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Imperiled Innocents

Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America

Nicola Beisel
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7skc1
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  • Book Info
    Imperiled Innocents
    Book Description:

    Moral reform movements claiming to protect children began to emerge in the United States over a century ago, most notably when Anthony Comstock and his supporters crusaded to restrict the circulation of contraception, information on the sexual rights of women, and "obscene" art and literature. Much of their rhetoric influences debates on issues surrounding children and sexuality today. Drawing on Victorian accounts of pregnant girls, prostitutes, Free Lovers, and others deemed "immoral," Nicola Beisel argues that rhetoric about the moral corruption of children speaks to an ongoing parental concern: that children will fail to replicate or exceed their parents' social position. The rhetoric of morality, she maintains, is more than symbolic and goes beyond efforts to control mass behavior. For the Victorians, it tapped into the fear that their own children could fall prey to vice and ultimately live in disgrace.

    In a rare analysis of Anthony Comstock's crusade with the New York and New England Societies for the Suppression of Vice, Beisel examines how the reformer worked on the anxieties of the upper classes. One tactic was to link moral corruption with the flood of immigrants, which succeeded in New York and Boston, where minorities posed a political threat to the upper classes. Showing how a moral crusade can bring a society's diffuse anxieties to focus on specific sources, Beisel offers a fresh theoretical approach to moral reform movements.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2208-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. 1 INTRODUCTION: FAMILY REPRODUCTION, CHILDREN’S MORALS, AND CENSORSHIP
    (pp. 3-24)

    OF THE SCORE of literary censorship societies founded between 1870 and 1890, only two left many traces in the historical record. Our language and laws reflect the legacy of these societies, while the issues addressed by these organizations still motivate contemporary political debate. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV), founded in New York City in 1872 by Anthony Comstock and his wealthy supporters in the Young Men’s Christian Association, sponsored passage of a federal anti-obscenity law that forbade use of the postal service for distributing obscene materials, including information about or devices that caused abortion or...

  5. 2 THE CITY, SEXUALITY, AND THE SUPPRESSION OF ABORTION AND CONTRACEPTION
    (pp. 25-48)

    ON AUGUST 26, 1871, a naked corpse was found in a trunk in the baggage room of New York City’s Hudson River Railway. TheNew York Timesdescribed the body as that of a “young girl … [with] a face of singular loveliness … but her chief beauty was her great profusion of golden hair … that lay in heavy masses upon her breast.” Although the identity of the young woman was unknown, the decomposed flesh of her pelvis marked her as “a new victim of man’s lust, and the life-destroying arts of … abortionists.” The corpse was taken to...

  6. 3 MORAL REFORM AND THE PROTECTION OF YOUTH
    (pp. 49-75)

    COMSTOCK’S EFFICACY in the crusade against abortion resulted from his position as leader of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. This chapter will address two questions: Who supported the NYSSV? And how can we explain this support? I will argue that the NYSSV was a powerful moral reform organization because it mobilized privileged people, many of them wealthy and highly respected, into a campaign to ensure the reproduction of the families and the social world of the upper and middle classes. This campaign sought to ensure the reproduction of children suited to take their parents’ places as...

  7. 4 ANTHONY COMSTOCK VERSUS FREE LOVE: RELIGION, MARRIAGE, AND THE VICTORIAN FAMILY
    (pp. 76-103)

    THE POWER WIELDED by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and its position as one of the nineteenth century’s most influential moral reform movements resulted from the support given to it by wealthy and influential men. But while Comstock often appealed to the upper class by framing issues of youthful corruption in terms of problems that could befall wealthy children, the issues of protecting children and preserving the family also concerned persons of more modest means. Comstock sought support among these classes as well. He did this, in part, by linking the corruption of children by obscene...

  8. 5 IMMIGRANTS, CITY POLITICS, AND CENSORSHIP IN NEW YORK AND BOSTON
    (pp. 104-127)

    I HAVE ARGUED that support for the anti-vice movement stemmed from the willingness of influential members of New York City’s upper class to see obscenity as an issue of family reproduction. Comstock posed the problem of obscenity as a problem of protecting children and families from moral corruption, and argued that institutions intended to protect children were not as impenetrable as parents hoped. But knowing that the anti-vice societies were concerned about children does not explain why this concern was strong enough to generate anti-vice movements in the 1870s and 1880s, nor why Boston and New York, but not Philadelphia,...

  9. 6 CENSORIOUS QUAKERS AND THE FAILURE OF THE ANTI-VICE MOVEMENT IN PHILADELPHIA
    (pp. 128-157)

    THE SUCCESS of the anti-vice societies in New York City and Boston sprang, in part, from their ability to connect fears about the corruption of children and families to corruption in city government. The link between sexual depravity and dirty politics was, in both cities, the protection of gambling by corrupt police and city officials. Anti-vice crusaders portrayed gambling, like obscene literature, as leading the children of middle- and upper-class families to associate with bad companions and acquire habits that would topple them from the pinnacle of society to its depths. Gambling, obscenity, and city corruption were effects of immigrants...

  10. 7 MORALS VERSUS ART
    (pp. 158-198)

    I HAVE ARGUED that the success of the anti-vice societies was linked to the social presence and political power of immigrants in New York and Boston. Growing cities filled with aliens generated parental fears about children’s safety and elite anxiety about immigrant political power, which censors exploited to solicit support for crusades against obscenity and gambling. But in addition to responding to growing immigrant populations with a frontal (and ultimately ineffectual) assault on the power immigrants wielded in city politics, the upper class created institutions that would exclude the masses. Some institutions, such as boarding schools and social clubs, physically...

  11. 8 CONCLUSION: FOCUS ON THE FAMILY
    (pp. 199-218)

    IN THE 1870s Comstock embarked on a censorship campaign that became one of the most successful and ultimately notorious in American history. Comstock’s concern about moral purity extended his censorship of common pornography into other realms: to the censorship of art, including the arrest of one of the country’s leading art dealers and the suppression of Walt Whitman’s poetry; the suppression of abortion and the death of the country’s most notorious abortionist; the arrest and imprisonment of persons who distributed birth control, as well as those who advocated women’s emancipation through the elimination of marriage; and, finally, to raids on...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 219-254)
  13. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 255-268)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 269-275)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 276-277)