By Ray Schultz
New Yorkers were awakened on Friday, March 9, 1877 by the sounds of rain, gale-force wind and breaking glass. But that was nothing compared to the storm that hit Nate Read around noon: His office door slammed open, and police and federal marshals came in, led by the bull-like vice crusader Anthony Comstock.
Comstock looked at the envelopes being addressed. Just as he thought—The Wyoming Lottery. He ordered his men to ransack the place. Within an hour, Read and two assistants were seated in the 26th Precinct, watching as a score of other lottery operators were brought in. Police followed with dripping boxes of envelopes and circulars.
Before he could interrogate the prisoners, Comstock had to deal with jurisdictional problems, the kind of thing he often overlooked in his zeal. But he finally started asking questions. Just what were they up to? And what was their link to the man who controlled “the bogus lottery and mining schemes that are now being advertised through this country and Canada”—the one known as J.M. Pattee?
Never heard of him, the suspects said. But Comstock had.
Comstock, like Pattee, grew up on a New England farm, but emerged with a different world view. Pattee exploited human weakness, Comstock refused to tolerate it even when it was legal. At 17, he broke into a tavern, “opened the faucets and drained off on to the floor every drop of liquor in the place.”
Of course, his life had not been a happy one. His mother died when he was 10—there would be no more warm cherry pie after all-day church services on Sunday—and his brother Samuel was killed at Gettysburg. Anthony enlisted to take his place, and returned from the war, in which he distinguished himself (when he wasn’t lecturing his fellow soldiers on morals), to face another setback: His father had lost the family farm.
So Comstock moved to Manhattan and took a job as a dry goods clerk, living like many men in rooming houses. There he noticed something that almost drove him to tears: His fellow boarders were fond of “obscene pictures and literature.”
Oh, the shame. Comstock found out where these books were sold, a basement on Warren St., and went there to buy one himself. This act of entrapment completed, he alerted police, who somehow found the time to deal with this crime, and they arrested the seller: Charles Conroy.
Nothing came of it. But Comstock instigated other arrests, and in this way made a name for himself. In 1872, with the help of wealthy moralists, he was named secretary of the newly formed YMCA Committee for the Suppression of Vice, and started keeping a ledger.
When Conroy was arrested for the second time, Comstock recorded his age (36), his ancestry (Irish), his religion (Catholic), his education (Common), his offense (obscene books and circulars) and the disposition of his case (“Through mismanagement of Police & ignorance of law he was discharged”).
Nothing was too trivial for his notice: He even wrote of 16 year-old John Gordon (education poor): The boy’s offense? “As some 40 ladies were leaving the Harlem boat at Fulton Market slip, this scoundrel jumped up on the fish crates lying on slip and made a gross exhibition of himself.”
But there were bigger things in the offing–like a proposed measure to ban obscenity from the mails. But that bill was delayed because Congress was mired in a growing national scandal–namely, that Credit Mobilier, the financing arm of the Union Pacific, had bribed several Congressmen, and they had winked at cost overruns. Some of the names mentioned, like Durant, were well-known in Washington and Omaha. Who had time to worry about obscenity?
That wouldn’t do. Comstock went to Washington, and toured Congressional offices with his collection of mail order erotica. Historians disagree on his impact, but on March 2, the House passed the bill later known as the Comstock Act, and weeks later Comstock was appointed as an unpaid special agent of the post office.
Now empowered by a badge, Comstock took it upon himself to decide what obscenity was, and he saw it in everything from birth control literature to fine art; the famous Madame Restell committed suicide after her encounter with him. But his most consistent target was Charles Conroy, who in Newark in 1874, found himself being collared by the vice crusader for the third time. The pornographer had had enough. “While whining in pathetic tones, Conroy plunged his dirk into my face, severing four arteries,” wrote Comstock, who completed the arrest at gunpoint, and then was guided home by “the same One who has ever kept me.”
Wearing muttonchop whiskers to disguise the scar tissue, Comstock took to entrapping malefactors by mail. For example, he would request a catalog of birth control devices, then arrest the sender when it arrived. But the joke was on him: These early junk mailers rented his name out, and he was soon deluged with offers.
Comstock concluded that anyone who replied to an advertisement “is liable to have a large circle of correspondents. The name once obtained must go the round of the fraternity, and, when thus used, is either kept for a new scheme by the same fraud or else sold to another one of the brotherhood.”
But there was an egregious fraud going on, and Comstock was urged to fight it by an unlikely supporter. The New York Times, which had condemned his practice of entrapping people, now recanted. “If Anthony Comstock’s decoy system of obtaining evidence is ever justifiable, it is so when employed against the thieving lottery concerns,” it said in an editorial.
The call to duty had been sounded. And Comstock, who professed to live by the Talmudic saying, “Where no man is, be thou a man,” was ready.
He nabbed several felons on this rainy March day. But where was the mastermind himself? Comstock was aware of Pattee’s existence, as shown by that night’s ledger entry:
John M. Pattee.
What did it mean? He summed it up in one line:
“The aliases and fraudulent schemes of this man are almost legion.”