In January of 1888, Anthony Comstock led a raid on four New York anatomical museums – The Parisian Museum, The European Museum, the Egyptian Musée, and Kahn’s Museum of Anatomy – declaring their exhibits to be “obscene and immoral.” The police arrested 15 men, turned the museums “upside down” and loaded six police vans with female figures in wax and clay.
The New York Herald noted, “Mr. Comstock is well versed in legal lore and believed the same section of the Penal Code that would justify him in seizing a photograph of ‘The Birth of Venus’ would back him in capturing the horrible exhibits in the museums of anatomy.”
Most of the men arrested entered guilty pleas and got off with fines of $50 to $250. After the convictions, Comstock and eight other men went to police headquarters and destroyed close to 200 wax and plaster figures valued at $37,500. The New York World reported, “For a couple of hours the swinging of sledge and axe was responded to by a crashing sound as of broken glass.”
The exhibits from Louis J. Kahn’s museum, however, were spared pending the conclusion of a trial. The Kahn museum, a much more established enterprise, had the resources and inclination to put up a spirited defense. When a jury refused to shut down Kahn’s museum, Comstock complained bitterly that he wasn’t able to destroy the exhibits which included, as he stated in his own notes, “37 cases of filthy penises.”
Comstock didn’t give up on wax. In 1896 he lobbied for an amendment to the state penal code that outlawed all museums of anatomy save those “designed for physicians or medical students when kept to their lawful uses or purposes.” The bill also included a ban on performances by women wearing tights. The effort failed, and the Albany Argus asked, “What would the legislative session be should the Hon. Anthony Comstock and his freak bills be some day taken from us?”
In February of 1905, Anthony Comstock struck again, raiding Dr. Di Bol’s Museum of Anatomy (next-door to Tom Sharkey’s saloon). The New York World reported, “Anthony Comstock spent some of the happiest hours of his life this afternoon.” The police arrested five men and took four wagonloads of exhibits to the station-house.
The New York Sun described what happened next:
“The stuff was piled at the back of the station house, where the stove is. Pretty soon Sgt. Carson at the desk jumped as he saw the figure of a man in the last stages of leprosy drop its head over its shoulder. ‘The thing’s moving, s’help me!’ he exclaimed. He looked closer. Tears were running down the leper’s nose. Then it dawned on him that waxen things would melt, and they were carted down cellar to harden in strange poses.”
Upon his conviction, Dr. Di Bol appealed, but in March of 1906 the verdict was upheld. When informed, Comstock personally took an axe to Di Bol’s wax figures that had been kept at the Criminal Courts building, making “considerable noise” in the process.
In March of 1911, Comstock took one more swing at wax figures by complaining about the figures displaying lingerie in New York store windows, threatening the owners with fines and imprisonment. All of the merchants complied with his wishes, removing the figures.
The U.S.A.’s first public anatomical museum opened in the 1840s; the last closed its doors around 1930. In the decades following the end of the Civil War, museums of anatomy could be found in New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, St. Louis, and New Orleans.
Created between 1780 and 1782, the original anatomical Venus by Clemente Susini (above) can still be seen at a science museum in Florence, Italy. Known as ‘the Medici Venus,’ the life-size wax figure can be “dissected” into seven anatomically correct layers.