In August of 1876, Anthony Comstock reached out to Des Moines, Iowa, to snare Sarah Summers “for circulating obscene literature through the mails.” Summers had advertised in newspapers and received letters from every part of the country, hundreds of them from school girls. Described in the press as “this vile woman” and “the wretch already named,” Summers ran a business that Comstock described as of “a horrible character.” When Comstock pretended to be “an artless miss” in a decoy letter, he said the response from Summers was “perfectly damnable.” What was her vile, wretched, damnable, obscene business?

Summers sold love powders, hope in a packet, the thought that someone you love might love you back. Of the hundreds of letters seized, these were typical:

“Madame, Please inform me if that secret is sure, and I will send for it. I want nothing that will only make him stay by me a year. I want something that will make him stay be me till death. Answer as soon as you get this.”

“Dear Madam, I received your letter and was glad to hear from you, and that you are so kind as to be so greatly interested in and attentive to me. I will send you $1 for the powder, and I hope you can send it to me as soon as you can… I have tried a perfume recommended to be used for attraction, but it had no effect on him, and I am badly disappointed… Now, I hope I shall succeed with your powder. If I could I should be so happy. Send as soon as possible and oblige me. I shall let you know if I succeed.”

In printing the letters, the newspaper noted, “The proof that such correspondence is likely to come out may deter girls from writing.”

Love Philtre Waterhouse

Detail from “The Love Philtre” by John William Waterhouse


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