The Sex Wars (Part 4 of 4)

Continued from Part 3

Along with a private letter to her mother, Ida Craddock also left behind a public suicide note to explain her reasons for killing herself.   Not surprisingly, the note placed the blame for her death squarely on Anthony Comstock and his morality crusade.   The note read, in part, that:

I am taking my life because a judge, at the instigation of Anthony Comstock, has declared me guilty of a crime I did not commit--the circulation of obscene literature. Perhaps it may be that in my death, more than in my life, the American people may be shocked into investigating the dreadful state of affairs which permits that unctuous sexual hypocrite Anthony Comstock to wax fat and arrogant and to trample upon the liberties of the people, invading, in my own case, both my right to freedom of religion and to freedom of the press."

As for the private letter left behind for her mother, she simply stated that "I maintain my right to die as I have lived, a free woman, not cowed into silence by any other human being."   Despite attempts at rereleasing many of her books in the years after her death, Ida Craddock has been largely forgotten, even for her feminist achievements.   A sexual pioneer was simply too controversial to be remembered property at that point in 220px-MargaretSanger-Underwood.LOC[1]history.

As for Anthony Comstock, he proudly added Ida Craddock's name to the list of people driven to suicide by his "fight for the young" (along with fourteen other names).  Still, public opinion slowly turned against him and his crusade during the last years of his life.    Anti-Comstock newspaper editorials became more common and donations to his Society for the Suppression of Vice fell off sharply.    Comstock himself had numerous health problems, including neurological complications from a head injury inflicted by an anonymous attacker.  

Along with Ida Craddock's suicide, Comstock's hardline policies often made him a laughing stock.   That was especially true after he organized a 1906 raid on the Art Students League to seize pamphlets containing nude sketches.    Despite calls for him to step down and turn over the operation of his Society to others (which he was forced to do in 1913), Comstock's influence on federal laws was as strong as ever.    President Woodrow Wilson appointed him to head the American delegation to the International Purity Conference held in San Francisco in 1915 and openly praised Comstock for his work. 

Still, in his old age, Anthony Comstock was likely bewildered by the changing morality in society.  Even before the outbreak of World War I in Europe, the demand for condoms was greater than ever and the laws banning their distribution through the mail  seemed antiquated.    Brothels and individual sex trade workers were busier than ever and birth control advocates such as Margaret Sanger were fighting to make contraception available to everyone.    It was Margaret Sanger who faced Comstock's special wrath due to her birth control activism.  

Ironically,  Comstock's crusade was likely what turned Margaret Sanger into a birth control advocate in the first place  Her own research into contraception and abortion turned up no available information, largely thanks to Comstock's moral purge.    Even medical textbooks failed to cover the subject.  As Sanger herself would note in her autobiography, "At the end of six months I was convinced that there was no practical medical information on contraception available in America".   This lack of information spurred her to published her own pamphlet, Family Limitation, in 1914 which immediately put her at odds with Comstock.  Sanger was forced to flee the country to avoid being arrested and traveled to the United Kingdom to become Havelock Ellis' protege.   An undercover sting operation by Comstock's investigators led to the arrest of her husband, William, who was charged with distributing his wife's pamphlet.   After threatening William Sanger with jail to force him to reveal his wife's location (he refused), he was tried and sentenced to spend 30 days in jail. 

Though Margaret Sanger's crusade was just beginning,  William Sanger's trial marked the end of Anthony Comstock.   Whether it was testifying against Sanger in his trial or traveling to San Francisco for the Internatioal Purity Conference,  Comstock managed to catch a chill that turned into pneumonia.  He died suddenly on September 21, 1915 and is buried in Brooklyn's Evergreen cemetery with the inscription "In memory of a fearless witness."

Though Anthony Comstock's death was likely viewed with a sense of relief by many of his critics, his legacy definitely lived on after him.   And it was not a completely negative one considering his crusade was also directed against unscrupulous medical doctors and quack remedies (which were often used to induce abortions among other things).    Still, Comstock's crusade had led to over 4,000 arrests and the destruction of over 15 tons of books, 284,00 pounds of printing plates for printing "objectionable books" and nearly 4,000,000 "obscene pictures".   He also inspired numerous moral crusaders to continue his work including a very young J. Edgar Hoover who would follow in Comstock's footsteps once he took over the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In many ways, Hoover would be Anthony Comstock's most fearsome supporter and his own moral crusade against "Un-Americanism" would use investigative tactics that Comstock pioneered.

As for Margaret Sanger, she would be arrested after opening the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916 and her resulting trial in 1917 would lead to the first major challenge of the Comstock Act.  Despite Sanger's conviction which led to her being sentenced to 30 days in a workhouse and the final closing of her clinic, her appeal of this decision would lead to the 1918 Crane decision and the greater liberalization of laws against birth control.   Despite strong lobbying by Sanger and her National Committee for Federal Legislation on Birth Control, Congress refused to change the Comstock Act.  Still, progress would be made, especially with the 1936 United States vs One Package of Japanese Peccaries case.  

After a shipment of Japanese contraceptives ordered by Sanger was seized on arrival in the United States, a final decision by the United States Court of Appeals would strike down the Comstock provisions declaring contraceptives obscene.  At long last, medical doctors across the country were free to ship contraceptives to patients and distribute birth control information by mail though the "chastity laws" would still be in place in many U.S. states.  Margaret Sanger's crusade would continue for the rest of her life and the Comstock Act would impede birth control advocates for years after Comstock's death.   Even the struggle to develop the first oral contraceptive was adversely affected by Comstock laws in many states.    As recently as 1965 in fact, a court decision would be needed to strike down Comstock laws remaining in Connecticut and Massachusettts.

The Comstock Act would also play a role in later legal decisions over the definition of obscenity, including any information relating to sex education.  The 1933 case, United States vs One Book Called Ulysses, which dealt with freedom of expression and the release of James Joyce's classic book Ulysses represented one of the first true cases of censorship of cultural materials.  There have been numerous other examples in the United States however.  Even up to 1958, any printed material referring to homosexuality was deemed obscene as well though "nudist" publications featuring erotic images of women had been declared legal decades earlier. 

While the overly repressive Comstock standard has beeen replaced by the somewhat less restrictive Miller test in U.S. court decisions,  the issue of obscenity and censorship has hardly been settled.  Especially given the current conservatism in U.S.and the new battle against the teaching of sex education and birth control in schools.  The next chapter in Anthony Comstock's saga has yet to be written...




Related Stories

  • The Sex Wars (Part 3 of 4)
  • The Sex Wars (Part 2 of 4)
  • The Kinsey Revolution (Part 3 of 3)


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