The Church Raid

In March of 1895, Anthony Comstock raided New York’s Trinity Baptist Church in search of obscene pamphlets and the church’s organist, Thomas H. Shaw.

Thomas Shaw

Comstock accused Shaw of having given away “an obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy and indecent book or pamphlet descriptive of scenes of lewdness and obscenity, the more particularly on pages 27 and 28.” Comstock added, “a minute description of the same would be offensive to the Court and improper to be placed on its record.”

The pamphlet was “A Synopsis of the Evidence in Support of the Charges of Lying, Intemperance, Dishonesty and Undue Familiarity with Women, Made Against D.C. Potter, M.D.” and its author was the Rev. Dr. James W. Putnam.

Potter Photo

The subject was the Rev. Dr. Daniel C. Potter, the pastor of New York City’s Baptist Tabernacle. The author, the Rev. Dr. Putnam, had been hired by John D. Rockefeller, a trustee of the church, to assist the Rev. Dr. Potter. Putnam was distressed by what he saw of Potter’s behavior. In 1893, Putnam presented his case to a group of Baptist ministers, sharing the pamphlet he had authored.

A Baptist Tabernacle committee was appointed to review the charges. Putnam felt the committee was packed with Potter supporters and declined to testify, but he did submit the pamphlet with its list of charges. The committee, led by Potter’s own attorney, exonerated Potter. After the meeting, the committee members burnt their copies of Putnam’s pamphlet, expelled Putnam from the church, and evicted him from the parsonage.

Putnam then went to serve at the Trinity Baptist Church, as did the church’s organist, Thomas Shaw, who had sided with Putnam. But Shaw kept copies of Putnam’s pamphlet and shared them with people who asked.

In January of 1895, Ralph Adelman, a member of Potter’s congregation, attended a service at Trinity Baptist Church. Adelman said that after the service Shaw “invited him to his room in back of the organ and gave to him a copy of the pamphlet.” Shaw said that Adelman saw a copy on a table and asked if he could take it with him.

In February, Max C.L. Eyser, Daniel Potter’s friend and secretary, attended Trinity Baptist Church. He said that Shaw gave him a copy of the pamphlet and mailed him another copy a few days later.

Anthony Comstock told the police, the press and the court that “the objectionable pamphlets were not only sent through the mail to many persons, but that young men and women, less than twenty-one years of age, received copies from Organist Shaw in the church, on Sundays, immediately after the sermon.”

For Potter’s men who set up Thomas Shaw and used Anthony Comstock as a weapon, the object of the arrest was twofold. One, it would discredit Shaw, who was then suing the Baptist Tabernacle for $500 in back salary. Two, it would discredit Putnam and remove any remaining copies of the brochure from circulation.

At his arraignment, Shaw, who suffered from epilepsy, had a seizure and collapsed. Fortunately for Shaw, the case was recognized for what it was, dismissed, and the following month Shaw won his suit to recover his back salary.

Putnam’s pamphlet had been seized, burned and condemned as obscene, but the charges made in the pamphlet would reappear. In January of 1899, Daniel Potter’s wife, Mary C. Potter, sued for divorce, stating that her husband had improper relations with many women over a period of years. Among her charges:

  • In July of 1890, Daniel Potter twice went ashore from his steam yacht, “The Pearl,” with a young woman and had sex with her on the beach at West Cove, Connecticut. This was witnessed by Rawlins K. Atkins, the yacht’s skipper, and the yacht’s engineer as well. The ship’s log read, “About six fifty o’clock, attention called to peculiar actions of owner on the beach. The Lord help us!”
  • Also in July, Potter had sex on his yacht with Julia Olshewsky, also known as Julia Ross, his housekeeper, when the boat was at anchor in the East River. Sex with Julia, on the boat, at the parish house and in hotels, was a regular occurrence which began in January of 1888 and continued through the time of the suit’s filing.
  • Potter also had sex with a woman named McVey on a train traveling from New York City to Hamilton, N.Y., and had sex with a woman at a house of prostitution near 6th Avenue.

In April of 1899, at the divorce trial, William E. Bloodgood, an architect, identified plans he had made of the Baptist Tabernacle and the adjoining parish house. The diagrams showed a stairway which led from Potter’s room on the second floor of the parish house to Julia Ross’ room on the fourth floor. (Mary Potter’s attorney said it was a “secret” stairway; Daniel Potter’s attorney objected and said it was only a “private” stairway.)

Daniel Potter wept as he told the jury how much he loved his wife. On April 7, 1899, the jury found him innocent of all charges and denied Mary Potter a divorce.

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