Reilly on Werbel, 'Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock'

Amy Werbel
Kimberley Reilly

Amy Werbel. Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. xii + 391 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-17522-7.

Reviewed by Kimberley Reilly (University of Wisconsin-Green Bay) Published on H-SHGAPE (November, 2018) Commissioned by William S. Cossen (The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology)

Printable Version:

Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock by Amy Werbel is a visually striking book that examines the life of Anthony Comstock and his crusade to eradicate vice from American society. Werbel portrays Comstock as a man whose battle to suppress erotic and “obscene” materials from 1873 to 1915 was “fundamentally unwinnable” (p. 13). Censorship, she argues, ultimately succeeded in generating more interest in and production of sexually oriented materials. An art historian, Werbel pays particular attention to the debates Comstock generated about how to define “obscenity,” and where to draw the line between pornography and art. Her study is wide-ranging, however, and she uses Comstock as a focal point to examine changes to law, social mores, and the commercial sex industry in this era. 

Lust on Trial begins in Anthony Comstock’s childhood home of New Canaan, Connecticut, a town Werbel describes as mired in its colonial Congregationalist roots and resistant to the forces of change that affected the rest of the nation. Comstock had a notably austere upbringing that was marked by the death of his mother when he was ten. Five years later, Comstock’s father abandoned him and his siblings to begin a new life in England. Werbel intertwines her narrative of Comstock’s youth with an examination of the visual culture of mid-nineteenth-century Connecticut. She describes how Comstock’s identity as a soldier of his faith was forged amidst the warring imagery of religious prints and popular erotica in the antebellum era. Drawing on scholarship such as Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz’s Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America (2003) and Donna Dennis’s Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing and Its Prosecution in Nineteenth-Century New York (2009), Werbel briefly recounts the obscenity prosecutions and economic pressures that drove print publishers toward the mail order business—a shift that would set the stage for Comstock’s later work as an agent of the United States Post Office. At age nineteen, Comstock enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War, where he spent much of his time evangelizing his fellow soldiers on the evils of drink and sexual vice. When the war ended, Comstock returned briefly to Connecticut before moving to New York. There, he married and began working as a salesman. 

Soon after settling into the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, Comstock began his own one-man battle against local saloons and publishers of erotica, conducting vigilante investigations and persuading police to conduct raids. His efforts drew the attention of the New York YMCA. The organization’s board of directors had already begun to study vice in the city out of a concern that industry was leading young Christian men astray. Werbel describes Comstock as the “foot soldier” that the YMCA needed to work on behalf of its interests (p. 55). The board had already successfully lobbied Albany for the passage of an anti-obscenity bill. Now it sent Comstock to Washington, DC, to clear the path for federal legislation. Armed with a trunk of pornographic books and images, along with contraceptives and other erotic materials, Comstock assailed congressmen with his catalogue of vice. The 1873 “Comstock Act” was swiftly signed into law only one month after it was introduced. Werbel emphasizes that the law was broader and more punitive than the federal legislation that had preceded it: it covered a wider range of materials and technologies; it criminalized contraceptives and abortifacients; it expanded mandatory minimum and maximum prison sentences; and it included a method of enforcement. After the passage of the act, Comstock was appointed a special agent of the Post Office, enabling him to investigate obscene materials sent through the mail. However, it was the newly constituted New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV)—an offshoot of the YMCA—that paid his salary, thereby expanding its purview. Werbel argues that Comstock and the NYSSV were animated by a desire to prosecute rebel women and suppress female sexual agency. While Victoria Woodhull famously escaped conviction under the Comstock Act, Werbel contends that the law expansively recharacterized all nonreproductive and nonmarital sexual practices as “obscene.” 

Over the next decade, Comstock’s legal reach became more expansive and his notoriety grew. Werbel conveys the enormous range of materials he policed by noting the astounding volume he had destroyed by 1876: 21,000 pounds of books; 14,000 pounds of stereotype plates for printing; and 202,000 photographs and pictures (p. 99). Drawing on Comstock’s meticulous inventory of the materials he seized and her own archival research at the Kinsey Institute, Werbel allows us to glimpse the range of sexual “charms” and humorous erotica that circulated in the Victorian era. Comstock’s seizure of “obscene” paraphernalia did not always lead to prosecutions. District attorneys and judges were frequently less zealous in their efforts to punish producers and sellers of erotica. But Werbel effectively demonstrates that even as Comstock became the butt of national jokes, he achieved important victories in the 1870s. Not the least of these was an 1878 federal judicial ruling that drew on English case law to create a broader American standard for obscenity. The “Hicklin test,” which labeled materials “obscene” if they had a “tendency … to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences” (p. 128), paved the way for Comstock to suppress Free Thought manifestos, literary works such as Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855), and reproductions of celebrated European paintings, such as Alexandre Cabanel’s Birth of Venus (1863). 

In Werbel’s estimation, however, it was Comstock’s decision to police art aggressively that initiated his decline in power in the mid-1880s. Even at the height of his authority, Comstock could not raid private homes, powerful institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or businesses that catered to wealthy clients. Although he confiscated copies of William-Adolfe Bouguereau’s Nymphs and Satyr (1873) from saloons across New York City, for example, considerations of money and class kept him from seizing the original oil painting that hung in the luxurious Grand Saloon of Hoffman House Hotel. When he began to target photographs of “living models” that were used by artists to render accurate images of the human form, he faced resistance from jurists who rejected the classification of all unclothed bodies as obscene. In a more damaging misstep, Comstock raided a distinguished Fifth Avenue art gallery and seized reproductions of well-known European paintings. The ensuing trial largely exonerated the gallery owners, generating negative publicity for Comstock and public discussion over the limits of censorship. Comstock’s agenda was briefly buoyed in the mid-1890s by the United State Supreme Court’s endorsement of the “Hicklin test.” But this legal victory for vice suppression did not slow the expansion of the pornography business, which had shifted production to rural areas of the country. Nor did it weaken the nascent free speech movement. 

Werbel’s final chapter opens with a discussion of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which displayed classical nude statuary alongside the racist spectacle of uncovered Dahomey “savages” and provocative Middle Eastern belly-dancing. Werbel reads the Exposition as evidence of modern Americans’ greater tolerance for sexualized displays. She argues that the turn of the century was an era in which women became more prominent as both objects of sexual display and, in the case of groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), agents of vice suppression. But neither Comstock nor the women of the WCTU could restrict the protean development of new technologies that offered innovative forms of commercialized sexual entertainment. Thomas Edison’s invention of the kinetoscope and Vitascope, along with the postcard craze, kept Americans awash in sexually oriented images. Contributions to the NYSSV dried up, and law enforcement officials became increasingly apathetic about prosecuting purveyors of erotica. Werbel portrays Comstock as a man whose goals and values were increasingly perceived as antiquated and prudish. He was openly ridiculed in newspapers in 1906 when he seized copies of a New York art school catalogue that contained sketches of nude models. The charges against the school were dropped, but Werbel contends that Comstock’s ham-handed efforts at censorship made “obscenity the newest American modernity” for Ashcan School artists like John Sloan and George Bellows (p. 279). As the tide of public sentiment shifted on the issues of censorship and obscenity, Comstock remained resolute. His final, futile act was the temporary suppression of the writings of birth control advocate Margaret Sanger; she would go on to successfully challenge obscenity laws in New York and found Planned Parenthood. 

As Werbel acknowledges, many scholars have written about obscenity, sexual culture, publishing, censorship, law, and art in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Lust on Trial encompasses all of these topics. The narrative is structured around Anthony Comstock’s career—and, for the last three chapters, his multivolume “Records of Arrests”—in order to illuminate the astonishing range of materials that he sought to suppress and to recount the stories of the individuals he targeted. Scholars of the era will find familiar names such as Henry Ward Beecher, Ezra Heywood, and Stanford White alongside lesser-known figures—for example, Steve Brodie, who acquired fame for supposedly jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, and whose saloon was raided by Comstock for displaying purported obscene works of art; and burlesque producer Jake Berry, who was convicted and imprisoned for staging a “racy” variety show. Integrated into these accounts of average men and women who were swept into Comstock’s net are examples of the visual and material objects that he sought to destroy, ranging from the paintings of Robert Henri to pornographic stereograph prints to a dildo. Other scholars have argued that anti-vice reformers’ attempts to destroy erotica in the nineteenth century only facilitated its increased commercial production. Werbel’s images, spanning nearly seventy years, provide visible evidence that such forms of sexual expression appear to be irrepressible. 

As much as Lust on Trial locates itself within scholarly works on the dissemination and suppression of sexual materials at the turn of the century, readers will find its account notably divorced from the histories of moral reform and anti-vice movements. The book’s final chapter ends on a “high note”: with the death of Comstock, Werbel asserts, efforts to suppress free speech and sexual expression “waxed and waned,” but were never “as diminished as during the reign of Anthony Comstock” (p. 299). But as historians of the Progressive Era know, campaigns to eradicate vice in this period broadened from private organizations, like the NYSSV, to include more powerful governmental agencies, such as municipal vice commissions, state reformatories for delinquent youth, and federal bureaus that aimed to end the international “white slave” traffic, eradicate red-light districts, and stop the manufacture and sale of alcohol. Comstock’s story provides hints of this shift: he was paid by the NYSSV but occupied a government position as a special agent of the Post Office. This public/private partnership presaged similar cooperative efforts, such as the work of the YMCA and American Social Hygiene Association to eradicate vice through the War Department’s Commission on Training Camp Activities. Readers of Lust on Trial might be led to believe that the nineteenth-century anti-vice crusade died with Comstock. Instead, it continued to flourish. 

Werbel’s assessment of Comstock likewise seems disconnected from other Gilded Age and Progressive Era figures and movements that advocated simultaneously for positive social reform and negative social control. Leaders of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union do make brief appearances toward the end of the book as rivals to Comstock. But Werbel does not explain that these female moral reformers (and others before them) campaigned for social purity because they saw women as the particular victims of a sexual double standard that exploited them through prostitution and facilitated the spread of venereal disease from profligate husbands to innocent wives. Werbel paints Comstock as a man animated by puritanical self-righteousness, and admittedly his vigilante methods and disdain for free expression make him unlikeable. But if Comstock was the product of particularly oppressive religious teachings, how can we understand him in connection with a man like his benefactor, Morris Jessup, who chaired the YMCA board that sought to eradicate vice in New York City at the same time that he founded the American Museum for Natural History and led the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (p. 56)? In other words, was Comstock exceptional in his views, or exceptionally repressive in his methods? Or was he simply a man of his time who was willing to muck around in the trenches?

Despite these shortcomings, Lust on Trial brings to life the sexual and artistic culture of Comstock’s era, even as it charts his relentless suppression of it. Historians will appreciate Werbel’s attention to uncovering the stories of everyday Americans who found themselves in Comstock’s crosshairs, and her book will make a lively addition to undergraduate and graduate courses on the histories of art, obscenity, and sexuality. 

Citation: Kimberley Reilly. Review of Werbel, Amy, Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock. H-SHGAPE, H-Net Reviews. November, 2018. URL:

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