Book Project: Vice Hunter: The Life and Legacy of Anthony Comstock (1844-1915)

co-authored by Amy Werbel and Frederick Lane


For forty years following the Civil War, Anthony Comstock exercised the power to confiscate and destroy pornography, indict publishers of indecent literature, and review art and theater for vice all subject to his prosecutorial whims.  His most infamous accomplishments include the destruction of thousands of books, prints, and photographs, incarceration of Americas first female Presidential candidate, and passage of the Comstock Act (1873), which still prohibits the interstate transport of indecent and obscene materials.  As Secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and Special Agent for the U.S. Postal Service between 1872 and 1915, Comstock created an atmosphere of moral panic in Victorian America that set the stage for a modern rejection of Comstockery and an embrace of provocative art and literature around the time of World War I.  The lives and work of artists, writers, journalists, reformers, educators, law enforcers, and common individuals throughout the country still are influenced by the regulatory policies Comstock devised, promoted, and enforced. 


Despite Comstocks seminal importance, it has been eighty years since a comprehensive biography of our nations most successful censor last was published, and previous scholarship has failed to answer questions of interest to modern researchers.  Vice Hunter will for the first time reveal and articulate assumptions about class, gender, sexuality, and the role of visual images evident in nineteenth-century definitions of vice, and demonstrate how the legally culpable designation of indecent changed the production and reception of art and literature after the Civil War. This contemporary cultural biography of Anthony Comstock will inform scholars and general readers interested in visual culture, literary studies, American history, constitutional law, and art history, as well as those seeking historical context for understanding contemporary reform campaigns.