Friday, June 26, 2009

Culture Warrior

On August 2, 1906, my great-grandfather accompanied Anthony Comstock in a raid on an Art Students League of 215 West 57th Street. Here’s the New York Times article describing the event:

In Victorian New York City, the name Anthony Comstock (pictured left) was synonymous with vice eradication. Comstock initiated aggressive crackdowns on anything that was even remotely sexually suggestive and his puritanical exhibitionism made him a kind of precursor to the Jerry Falwells and Bill O’Reillys of our time. Comstock targeted anything within the range of pornography (and how “hard” or “soft” core, we’ll never know) to birth control literature or even anatomy textbooks.

Comstock created the New York Society for The Suppression of Vice. While fighting smut, it seems he deputized himself while enjoying a great deal of leeway from law enforcement in an age before civil liberties were widely recognized. It is alleged that as proud as he was of his thousands of arrests he was equally proud of the dozen or so suicides his efforts prompted among accused perpetrators. From the lens of our times, Comstock tends to be recalled as a holy-rolling crackpot.

In this article as well as many others, Comstock’s big bust is facilitated by a man ambiguously identified as a “special agent”, Charles J. Bamberger. This was my great-grandfather.

Charlie Bamberger had always held a special lore when I was growing up. The legend goes like this: a young Charlie Bamberger was an elevator operator in the building where Comstock was based. Comstock took a liking to this fellow and soon after that; our Charlie becomes a private investigator. I never know what family stories can be believed but this one was too good not to love. When my brother was in eighth grade, we won a writing prize with a story that portrayed Charlie’s rise to fame, replete with an Elliot Ness persona.

Years after his time with Comstock (after Comstock had succumbed to an injury sustained when someone stuck him on the head), Bamberger went to work for other crusaders. The greatest family stories to come from this era were the multiple occasions when Charlie put the cuffs on Mae West.

In a book called Bookleggers and Smuthounds, my great-grandfather is portrayed as a master of the art of going undercover to gather evidence for arrests. My favorite excerpt from this Times article above is as follows:


Well, OF COURSE he didn’t actually look at the nude pictures! What kind of a pervert do you think he is? Of course he didn’t. The word "apparently" at the end of the above section is perhaps one of my favorite placements of a word in the history of print.

Further digging into the past brings another episode into the light. This one was a little different and it involved the suffragist Margaret Sanger. Another Times headline from September 11, 1915: DISORDER IN COURT AS SANGER IS FINED – Justices Order Room Cleared When Socialists and Anarchists Hoot Verdict.

The Sanger arrested here was actually Margaret Sanger’s husband, William. He had been arrested for distributing literature on birth control. The Times reported:

"The Sanger case has attracted much attention among sober-minded persons who believe that there should be a wide discussion of birth control, and Sanger, in the trouble which came upon him after giving a copy of the pamphlet to a Comstock agent, has had the support of Socialists and anarchists."

Again, it was my great grandfather who was the Comstock agent. The article continues:

"Charles J. Bamberger, an agent of the Comstock Society, testified that he had gone to see Sanger on Dec. 19. The latter then had a studio at 10 East Fifteenth Street. He said he represented himself to be a Mr. Heller, a friend of Mrs. Sanger, who was then abroad. Sanger had refused to give him a book until he explained that he had the other works of Mrs. Sanger, and desired "Family Limitation" to have translated and distributed among the poor. Having convinced the architect that he was a "friend," the latter hunted among his wife's effects, found and gave him the pamphlet. Bamberger said Sanger cautioned him not to say where he got the circular, and to an offer of pay, said there was no charge. Sanger refused to question the witness."

Interestingly, my great grandfather’s sister Minnie had married a man named Heller. I wonder if mixed feelings for his brother-in-law inspired Charles J.’s use of that name as a cover.

In Margaret Sanger's autobiography, there’s a slightly different angle on the episode:

“A man introducing himself as A. Heller had called upon him at his studio and requested a copy of Family Limitation, pleading that he was poor, had too large a family, and was a friend of mine. Bill said he was sorry but…he did not even think he had any of the pamphlets. However, the man’s story was so pathetic that he rummaged about and by chance found one in the library drawer.”

The result of the ensuing courtroom drama was Bill Sanger received a fine.

Again from the NY Times article from September 11, 1915:

“Sanger entered into an account of the perfidy of Bamberger in coming to him as "Mr. Heller," and went on: 'I was trapped into handing the pamphlet in question to an agent of Comstock. This self-appointed censor to our morality and his agent did not hesitate to use criminal methods to make a criminal out of me.'

"Bang," fell the Justice's gavel.

"I deny I am a criminal," continued the witness, raising his voice.”


If anything doesn’t sit well from this episode, it’s the way Comstock and Bamberger played to Sanger’s humanitarian inclinations to entrap him. Posing as a pervert trolling for smut is one thing, but trapping someone who believes they’re doing the right thing is another.

Of course, the judge had to weigh in himself. Again from the Times article:

"Such persons as you who circulate such pamphlets are a menace to society," said the Justice. "There are too many now who believe it is a crime to have children. If some of the women who are going around and advocating equal suffrage would go around and advocate women having children they would do a greater service. This, however, is my personal opinion."

Can you imagine a New York City judge saying this today?
Different times, I suppose.

1 comment:

  1. This is some truly awesome detective work that you've done yourself. Mae West, Margaret Sanger, the onset of modernism - Bamberger opposed them all. And now we think of modernism as standard, birth control as a basic right, and Mae West as quaint. You're absolutely right: even though Bamberger thought he had Sanger fooled, the interest of humanitarianism itself is always a foil for the kind of apparent zealotry Charlie Bamberger practiced.

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