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The Truth Seeker on Trial
Roderick Bradford

'The United States is one great society for the suppression of vice'.
Prosecuting Attorney’s Plea
The United States vs. D. M. Bennett
March 20, 1879

D.M. Bennett

Anthony Comstock, America’s 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 crusading Comstock.
Both men thrived on controversy and had been at each other’s throats for years. And both likely sensed that the outcome of their 1879 legal battle would dramatically affect American civil liberties and the nation’s cultural course.
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 devil’s own advocate," was the notorious founder of The Truth Seeker, a New York weekly promoting science, labor reform, women’s rights, birth-control, and the taxation of church property, or, as Comstock declared, "most horrible & obscene blasphemies."
Although it was a pamphlet, Cupid’s 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 "Nature’s 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?'
Comstock’s 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 [Bennett’s] 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 Bennett’s 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 Bennett’s case all the way to the Supreme Court.

Anthony Comstock
Comstock 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 Bennett’s activities and reportedly threatened the elderly publisher and his printers. The young vice hunter, according to Bennett, continued to pursue him "like a bloodhound."

DeRobigne 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 Christ’s Second Appearing, or Shakers, as they were commonly known. Bennett had been the strict religious sect’s ministry-appointed journalist and community physician. After his apostasy from the Shakers, he owned drugstores and marketed his lucrative line of Dr. Bennett’s 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 League’s organ. Comstock, the self-described "weeder in God’s 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 country’s Christian-dominated press. That same year, Comstock, a member of the YMCA, founded The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, America’s 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, America’s 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 York’s 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 America’s 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 America’s 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 nation’s 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 Comstock’s 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 Bennett’s favorite subjects. In Comstock’s 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 SSV’s 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 Comstock’s supporters.

The irrepressible editor did not limit himself to taunting Comstock; he also attacked the SSV President, Samuel Colgate. Bennett’s 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. Bennett’s exposure of Colgate caused freethinkers throughout America to boycott the hypocrite’s products for years.
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 Cupid’s Yokes along with two others including Josephine Tilton, labor reformer and sister-in-law of the pamphlet’s 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 Comstock’s "American Inquisition." In addition to procuring thousands of signatures for the total repeal of the Comstock Laws, he brazenly advertised and openly sold Cupid’s 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 Cupid’s 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 Cupid’s 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
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 thought.’"
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 Cupid’s 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 Benedict’s court that Comstock often bragged he "never failed." The jury might not have been familiar with Bennett’s scholarly supporters, but they surely recognized Anthony Comstock and his powerful patrons, including Samuel Colgate, the soap tycoon. Comstock’s fellow moralist, Reverend Joseph Cook, the famous religious lecturer, sat in plain view of the jury reading the defendant’s incendiary pamphlet, 'An Open Letter to Jesus Christ'.

Prosecuting the government’s 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 Cupid’s 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."

Bennett’s 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 author’s intentions for writing the booklet. The strategy to present Cupid’s 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 Cupid’s Yokes with sections from the Bible to contest the charges against Bennett.
However, Wakeman was allowed to read a passage of Cupid’s Yokes that he believed explained Comstock’s 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 Cupid’s 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 defendant’s 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, "hadn’t 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 country’s 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 attorney’s courtroom style and condescending remarks toward the defendant and defense witnesses angered Bennett’s supporters. But the defendant took the verdict in stride hoping to eventually win on appeal. He described the prosecuting attorney’s 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 nation’s 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. Comstock’s 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 Comstock’s "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 Vice Society."

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 Liberals."

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 "seemed touched."

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 Bennett’s petition.

During a private meeting in prison with the Attorney General’s 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 Cupid’s Yokes should have been considered illegal. As early as 1878, during the Heywood pardon appeal, Hayes acknowledged in writing that Cupid’s Yokes was not "lascivious, lewd, or corrupting in the criminal sense." Nevertheless, he received a lot of criticism from the country’s 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 Cupid’s Yokes was not "obscene."

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 editor’s loyalists held a reception for their "martyr" at Manhattan’s prestigious Chickering Hall. Soon after, the embattled editor took a journey around the world and was given a hero’s 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 publisher’s 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, America’s self-appointed arbiter of morals reported he had dutifully destroyed 73,608 pounds of "obscene" books. Comstock didn’t read books, someone remarked; he weighed them.

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 in prison.

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 Comstock’s 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 Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery and view a monument to The Defender of Liberty and its Martyr.

© Roderick Bradford September 2003
Roderick is a freelance writer and documentary producer in San Diego, California. He has recently finished his first book: "THE TRUTH SEEKER:
The Biography of D. M. Bennett, The Nineteenth Century's Most Controversial Publisher and America’s Free-Speech Martyr."



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