New York Times
Anthony Comstock Dies in His Crusade
Labor and Worry Incident to War Against Vice Bring Fatal Illness at 71
Anthony Comstock, Secretary for the Society for the Suppression of Vice, known world over through the controversies that have followed his crusade against books, pictures and plays that he deemed indecent, died last night at the age of seventy-one years after an illness of ten days which developed into pneumonia.
His illness was brought on by over-work and over-excitement, resulting from his fight to retain his position as a Post Office Inspector, which he had held since his appointment by President Grant in 1873 and from his successful efforts to convict William Sanger of having violated the Criminal Code by giving away a copy of "Family Limitation," written by his wife, Margaret Sanger.
On Sept. 10 Mr Comstock took a heated part in the court proceedings in the Sanger case, which ended after a fine of $150 had been imposed on Sanger in hooting and shouting by Alexander Berman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and others, chiefly anarchists. Mr. Comstock, who in his excitement had talked without permission in court, was allowed to speak before the close of the trial, and he shouted that he would be shot unless he dropped the prosecution of the case. The day after this scene in court Mr. Comstock was ill of an intermittent fever, which finally cause pneumonia.
Worried by Fear of Removal
Great worry was caused Mr. Comstock in June by repeated reports from Washington that he was to be removed as a Post Office Inspector because
(6) of the many antagonisms he had cause. Mr. Comstock charged that there was a conspiracy at the Federal Building in this city to procure his dismissal and appealed directly to Washington.
While few people have attempted to criticize Mr. Comstock for his efforts to suppress books and pictures manifestly intended to be sold chiefly for their licentious character, he had been the centre of controversy during most of the forty-three years of his career as a crusader because of the differences of opinion over what constituted the dividing line between indecency and art.
The fact that blanks occur in the translated pages of "Zola," of "Boccaccio," and of many modern and ancient classics is due to Mr. Comstock. He protested against the appearance of many plays here, notably "Mrs. Warren's Profession," and George Bernard Shaw was added to the long line of humorists and satirists who have exercised their talents on the noted Secretary of the Society for the Suppression of Vice.
Mad "September Morn" Famous
Where public opinion and the courts held that Mr. Comstock had been wrong in finding evil in what purported to be art, the controversy was the finest of advertising. "September Morn" is the most recent instance. In May, 1913, Mr. Comstock threatened to arrest a local art dealer who had the original by Paul Chabas on exhibition. The arrest was never made, but the public soon got a chance to decide whether "September Morn" was art or not, because hundreds of thousands of lithographic reproduction were on sale in stores in every part of the United States in a few weeks.
Up to 1914 Mr. Comstock had caused the arraignment in State and Fedeal courts of 3,697 persons, of which 2,740 either pleaded guilty or were convicted. In these cases, fines were imposed to the extent of $237,134.30 and imprisonment to the total of 565 years, eleven months and twenty days. Several hundred arrests and several thousand dollars in fines were added in 1914 and 1915.
Mr. Comstock was born at New Canaan, Conn., on May 7, 1844. He was educated in local schools and at the New Britain High School. In 1863, after his brother Samuel had been killed at Gettysburg, Anthony volunteered to take his place and served until the end of the war.
Opening of Life Crusade
In 1867 he came to New York with $3.50 in his pocket and got a job as a porter in a dry goods house. In 1872, after he had risen to be salesman, the incident occurred which started him on his career. He found two of his fellow employees with indecent books, learned from them that they had obtained them from a sort of circulating library in Centre Street, and on March 2, 1872, arrested the dealer with ample evidence of his guilt.
The ridicule which has followed him began then. Shortly after that he was called the Protector of the Public Morals, the Self-Constituted Censor, and other names which have been applied to him with variations through life.
Within the next few days he made seven arrests, taking in pushcart peddlers who were selling bad pictures in Ann Street, the dealers in basement shops in Nassau Street, and one who was disposing of tainted literature from the steps of the old Dutch Church in Fulton Street.
The first few days of the campaign used up all his own money, but the late Morris K. Jesup took and interest in the work and gave him $650 with which to continue his investigations. After Mr. Comstock had brought to light the volume of traffic in printed matter of the lowest kind, the Society for the Suppression of Vice was organized and it advocated the passage of stringent Federal laws closing the mails and ports to the business. It was pass, and tow days afterward he was appointed a special Post Office Inspector.
Holdin this position, Mr. Comstock went out to fight, not only evil literature and pictures, but lotteries, policy games and the operation of the army of "green goods" swindlers, who are now but a memory.
One of the most discussed of Mr. Comstock's raids was upon the Art Students' League in the American Society of Fine Arts Building, at 15 West Fifty-Seventh Street. On Aug. 2, 1906, he cause a police patrol wagon to be backed up in front of the league's doors, where it was loaded with about 1,000 copies of "The American Art Student," a catalogue published for students. The alleged offense of the catalogue was the showing of five nude figures which had been selected by the Board of Control of the league as examples of the work don by its students. Miss Anna Robinson, book-keeper of the league, was arrested.
Gutzon Borgium and other noted artists denounced the action in unmeasured language, and the case was finally dropped at the instance of District Attorney Jerome, although the captured catalogues were destroyed.
Mr. Comstock made a large number of his arrests personally and was frequently in violent fights in which he was well qualified to hold his own, even in his later years, by reason of his huge physique and his experience as an arresting officer. Early in his career he was slashed across the face with a bowie knife by one of his prisoners. On half a dozen occasions he was knocked down and beaten, but more often attempts at force ended badly for his prisoner.
Mr. Comstock leaves a widow, Mrs. Margaret Comstock, and one daughter, Adele Comstock, who were both at his bedside when he died.