The Margaret Sanger Papers

Comstock, Anthony (1844-1915)

Vice reformer. Married Margaret Hamilton (1871). Employed in a New York City dry goods store, Comstock was a devout Congregationalist. In 1872 he helped form the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, a private agency designed to regulate sexual behavior, serving as secretary. He successfully lobbied for an 1873 federal statute banning the mailing of obscene, lewd or indecent material, including material on contraception and a similar New York State act that followed. He was appointed a special inspector of the Post Office Department to enforce his "Comstock Law." Raiding art galleries, newspapers, private businesses, he claimed to have arrested and prosecuted over 3,500 persons between 1873-1915 for distributing everything from contraceptive information and abortifacient to gambling machines and to paintings of nudes. When Margaret Sanger published The Woman Rebel in 1914, it was the Comstock Law under which she was indicted. Using aliases or sending out undercover agents, Comstock often entrapped his victims into sending or distributing the criminalized material, including abortionist Madame Restell who committed suicide after her indictment. Among those whose arrests he engineered was William Sanger, who in 1915 was tricked into providing Charles Bamberger, an undercover agent working for Comstock, with a copy of Margaret Sanger's Family Limitation pamphlet. Comstock became ill in San Francisco while serving as a U.S. delegate to the International Purity Congress and he died of pneumonia shortly after Willliam Sanger's trial. Comstock was the author of Frauds Exposed (1880); Gambling Outrages (1887); Morals vs. Art (1888); and Traps for the Young (1890).
References: Anna Louise Bates, Weeder in the Garden of the Lord: Anthony Comstock's Life and Career (1995); Heywoud Broun and Margaret Leech, Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord (1927).