Copyright 1999. Esther Katz. All rights reserved.
Incorporated in 1873 as the New York Committee for the Suppression of Vice, an offshoot of the YMCA, it was one of many state and local groups established to uphold the nation's morals by lobbying for stricter morals legislation and exposing violations of morals laws. The New York Committee, which had hired vice crusader Anthony Comstock
as a salaried special agent, was soon transformed into a separate Society for the Suppression of Vice with Samuel Colgate, head of the prominent soap company, as president and Anthony Comstock as secretary. Upon incorporation, the Society received the right to help the police in enforcing anti-vice laws by searching and seizing evidence, making arrests, and receiving half the fines levied on those successfully prosecuted by the agents of the Society. After Comstock's death in 1915, the Society, later renamed the New York Society for Improvement of Morals, but known as the New York Vice Society, was headed by a former stockbroker and lawyer, John S. Sumner. Under Sumner, the Society focused its efforts on censoring books. An increasing number of its targets were books by distinguished authors from respected publishers, and the Society began to lose credibility. Though Sumner sought to keep the Society active, by the mid-1930s many of its prosecutions were being thrown out by the court. Considerably weakened, it limped along under Sumner's leadership until his retirement in the mid-1950s.