IT HAD BEEN ON A SATURDAY, March 3, 1872, that the unknown dry-goods clerk made the seven arrests of dealers in vile literature that virtually started him in his new life-work. Exactly a year later, to a day, — on Sunday morning, March 3, 1873, — the United States Congress passed the bill that was so vital to the successful continuance of this work.
Immediately after the patience-testing passage of the bill there was another surprise in store for the young man. For Senators Buckingham, Windom, Ramsey, and Representative Merriam now united in asking Postmaster-General Jewell to appoint Comstock a Special Agent of the Post-Office Department to enforce the new laws. He replied that he would be glad to make the appointment if Congress would appropriate a salary and “per diem” (expenses) to cover it. The appropriation bill was still pending, and an amendment was offered, in committee, to cover the needed item.
At this juncture the sagacity and insight of the Yankee fighter began to show itself again. Of his own accord he went before the committee and stoutly opposed the making of any appropriation for the new office to which he was being nominated, asking instead that he be clothed with the proposed authority without salary. He saw that, if a salary was attached to the office, there would be a constant scramble for it among politicians for their friends. His recommendation was accepted, he was appointed a Special Agent of the Post-Office Department, and he has held the office, by reappointment, from that day to this. And for thirty-three years following his appointment he served the United States Government without receiving from it a dollar in salary. He was given one hundred dollars a month by the special committee of the New York Y. M. C. A., at this time, to compensate him for the time lost from his business commission-earnings. How he came to take a salary from the government in 1907 is told later. The title “Special Agent” was continued up to about a dozen years ago, when it was changed to “Inspector.”
Mr. Comstock, to-day, likes to dwell upon what he calls the wonderful goodness of God in those early days of the fight for purity. And it is a story of God’s work, not of man’s, when we remember that it was an unknown clerk, twenty-eight years old, who had the hardihood to go to the national capital with the idea of getting his own convictions put into legislative action; that, finding there two other bills pending in the same field, he stuck to it until all were merged in a single bill of five comprehensive sections; that he prayed his bill through both houses of Congress in the strenuous closing hours of the winter’s session; and that he returned to his home under appointment as a staff officer of a cabinet officer of the United States. There were two men in New York who were almost as happy as Special Agent Comstock, when he got back and told the whole story, and these were Mr. Jesup and Mr. Dodge. And the Young Men’s Christian Association Committee, some of whom had counted the effort a hopeless one, now gladly paid the expenses of the Washington campaign.
After the passage of the federal bill, amendments to New York state statutes were secured which provided not only for the arrest of persons vending objectionable matter, but for the seizure and destruction of the matter itself. Even while these amendments were pending, however, vigorous prosecutions were started under the new law. As a result of this active work, fierce opposition to those who were seeking to enforce the law sprang up, and, in the attacks upon Comstock, reference was constantly made to the fact that he was an agent of the Young Men’s Christian Association. Some of its managers began to grow anxious lest the Association should suffer from this connection. The result was, after considerable discussion, hesitancy, and opposition from certain quarters, that the majority of the Young Men’s Christian Association Committee deemed it wise to incorporate a separate organization for the continuance of the work; and thus was born the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.
A charter for the Society was granted in May of 1873. In the autumn of that year the business of the old Committee, which now went out of existence, was reorganized under the charter. The Connecticut country boy whose dream had been to become a prosperous, self-made city merchant, and who had already made a conspicuous success in the business world, gave up his heart’s desire, resigned from all business connection, and became Secretary and Chief Special Agent of the Society. An executive committee of seven members, having direct charge of the operations of the Society, met each month and received the secretary’s written report. The president, three vice-presidents, treasurer, and counsel, with the executive committee, comprised a board of managers, and met once in three months, receiving a quarterly report submitted by the executive committee. None of the officers but the secretary have ever received any compensation.
Violations of the law of purity were not the only offenses against public morals which the newly formed Society stood ready to prosecute. Lotteries and schemes of any sort to defraud the public which made use of the mails were infringements of the postal laws, and as such were referred by the Post-Office to its Special Agent. When prosecutions were thus instituted against the principal lottery operators, bitter hostility was, of course, awakened. One of the methods of the opposition, which has never been abandoned from that day to this, was the attempted demeaning, before the public, of the Agent who was now making it his life-business to enforce the laws. It must be remembered that swindling schemes of all sorts were reaping a harvest of thousands upon thousands of dollars from a gullible public, and that their backers had hitherto enjoyed immunity from any systematic interference. The newspapers also received a large revenue for advertising these schemes. What wonder that any man’s determined efforts to put these criminals forever out of business, and to bring to an end the flow of money into the treasuries of the newspapers that shared so richly in the fruits of criminal and fraudulent operations, was met with a desperate and diabolical earnestness that would stop at nothing in the way of infamy, defamation, even physical violence! A notorious English ex-convict was employed by some of the lawbreakers to secure the publication of libelous articles about Special Agent Comstock. All the interests involved, and they were many, worked to destroy the standing of the man and the Society.
There were several well-known lotteries at this time that had wide-open headquarters in New York City. These operated in defiance of the Constitution and laws of the state, as well as of the federal statutes. It was no unusual thing to find uniformed policemen hobnobbing with the employees, or actually in the offices, of these concerns. More than once “guardians of the peace” were found in such dens when, by those who took the law into their own hands, the places were raided.
The famous Louisiana Lottery was one of these wide-open institutions, with its New York offices at 212 Broadway, occupying two floors over the Knox hat store. At this address a line of ticket-buyers could sometimes be seen extending from the ticket-office on the second floor out into the hail, around the hail, upstairs to the third floor, downstairs again, and out on to the street, while uniformed policemen stood by to “preserve order.” It was publicly stated in the news-papers that this one office of the Louisiana Lottery was paying the police five thousand dollars a month for protection.
One day Mayor Cooper sent for Mr. Comstock. Why, he wanted to know, could not this place be closed? And could the Secretary of the Society for the Suppression of Vice close it? “Yes, Mr. Mayor,” was the answer; “that place can be closed, and I can close it; but not with your police.” As a result of this interview, it was arranged that Mr. Comstock should secure evidence against the lottery office, prepare complaints and warrants, and return to the mayor, who promised to appoint a city marshal to execute the warrants.
A day or two later Mr. Comstock was on hand at the mayor’s office, with a paper ready to be signed by a magistrate. The mayor filled out a commission, and appointed an employee to execute the warrants. With this man Comstock went to the Tombs Court, where, in the secrecy of a private office, a police justice signed the warrants and gave them to the marshal, and the complaint was filed with the clerk of the court. But before Comstock and the marshal could get from the Tombs Court, in Center Street, to the corner of Broadway and Fulton Streets, where number 212 stood, word had been sent to the lottery people; and when the men with the warrants arrived, the large safes were locked, everything suspicious was out of sight, and the persons for whose arrest the warrants called had their bondsmen ready to accompany them. Arraigned the next morning before a magistrate, these criminals gave bail for their trial, returned at once to 212 Broadway, and opened up the place for a new day’s business.
Comstock, learning before he left the court room that they had done this, at once reported to the magistrate that the marshal had not been able to execute the search warrant entire, as the lottery safes had been closed and the desired matter secreted. The magistrate directed the two men to go back to 212. Notifying no one, they went immediately, and this time caught everything open and in full blast. They seized about 30,000 letters and lottery tickets, and a set of account books — which are in Mr. Comstock’s possession today — that showed that the average daily income of this one office of the Louisiana Lottery, for a period of twenty days prior to the raid, was $5,176. The alleged five-thousand-dollar-a-month payment to the police for protection, therefore, was less than one-thirtieth of the income of this office.
The developments following Comstock’s first serious interference with this national and colossal gambling enterprise were interesting and significant. Its proprietors were reasonable men, and hoped that Mr. Comstock was a reasonable man. One of the counsel for the lottery company called at the office of the Society for the Suppression of Vice and made some suggestions. He said that his company would count it a privilege to assist the Society in its work, and as a slight evidence of their good feeling he wished to be allowed to contribute twenty-five thousand dollars a year to the Secretary of the Society, the first twenty-five thousand dollars to be deposited within forty-eight hours, in cash, to the Secretary’s account in the Nassau Bank, and no one to know who the donor was. Then the Secretary was, if he would give them this privilege, to receive twenty-five thousand dollars a year regularly thereafter, — the simple condition being that, in the interest of the mutual good feeling, he would not interfere further with the company’s business transactions.
At that time young Comstock had a mortgage on his home, and a floating indebtedness of several thousand dollars. Twenty-five thousand dollars looked just as large and just as attractive to him as it does to most men. And there was no question about the ability and the intention of the Lottery Company to do exactly as it offered, — the yearly amount proposed was only five days’ income to them. But there was a something that stayed with the Connecticut boy, out of the old home life on the farm, and from a mother’s training, and the rigours and discipline of soldierly obedience during Civil War service, that was more real and substantial to him than twenty-five thousand dollars. Rising from the chair in which he had sat listening to the lawyer’s talk, he said quietly, “As long as I live and have my reason and health, your company shall never have another open office in the city of New York.”
They didn’t believe him. They only wondered what he wanted, and they knew that, if they could find out, things could be arranged. Later another Louisiana Company representative called at the Society’s office and asked if Mr. Comstock wouldn’t enjoy taking a trip around the world, with his wife and daughter, in a leisurely way, say for five years. If travel interested him, his salary for the five years in advance could be paid to him, and any other sum he might care to name for expenses, not in excess, say, of one hundred thousand dollars. Mr. Comstock replied that sea voyages didn’t agree with him.
Strange to say, Mr. Comstock’s attitude seemed to exasperate the lottery crooks. It was not long before a Superintendent of Police and a committee of associates journeyed to Washington to make formal demand, through their representatives, that the Special Agent of the Post-Office Department be dismissed and removed. In these efforts to end his unpleasantly effective law-enforcing career, the Louisiana men joined with themselves a number of others who, engaged in similar enterprises, had been bothered as they had been. Among these were the Kentucky Lottery, with offices at 309 Broadway; the invitingly named Cash Distribution Company, at 599 Broadway; and the Royal Havana Company, with offices in Wall Street and on the Bowery. All these concerns had been raided in that strenuous first year of the new Society’s life, 1873. Things had been done on the jump by the twenty-eight-year-old Special Agent.
He was not dismissed; and he has not been yet, though that was not the last time that he was “exposed” to a Postmaster-General of the United States. The federal and state courts were kept busy prosecuting cases in which the Society was the complainant. But the newspapers continued to advertise the lotteries freely, until one day the Grand Jury asked Comstock why the newspapers were not prosecuted, and asked if evidence against them could not be submitted to that body. He replied that he would be glad to secure such evidence, — and in so saying he knew well that the moment he made this move the press of the country would be practically a unit against him and all his efforts.
He had real, not theoretical or academic, trust in God. Constantly throughout his perilous life he has comforted and steeled himself with the promise in God’s Word: “No weapon formed against thee shall prosper, and every tongue that riseth against thee thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of me, saith the Lord.” He proceeded to secure evidence against every newspaper in New York City that advertised lotteries. He presented his evidence to the Grand Jury, and an indictment was found in every case. The business interests thus attacked represented enormous sums. One paper, it was claimed, carried over five hundred dollars daily of paid lottery advertisements, often having more than a full page of such advertising in a single issue. It was not surprising that, when it became known that the newspapers had been indicted on Comstock’s complaint, the New York Chief of Police remarked, “The fool’s hung himself.”
A test case was tried. It resulted in conviction. The paper appealed to the Supreme Court of the state. The conviction was confirmed. Then the newspapers ceased to violate the law. It was not Comstock that had hung himself.
In about the year 1897 Joseph Cook wrote: “In 1885 Mr. Comstock drafted an amendment to the Postal Laws concerning lotteries, and since then, down to the enactment of the present law in 1890, the constitutionality of which the Supreme Court of the United States has recently affirmed, he kept this matter aggressively before Congress. President Harrison and Postmaster-General Wanamaker took up the suggested reform with the result that on September 19, 1890, an act incorporating all the provisions that were in Mr. Comstock’s original bill became law. At present, so far as the government knows, not a newspaper in the United States advertises a lottery, and all lottery advertisements and letters are by law excluded from the mails. The new legislation, as sustained by the Supreme Court of the United States, has inflicted mortal wounds upon the Louisiana Lottery, and now that Devil Fish of the Gulf is in the agonies of dissolution.”
– from C. G. Trumbull, Anthony Comstock, Fighter, Fleming H. Revell Co., NY, 1913.