Larking with Uncle Tony

Comstock Uncle Tony

“One has but to see a child come within Mr. Comstock’s range of vision to realize the love for children that is a mainspring of his ceaseless warfare against the enemies of childhood. Over and over again have I seen him turn from what he was doing or saying to speak lovingly to some little child—whether acquaintance or stranger—who came with reach.”

— From Anthony Comstock, Fighter (1913) by Charles Gallaudet Trumbull

And then there was Johnny Flynn, a 9-year-old newsboy. The day after the Evening Telegram splashed line drawings of nudes from the Knoedler raid across the front page, and described Comstock as a cabbage-head, young Master Flynn was playing in City Hall Park with fellow newsboys when Anthony Comstock came upon the scene.

The New York World reported:

“Anthony Comstock played a little game of judge, jury and executioner yesterday afternoon… It was witnessed by fully fifty spectators, including two park policemen and five newspaper reporters.”

“Some of the boys had in their arms copies of an evening paper which Wednesday reproduced some of the Knoedler pictures that had recently aroused Mr. Comstock’s ire. It may have been the sight of the latter which aroused his fury. Whatever the cause, he had not drawn nearer than ten feet from the skylarking lads when he boiled over. He uttered something which sounded very like an oath, caught Flynn by the collar and, to the horror of the spectators, knocked the lad down and began kicking him violently. Those who saw the assault say he acted like a madman.

“A park policeman, rushing up, stopped the extraordinary chastisement, but appeared to stand in awe of the mighty Comstock, who, hearing expressions of indignation, changed his purpose and began to drag the weeping lad towards the police station in the basement of the City Hall. He paused on the steps and relinquished his hold, and two of the policemen took Flynn through the City Hall basement and out at the Broadway entrance.

“The crowd gathered about the doughty champion, who was still crimsoned by his anger and panting with excitement.

“’You have no right to strike him,’ said one of the newspaper men who saw the assault.

“’You are an infernal liar,’ said Mr. Comstock.

“’But you did strike him,’ said another. Mr. Comstock returned a reply which, could it be reproduced by the artist’s brush, would make his society stand aghast.”

In a piece entitled “Comstock as a Pugilist,” a reporter for the New York Herald recounted what he saw and heard, in the parlance of the sports page:

“Anthony Comstock, the censor of art publication, blossomed out yesterday as a ‘slugger’ of the first rank. To be sure, his antagonist was little ‘Johnny’ Flynn, a delicate, dirty and ragged newsboy of nine years, who lives with his mother, Katherine… and helps to keep a roof over her head by peddling the Evening Telegram and other journals.

“It is also a fact that Comstock had the advantage in size and weight. Young Flynn stands about three feet four inches… and weighs about forty pounds. The ‘unknown’ as Comstock was dubbed yesterday at the mill, is nearly six feet tall and tips the beam at 225 pounds.

“Before the first round was over, odds were freely offered on Comstock, and one enthusiastic admirer wanted to bet ten to one that Comstock could whip any sick woman in the Charity Hospital. The first round was brought to an abrupt close by the valiant Anthony sending his opponent to grass in a literal sense. So thoroughly inflamed with passion was Comstock that he deliberately proceeded to throttle young Flynn, and some spectators are credited with saying that he brought his heavily shod feet into play on the newsboy’s chest.

“Several of the men in the crowd were indelicate enough to shout ‘shame!’ and ‘coward!’ but the racket was brought to a sudden termination by the appearance of the park police… Comstock’s desperate appearance doubtless awed the park officers and he was permitted to depart unmolested. Flynn was badly used up, his left cheek having too suddenly come into contact with one of Comstock’s swinging right handers.

“Another version by a bystander is as follows… Anthony Comstock, the self-appointed custodian of the city’s welfare, jumped into the grassy plot and with a cruel blow felled young Flynn to the ground, then proceeded to shake him in the same manner that a Scotch terrier swirls a rat… Outside in front of the Third precinct police station several indignant citizens plainly told Mr. Comstock what they thought of him for so brutally maltreating a child of Johnny’s tender years.

Although the act was witnessed by a number of gentlemen, Comstock denied having struck the boy. “’Whoever says I stuck the boy tells an infernal lie,’ he roared. ‘I say so,’ calmly answered a looker on. ‘Then I brand you as an infernal liar!’ said Comstock, who first turned red and then became white as a sheet. A little gentleman in the crowd chimed in and said, ‘As between you, Comstock, and this man, most of the people in this town would believe him first.’ ‘You’re a loafer!” said the irate Anthony.

“Comstock became livid when he saw that the sympathy of the crowd was against him. He talked big for a while, but when he saw reputable men who will go into court and swear to his assault he scurried off as rapidly as his legs could carry him.”

On Friday, November 18th, the Daily Graphic noted, “There has not been much doubt in the public mind that Anthony Comstock is a dunce, but he proved yesterday that he is a vulgar ruffian as well. His onslaught upon a defenseless boy in the public highway should end his activities in this city.”

On Saturday, November 19th, the Evening Telegram reported that Mrs. Flynn had applied for a warrant on Saturday, but the justice had left for the day and she would have to wait until Monday morning. The following week, the newspaper reported that Katherine Flynn would not file criminal charges against Comstock, but had placed her case in the hands of a lawyer who would bring a civil suit for damages.

On Tuesday, November 22nd, New York’s Daily Graphic reported, in an article headed “Comstock on the Anxious Bench,” that Comstock, accompanied by his aide, George Oram, appeared at the police court at the Tombs and asked Justice Kilbreth if a warrant had been granted to Mrs. Flynn on the charge that he assaulted her son. When told there were no charges yet, Comstock began an explanation of “his side of the story” but the judge told him he was interrupting a court proceeding and to go away.

The Evening Telegram reported, “Someone called on Mrs. Flynn this morning and informed her that it would be useless to have Comstock arrested, as he had too much influence. This person intimated to Mrs. Flynn that ‘she would be seen to’ if she did not complain.”

The “seeing to” was the task of Samuel Colgate, President of the Society for the Suppression of Vice and a wealthy soap maker, who on a number of times posted bail for Comstock or quietly settled law suits. One hopes that in this case he was generous.

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