The Comstock Act in Philadelphia

U.S. National Archives

Beginning in 1872, Anthony Comstock led a campaign against what he considered indecent and immoral items such as lewd or pornographic materials and contraceptive devices. In 1893, the United States Congress passed the Act for the “Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use,” or “Comstock Act,” after which many Americans faced charges for mailing things considered obscene or immoral. The following records show several instances of citizens in the Philadelphia region standing trial under this law. Though not all were found guilty of crimes, Comstock’s policy put the private matters of each individual in the public sphere. Although over a century old, the effects of the Comstock Act and the anti-vice movements have shaped societal concepts and legal decisions in the twentieth century.

U.S. vs Algernon H. Wilcox and Augustus L Meyers, Case File
Some of Comstock’s first attempts at strengthening or instituting new laws regarding obscenity were in New York. The rise of mail-order marketing in New York was a catalyst for the anti-vice crusade, which contributed to the passage of the Comstock Act. In his campaign, Anthony Comstock successfully fabricated a connection between immigrants and obscenity, which led wealthy elites in New York and Boston to support anti-vice efforts. While the significant contributions of upper class citizens helped anti-vice societies to flourish in New York and Boston, the anti-vice movement did not gain traction in Philadelphia. Upper-class Philadelphians did not support the anti-vice movements as fervently as those in other cities because of the comparatively low immigration population in Philadelphia.  In the following cases from Philadelphia some of the defendants were found not guilty, while others were not as lucky. The fine for mailing obscene or immoral materials was $100 - $2,000, and the sentence of imprisonment was between 6 months and 5 years for each offence. 
U.S. vs Algernon H Wilcox and Augustus L Meyers, Case File
Philadelphia residents Algernon H Wilcox and Augustus L Meyers stood accused of knowingly mailing a circular that detailed how, where, and of whom to procure “an article or thing designed and intended for the prevention of conception” in May of 1883. Comstock’s personal distaste for indecent or erotic material is well documented, and he detested what he called “flimsy publications, obscene books, and the worst species of yellow-covered literature.” 

U.S. vs Algernon H Wilcox and Augustus S Meyers, Case File page 2

U.S. vs Algernon H Wilcox and Augustus L Meyers, Bail Papers
In August of the same year, Meyers and Wilcox accepted a recognizance bond prior to standing trial for their accused violations. The document stated that they were to appear for trial in November or be ordered to pay $1,000, which is roughly equivalent to $25,000 in 2015.

Algernon H Wilcox and Augustus L Meyers both pleaded not guilty to depositing in the mail an article meant for the prevention of conception, and in July 1884 the jury found both men not guilty.

Wilcox’s court docket serves as a timeline of events in his trial, which culminated in the exoneration of himself and Augustus Meyers.

U.S. vs Albert Niebergall, Criminal Return Docket
Prior to Comstock’s official appointment as special agent of the post office in charge of enforcing the federal law, postal inspectors did little to monitor the content or pursue criminal charges. In the years 1862-1872 postal inspectors only pursued criminal charges seven times, yet during the first seven years of the law Comstock himself launched over one hundred federal obscenity cases. Above is Albert Niebergall’s criminal return docket, in which he was ordered to appear at the November 1883 session of the Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania or pay $500. 
U.S. vs Albert Niebergall, Case File
Niebergall had been charged with mailing an “obscene and lewd picture of an indecent character,” titled “When the swallows homeward fly” to Minnie and Louis Goltz, who served as witnesses in the trial. In addition to Minnie and Louis Goltz, Charles B. Barrett, a special agent of the post office assigned to the Philadelphia district. Postal inspectors served as witnesses in many trials concerning the Comstock Act. Niebergall was found not guilty on November 21, 1883. 

U.S. vs Albert Niebergall Case File, page 2

U.S. vs Albert Niebergall Case File, Page 3

U.S. vs Pennock M Way, Case File
This Indictment charged Pennock M. Way with mailing an article that was designed and intended for the purpose of the prevention of conception. The article was circular titled “Dr. Eugene Becklard’s Great Secret for the Prevention of Conception,” which detailed where, how, and of whom to procure an item to prevent conception.

U.S. vs Pennock M Way, Case File page 2

U.S. vs Pennock M Way, Criminal Docket
Way received both the minimum fine of $100 and minimum prison sentence of one year to be served at Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia. His guilty plea may have reduced his sentence, as those found guilty could be charged with a fine as great as $5,000 and imprisonment as long as ten years. The fine made up only a portion of Way’s total charge, as additional court, lawyer, and witness fees brought his total expenses to $154.08, or approximately $4,000 in 2015. The law enabled the obscene materials in question to be destroyed in separate proceedings, which may have happened in this instance.

U.S. vs Pennock M Way, Plaintiff Bill

U.S. vs Isiah Gaines, Case File
On August 4, 1889, Isaiah Gaines pleaded not guilty to the charge of depositing an obscene letter in the mail. Gaines was found guilty as charged on November 18, 1889.
U.S. vs Isiah Gaines, Docket
In November of 1889, Isaiah Gaines was yet another Philadelphian to be charged with sending obscene materials through the mail. Though he pleaded not guilty, he was eventually found guilty of the crime with several witnesses testifying. Gaines was fined $25, and was sentenced to the Philadelphia County Prison until he paid his debt.
U.S. vs Oscar H. Burbridge, Case File
Not only was Oscar H. Burbridge accused of mailing a circular with information detailing how, where, and of whom to procure “an article or thing designed and intended for the prevention of conception,” he also deposited a physical article that was intended for the prevention of conception. Burbridge attempted to mail the banned materials to New York, which may be why Anthony Comstock himself, being a special agent of the post office assigned to the New York district, was listed as a sworn witness at Burbridge’s trial. On November 17, 1886 Burbridge pleaded not guilty to the charges, and on the same day the jury found him guilty. Burbridge was adjudged to pay to the United States a fine of $400.00, pay the costs of prosecution, and stand committed to the Philadelphia County Prison until he fully complied with the judgment.
The Comstock Act throughout the Twentieth Century
Some arguments against the Act included that: the law violated free speech, decoy letters intended to gain access to sealed mail constituted unreasonable search and seizure, that the national law superseded states’ authority under the Tenth Amendment, and that the laws were unconstitutionally vague. A 1936 Supreme Court case officially established the ability to transport contraceptives by mail to doctors “for the purpose of saving life or promoting the well-being of their patients.” A few decades later, the standard set forth for obscenity in 1896 was reversed in the 1957 Roth v. United States which set forth more strict criteria for determining obscenity. In 1965, the Supreme Court invalidated a Connecticut state law that prohibited mailing contraceptives, as they ruled 7-2 in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut that the law violated the right to privacy. Although over a century old, the effects of the Comstock Act and the anti-vice movements have shaped societal concepts and legal decisions in the twentieth century.
All images found in this exhibit can be accessed at the National Archives at Philadelphia.
Credits: Story

This exhibit was compiled through the collaborative efforts of Ashley Stevens, Archives Technician; Benjamin Springle, Intern; and Grace DiAgostino, Pathways Graduate Student Trainee.

Want to learn more about the records used in this exhibit? Email us at philadelphia.archives@nara.gov

View OPA catalog entries for documents used in this exhibit here: http://research.archives.gov/description/279067

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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