Dirty Works
Obscenity on Trial in America’s First Sexual Revolution
Brett Gary




THE UNITED STATES IN THE 1920s was experiencing a grand cultural change. Historians have applied different labels to try to capture the essence of the dramatic cultural clashes and transformations that surged through American society in the 1920s. The Age of Intolerance describes the postwar Red Scare, Prohibition, new immigration restriction laws, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Scopes trial with its assault on science. Labels such as the Age of Ford or the Era of Prosperity convey the furious expansion of industrial production and consumption fueled by the automobile, resulting in a 40% increase in the nation’s gross domestic product by decade’s end. This economic vitality dovetails with the Roaring 20s, the Jazz Age, or the Flapper Era, all of which point to a culture increasingly marked by leisure and consumption, with an emphasis on speed, music, speakeasies, and an increasingly public presence of single women dressed in new styles. Cars, home radios, the advanced rotary press (with its celebrity magazines and inexpensive novels), and especially movie projectors produced new forms of leisure, amusement, and fantasy. And so the 1920s also witnessed an intense focus on the moral consequences of these new popular culture forms that might corrupt young audiences, unleash untrammeled female sexuality, and produce a dreaded “Revolution in Manners and Morals” (to use another label to describe the era). Moral critics especially feared that popular culture would uncouple sex from the idea of sin and that glamour and adventure would overwhelm the teachings of parents, religions, schools, and other institutions about modesty, self-control, and sexual restraint.1

In this book I explore this broader story about changes and conflicts around sex and morality in American culture in a booming, ever-expanding marketplace of information and entertainment. In particular, I focus on the tensions between a residual but still powerful Christian moral order on one side and, on the other side, the profusion of images, ideas, and desires distributed to an ever-more urban, secular, polyglot public in an increasingly commercial society. Those conflicts intensified as that marketplace became more unruly. Despite a vague ideological commitment to the free press and free speech ideals embodied in the First Amendment tradition, many thoughtful people disliked and worried about the varieties of tawdry, erotically alluring, or outright smutty materials that were circulating in the culture. This tension between free speech and free press ideals and the availability of unsavory goods resulted in legal and cultural conflicts over the enforcement of strict obscenity laws and other censorship practices. Whereas many found the sex-themed materials offensive, others believed that censorship threatened core principles of democratic life and starved a rational, capable public who ought to be trusted to make discerning choices.

The progressive sexualization of American culture, from French postcards in the mid-nineteenth century to the explosion of pornography by the 1970s, suggests that the fears of the nineteenth-and twentieth-century moral guardians were not entirely unwarranted. The emergent post–World War I civil libertarian commitment to free expression as a political and cultural ideal ran up hard against leaders who felt a strong need to control sexualized images and literary smut. Virtually no one expressed doubt about the overwhelming power of popular culture forms to deliver peoples’ attention (and lusts) to the vulgar, the base, and the animal and, for those of a religious mind, to distract them from higher purposes. This perception of public susceptibilities—shared by religious, civil, legal, and economic elites—intensified broad agreement that obscenity laws were necessary tools for keeping dirt and sin at bay.2

Thus the anti-vice organizations in the nation’s largest cities and smaller towns enlisted clergy from all denominations, found eager activists in women’s civic groups, drew on the social authority and financial resources of leading male citizens, and could count on the police enforcing the laws and judges upholding them in the courts. They incurred virtually no opposition from politicians.3 That lasted until a more robust anti-censorship argument took hold in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the overarching fear of public vulnerability was countered by an equally powerful claim to the public’s right of access to those goods. This book tells that story, using the actions of one particular law firm and one particular lawyer to trace its course. I illustrate how Morris Leopold Ernst and his colleagues, especially Alexander Lindey and Harriet Pilpel, won signature cases in their larger campaign against censorship and on behalf of free speech for sexual knowledge.4 I tell the story of Ernst and his New York City law firm’s fight against obscenity laws from the late 1920s to the mid-1950s, in defense of feminists, birth control activists and physicians, sexologists and sex educators, booksellers and publishers, novelists and journalists, burlesque theater owners, and sundry others.5

Instead of assuming harm caused by these so-called obscene materials, Ernst and his team tried to shift the courts’ focus to questions of value—the public value of information and knowledge about human sexuality and its variations. Over time they worked to convince the courts that the average adult reader ought to be considered the main consumer in the literary and sexual modernist marketplace, rather than the most vulnerable youth, invoking a competent and rational adult public whose judgments and tastes ought to be trusted. They also repeatedly invoked the public value of an open marketplace of ideas as a founding faith enshrined in the First Amendment. Under Ernst and his colleagues’ anti-censorship campaign, which shifted the query to the values of the targeted literary, aesthetic, scientific, or medical works, the courts became less willing to accept prosecutors’ and anti-vice agents’ arguments that literary works and other artifacts were presumptively harmful and thus obscene. The more the courts thought of literary and theatrical expressions or sexological information as also having protected value as speech, the less willing they were to condemn materials whose purposes were more significant than the mere arousal of prurient interests.6

Ernst and his colleagues pursued these arguments about harm and value because this clarified to the courts that censorship not only precluded the flow of valuable materials but also interfered with key democratic principles. They saw that the harmful impulse toward and the mechanisms of censorship were about more than determining whether reading certain kinds of materials aroused lust; they were also about depriving women (and couples) of control of their own reproductive capacities and of being able to engage in sex for pleasure. Ernst and his colleagues clearly understood the link between the obscenity law’s coercive intent to constrain lust and its aim to restrict access to contraceptive information and sexual knowledge.7 They also apprehended the positive connection—the value—of being stirred by written words and having the capacity to enjoy sex because one is educated about it and able to control its consequences. This benefit was, they understood, exceptionally important to modern adults.

Saving the Soul of New York City

Anthony Comstock was a nineteenth-century anti-vice crusader. He was the most effective propagandist warning about the dangers of obscene materials and the chief lobbyist behind congressional passage of the 1873 Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use.8 The Comstock Act, as it has long been known, gave Comstock special authority as an agent of the Postal Service to search the mails, secure arrests and convictions, and destroy seized materials.9 Virtually every study about obscenity law and censorship in American society features his looming presence.10

During the Civil War, the religiously devout Comstock pledged not to partake of alcohol, tobacco, or dirty pictures, and he began crusading against all sexually oriented materials. He was a notorious scold among his fellow Union soldiers, reportedly quite unpopular for pouring his whiskey rations on the ground rather than giving them to his brothers in arms. Aghast at the pornographic photographs passed around among his wartime mates, he eventually found his calling, hunting down and seeking the arrests of those engaged in the production and distribution of such materials. By 1872 he had so impressed the leaders of New York City’s Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) with his zeal that they hired him to lead their anti-vice efforts and created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV, or simply the Vice Society) as a separate entity to police the city for offensive materials.

Under the lobbying efforts of the YMCA’s powerful leaders, the New York State legislature gave Comstock and the Vice Society official police powers to enforce the state’s updated obscenity laws (which served as the model for the federal statute).11 Comstock used his broad federal and New York state authority to seize and dispose of literally tons of materials. A highly controversial and frequently satirized figure, he maintained the support of his patrons in his forty-year reign as the nation’s foremost censor and smut eradicator. He warned against the power of a sexualized popular culture to undermine the moral sensibilities and self-discipline on which the old social order depended, and he painted vivid tales of well-to-do youth falling prey to “traps for the young.” A devout evangelical Christian, he pitted himself as an avenging hero against those forces of disruption and sin, calling himself a “Soldier of the Cross.”12

These laws, widely known as the Comstock laws, took aim at materials that might stimulate sexual arousal and lust and would invariably lead, their proponents warned, to “corruption and depravity.” Long before pornography became the object—and problem—most indelibly linked in the public imagination with “obscenity,” federal and state authorities had used those laws to restrict literary expression, to constrain theatrical and film content, to proscribe virtually any discussion of homosexuality, and to keep a tight lid on information about sexual urges (especially masturbation and intercourse) from young eyes. The laws helped censorship authorities ensnare all matter of information and images that might disturb the moral order, especially including birth control devices and contraceptive information and anything related to abortion. The prohibitions were rooted in the assumption that among other things, sexually arousing materials would lead to temptation, lust, and sexual immorality. The nineteenth-century federal and state obscenity laws that Ernst and his colleagues battled well into the middle of the twentieth century aimed to contain minds and bodies, protect individual and collective morality, and ensure a sexual order organized around marriage, marital reproduction, and the repression of carnality.13

The Comstock laws sprang from nineteenth-century American Protestant morality colliding with dramatic changes taking place in post–Civil War American society. Fears of moral harm undergirded the obscenity laws, as did perceptions of public vulnerability, particularly of the nation’s youth, who were perceived as being especially susceptible to moral trespass. Comstock had a particular anxiety about male masturbation. Although he worried about women’s virtue, he especially feared that men and boys in the new media environment of inexpensive print and photography would fall prey to the “secret vice” of masturbation and would lose themselves (their souls, minds, and bodies) in it. He wrote floridly about the dangers of the secret vice. The direct line from sexual images to the arousal of animal lust, breakdown of self-discipline, habitual masturbation, crippling guilt and shame, and ultimately self-destruction recurred throughout his writings. He hated his own youthful shame resulting from such weakness, but he also thought that the shame was deserved and should be used as a deterrent. Comstock’s view of masturbation was unforgiving: One should feel guilty because the “crime” of “self-abuse” was both a moral weakness and a path to personal failure. It should never be acceptable. As Ernst wrote about Comstock, “Original sin was burning reality to him, and he reposed no confidence in the deterrent powers of self-control, idealism or taste to save men from vice. He wanted everyone protected from moral evil, in all its forms.”14

Middle-class cultural ideals elevated marriage and family as the central societal institutions, closely proscribed gender roles, assigned churches a ruling position in social life, and expected neighbors to keep tabs on one another. These ideals ran up against profound upheavals marked by massive immigration, urbanization, industrialization, and labor unrest alongside revolutionary developments in communications technologies and changes in media consumption, urban entertainment districts, and visual landscapes. Comstock gained and maintained his cultural clout by invoking upper-class white Victorian fears of declining social power and collective moral decay against these changes.

Immigration and emigration produced dramatic shifts in the size and the ethnic and religious makeup of American cities. Millions of American-born youth migrated from rural to urban locations to find their fortunes. They found themselves less supervised than at home, and the anonymity of city life produced anxieties about social class instability, racial mixing, wanton sexual behavior, and vulnerability to corruption. Youth might fall prey to the lures of “vice districts” with their saloons, gambling dens, dance halls, confidence men, painted women, smut peddlers, and homosexual subcultures. Thus, besides offering educational and economic mobility, artistic enrichment, and cosmopolitanism, cities also posed real (if exaggerated) threats of rape, forced prostitution, moral failure, penury, and disease. In this milieu, all kinds of new and provocative printed materials, from adventure-promoting dime-store novels to “French” postcards, were widely available and seemed to Anthony Comstock the first step toward dissolution.15

What Got Banned: Birth Control, Abortifacients, and Masturbatory Materials

The 1873 federal obscenity law barred importation and transportation of “any obscene, lewd, or lascivious book, pamphlet, picture, print, or other publication of vulgar and indecent character.” The law collapsed categorical distinctions, expressly connecting erotic materials to all contraception-related items. It also specifically lumped together contraception with abortion and abortifacients—a linkage that remains fixed in much of the public imagination to this day. In so doing, the Comstock Act reinforced the idea that birth control was an “immoral purpose” and a crime against the natural order and just as troubling as abortion.16

Abortion had been outlawed in the 1850s, but a campaign to criminalize abortion took off in 1859 with the publication of the American Medical Association’s “Report on Criminal Abortion.” Anti-abortion agitation gained momentum in the post–Civil War period. Birthrates were rising among immigrants and declining among American-born white women, and notorious abortion providers carried out their trade in the public eye. Madame Restelle, New York City’s most famous abortionist, lived in a mansion in a fashionable neighborhood in uptown Manhattan, making her an effective symbol of a bloody trade and a larger moral collapse. Madame Restelle committed suicide after Comstock finally got her arrested, an event that he relished after her death.17

Birth control opponents also hoped to reverse behavioral changes already evident in the upper social tiers. Linda Gordon, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Andrea Tone, Nicola Beisel, and other scholars have shown that by the latter third of the nineteenth century, middle-and upper-class white women were increasingly using a variety of birth control techniques to control their reproduction and alter their relationships to family and domestic duties and, for the most radical of them, to make sexual intercourse a greater source of pleasure for themselves and for their husbands.18

This turn toward greater reproductive autonomy elicited strong objections that intermingled medical, theological, demographic, and nationalistic concerns. Because women of means were not having nearly as many babies as the great masses of immigrants, Comstock and others warned that white upper-class married women were not carrying out their duties to their husbands and families, to their social class, and to the nation, accusing them of “race suicide.” Birth control and abortion were not just selfish; they allowed women to hide their promiscuity and would thus lead to more sexual wantonness. They would also, critics averred, lead men to exploit their wives sexually. And birth control would diminish women’s natural roles as mothers and as the primary moral force in society, depriving the nation of a future of strong young men and morally upright women.19

This cluster of concerns about the nation, marriage bonds, and sexual honor grew from foundational religious beliefs about marriage and gender roles. Marriage was a sacred institution with procreative purposes at its center. Marital intercourse should always potentially result in reproduction; any interference with the reproductive possibilities of sex interfered with God’s purposes and women’s physiology. Intercourse for carnal pleasure alone would separate the physical from the spiritual, and some even argued that it was analogous to prostituting one’s wife (an argument, we shall see, still routinely used in the twentieth-century trials). In this late-nineteenth-century predominantly Protestant milieu, family honor was deeply bound with women’s sexual decorum, so sexual purity was emphasized.

The 1873 Obscenity Law turned theological beliefs about contraception as sin into a federal crime. The second quarter of the nineteenth century had been an era of great progress, with a profusion of birth control books and pamphlets available in England and the United States.20 The Obscenity Law stemmed that tide of progress and wreaked havoc on women’s lives, according to birth control advocates.

In the early 1940s, Planned Parenthood’s Gwendolyn Pickett and Ernst co-authored a major report titled “Birth Control in the Courts.” The authors divided their history into two eras: a “golden age” lasting through the mid-nineteenth century and the age of Comstock. Pickett and Ernst argued that the Comstock laws thwarted a generative marketplace of ideas that might have solved many problems of contraception, including issues of safety, reliability, availability, and affordability. The result was that for seventy years the federal law “hampered the medical profession . . . and caused incalculable harm and suffering to thousands of American families.”21 Comstock and his allies did not “stop for nice distinctions in his headlong pursuit of vice,” attacking “works of art and dirty postcards with impartial enthusiasm” and seeing “contraception, abortion, sexual perversion and obscenity all in the same dark light.”22

Comstock was not alone in his anti-vice crusades, of course. By the time Ernst’s law firm and their ACLU colleagues and other allies took up the battle against local and federal obscenity laws in the late 1920s, Vice Society agents, in conjunction with the New York City Police Department, had been badgering writers, publishers, bookstore clerks, actors and theater owners, and sexual rebels for nearly fifty years. Other cities and states had their own anti-vice organizations, among them, Boston, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. The federal and state obscenity laws were overlapping, mutually reinforcing, and well entrenched throughout the nation. Forty-five states passed “little” or “mini-Comstock” laws by the turn of the twentieth century.

Most important, the Comstock laws maintained support in the nation’s courts. The U.S. Supreme Court’s nineteenth-century rulings upholding the constitutionality of the federal obscenity statutes made the legal obstacles more durable. Getting judges to keep the forces of censorship in check and to provide greater legal protection for sexual expression and information that might disrupt the moral and social order would not be easy. Ernst and his colleagues would maintain that the courts lagged far behind evolving public tastes and interest, and they would press this argument in a number of important obscenity trials they engineered.


1. On the role of young women in these cultural transformations, see Paula Fass, The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1977); and Christine Stansell, American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000). On the cultural upheavals of the “machine age,” see Ann Douglass, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996).

2. For a rich treatment of the perception of the necessity of keeping sex and sin at bay, see R. Marie Griffith, Mortal Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics (New York: Basic Books, 2017); and Betty A. DeBerg, Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990). On vulnerability to powerful media forms, see Brett Gary, The Nervous Liberals: Propaganda Anxieties from World War One to the Cold War (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); for a discussion of the bad tendency of speech theory in World War I, see David Rabban, Free Speech in Its Forgotten Years (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

3. On women’s groups as part of the battle against obscenity and smut, see Leigh Ann Wheeler, Against Obscenity: Reform and the Politics of Womanhood in America, 1873–1935 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007); Alison M. Parker, Purifying America: Women, Cultural Reform, and Pro-Censorship Activism, 1873–1933 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997); Griffith, Mortal Combat; and Andrea Friedman, Prurient Interests: Gender, Democracy, and Obscenity in New York City, 1909–1945 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000). For studies of women organizing against pornography in the 1970s and beyond, see Whitney Strub, Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013); Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pelligrini, Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006); Lisa Duggan and Nan Hunter, Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture (New York: Routledge, 2006); and Carolyn Bronstein, Battling Pornography: The American Feminist Anti-Pornography Movement, 1976–1986 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

4. Ernst was prolific and wrote or co-wrote many books, most of them addressing his anti-censorship arguments in conjunction with his anti-oligopoly positions. See Morris L. Ernst and William Seagle, To the Pure: A Study of Obscenity and the Censor (New York: Viking Press, 1928; Kaus Reprint Company, 1969); Morris L. Ernst and Alexander Lindey, The Censor Marches On (New York: Doubleday Doran, 1940); Morris L. Ernst, The First Freedom (New York: Macmillan, 1946); and Morris L. Ernst and Alan U. Schwartz, Censorship: The Search for the Obscene (New York: Macmillan, 1964). I have had a difficult time finding biographical information about Alexander Lindey; he graduated from City College and then New York Law School in 1925, joined the Greenbaum, Wolff & Ernst firm, and, after leaving Greenbaum, Wolff & Ernst, concentrated in entertainment law and wrote a book titled Plagiarism and Originality (1952). For information on Harriet Pilpel, see the obituary by Joan Cook, “Harriet Pilpel, 79, Lawyer, Dies; An Advocate of Women’s Rights,” New York Times (April 24, 1991), D23. Pilpel graduated second in her class at Columbia University Law School and joined the Ernst firm in 1936, where she stayed until it dissolved in 1982; from 1973 to 1991 she participated in twenty-seven cases before the Supreme Court.

5. The most complete study of Morris Ernst’s career is Joel Matthew Silverman, “Pursuing Celebrity, Ensuing Masculinity: Morris Ernst, Obscenity, and the Search for Recognition,” PhD diss., University of Texas at Austin, 2006. Silverman astutely frames Ernst’s publicity consciousness and his disposition to “exhibitionism”; see especially pp. 1–54.

6. For earlier treatment of Ernst’s work, see Brett Gary, “‘Guessing Oneself into Jail’: Morris Ernst and the Assault on American Obscenity Laws in the 1930s,” in Obscenity and the Limits of Liberalism, ed. Loren Glass and Charles Francis Williams (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011), 50–68; and Brett Gary, “Morris Ernst’s Troubled Legacy,” Reconstruction 8, no. 1 (2008), (accessed September 30, 2013).

7. The Comstock Act, discussed in the next section, elaborated the prohibition on contraceptive and abortion information and devices. On the implications of these prohibitions, see Linda Gordon, The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America, 3rd ed. (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2007). Other works include James Reed, From Private Vice to Public Virtue: The Birth Control Movement and American Society Since 1830 (New York: Basic Books, 1978); Ellen Chesler, A Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1992); David Kennedy, Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1971); and Peter C. Engelman, A History of the Birth Control Movement in America (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2011).

8. The first federal obscenity law in the United States, passed in 1842, authorized the U.S. Customs Service to confiscate “obscene or immoral” pictures imported into the country. By the time of the American Civil War (1861–1865), obscenity statutes were on the books in many individual states, and by 1905 in forty-five states. Most of these statutes shared an English common law language that broadly prohibited “whatever outrages decency and is injurious to public morals.” See Frederick F. Schauer, The Law of Obscenity (Washington, DC: Bureau of National Affairs, 1976).

9. On mailing obscene matter, the full language of the Comstock Act of 1873, as amended in 1876 (Title 18, Section 334 of the United States Code, Section 211 of Penal Code, amended) reads: “Every obscene, lewd, or lascivious, and every filthy book, pamphlet, picture, paper, letter, writing, print, or other publication of an indecent character, and every article or thing designed, adapted, or intended for preventing contraception or producing abortion, or for any indecent or immoral use; and every article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine, or thing which is advertised or described in a manner calculated to lead another to use or apply it for preventing contraception or producing abortion, or for any indecent or immoral purpose; and every written or printed card, letter, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement, or notice of any kind giving information, directly or indirectly, where, or how, or from whom, or by what means any of the hereinbefore-mentioned matters, articles or things may be obtained or made, or where or by whom any act or operation of any kind for the procuring or producing of abortion will be done or performed, or how or by what means conception may be prevented or abortion produced, whether sealed or unsealed; and every letter, packet, or package, or other mail matter containing any filthy, vile, or indecent thing, device, or substance; and every paper, writing, advertisement, or representation that any article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine, or thing may, or can, be used or applied for preventing conception or producing abortion, or for any indecent or immoral purpose. . . . Whoever shall knowingly deposit, or cause to be deposited, for mailing or delivery, anything declared by this section to be nonmailable, or shall knowingly take, or cause the same to be taken, from the mails for the purpose of circulating or disposing thereof, shall be fined not more than $5000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both” (Mary Ware Dennett, Who’s Obscene? [New York: Vanguard Press, 1930], xix–xx).

10. An extensive literature on Comstock describes his interests, energies, and reach. For a recent excellent and rich treatment of Comstock’s rise, his career, and his decline, see Amy Werbel, Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018). See also Nicola Beisel, Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997). Other excellent treatments include Paul S. Boyer, Purity in Print: Book Censorship in America from the Gilded Age to the Computer Age, 2nd ed. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002); Marjorie Heins, Not in Front of the Children: “Indecency,” Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth (New York: Hill & Wang, 2001); Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth Century America (New York: Knopf, 2002); Geoffrey R. Stone, Sex and the Constitution: Sex, Religion, and Law from America’s Origins to the Twenty-First Century (New York: Liveright, 2017); Heywood Broun and Margaret Leech, Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord (New York: Boni, 1927); and Craig LaMay, “America’s Censor: Anthony Comstock and Free Speech,” Communications and the Law 19, no. 3 (September 1997): 1–59.

11. An excellent source on the relationship between Comstock and the YMCA is Werbel, Lust on Trial. Horowitz, Rereading Sex, addresses the history of the New York state law and the federal law being modeled on the New York law because it provided search warrant power as well. Beisel, Imperiled Innocents, is excellent on the economic interests of Comstock’s patrons in the YMCA. Boyer, Purity in Print, captures Comstock’s wide authority and the antagonisms he produced.

12. Werbel uses the self-descriptive phrase several times in Lust on Trial, 4, 35, 51, 53, 203. Ernst and Seagle’s To the Pure addresses Comstock’s implications in his contemporary era. The most salient legal critiques were offered by Theodore Schroeder. For the best study of Theodore Schroeder, see Rabban, Free Speech; see also David Brudnoy, “Comstock’s Nemesis: Theodore Schroeder,” Reason, October 1975, (accessed June 5, 2019).

13. On the birth control component of these bans, see Gordon, Moral Property of Women; Andrea Tone, Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America (New York: Hill & Wang, 2001); Beisel, Imperiled Innocents; and Horowitz, Rereading Sex.

14. Morris Ernst and Gwendolyn Pickett, “Birth Control in the Courts: A Resume of Legal Decisions Clarifying and Interpreting Existing Statutes,” October 1942, p. 3, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRC), Morris L. Ernst (MLE) Papers, Box 5, Folder 22.

15. Beisel, Imperiled Innocents, is excellent on the changing social and cultural factors that worried Comstock’s patrons; so too is Werbel, Lust on Trial. On the growing presence of women’s sexuality in urban life, see Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986); and Friedman, Prurient Interests. On women’s behavior that disturbed the moral guardians, see Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America, reprint ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); and Tone, Devices and Desires. For the emergence of a more pronounced male gay culture, see George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1995); see also Paul Boyer, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820–1920 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992).

16. Elaborating the prohibition on contraceptive and abortion information and devices, the Comstock Act enumerated those items to be prohibited by federal law: “every article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine, or thing which is advertised or described in a manner calculated to lead another to use or apply it for preventing contraception or producing abortion, or for any indecent or immoral purpose; and every written or printed card, letter, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement, or notice of any kind giving information, directly or indirectly . . . [as to how or where] any of the . . . matters, articles or things may be obtained or made, or where or by whom any act or operation of any kind for the procuring or producing of abortion will be done or performed, or how or by what means conception may be prevented or abortion produced . . . or for any indecent or immoral purpose” (Dennett, Who’s Obscene, xix–xx).

17. On Comstock’s anti-abortion crusade and his pursuit of Madame Restelle, see Beisel, Imperiled Innocents; and Horowitz, Rereading Sex.

18. Gordon, Moral Property of Women; Tone, Devices and Desires; Beisel, Imperiled Innocents; Horowitz, Rereading Sex.

19. For more on this concern about race suicide and women not performing their roles in the twentieth century, see Griffith, Moral Combat; and DeBerg, Ungodly Women.

20. Ernst and Pickett, “Birth Control in the Courts,” 2.

21. Ernst and Pickett, “Birth Control in the Courts,” 6.

22. Ernst and Pickett, “Birth Control in the Courts,” 3.