Amy Werbel's Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock
Reviewed by Marcela Micucci
Anthony Comstock was a household name in nineteenth-century America, so much so that his last name became synonymous with a movement and set of laws that sought to censor obscenity and eradicate vice. Historian Amy Werbel explores this anti-obscenity movement — and its champion — in her provocative and cutting-edge work, Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock (2018).
Few nineteenth-century figures reached Anthony Comstock’s notoriety. From the 1870s until his death in 1915, the social purity crusader earned a reputation, for better or worse, as the nation’s most stringent and unyielding defender of Victorian morality. He rigorously prosecuted any business or individual in violation of the “Comstock Act,” of which he was the creator and chief proponent. Passed by Congress in 1873, the law outlawed the circulation of “obscene literature and articles for immoral use,” including “any obscene book or pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular, print, picture, drawing or other representation” of sexual nature. During his time as special agent of the United States Post Office, Comstock confiscated hundreds of thousands of books, photographs, and any other material he deemed immoral, ranging from sexual charms and toys to birth control and contraceptive devices to nude paintings and reproductions of classical art.
This most basic trajectory of Comstock’s career takes a backseat in Werbel’s work, which complicates the traditional narrative by inserting nuance and shedding light on the “spiritual and intellectual filters through which [Comstock] understood the world and his place in it." Rather than focus solely on Comstock’s more infamous conflicts with notables like Victoria Woodhull, Madame Restell, and DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett, Werbel analyzes his lesser-known conquests (and conquerors). She highlights, for instance, his ongoing altercations with Charles Conroy, the book publisher who sliced Comstock’s face to the bone after being arrested for mailing lewd pictures in 1874. Unlike the standard Comstock biography, Lust on Trial introduces readers to a side of the reformer few have seen: his internal struggles, his views on women and the middle and upper classes, and his compulsive desire to build his name as America’s preeminent vice suppressor.
Werbel devotes the first three chapters of her work to the development of Comstock’s worldview. She moves chronologically, first tracing his spiritual foundation and commitment to Christianity, his early years working with YMCA, and then his initial founding of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV) and his appointment as an agent of the Post Office. The three middle chapters, however, deviate from this more traditional framework and are instead organized around Werbel’s primary source base: Comstock’s three-volume “Record of Arrests.” While these chapters at times border on verbose, each is tightly packed with enthralling and detailed accounts of Comstock’s various legal victories and defeats. With every one of these captivating stories, Werbel recreates the highly erotic visual culture of the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Most stimulating is Werbel’s ability to underpin the paradoxical nature of Comstock’s purity crusade: his relentless effort to suppress vice required him to peruse the exact obscene material he sought to eradicate. As Werbel asserts, “nobody in America looked through more proverbial keyholes than Anthony Comstock." While Comstock’s career may have been predicated on combating obscenity and lust, few Americans observed as much explicit material as he did. In fact Werbel argues that by spotlighting vice, Comstock’s censorship campaign enhanced, rather than suppressed, public interest in and desire for illicit materials, consequently exposing and proliferating postbellum eroticism. The end result, she contends, was the development of some of the earliest free speech and civil liberties organizations in the nation.
Central to Werbel’s analysis is her concentration on the many Americans who resisted Comstock’s anti-obscenity laws, among them photographers, publishers, performers, artists, business owners, and medical practitioners. She demonstrates that as American sexual culture became more risqué, artists and civil liberties activists doubled down on their efforts to push back on Comstockery, a resistance movement that dominates the latter half of the book. For these activists, Comstock’s censorship crusade had overreached and was endangering freedoms of expression, speech, and privacy. Werbel introduces us to artists like John La Farge, who won his court case after Comstock had him arrested in May of 1885 for referencing nude models to create stained glass artwork; to daredevil Steven Brodie, who unabashedly replenished and re-hung the nude paintings Comstock seized from his tavern walls in 1891; and to author and lecturer Ida Craddock, whose coverage of the exotic 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago made her one of Comstock’s prime targets for prosecution. Following in the steps of female physician Madame Restell, Craddock committed suicide in 1902 to avoid imprisonment for violating the Comstock Act.
In the final years of his career — what Werbel refers to as the “bitter end” — Comstock had burned most of his bridges, alienating himself from the bourgeoisie; the underworld; fellow reform organizations, like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU); and even the NYSSV, which reportedly took a new direction after 1913 and transferred Comstock’s authority to his replacement, John Saxton Sumner. Werbel argues that by the time of his last legal battle with Margaret and William Sanger —just weeks before his death in 1915 — Comstock had ultimately failed to control morality and sexuality through statute and prosecution. The author’s impressive research elucidates that the extensive number of obscenity cases brought to trial in the last half of the nineteenth century actually accelerated the evolution of the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments, rather than eradicating lust. The seamless link Werbel provides between the nation’s early anti-obscenity battles and current debates over the separation of church and state, rights to privacy, and civil liberties makes Lust on Trial a work more relevant now than ever. As Amy Werbel’s titillating manuscript reveals, Comstock put lust on trial… and lust prevailed.
Marcela Micucci is the Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral curatorial fellow at the Museum of the City of New York and curator of Rebel Women: Defying Victorianism.