The Lustful Turk

Comstock Harem

In February of 1873, Anthony Comstock caused the arrest of James Sullivan, a New York bookseller. Comstock had earlier visited Sullivan’s store and, laying three dollars on the counter, said, “I want a copy of ‘The Lustful Turk.’” Sullivan said he did not carry such books. Comstock said he wanted it for a friend who lived in the country. Again, Sullivan said he did not carry books of that type, and Comstock left the store.

And what was “The Lustful Turk”? Nothing less than a classic of Victorian pornography, first published in London in 1828 by its author, John Benjamin Brookes.

By 1842, “The Lustful Turk” was showing up in pushcarts on the streets of New York. Richard Hobbes was the first New York publisher to be arrested for its sale, and editions of “The Lustful Turk” were made available by the likes of New York’s William Haynes (“the father of America’s obscene book trade”), George Ackerman and Jeremiah H. Farrell, men who published tens of thousands of copies of hundreds of erotic titles. Comstock would surely have seen such books, and been horrified by them, when he was in the Union army during the Civil War, as soldiers were a booming market for pornography.

The full title of the American edition was “The Lustful Turk, or Scenes in the Harum of an Eastern Potentate faithfully and vividly depicting in a series of letters from a young and beautiful English lady to her friend in England the full particulars of her ravishment and of her complete abandonment to all the salacious tastes of the Turks, the whole being described with that zest and simplicity which always gives guarantee of authenticity.”

Similar titles in the genre included “Fanny Hill,” “The Lascivious London Beauty,” “The Beautiful Creole of Havana,” “Only a Boy,” “Peep Behind the Curtains of a Female Seminary” and “The Life and Amours of the Beautiful, Gay and Dashing Kate Percival, The Belle of the Delaware.” All of these were an immediate cause for arrest, but fabulously profitable to those who dared to sell them.

But what of James Sullivan? After his visit to Sullivan’s shop, Comstock, writing as “Jerry Baxter,” sent to Sullivan for a circular advertising “fancy literature.” A circular arrived but had no name or address to show that it came from Sullivan. But Comstock arrested Sullivan anyway, for mailing information on where pornographic books could be obtained. At Sullivan’s trial in January of 1874, Comstock swore that the circular came from Sullivan. Sullivan swore that it did not. Judge Charles L. Benedict accepted Comstock’s testimony and the circular as prima facie (accepted as correct until proven otherwise) evidence, and sentenced Sullivan to one year in prison and a fine of $500.

***

“The Lustful Turk” has been continuously in print since its first publication in 1828. For a longer discussion, see The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth Century England (1966), pp.197-216, by Steven Marcus, which will save you the trouble of reading the book itself.

Apologies to Jean-Léon Gérôme for the altered version of his “Pool in a Harem” (1876) above.

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