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How an Anti-Obscenity Crusader Policed America’s Mail for Decades

Anthony Comstock knew obscenity when he saw it, and the famous anti-vice crusader saw it everywhere. From the 1870s into the early 20th century, the dry goods salesman-turned-self-appointed-censor was a man on a mission—to impose his sense of morality on what Americans read, saw and even did in their own bedrooms.

Though not an elected legislator, the devout Protestant, who was appalled by the sexual permissiveness he witnessed in New York City, largely rewrote federal postal laws “to prevent the mails from being used to corrupt the public morals.” And he got a compliant Congress to pass them. Some historians suggest that the politicians were looking for an issue that would divert public attention from the Credit Mobilier scandal, in which many of them were involved.

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