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.


Matilda Joslyn Gage & Henry Fielding

In 1893, Matilda Joslyn Gage published Woman, Church & State: A Historical Account of the Status of Woman Through the Christian Ages. The book’s modern-day publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, describes it thusly:

“This classic history of woman’s oppression is one of the first attempts to document the sad legacy of injustice and discrimination against women, which is unfortunately inseparable from the history of both Christianity and the evolution of the Western state… Among the topics of her research is the medieval exaltation of celibacy as an expression of the male belief that women were unclean and the cause of original sin, the gross discrimination against women in canon law, abuse of women in the feudal system, the persecution of women as witches, the virtual slave status of wives and their almost total legal subjugation to their husbands.”

Even then, the book was viewed as anti-clerical, arguing that Christianity was an impediment to the progress of women, as well as civilization. Gage saw religious doctrine dehumanizing women, depriving them of civil, human, economic and political rights. Understandably, the book drew attacks from the pious of both genders, especially men, the Christian clergy and those who benefited from the status quo.

In 1894, Gage attempted to give a copy to the school library in her hometown, Fayetteville, N.Y., and the school refused it. A Fayetteville village board member, T.W. Sheedy, sent a copy of the book to Anthony Comstock and asked if this was a proper book to be placed in a school library. In February of 1894, Comstock wrote, “The incidents of victims of lust told in this book are such that if I found a person putting that book indiscriminately before the children I would institute a criminal proceeding against him for doing it.”

This was typical Comstock. He did not take a stand against the well-documented outrages that Gage brought to light, but rather to her writing about them.

In August of 1894, Ms. Gage responded to Comstock:

I look upon him as a man who is mentally and morally unbalanced, not knowing right from wrong, or the facts of history from ‘tales of lust.’ Being intellectually weak, Anthony Comstock misrepresents all works upon which he presumes to pass judgment, and is as dangerous to liberty of speech and of the press as were the old inquisitors, whom he somewhat resembles. A fool as a press censor is more to be feared than a knave, and Comstock seems to be a union of both fool and knave. Buddha declared the only sin to be ignorance. If this be true, Anthony Comstock is a great sinner. That a free nation like the United States, should allow a press censor within its limits is a disgrace to the name of freedom, savoring of Russian despotism.

“Comstock’s weak judgment was shown a few weeks since when the Worthington firm of booksellers in New York failed. Among their stock were books by the most distinguished writers, ancient and classic works… Judge O’Brien decided against Comstock, and this is but one instance of many that proclaim his imbecility of mind.”

The judge in the Worthington case was Morgan J. O’Brien of the New York Supreme Court, and his decision is described in Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing and its Prosecution in Nineteenth Century New York (2009) by Donna Dennis:

“A similar setback occurred in 1894. On behalf of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, Comstock objected to a bankruptcy receiver’s [Joseph J. Little’s] proposed sale of certain assets of an insolvent publishing firm, Worthington Company, that consisted of elegantly bound, ‘choice editions’ of a number of erotic classics. Included among the company’s holdings were [John] Payne’s translation of The Arabian Nights, [Henry] Fielding’s Tom Jones, Ovid’s Art of Love, Bocaccio’s Decameron, Rousseau’s Confessions, the Heptameron [by Marguerite de Navarre], Tales from the Arabic, Aladdin, and the collected works of Rabelais… As the court stated, it was ‘very difficult to see upon what theory these world-renowned classics can be regarded as specimens of that pornographic literature which it is the office of the Society for the Suppression of Vice to suppress.’

“The court’s ruling emphasized the refined character of the imagined purchasers, as well as the elegant quality of the books themselves. ‘They rank with the higher literature and would not ‘be bought nor appreciated by the class of people from whom unclean publications ought to be withheld.’ In a stinging rebuke, the judge chided Comstock that to burn such ‘rare and costly’ editions would amount to a ‘wanton destruction of property.’ With this formulation, Comstock was rendered not puritanical but ‘wanton’ as a result of his crude overreaching.”

For his part, Comstock said he did not and could not read Tom Jones, as he was “completely nauseated with that kind of rot.” As for the total lot of books in question, Comstock met with the original publisher in Philadelphia, and “warned him that if he continued to publish these books he would be prosecuted. I had not supposed that Mr. Worthington had continued to sell these books, for if I had been so advised I certainly would have instituted criminal proceedings against him.”

Commenting on Comstock’s condemnation of a book he refused to read, the New York Sun noted, “There is no doubt about it that Anthony Comstock, instead of having no mind, as some skeptical and unkind critics have asserted, really has two minds, or a mahatma, or something.”

After the court’s decision, the New York Press reported, “The opposition which Anthony Comstock offered to the sale of ‘Tom Jones’ and other works of the Worthington Company seems to have been an excellent advertisement for the books. Receiver Joseph J. Little has succeeded in disposing of most of the tabooed works at private sale, and at very good prices.”

And today, the memory of Matilda Joslyn Gage is much revered in Fayetteville, N.Y.



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.


Anthony & Venus

Alexandre Cabanel Birth of Venus

Anthony Comstock had a troubled relationship with Venus, and her depiction in “Birth of Venus” (Naissance de Venus) by the French artist Alexandre Cabanel was perhaps the greatest cause of his unease.

The original was painted by Cabanel and exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1863. It was purchased by Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, for her husband’s personal collection.

Cabanel sold the painting’s reproduction rights to art dealer and publisher Adolphe Goupil, who commissioned an in-house copyist, Adolphe Jourdan, to paint a reduced-size replica to serve as a model for an engraving. Goupil then sold Jourdan’s replica, retouched and signed by Cabanel, as a Cabanel original in 1870. American collector Henry W. Derby purchased this second “Birth of Venus,” in turn selling it to the wealthy Philadelphia collector Henry C. Gibson in 1871.

In 1875, New York’s John Wolfe commissioned a second copy. He sold this at auction in 1882, but apparently it remained in, or returned to, the family, because Wolfe donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few days before his death in 1893.

Enter Anthony Comstock. In 1883, he raided the New York shop of Edmund Bonaventure. At the trial of the shop’s sales clerk, August Muller, an engraving of Alexandre Cabanel’s “Birth of Venus” was judged obscene.

Venus Engraving

Confident that he would get a similar judgment, on November 12, 1887, Comstock raided Knoedler & Co., where he confiscated 117 prints and photos, and arrested two men on charges of selling “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent and disgusting pictures.”

On November 13th, the New York Herald reported, “Many of them contained nude or partially nude figures. These were what Mr. Comstock was especially desirous of seeing. He examined them long and carefully, and finally selected a number of the more striking pictures. Among them [was] a photograph of Cabanel’s masterpiece, ‘The Birth of Venus,’ and [he] announced that he intended to take them away with him.” The article continued, “’The Birth of Venus,’ the photograph of which excites the particular ire of Mr. Comstock… is said to be his chief reliance in the proceedings which he has begun against Knoedler & Co.”

On November 15th, the Evening Telegram listed the painting as “one of the lithographs sold to Comstock’s agent [Joseph Britton, in September], and on which the warrant was issued.”

In the same day’s Telegram, artist John La Farge said, “The idea of Mr. Comstock seizing a photograph of the ‘Birth of Venus’… the original painting is a magnificent one and hangs in the Luxembourg Gallery.” Landscape artist Albert Bierstadt added, “I understand that among the views seized was one of the ‘Birth of Venus’ by Cabanel. Now, I am sure that that picture is not immoral or intended to be such.” And Daniel Huntington, president of the Academy of Design, said, “The ‘Birth of Venus’ is classical in the extreme, and to seize a picture of that nature is nothing less than an outrage.”

The Telegram rounded out its coverage by saying, “There is an American variety of vegetable which is indigenous. The Cabbagensis Comstockius, or Comstockian cabbage-head, would not thrive in any other soil.”

On the same day, the Daily Register of Hudson, N.Y., noted, “That excessively virtuous man, Anthony Comstock, has broken out again… The picture which especially aroused the virtuous man’s ire was the famous one, ‘The Birth of Venus,’ a classical work.”

And then the “walking back” began. The New York Times printed a letter from Samuel Colgate, President of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which supported Comstock and the seizures. Oddly, the last line read, “We would also add that the picture, ‘The Birth of Venus,’ was not the subject matter of this complaint.”

Did Colgate mean “the sole subject matter”? By “picture” did he mean the painting itself, and not the prints that Britton bought and Comstock confiscated? Was he worried about offending the wealthy owners of the painting? Was he misinformed by Comstock, or just lying?

Venus 1887

On the next day, November 16th, the Evening Telegram featured a line drawing of the “Birth of Venus” on its front page, and said of Comstock, “Personally he is incapable of distinguishing between that which is pure in intent and that which is intended to be immoral. All paintings of the nude, even those by Cabanel and Bouguereau, are to him the same as any vulgar lithograph which caters to depraved tastes, and he admits openly, I believe, that he can see no difference. His seizure of the ‘Birth of Venus’ proves that conclusively.”

That day, the owner of one of the copies of “Birth of Venus,” Henry C. Gibson, told the Herald’s Philadelphia reporter, “No one is more opposed to obscene illustrations or publications than I am, but ‘The Birth of Venus’ is a painting which I would show to any lady or any friend as a high work of art.”

On November 17th, echoing Samuel Colgate, Comstock said that the “Birth of Venus” was not among the exhibits in his possession. One wonders where it went. He also asked the District Attorney to take action against the Telegram for its nude drawings. The official declined.

The November 19th issue of The Critic noted, “Cabanel’s ‘Birth of Venus’ from the original in the Luxembourg, particularly aroused the complainant’s animosity.”

Also on November 19th, the Albany Argus opined, “Thousands may gaze at Cabanel’s exquisite work, ‘The Birth of Venus,’ and not be shocked at the sight as Mr. Comstock and his society assume to be.”

On January 3, 1888, the preliminary examination was held before Justice Kilbreth in the Tombs Police Court. After some discussion, the Court held that only the pictures bought by Joseph Britton could be put in evidence, “and not the three bushels, more or less, seized under the bench warrant on November 12th.”

Under oath, Comstock’s agent, Joseph Britton, said that none of the pictures in the Telegram, which included the “Birth of Venus,” were among those he purchased in September. The reporter for the Herald wrote, “This fact seemed to be a revelation to counsel and spectators alike.”

And so the “Birth of Venus” vanished like mist from the memories of both Anthony Comstock and Joseph Britton.

The painting did make one more appearance in connection with Comstock. In March of 1888, the Carey brothers, proprietors of an Oswego, N.Y., restaurant at the corner of West Bridge and Second streets, announced that they had acquired a copy of “The Birth of Venus,” painted by a Boston artist, Alfred Bryant Copeland, living in Paris.

The Oswego Palladium reported, “A complaint has been made to Anthony Comstock, of New York, that the Carey Brothers, restaurant keepers of this city, have exposed in their place of business an obscene picture, and that Mr. Comstock is asked to investigate and take action in the case.”

As history has shown, such a visit would have brought more business to the restaurant, but it did not happen. The Carey brothers sold their painting the following year.


The original of Cabanel’s “Birth of Venus” is now in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

The first replica was in Henry C. Gibson’s collection until 1892, when it went to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, as a bequest. In 2002, the Academy sold the painting at auction to the Dahesh Museum of Art, New York, N.Y.

John Wolfe donated his replica to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art a few days before his death in 1893.

Alfred Bryant Copeland’s 1887 copy sold at a Christie’s auction in 1992 for $14,300.


Comstock Venus


A Cruel Stab

A month after the Knoedler raid, on December 12, 1888, Comstock addressed a Baptist Ministers’ Conference, speaking on “Art and Morals,” hoping for an endorsement of his recent actions from the throng of ministers present.

Of Knoedler & Co., Comstock said, “We don’t want to degrade these men, but we want to prevent them from degrading our youth with their products. History shows that wherever the ‘nude in art’ existed, society was degraded. It has cursed every land it has flourished in. History records that.”

The New York Herald reported, “Then a discussion followed, which was as much in the nature of a circus as an excited crowd of ninety Baptist preachers could assume.”

The Rev. Mr. Simons called Comstock a brave man, whose face bore “the marks of the Lord Jesus.” In response, the Rev. Dr. A. Steward Walsh, said, “Let the other side be heard before we endorse anybody.” The Rev. Mr. Barnes thought a resolution was undesirable given the case pending in court.

At that point, the Herald reported, “Comstock then jumped to his feet, and, with tears in his eyes and a Henry Irving tremor in his voice, denied that he was attempting to forestall the action of the Court. Then the Rev. Dr. O.C. Pope, of the Baptist Missionary Society, moved to strike out the words ‘we believe in Anthony Comstock’ and substitute ‘we believe the Society for the Suppression of Vice is doing a great service,’ etc. The resolution thus amended was adopted, and it was then that Comstock blurted out, ‘This is a cruel stab.’”

The Herald concluded, “Comstock walked sadly out, and he was last seen straying disconsolately through the City Hall Park.”

City Hall Park


The Knoedler Bust

Knoedler Interior

In November of 1887, Anthony Comstock raided the Fifth Avenue art gallery of Edmund L. Knoedler, arresting him and a clerk, George Pfieffer, and seizing 117 “obscene, licentious and immoral” photographs of paintings by artists “of the French school,” including William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Alexandre Cabanel and Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Comstock had been chided in the press for attacking only small businesses and individuals with no influence, and this criticism may have prompted his raid on the city’s most prominent art dealer. Located across the way from the Waldorf Hotel, Knoedler & Co. was the gallery where the nation’s wealthy collectors came to buy art, especially artworks imported from France.

Referencing an earlier Comstock raid on the shop of Edmund F. Bonaventure, Amy Werbel in Lust on Trial writes, “Knoedler’s was an enormous step up… in terms of both geography and the price of its wares.”

At the time, Comstock, and the law, held that anything that might be sexually arousing to someone who might be inclined to find it arousing if the item should fall into their hands was legally obscene.

Paintings costing tens of thousands of dollars, hanging in museums and the homes of the wealthy, were beyond Comstock’s reach, but photographs of those paintings, which might cost as little as a dollar, were within reach of the common man and hence dangerous. Comstock said, “Let the nude be kept in its proper place and out of the reach of the rabble.”

To which he added, “The morals of the youth of this country are endangered by obscenity and indecency in the shape of photographs of lewd French art – a foreign foe… In the guise of art this foe to moral purity comes in its most insidious, fascinating and seductive form.”

To Comstock’s surprise, the reaction to his raid on Knoedler & Co. was not praise but outrage. Prominent artists, art critics and art collectors rose up, and the press echoed every voice raised against Comstock. And not just the New York press; the New Orleans Times-Picayune declared, “It is characteristic of Comstock to expect the whole machinery of the law to run or stop as he may direct.”

New York’s Evening Telegraph filled its front page with line drawings of the artworks Comstock had seized, with Cabanel’s “Birth of Venus” almost as large as the masthead, and the newspaper sold like hotcakes.

Venus in Telegram

Comstock tried to persuade the District Attorney to indict the publishers of the Evening Telegraph, but failed.

To the first hearing, Comstock brought “three bushels, more or less” of confiscated photos. The New York Evening Telegram noted, “Mr. Comstock refused to show the objectionable photographs to anyone in the court but Justice Kilbreth, but he claims that they are of the same class that has brought other dealers in art to grief.”

In the end, the judge found only two photos of those Comstock presented to be objectionable. One was “Rolla” (1878) by Henri Gervex, a painting based on a poem by Alfred de Musset, about a young man who has spent his last money on an afternoon with a prostitute.


Idle and debauched, the youth gazes at the prostitute for a last time before ending his life with poison. In spite of the moral of the story, the painting was judged obscene. Judgment was withheld, but in March of 1888, at an unannounced session of the court, Knoedler copped a plea and was fined $50 for each of the two photos.

Much more can be said about Alexandre Cabanel’s “The Birth of Venus,” and young Evening Telegraph newsboy Johnny Flynn, but those are stories for another day.


“Rolla” is today in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.


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.



In June of 1902, Anthony Comstock had 11-year-old Charles O’Reilly arrested for writing objectionable letters to his teacher, Miss Jennie Corbett. Comstock characterized the letters as objectionable, written “in vicious tones,” and traced them to O’Reilly by gathering handwriting samples from every student in Miss Corbett’s class. However, another news account noted that there were only two letters, which followed the boy’s frequent gifts of candy and flowers. In one letter, he asked Miss Corbett to accompany him to the theater, and in a second he said he would take his own life if his love was not reciprocated. After the arraignment, Charles O’Reilly was taken into custody and bail was set at $300.



Havelock Ellis

The sexual embrace can only be compared with music and with prayer.” — Havelock Ellis

Havelock Ellis was an English physician, writer and social reformer who studied human sexuality. In 1897, he co-wrote the first medical textbook in English on homosexuality, and also published works on a variety of sexual practices and inclinations.

Looking back in 1933, Quentin Pan noted, “Sex as a normal phenomenon suitable for observation and analysis was practically unknown until Mr. Ellis came upon the scene. Throughout his studies, Mr. Ellis maintained an attitude of sympathy, a desire to understand wherever deviations from the normal occur, and where treatment is suggested, he was particularly careful in avoidance of extremes.”

Imagine Anthony Comstock approaching sexuality with sympathy and understanding. I cannot. But Havelock Ellis was in England, out of reach. And the F.A. Davis Company was a reputable publisher in Philadelphia. Who was left?

In July of 1913, Anthony Comstock arrested Louis Kleuber, the manager of a rare book store on Wall Street, for selling Ellis’ Erotic Symbolism. Kleuber was found guilty and sentenced to 30 days in jail or a fine of $250. He paid the fine, half of which went to the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, as did half of all such fines.

But Comstock was not done. At the Ellis hearing in the Court of Special Sessions he took the occasion to say that if the recently published [John D.] Rockefeller Commission Report on White Slavery was “sent out indiscriminately,” he would make a fight against that as well.

He did not.


Quentin Pan (Pan Guangdan), “Havelock Ellis as a Humanist” in The China Critic (1933)



In March of 1887, the Brooklyn Eagle reported on pending legislation in Albany:

“In the Senate this morning Mr. [Michael C.] Murphy introduced a pool selling bill amending the Penal Code so that any man who entices, solicits, induces or aids another to commit such a crime may be indicted and punished as accessory. This is a genteel slap at Anthony Comstock, who has a way of buying pool tickets and then jugging the seller.”