By Ray Schultz
Flush with success, J.M. Pattee decided he needed a vacation, so he took his family to Saratoga Springs, a resort almost 200 miles north of New York City. But it was bad timing: He was going out one morning when he saw Anthony Comstock coming up the steps.
Pattee panicked and ran, not knowing that Comstock was there only to give a speech. But the vice crusader had spotted him. “He is a remarkably nervous man, and seems to be always in fear; having at times a wild, frightened look, as though he expected to be arrested every moment,” Comstock observed.
And Comstock did want to arrest Pattee. He next confronted his prey at the Simpson & Co. Brokerage in New York. A side door opened, and Comstock saw “a little gray-haired old man with gold spectacles on, bob out, and then instantly dodge back into the dark room, and attempt to quietly close the door, as to attract no attention.”
Pattee “reached out his hand to shake hands, and becoming very much excited, repeated over and over again, how glad he was to see me, stuttering out, ‘Well—I—am—devilish—glad to see you.’” In Comstock’s account, Pattee denied that he had any business in the office. “Well, well, I only have an office room here,” he allegedly said. Comstock entered a back room, and saw several employees stuffing envelopes.
Meanwhile, Pattee was indicted in Wyoming for sending false advertisements from the territory for the Seminole Gold and Silver Company. His lawyer, a former U.S. attorney named Col. George Bliss, described his client as a “man of wealth and reputation,” and made the incredible lying claim that Pattee had never been in Wyoming. Pattee escaped extradition.
Frustrated, Comstock staged another raid against Pattee’s brother-in-law Nate Read (“American, Protestant, Married, Swindler”), seizing over a million names and addresses. Bliss got them returned to Pattee, and soon Read was sending letters to that list from Canada.
These pieces described the Royal New Brunswick Popular Monthly Gift Soiree as “the only legal Gift Drawing in the whole Dominion of Canada.” And they claimed that “hundreds of clerks, working-men, merchants and farmers have paid off a mortgage on a house or farm—may have added to his mercantile stock or bank account—may have settled a number of old debts or refurnished his house, making happy and comfortable his family—all through a lucky ticket bought from us,”
This was rubbish, Comstock knew, but he was powerless to stop it. Instead, he took to vilifying Pattee in books like Frauds Exposed. “I have yet to find the first person who ever received one dollar from him in return for money sent,” he wrote.
Pattee, though, was getting tired of the chase. In 1880, beset by legal bills, he sold or lost his house in New York, and started residing in hotels in the east 40’s. Nate Read was arrested in Canada in 1884 and promptly jumped bail to the U.S.
What became of the man who had discovered the most basic law of junk mail, that a person who had fallen for one scheme was ripe for another? Pattee moved to St. Louis, and set up an office on Olive St. But his business was short-lived, for he died in 1888 at age 64 of “softening of the brain.” Thanks to his various scams, though, he left his wife an estate of comfortable proportions.
And Comstock? By the time he died in 1915, he was widely viewed as a crank and an enemy of the First Amendment. “The fight for the young!” Heyward Broun wrote. “The phrase was always on Comstock’s lips…But, with the passing years, may it not have become a formula with which he sustained himself, unconscious that its relation to his work was growing increasingly remote?”
Comstock had changed in one respect. When younger, he had railed against direct mail. Under his leadership, though, the Society for the Prevention of Vice sent it to ask for “sympathy, co-operation, and such financial assistance as you may be disposed to give.”
But some things remained the same. In 1906, 38 years after their first encounter, Comstock again arrested the pornographer Charles Conroy. The ledger tells it all: age 66, Irish Cath., Scheme to defraud by mail. Tombs in default of $2,500 bail.