Truth Seeker on Trial
United States is one great society for the suppression of vice'.
Prosecuting Attorneys Plea
The United States vs. D. M. Bennett
March 20, 1879
Comstock, Americas foremost vice hunter, was eager to get on with
the "obscenity" trial that the New York Sun predicted would
be one of the most important of the day. Equally eager was his archenemy
D. M. Bennett, the freethinking editor who defiantly sold a controversial
pamphlet to challenge the puritanical obscenity laws instigated by the
Both men thrived on controversy and had been at each others throats
for years. And both likely sensed that the outcome of their 1879 legal
battle would dramatically affect American civil liberties and the nations
Comstock, a thirty-five-year-old former traveling salesman and fanatically
religious reformer, led The New York Society for the Suppression of
Vice (SSV) and was backed by some of the wealthiest, most powerful and
pious men in America, including Samuel Colgate, the soap magnate. Appointed
a "special agent" of the U.S. Post Office, Comstock waged
war on "obscene" books (including some classic works of literature)
and the writings of freethinkers like Bennett.
Bennett, whom opponents called "the devils own advocate,"
was the notorious founder of The Truth Seeker, a New York weekly promoting
science, labor reform, womens rights, birth-control, and the taxation
of church property, or, as Comstock declared, "most horrible &
Although it was a pamphlet, Cupids Yokes, mainly a critique of
the marriage institution, that landed Bennett in court, he believed
that his "persecution" was for publishing his radical journal,
The Truth Seeker. Admirers of Bennett referred to him as "Natures
Nobleman" and the "American Voltaire." Among his legion
of supporters were abolitionists, authors, attorneys, publishers, physicians,
and lecturers including Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll, the famous orator
and Republican stalwart.
Comstock, whom Bennett likened to a "witch hunter" and the
Spanish inquisitor Torquemada, had pursued the agnostic publisher for
years. The vice hunter first arrested Bennett in 1877 for selling his
heretical 'An Open Letter to Jesus Christ' and a scientific treatise
\How Do Marsupials Propagate Their Kind?'
Comstocks contempt for "the truth seeker" and disregard
for the First Amendment is confirmed in the SSV arrest blotter. "He
is everything vile in Blasphemy & Infidelism." [sic] Comstock
wrote, "His [Bennetts] idea of liberty is to do and say as
he pleases without regard to the rights, morals or liberties of others."
The charges against Bennett were dismissed after Robert Ingersoll, a
leader in the freethought movement, intervened on Bennetts behalf.
Ingersoll, a distinguished attorney and friend of three Presidents of
the United States, sent the "obscene" material to the Postmaster
General and let it be known that if the prosecution continued, he would
defend the Bennetts case all the way to the Supreme Court.
detested "The Great Agnostic" as Ingersoll was known,
and deeply resented his popularity. The vice hunter considered Robert
Ingersoll as blasphemy personified and defined all freethinkers
as "free-lovers" and "smut-dealers."
Comstock, a massive intimidating figure known to manhandle opponents,
continued to closely monitor Bennetts activities and reportedly
threatened the elderly publisher and his printers. The young vice
hunter, according to Bennett, continued to pursue him "like
Mortimer Bennett, or "Dr. Bennett" as his friends and employees
affectionately called him, was an unlikely free-speech proponent who
began his publishing career late in life. He and his wife were former
members of the United Society of Believers in Christs Second Appearing,
or Shakers, as they were commonly known. Bennett had been the strict
religious sects ministry-appointed journalist and community physician.
After his apostasy from the Shakers, he owned drugstores and marketed
his lucrative line of Dr. Bennetts Family Medicines.
Anthony Comstock was a religious zealot and part of the social purity
crusade that coincided and clashed with the rise of the freethought
movement. During the late nineteenth century, the United States was
overwhelmingly religious and anyone courageous enough to question religion,
let alone criticize in print the ubiquitous and influential Christian
institutions or their leaders was regarded as an enemy of God and/or
peculiar. Nevertheless, there existed a small but outspoken group of
organized opponents of orthodox Christianity known by a variety of names;
atheists, agnostics, deists, infidels, liberals and freethinkers. In
1876 they united and formed The National Liberal League, an organization
devoted to separation of church and state. Bennett was a Vice President
of the Liberal League and The Truth Seeker was the Leagues organ.
Comstock, the self-described "weeder in Gods garden"
loathed the flourishing organization and disparaged members as "long
haired men and short-haired women."
Bennett and Comstock had been on a collision course since 1873 when
they each began their opposing "crusades." Inspired by Thomas
Paine, Bennett founded The Truth Seeker as an alternative to the countrys
Christian-dominated press. That same year, Comstock, a member of the
YMCA, founded The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Americas
version of an organization that originated in London and prosecuted
the English freethinkers Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant for publishing
a birth- control pamphlet. Comstock acted as secretary and chief vice
hunter while Samuel Colgate served as president. Colgate, Americas
most prominent Baptist, along with other wealthy Christian laymen, gave
Comstock carte blanche when it came to his crusade against "obscenity"
that he called his "fight for the young."
Although America rebelled against the mother country a century earlier,
it remained subservient to puritanical English laws regarding sex and
obscenity. With blessings from New Yorks ministers, Christian
laymen, and financial support from Colgate and the YMCA, Comstock made
frequent trips to Washington where he lobbied members of Congress to
induce them into believing that Americas youth were at great moral
risk. With dogged determination and a satchel full of lewd pictures
and devices, he convinced his fellow Republicans that the children of
America were receiving such material in their mailboxes.
Subsequently, on March 3, 1873, a series of acts was recklessly passed
by a Republican majority in the closing hours of the 42nd Congress while
the House was in a state of confusion and some members reportedly were
under the influence of alcohol. Two hundred and sixty acts were passed
without inquiry or consideration of merit and were summarily signed
into law by President Grant. Violators of these nebulous "Comstock
Laws," as they were christened, could be punished by fines of $5,000
and imprisoned at hard labor for ten years.
Comstock first waged war on publishers of "obscene" literature
who he believed were poisoning the minds of Americas children.
Unable or unwilling to differentiate between agnosticism and obscenity,
free thought and free-love, Comstock often targeted liberal publishers
and birth-control advocates, whom he labeled abortionists.
There was little protest against the Comstock Laws in the nations
newspapers and magazines. Like the politicians, most publishers felt
that opposing the vice hunter and his "fight for the young"
crusade might be construed as tolerating crime. While a few liberal
or "freethought" editors chronicled Comstocks activities,
none were as aggressive and unrelenting as D. M. Bennett, who began
attacking the vice hunter after his friends and fellow publishers were
arrested, convicted and jailed. While other periodicals occasionally
scolded Comstock, Bennett persistently assailed the pious crusader and
excoriated him weekly in the pages of The Truth Seeker.
Censorship and church hypocrisy were two of Bennetts favorite
subjects. In Comstocks Christian sanctioned crusade he found both.
The publisher devoted pages of his weekly to defrocking "Saint
Anthony" and mocking his "Vice Society." In his book
The Champions of the Church; Their Crimes and Persecutions, Bennett
included a provocative chapter entitled Anthony Comstock, His Career
of Cruelty and Crime.
Bennett routinely ridiculed the SSVs activities and other licentious
escapades by "men of God" in a weekly column. Bennett was
likely the first publisher in the world who had the temerity to report
criminal acts by clergymen or "black collar crimes" as he
called them. These exposés became so popular with The Truth Seeker
subscribers that he eventually published a compilation entitled Sinful
Saints and Sensual Shepherds. Some of these "Saints" and "Shepherds"
were Comstocks supporters.
The irrepressible editor did not limit himself to taunting Comstock;
he also attacked the SSV President, Samuel Colgate. Bennetts 8,000
word 'Open Letter to Samuel Colgate' was a scathing indictment of the
soap manufacturer, charging him with surreptitiously publishing illegal
birth-control information. Bennetts exposure of Colgate caused
freethinkers throughout America to boycott the hypocrites products
It came as no surprise when Bennett was arrested again in 1878 while
attending the New York State Freethinkers convention at Watkins
Glen. He was arrested for selling Cupids Yokes along with two
others including Josephine Tilton, labor reformer and sister-in-law
of the pamphlets imprisoned author Ezra Heywood. Although the
local authorities filed the charges, Bennett believed Comstock instigated
the arrest. In a publicity stunt, the trio posed for a picture postcard
facetiously sold as "The Trinity." Although the case never
went to trial, Bennett and his free-speech campaign received recognition
and support from some of the famous attendees including Frederick Douglass,
Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Emboldened by the second arrest and publicity, Bennett returned to Manhattan
and continued his campaign against Comstocks "American Inquisition."
In addition to procuring thousands of signatures for the total repeal
of the Comstock Laws, he brazenly advertised and openly sold Cupids
Yokes. Bennett believed that as an American citizen he had the right
to sell the pamphlet which he described as a harmless "dry dissertation"
not "calculated to inflame the passions of the young."
On December 10, 1878, Bennett was arrested for mailing Cupids
Yokes to a party (Comstock using a false name) in upstate New York.
If Comstock had "written like a man" or walked into The Truth
Seeker offices to buy the pamphlet, Bennett confessed, "he would
have been served just as well."
After three years and as many arrests, D. M. Bennett was eager to have
his hard fought "liberty of the press" advocacy put to the
test. On March 18, 1879, the publisher was put on trial for "Depositing
Prohibited Matter in the Mail." If convicted, the former Shaker-turned-freethinker
faced a possible $5,000 fine and ten-year prison sentence. The "Prohibited
Matter" was Cupids Yokes, the scholarly 23-page pamphlet
critical of marriage and Anthony Comstock. The popular fifteen-cent
booklet disparaged Comstock and called him a "religious monomaniac."
The trial, held in the Lower Manhattan United States Circuit Court,
attracted a number of famous people. "Scattered through the crowd
of long-haired men and strong-minded women were a number
of well-known persons who have been summoned as witnesses for the defense,"
The Tribune reported. The reform-hostile New York Times declared "all
of whom are more or less identified as disciples of the school of free
Standing behind Bennett was a diverse group of distinguished reformers
and National Liberal League luminaries who ardently shared his free-speech
advocacy. Attending the trial was veteran abolitionist Elizur Wright
and birth-control pioneer Dr. E. B. Foote, Jr. Andrew Jackson Davis,
the famous clairvoyant known as the "Poughkeepsie Seer," was
present, as was Ezra Heywood, the author of Cupids Yokes, who
the previous year had been convicted on identical charges, sent to prison,
and pardoned by President Rutherford B. Hayes.
Bennett was encouraged by the number of devoted friends in attendance;
but concerned by the presiding judge and influential men sitting in
the courtroom providing "moral" support for the prosecution.
It was, after all, in Judge Benedicts court that Comstock often
bragged he "never failed." The jury might not have been familiar
with Bennetts scholarly supporters, but they surely recognized
Anthony Comstock and his powerful patrons, including Samuel Colgate,
the soap tycoon. Comstocks fellow moralist, Reverend Joseph Cook,
the famous religious lecturer, sat in plain view of the jury reading
the defendants incendiary pamphlet, 'An Open Letter to Jesus Christ'.
Prosecuting the governments case was William P. Fiero, a thirty-six-year-old
political aspirant and Shakespeare aficionado. Fiero, who claimed to
have lost sleep after hearing a passage of Cupids Yokes read aloud
in the courtroom, informed the jury that the pamphlet had already been
declared "obscene, lewd, lascivious, and dangerous" by 23
"good men" of the Grand Jury. Fiero defended his "friend"
Anthony Comstock, and said that his own Christian-sanctioned marriage
was under attack by Heywood and Bennett. "Let the Freelovers of
the country embrace their ideas," he declared, "let them,
if they like, roll vice as a sweet morsel under their tongue; we spit
it out of our mouths to-day, once and forever."
Bennetts attorney, Abram Wakeman, was the former New York Postmaster,
friend of Abraham Lincoln, and close confidant of Mary Todd Lincoln.
Joining him at the defense table was his brother Thaddeus Burr Wakeman,
a skilled attorney and President of the National Liberal League. T.
B. Wakeman was a staunch Bennett supporter whose petition to Congress
for the repeal of the Comstock Laws was a forceful and articulate argument
and widely supported.
D. M. Bennett took the stand in his own defense, but the Judge stifled
every effort made by his attorney to elicit his motive for selling the
pamphlet. The defense team called several character witnesses including
Heywood, in an attempt to show the authors intentions for writing
the booklet. The strategy to present Cupids Yokes as a philosophical
treatise that was openly sold was disallowed. The court also blocked
their plan to use popular books including classic literature and employ
the old freethought argument of comparing alleged obscene passages in
Cupids Yokes with sections from the Bible to contest the charges
However, Wakeman was allowed to read a passage of Cupids Yokes
that he believed explained Comstocks excessive zeal. The excerpt
was a letter written by Comstock at the beginning of his vice-hunting
career. In his own hand, on January 18, 1873, the young crusader boasted:
"There were four publishers on the 2nd of last March; to-day three
of these are in their graves, and it is charged by their friends that
I WORRIED THEM TO DEATH. BE THAT AS IT MAY, I AM SURE THAT THE WORLD
IS BETTER OFF WITHOUT THEM."
The prosecution called only one witness, Anthony Comstock, who testified
he sent the semiliterate letter using a fictitious name (his usual modus
operandi) requesting Cupids Yokes and received the pamphlet in
the mail. But under an intense cross-examination he denied ever threatening
Bennett or his printers. The vice-hunter was evasive when asked if he
knew where the defendants place of business was, even though,
Wakeman reminded Comstock, he had arrested Bennett there a year before.
"If he had that book in his possession at his place of business,"
the attorney asked, "hadnt you authority, under your state
statute, to have taken steps for its seizure?" The question was
objected to and sustained. However, Wakeman was eventually able to argue
the important point that Comstock should have acted properly and used
the state statute, wherein the maximum punishment would not have exceeded
two years of imprisonment and a $100 fine.
On March 21, 1879, Bennett was pronounced guilty, fined $300 and sentenced
to 13 months of hard labor at Albany Penitentiary, one of the countrys
harshest prisons. A one-year sentence would have allowed the elderly
editor to remain incarcerated in New York City where friends and family
could visit. "There was malice in that thirteen months," his
acting editor declared. The prosecuting attorneys courtroom style
and condescending remarks toward the defendant and defense witnesses
angered Bennetts supporters. But the defendant took the verdict
in stride hoping to eventually win on appeal. He described the prosecuting
attorneys dramatics as "gush and mush more fitted to the
stage of the Bowery Theatre than a United States court of justice."
The four-day standing room only trial was covered in the nations
press and became a cause celebre to freethinkers. "If the daily
reports of the New York Herald were anything like the truth," one
reporter opined "the whole proceeding was a farce, and the case
one of clear persecution. The trial was characterized by the same spirit
that ruled in the case of the Government against Susan B. Anthony for
offering to vote, and was like nearly all endeavors to enforce cruel
laws against individual liberty and the freedom of conscience. Talk
about justice in a court of law!"
Both men craved notoriety and knew the value of media attention. Immediately
after the trial, Bennett held a news conference and a few well-publicized
indignation meetings followed. Comstocks crime-fighting escapades
made good copy and he was a popular figure. Despite some negative press,
his legend grew during the trial. The day after testifying, he was involved
in an arrest that was colorfully reported in the New York Times. Sensational
accounts of Comstocks "heroic" efforts often appeared
in the Times and appeared to be written by the vice-hunter himself.
These "news reports" convinced at least one historian that
the New York Times "served as a mouthpiece for Comstock and the
On May 15, 1879, three judges including Judge Benedict
upheld the conviction against Bennett. The landmark decision
written by Samuel Blatchford who would subsequently become a Supreme
Court Justice became the foundation for obscenity law for nearly
half of a century. Under the English Hicklin formula, (Queen v. Hicklin)
obscenity was determined if the material tended to "deprave and
corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences."
The Hicklin standard permitted work to be judged by introducing only
isolated passages and not the intention of the author. The ambiguous
Hicklin formula worried most justice-loving Americans but not
Anthony Comstock. In his book, Frauds Exposed, he snarled, "If
this law is good enough for Great Britain and the United States of America,
it ought to be good enough for a handful of mongrels calling themselves
A petition with over 200,000 names (including Shakers) was sent to President
Hayes asking for a pardon. Although it was the largest petition campaign
of the nineteenth century, it failed to convince the Chief Executive.
Also ignored was a personal letter from Robert Ingersoll, expressing
his concerns about keeping the "old man" in prison. An anguished
Mrs. Bennett traveled to Washington with petitions bearing 30,000 additional
names, and, while in tears, pleaded with the president whom she reported
After hearing of the monumental pardon efforts, Comstock orchestrated
his own campaign and persuaded religious leaders and Sunday school children
to sign petitions and to send letters to the White House. Comstock also
mysteriously obtained some "love letters" written by Bennett
to a woman, and publicly condemned the prisoner as a "lecherous
adulterer." But it was the First Lady who had the most influence.
Mrs. Hayes, a devout Christian, known as Lemonade Lucy because of her
refusal to serve alcohol in the White House, implored her husband to
deny Bennetts petition.
During a private meeting in prison with the Attorney Generals
Commissioner, Bennett learned of his fate. The Commissioner admitted
that every man connected with the government pronounced his imprisonment
a "gross outrage" and was in favor of his pardon except the
president. "The fact is the church is too strong for you"
he told the prisoner "that influence has secured the cooperation
of the president, and it is too strong for you."
According to his diary, Hayes never thought Cupids Yokes should
have been considered illegal. As early as 1878, during the Heywood pardon
appeal, Hayes acknowledged in writing that Cupids Yokes was not
"lascivious, lewd, or corrupting in the criminal sense." Nevertheless,
he received a lot of criticism from the countrys religionists
over his pardon of Ezra Heywood and therefore the politician in the
White House decided it would be more expedient to deny a pardon for
Bennett. Decades later, the former president confessed in his diary
that he made the wrong decision and that the Cupids Yokes was
Bennett served his sentence and nearly died from the harsh prison conditions
and the stigma attached to selling "obscenity." Following
his release from the Albany Penitentiary, the editors loyalists
held a reception for their "martyr" at Manhattans prestigious
Chickering Hall. Soon after, the embattled editor took a journey around
the world and was given a heros welcome in numerous countries.
He chronicled his travels in a collection of irreverent articles books
called 'An Infidel Abroad and A Truth Seeker Around The World'.
D. M. Bennett died on December 6, 1882, only a few months after returning
home. Two years later, his friends erected a monument inscribed with
the publishers philosophical principles and the proclamation:
When The Innocent Is Convicted, The Court Is Condemned.
Comstock, on the other hand, was not a worldly man. In his opinion,
"dirty" postcards came from cities like Berlin, Paris and
Rome. At the turn of the century, Americas self-appointed arbiter
of morals reported he had dutifully destroyed 73,608 pounds of "obscene"
books. Comstock didnt read books, someone remarked; he weighed
During the twentieth century, Anthony Comstock became a favorite subject
for cartoonists but his victims found little humor in his exploits.
The vice hunter often boasted that he locked up enough "criminals"
to fill a passenger train of 61 coaches all of which he believed
were going straight to hell. And although he stopped bragging of driving
15 people to suicide early in his career, he caused many more deaths
including that of Ezra Heywood, who died after contracting tuberculosis
Anthony Comstock died on July 21, 1915, soon after returning home from
the International Purity Congress at the San Francisco Exposition, where
he served as an appointed delegate by President Wilson. The vice hunter
was proclaimed "a soldier of righteousness" at his funeral.
Anthony Comstocks crusade has been mostly forgotten, but his name
lives on in infamy and is synonymous with bigoted censorship.
Although The Truth Seeker publication continued, D. M. Bennett is remembered
only to a few and to those who wander into Brooklyns Green-Wood
Cemetery and view a monument to The Defender of Liberty and its Martyr.
Bradford September 2003
Roderick is a freelance writer and documentary producer in San Diego,
California. He has recently finished his first book: "THE TRUTH
The Biography of D. M. Bennett, The Nineteenth Century's Most Controversial
Publisher and Americas Free-Speech Martyr."
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