George Brennan was collateral damage.
For years, Anthony Comstock had been gunning for Town Topics, a New York scandal sheet that reported on saucy behavior in high society. In January of 1891, he had his best shot. A man named Alphonse Tames told Comstock that his sister, Agnes Tames, had received a copy of Town Topics in a sealed and stamped envelope, with an immorally suggestive story, “An Easy Condition: How Mr. Gettetheyre Was Forgiven,” called to her attention.
Comstock, in his complaint, said the George Brennan “did write, make, utter, give away, and publish certain obscene, lewd, and indecent papers, which are too improper to spread upon this complaint, but a copy of which hereto is attached.”
Comstock first arrested Eugene D. Mann, the editor of Town Topics, and a clerk, Eli J.F. Randolph, who happened to be in the office at the time. They were perplexed, having never heard of Agnes Tames or George Brennan. But not as perplexed as George Brennan.
Brennan was arrested and charged with writing the nasty letter that accompanied the paper. Then it was said the letter was dictated to him by an overly ardent suitor of Miss Tames, who was either a relative of Brennan or a former roommate. Then it was said that Brennan only addressed the envelope. Then it was said that he had only placed the letter in the mail. His bail was set at $2,500, which he did not have, and he spent two months locked up in the Ludlow Street Jail.
In March, Brennan was acquitted of sending an obscene letter, a federal offense, in the United States Court. As Brennan left the court room, Comstock had him rearrested for writing an obscene letter, a New York state offense. In the Court of Special Sessions, the judge, learning Brennan had already been acquitted in the U.S. Court, immediately released him. Comstock said he would take the case before the Grand Jury and have Brennan indicted again. He noted, “I have noticed in these two cases an evident intention on the part of the Court in dismissing these complaints to do it in such manner as to imply at least a censure and to reflect on my judgment… each of you Judges will see that I have been unfairly dealt with.”
The New York World noted, “From which it would seem that Comstock thinks himself on trial and simply wants to vindicate his judgment at the sacrifice of Brennan’s liberty.”
In May, Comstock had Brennan arrested for a third time, and again “committed to the Tombs,” New York City’s prison. This time, friends made bail. The case went to the Court of Special Sessions which tossed the case to General Sessions, where it languished until June of 1892, as each Assistant District Attorney assigned to the case treated it like a hot potato.
When it finally came to trial, Comstock took the opportunity to mock Brennan’s lawyer, prompting the judge to say, “Mr. Comstock, you will have to stop laughing. You have had experience enough, I should think, to know how a witness should act while on the stand. This prisoner is on trial for his liberty and I should think that you would realize his position. You will please answer questions without flourishes or laughter.”
As accounts of Brennan’s trials no longer appeared in the press after June 1892, the silence suggests that he was at last set free. As he was the sole support of his mother and sisters, and had been unable to hold a job for almost two years due to his frequent imprisonments, I am sure there was much rejoicing.
Town Topics was a weekly published in New York City by William D. Mann and edited by his brother, Eugene D. Mann. Town Topics would print an innocuous article with the name of an individual on one side of a page, and, across the page, an article with details of a scandal but without the name of the person involved. By running the identifying article and the scandal article separately, William and Eugene hoped to avoid liability for libel and slander. They were not always successful.