Federal Comstock Law Passed 1873

On March 3, 1873, Congress passed Statute 598, better known as Comstock Law.  The common name for the law comes from its chief proponent, Anthony Comstock. This law amended the Post Office Act and made it illegal to send any “obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious” materials through the mail, including contraceptive devices and information about birth control techniques.

The text of the federal bill reads, in part:
Be it enacted… That whoever…shall sell…or shall offer to sell, or to lend, or to give away, or in any manner to exhibit, or shall otherwise publish… or shall have in his possession…an obscene book, pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular, print, picture, drawing or other representation, figure, or image on or of paper or other material, or any cast instrument, or other article of an immoral nature, or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever, for the prevention of conception… On conviction thereof in any court of the United States…he shall be imprisoned at hard labor in the penitentiary for not less than six months nor more than five years for each offense, or fined not less than one hundred dollars nor more than two thousand dollars, with costs of court.

The same year the law was passed, Anthony Comstock, its namesake, created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an institution dedicated to supervising the morality of the public. It was through this organization that Comstock and others kept the new law in the headlines and ensured that federal and state authorities took action when violations occurred, sometimes leading authorities to to the violators directly.

This law led to many arrests like the one described below in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Collection: African American Newspapers
Date: August 23, 1894
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

LANCASTER, Pa., August 21. – M.M. Denlinger, proprietor of the largest and most prominent boarding house in this city, and Charles C. Rickerson, a young man of good family, were arrested here yesterday on the charge of printing and circulating immoral literature through the mails.

The arrest were made through Anthony Comstock , who came here with evidence that immoral books and pamphlets had been sent to schools in various sections of the state. In the upper story of Denlinger’s house was found a well equipped printing office, where the mater was printed.

Comstock took Richardson to Philadelphia to answer the charter of illegally using the United States mails, while Denlinger was locked up here to answer the charge of printing matter prohibited by the state law.

Two large sacks of immoral literature were found in Denlinger’s office.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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