Gimme

In October of 1893, Charles Bathgate Beck died and left to charity a New York real estate fortune estimated at $5 million. The “alleged” children of Charles’ bachelor uncle, Andrew Bathgate, and his housekeeper, Delia Malloy, were specifically disinherited but contested the will anyway, and the legal wrangle went on for years.

But Anthony Comstock instigated a sideshow that added more color to the proceedings. After specifying several bequests, the will of Charles Beck read, “All the rest, residue and remainder of my estate I give and bequeath to the following named institutions and societies in the city of New York in equal proportions, share and share alike, to wit: Columbia College, the Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Hospital, the Society for the Prevention of Crime, and the New York Hospital, to have and to hold to them and each of their successors and assigns forever.”

Comstock insisted that Beck, when he listed “the Society for the Prevention of Crime” led by the Rev. Dr. Charles Henry Parkhurst, really meant the Society for the Suppression of Vice led by Anthony Comstock, and that Beck’s attorney had listed the other society in error. Hence Comstock was in line for a bequest of more than $200,000.

In November of 1896, the court ruled in favor of Parkhurst.

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Loose Again

Slave 1

In May of 1904, Anthony Comstock arrested Joseph Levy and his son Emanuel on the charge of selling obscene pictures. One of the pictures was “The Slave Market” by John-Leon Gerome. In an article headlined COMSTOCK LOOSE AGAIN, the reporter noted, “Comstock said it did not make any difference whether they had been in the [Paris] salon or not. He said that he once secured convictions on seven pictures which were copies of exhibits in the salon of ’75, and that they were confirmed by Supreme Court Justice [John R.] Brady, who is an art connoisseur.”

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Gerome did at least four paintings of slave markets; shown are the two most likely candidates.

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Show & Tell

In February of 1873, while lobbying in Washington, D.C., Anthony Comstock organized, in the words of Amy Sohn in The Man Who Hated Women, “the most vivid exhibition of sex toys the capital had ever seen.” On a mahogany table in the chambers of Vice President Schuyler Colfax, Senators and Representatives feasted their eyes on obscene engravings, woodcuts, photos, books and playing cards, and were able to handle many “rubber articles.”

“At first a few were present,” Comstock recalled, “[but] as they became impressed with the facts presented, they went for their colleagues, until the room was well filled.”

Comstock not only filled the room, he also got the legislation he wanted, known soon as The Comstock Act. But he soon felt the act needed strengthening, with stiffer penalties. In February of 1876, he returned to Washington and brought his road show to the House Postal Committee. The National Republican noted, “Mr. Comstock had with him for exhibition a large lot of the worst specimens of pictures and appliances for the induction and cultivation of vicious practices that could be imagined by the basest mind. The committee put on its spectacles and investigated them with fear and trembling, as well it might, for really the ingenuity displayed in efforts to demoralize the youth of this country surpasses credibility.”

In February of 1880, Comstock was back for an encore. The Brooklyn Union and Argus reported, “Anthony Comstock yesterday presented to the House Postal Committee his views upon excluding obscene literature and lottery matters from the mails. Mr. Comstock exhibited to the committee some samples of material he has confiscated. Mr. Comstock has a keen sense on the subject. What he does not know about it, learned, of course, in his moral hunts, is not worth finding out.”

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Atrocious Viciousness

Alvin 2

In January of 1889, Anthony Comstock arrested actor Charles L. Davis, better known as his character “Alvin Joslin,” for possession of a picture album imported from France. Comstock characterized the pictures as “atrocious portraits of viciousness.” The Illustrated Police News noted, “The pictures were in his trunk. They numbered eighty-four and most of them were abominably vile… One group, in which the characters were dressed as monks and nuns, were even worse than those seized some time ago in the apartments of Le Grange Browne, on Hicks Street, Brooklyn. (1)”

Comstock was tipped off by one Frederick Myersohn who said Comstock would find the album locked in Davis’s traveling trunk at the Morton House on Broadway. David pointed out that Myersohn had informed on him for revenge after he had Myersohn arrested for theft. Probably true, but Davis was fined $100 anyway.

Alvin 1

(1) In September of 1888, local police, “at the instance of Anthony Comstock,” arrested Le Grange Brown, a young photographer, in his room at his parents’ house. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported “They also captured 520 photographs and 239 negatives which went into the possession of Anthony Comstock after being used against the prisoner.” Before his case came to trial, Browne skipped bail and fled to Canada, where he died in October, 1889, at the age of 29.

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Buttons

In June of 1877, Anthony Comstock purchased sleeve buttons “with obscene figures in basso relievo” from a shop on Broadway, and then found two more vendors on Broadway selling similar buttons. The three men were taken to the Tombs police court and required to furnish $500 bail.

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At War with the Condom

Comstock Schmid 2

The original “Comstock Law” of 1873 bundled contraception with pornography:

“Every obscene, lewd, or lascivious, and every filthy book, pamphlet, picture, paper, letter, writing, print, or other publication of an indecent character, and every article or thing designed, adapted, or intended for preventing conception… is hereby declared to be non-mailable matter and shall not be conveyed in the mails.” Drop a condom in the mail and you could be fined $5,000 and/or imprisoned for five years.

And now, a necessary digression on Julius Schmid.

Arriving in New York at the age of 17, Julius Schmid was a young cripple who could walk only with the aid of a crutch. “Nobody wanted to hire a crippled boy,” he said in a 1923 interview. But he found work at a slaughter house, on the night shift, cleaning. After two years of offal and mockery from fellow workers, he landed a job in a drug store, looking after the druggist’s dogs and cleaning the store. There he saw perfume bottles in a clear wrapper made from an ox’s or sheep’s intestine, the “caecum,” a.k.a. the “blind intestine” or cul de sac, a tube-like membrane with an opening at one end. In Europe, it had long been used as a condom, and Schmid knew where he could get these membranes virtually for free.

He spent two weeks of nights learning to treat the membranes so they would resemble the European version. Once he sorted that out, he made a gross (a dozen dozen) of skins and took them to McKesson & Robbins. He interviewed the man who bought foreign skins, and came away with $5 and an order for another two gross when he had them made. Schmid quit his job at the drug store and never looked back.

In addition to the buyer at McKesson & Robbins, customers came from the neighborhood prostitutes and their clients in the Tenderloin district. They were big fans of disease- and conception-prevention, especially at a price much lower than European skins.

In September of 1890, Anthony Comstock raided Schmid’s home and arrested him for selling condoms. He confiscated 696 skins and “one form for manufacturing same.” Aine Collier, in The Humble Little Condom, writes, “It was a sad sight to see the menacing Comstock, so tall and stout, pushing the diminutive Schmidt—who had to walk with crutches—out to the horse-drawn paddy wagon.” After a court hearing, Schmid was $50 poorer but undeterred.

In September of 1903, Ossian G. Lyon and Joseph Laubach, president and treasurer of the Lyon Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio, were arraigned before the United States commissioner at Cleveland for misuse of the mails, i.e., shipping rubber goods that “are contrary to good morals.” The arrests were made at the instigation of Anthony Comstock, who was attempting to cut off New York’s condom supply at the source.

In March of 1911, Julius Schmid was again arrested by Anthony Comstock, charged with “making unlawful and licentious articles,” and “a concoction which it is claimed by the officials is intended to aid race suicide” (i.e., a condom which would enable white couples to have sex without producing white babies, thus hastening the day when the white race dies under a flood of brown, black and yellow babies). The authorities ordered the destruction of seized items valued at $25,000.

But the diminutive Schmid was now a wealthy man, a diversified and respected manufacturer and gentleman farmer in Sullivan County. In 1909, Schmid had toured Europe for three months with his wife and sons in their chauffeur-driven Packard, which accompanied them on the voyage over. A motorized wheelchair had replaced his crutches, and rode with him in the car. In 1911, one can imagine Schmid’s lawyers brushing Comstock off their coat sleeves.

In October of 1911, Anthony Comstock revisited Akron, again arrested O.G. Lyon and also John Hadfield, head of the Hadfield Rubber Company, on charges of manufacturing and disposing of rubber goods for immoral purposes, i.e., shipping condoms to drugstores, and thus misusing the U.S. mails. Articles, besides molds and utensils, to the value of $25,000, were confiscated. Hadfield was the national authority on the manufacture of “dipped rubber goods” such as toy balloons, rubber gloves and other seamless items. Hadfield pled guilty and received a suspended sentence.

What was Comstock’s problem with condoms? Given that his crusade for purity was meant to save boys and girls from impure influences, it’s a valid question.

Mary Alden Hopkins interviewed Comstock for Harper’s Weekly in May of 1915 and she wondered as well. “I was somewhat confused at first that Mr. Comstock should class contraceptives with pornographic objects which debauch children’s fancies,” she wrote.

Comstock replied, “If you open the door to anything, the filth will all pour in and the degradation of youth will follow… The prevention of conception would work the greatest demoralization. God has set certain natural barriers. If you turn loose the passions and break down that fear you bring worse disaster than the war. It would debase sacred things, break down the health of women and disseminate a greater curse than the plagues and diseases of Europe.”

As for women who would be harmed by pregnancy, Comstock said, “Can they not use self-control? Or must they sink to the level of the beasts?”

Lucy Huffaker, interviewing Comstock in May of 1915 for the New York Tribune, received similar replies. Comstock asked, rhetorically, “Are we to have homes or brothels? Is the womanhood of our country to be dragged in the dust? Are men and women to practice no self-control? Is there to be no semblance of decency left in life?”

Anthony Comstock died four months later, in September of 1915. Had he lived, it is possible that the events and changes of the following years would have killed him over and over again.

During World War I, when Germany was cut off as a source of condoms, the Allies turned to Julius Schmid. But when American soldiers entered the war in 1917, they were ordered to practice “moral prophylaxis” in France. Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy, wrote, “It is wicked to encourage and approve placing in the hands of the men an appliance which will lead them to think that they may indulge in practices which are not sanctioned by moral, military or civil law, with impunity, and the use of which would tend to subvert and destroy the very foundations of our moral and Christian beliefs and teachings in regard to these sexual matters.”

“Moral prophylaxis” led to almost 400,000 cases of syphilis and gonorrhea among American soldiers and sailors.

In January of 1918, Judge Frederick Crane of the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that physicians could provide contraceptives to married couples for the prevention of disease, and condoms became legal.

Julius Schmid prospered, buying eight million skins a year from large meat packers. While sales of his skins were lucrative, Schmid’s greatest innovation was a safe, vulcanized rubber condom. Schmid purchased a condom plant in Germany, dismantled it and moved it to Little Falls, New Jersey.

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Latex, rubber suspended in water, was invented in 1920. Youngs Rubber Company was the first to manufacture a latex condom. In 1930, Fred Killian of Akron, Ohio, invented an automated assembly line that could produce thousands of latex condoms a day, and licensed it to other manufacturers. The number of condoms sold in the United States soared; by 1931, the top fifteen manufacturers were producing more than a million condoms each day.

In 1932, Henry Luce’s Fortune magazine crowned Julius Schmid as the King of the Condom.

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Bridge Jumper

Brodie Leap

Steve Brodie was famous for his successful leap from the Brooklyn Bridge in 1886, which provided the celebrity he needed to open his own saloon on the Bowery in New York City.

Brodie Saloon

In October of 1891, Anthony Comstock first raided Brodie’s saloon and arrested him because he had displayed “pictures and literature calculated to corrupt the morals of frequenters of his place.” Comstock confiscated 118 framed pictures and a large album of “queer photos” which Brodie had bought in Paris. Brodie was fined $50 and had to forfeit his pictures.

In March of 1895, Comstock again raided Brodie’s saloon, arrested the bartender, who spent 30 days in jail, and seized another 80 pictures. Steve Brodie’s brother Tom was present and said Comstock and his assistant took, “about all the pictures we had with any women in them.” Tom Brodie asked to see Comstock’s warrant. “Does it say anything about frames?” he asked. It did not, and Comstock spent another 45 minutes removing the pictures from the frames.

Tom Brodie said Comstock also carried off an oil painting that hung over the bar, “for which Steve paid $7,500 in Boston. It was kind of a dream… it was called Tannhäuser. He was lying on a couch, and about twenty women—fairies I think they were—anyhow they were dressed like fairies—were dancing around him.”

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“Tannhäuser in the Venusberg” by August von Heckel

In June, Comstock appeared before the N.Y. Excise Commission and attempted to strip Brodie of his saloon license, saying that although the pictures seized were by celebrated French artists, “they would never have been hung in Brodie’s place except to be a drawing card for the vicious.” He untied a bundle and, after the ladies present were ushered out of the room, the pictures were inspected by members of the board. By a vote of 2-1, Comstock’s charges were dismissed and Brodie got his license. Newspapers reported that Comstock was “much chagrined,” and noted “there was joy in the Bowery last night.”

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No Shooting

Secret Service

In 1911, Anthony Comstock announced that he would compel theater owners to desist in advertising their motion pictures with posters displaying shooting scenes. That August, New York’s Thalia Theatre put up posters advertising “The Chief of the Secret Service,” which contained much gunplay. But at the last moment they changed the bill out of fear of Comstock’s reaction. As a result, 500 theater-goers left their seats, besieged the box office and demanded their money back. The police were called but could not clear the streets until an arrangement was made to return everyone’s money. In parting, they demanded that the posters be taken down. The film was shown without rioting in other American cities.

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Big Dog

Comstock Pond Stamp

“To him passion was, like rabies, a disease. One touch of lewdness could make a whole world mad. Not drink but sex was the big dog which had come close enough to Comstock to breathe upon him.”

— Heywood Broun in Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord (1927)

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Blood & Thunder

boys

In New York City, Frank Tousey was a publisher of dime novels and newspapers for boys. In March of 1884, Anthony Comstock had Tousey arrested for reprinting stories from G. W. M. Reynolds’ The Mysteries of the Court of London. An Englishman, Reynolds wrote Victorian mysteries with elements of Gothic novels – haunted castles, damsels in distress and nefarious villains.

Court 2

Although somewhat spicy, Reynolds’ stories had been in print and on sale in New York for more than 20 years. Tousey’s lawyer claimed Comstock’s raid was a personal vendetta sparked by caricatures in The Judge, a satirical magazine his client had formerly published in which “he ridiculed Comstock in every possible way.”

Tousey, and two clerks who had been arrested with him, was ultimately released but had to destroy the printing plates of The Mysteries of the Court of London to avoid further prosecution. Tousey was also ordered to discontinue publication of the James Boys Weekly, “under the law prohibiting the making of heroes out of notorious criminals.”

James

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