Gabriele’s Big Day


In March of 1897, Comstock seized 312 copies of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s The Triumph of Death, pronouncing it “filthy, obscene, lascivious, lewd, disgusting and indecent.” Because the publisher, George Richmond Sr., was not present for the raid, Comstock arrested his 22-year-old son, George Richmond Jr.  When Richmond Sr. arrived at the criminal court to free his son, he said that Richmond Jr. had nothing to do with the publication. Comstock shouted, “You hear that!? Arrest this man!” And so Richmond Sr. was placed under arrest, too.  

In April, the case came to trial. Agent George E. Oram, of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, was the first witness called. He testified that “after a consultation at the offices of the society, it was decided that pages 42, 43, 44, 171, 172, 177, 179, 180, 183, 184, 185, 186, 187, 396, 399 and 404 contained matter which was immoral and obscene.”

One can find the entire novel on Google Books, but to save time, here are a few passages from the pages listed above:

“Moreover, the passionate woman often delights in exaggerating the semblance of pleasure; because she knows well that will flatter the man’s virile pride and increase his ecstasy.”

“Then all the Enemy’s feline lasciviousness broke loose over him whom she believed already vanquished. She let down her hair, loosened her dress, permitted her natural perfume to be exhaled like a shrub of odoriferous flowers. She seemed to realize that she must disarm this man, that she must enervate him, and that she must crush him to prevent him from becoming dangerous.”

“The vision conjured up gave him so rude a shock that he felt his body traversed from tip to toe by a start similar to that caused by an electric discharge. In him appeared those terrible physical phenomena against the tyranny of which he was defenceless.”

“Both had difficulty in finding words; both their voices were changed in tone; both of them trembled, agitated by irresistible desire, feeling almost faint at the thought of the approaching ecstasies.”

“And Hippolyte, holding him thus by the temples, drew him towards her, enveloped him in a long caress, passed over his entire face a mouth which, languishing and warm, crept along in a multiple kiss. George recognized the divine, the incomparable mouth, the mouth which, he had thought so often, felt as if it rested on the surface of his soul.”

Try to imagine the scene at the society offices as these passages were read aloud.

But for now, back to the courtroom. Comstock had told the press the novel “was the nastiest thing I have ever read,” but when testifying under oath, he said he had not read the book, but had “made a digest from certain extracts.”

James Fiske, Richmond’s lawyer, later described “the stupid accusation tumbling down amid universal laughter.” All three judges in the Court of Special Sessions agreed that the book was neither obscene or immoral, and the Richmonds, Jr. and Sr., were acquitted and their books returned. Comstock was stung, but vowed aloud that he was “not through” with Richmond yet.

And so in July, Comstock indulged in one of his favorite tactics: rearresting someone for the same crime but under a different statute. This time it was a recently passed federal law making it illegal to send obscene material by an express service. Comstock said that Richmond had responded to written requests for “Triumph of Death” from three underage women in New Jersey, and sent the books to them via an express service.

However, during the trial it was revealed that the three young school girls – Ella Chambers, Alice Rosina Ascalle and Esther Seely –  were actually Anthony Comstock, who had penned all three letters in order to entrap Richmond. Given the book’s earlier vindication and Comstock’s shady methods, justice again frowned upon him.

In February of 1898, Richmond published another of D’Annunzio’s novels, “undeterred by any fear of the officious Mr. Comstock.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s