and maintain ‘traditional values’ in the world.This led to him managing to channel public resentment of ‘smut’ into a position of Postmaster General, in 1873. At this point it’s worth remembering that for all we talk about people who passed laws or who enforced laws, laws are big and complicated things, and if any given law is so bad, it’s often pretty easy to get it overturned. That’s how the story of Prohibition works, after all. A bad law set up by a bunch of moralising scolds that was enforced, opposed, then finally replaced. There are ways in which the works of one person can’t really, properly, change the world unless a lot of people are willing to go along with them. If you wanted to make laws that people would accept, you had to tap into something that was already there. Right?
What was already there, for Comstock, was a puritanical streak and an unreasonable, cruel hatred of women.
Comstock’s particular variety of censorship was, let’s say, very much part of his personal brand. It was called Comstockery – and it was thorough. He pushed the Grant administration to not just make it illegal to transmit and transfer pornography and lewd books, but to crack down on the people who were trying to distribute contraceptives and contraceptive information. This wasn’t just information about how to prevent pregnancy within a marriage, but included information about how to prevent or treat veneral diseases. Comstock’s flavour of censorship was so aggressive and so cruel that he even set up ‘sting’ operations, where he would contact doctors, pretending to be a woman in need of contraceptive advice, and when the doctor gave completely reasonable medical advice in response, would then have the letter seized as proof and the doctors arrested and fined. So strident was Comstock’s censorship that medical textbooks weren’t being mailed and doctors were being left unable to work from diagrams for just understanding the basic mechanics of how human bodies worked.
Make no mistake, it wasn’t just the doctors providing information to women that Comstock went after – he was aggressively anti-woman as well. He didn’t want them voting and he didn’t want them sending letters. He especially didn’t want them agitating for politics, and that meant he would at times have women arrested for sending each other passages of the Bible, as it showed up in his take of what was ‘obscene.’ Comstock’s power was sufficient that he could, through legal power, ruin women’s lives – many women who, without the means to survive the frightful conditions of prisons at the time, would commit suicide to avoid the outcome. This included prominent Abortionist and womens’ health advocate Ann Low Traham aka Madame Restell, and Ida Craddock, an author and free speech advocate.
Comstock was, as most public morality advocates, incredibly proud and loud about his achievements. He boasted of having destroyed fifteen tons of books, a quarter of a million plates for making books, and nearly four million pictures. If your personal brand made prominent, renowned women kill themselves to avoid you, you might think that you’d stepped into the realm of being a bad guy, but not Comstock. This piece of work boasted about it. About how he had killed women by hounding and harrassing them, and boasted of his death tally, as it racked up to fifteen suicides. From his side of things, he perceived this as a real victory against a problem, as a fight for public morality.
Because Comstock hated women.
And lucky for him, so did the public.
Comstock claimed that he wasn’t against ‘normal’ birth control, ie, between a man and a woman in a married arrangement. This was however at odds with his deliberate inducement of doctors into giving him information, then arresting them, all while posing as someone married. Comstock’s argument was that if married people knew and had access to that information, they could pass it on to unmarried couples – which would result in ‘self pollution’ of the populace. You can see the way this argument doesn’t hold – he was fine with married people having birth control, but if they ever looked for it, that was a sign they were going to use it for immoral purposes.
Comstock laws outlived Comstock. They outlived him, despite being in many cases extremely ill-defined, and obviously unconstitutional. Cases under Comstock law were being tried into the late 50s, when they were officially struck down, and they fell apart thanks to a wide variety of opposition. Oh, sure, there were your typical civil liberty types, publishers, free speech advocates and free love movement rebels, but there was also at least one total oddball group throwing against the Comstock laws in the fifties: Eugenicists.
The argument, the eugenics folks argued, was that giving pornographers and the promiscuous access to birth control would mean they’d be less likely to reproduce. That could mean the overall benefit to the society at large would be better, because you’d have fewer masturbators, pornographers and smut peddlers, over time.
Yeah, don’t go buddying up with the eugenicists.
What are we left with, after this though? What did people do in order to get around these obscenity laws, and their relaxing versions? With Comstock dead in 1915, there’s a forty year gap in which people had to be making porn, but were doing so without the direct and intensely dangerous scrutiny of one of the worst Americans to ever live.
Well, people did what they always do. They worked around it.
The thing that always let American producers work around American values was the fig-leaf of morality tales. You saw this back in movies, where movies ‘based on’ the Bible had a lot of free license to include raunchy stuff and the edges of nipples and whatnot, with all the blood and gore that was generally seen as above reproach. You’re not going to call the Bible obscene, after all. In the Comstock era of book and story publishing, the solution was to make stories about all your favourite raunchy cool stuff, like murder and tits, but to include some sort of twist or coda at the end, ideally as close to the end as possible, to show that all that cool stuff that you’d been enjoying was bad and nobody should like it.
Some of these novels were so blatant about this, about the tacked-on ending, they’d include the ending within one or two pages, or a single paragraph. There were rules, rules about what they could get away with, rules that they kept leaning on and adjusting and making more and more broad exceptions to, in the name of getting smutty books out in the hands of people who wanted them, without explicitly flying in the face of these incredibly ill defined laws.
This is where a lot of classic, pulp-era tropes, often the really homophobic ones, would come up. Slashers and killers would be revealed to be homosexuals or perverts, because that othered them and showed the ‘moral failing’ of those lifestyles. Homosexual characters would be killed off, and replaced. Most of those tropes you hear people talking about now when dealing with explicitly shown gay relationships got their root here, where they were used to protect gay innuendo from falling afoul of these laws.
And that’s where we are now, in this messed up today. Even now, there are people who rage at creators for handling gay storytelling ‘wrong’ because they see it as beholden to and fulfilling the values of earlier gay media, which was itself, trying to reach its way through the mists laid out by those who would try and stop it existing entirely. The miasma of a history that included one profoundly damaged, explicitly evil man, who was so strung up about sex that he drove women to suicide while flaunting his own piety.
It is a long, long shadow that Anthony Comstock casts.
Perhaps all the darker, at Halloween.