Victoria Woodhull, Anthony Comstock, and Conflict over Sex in the United States in the 1870s

By: Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz

On November 2, 1872, United States marshals arrested Victoria Woodhull for sending “obscene” literature through the mails. The charge stemmed from the issue of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly distributed October 28 that detailed the purported adulterous affair of Henry Ward Beecher, pastor of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church and one of the best-loved preachers in the United States, with Elizabeth Tilton, one of his congregants and the wife of his champion, the writer and reformer Theodore Tilton. Unable to get the district attorney to prosecute Woodhull for violating state law, Anthony Comstock, using an alias, requested the issue by mail. When it was sent, he had federal marshals arrest Woodhull.11
     This moment of high drama throws into relief the conflicts over sexuality in nineteenth-century America. When Victoria Woodhull and Anthony Comstock confronted each other in 1872, they embodied the extreme ends of a lengthy and complex conversation about sexual representation. Unlike the largely verbal exchanges of unofficial adversaries engaged in an informal war of words, theirs was a public struggle that involved federal marshals, prison, and the courts. The stakes were high—both for the protagonists and for their society. Although the story has been told before, it bears revisiting. For a student of history such a public conflict illumines what is often obscured from view. In this case Comstock’s arrest of Woodhull reveals the fault lines rumbling beneath the surface of America’s sexual culture.2
     To understand the division between Woodhull and Comstock, we must imagine anew the complicated and intriguing discussions about sexuality in the United States from the early nineteenth century until 1872. On seemingly familiar materials such as religious condemnation of license, romanticism, and free love, I offer new perspectives, shaped by a reading of primary sources and contemporary scholarship and insights derived from fields as diverse as the history of nineteenth-century medicine and landscape studies of the vernacular. New York City, the principal site of conflicts over sexual representation, has evoked exciting recent scholarship in social and cultural history: My study links Comstock and Woodhull to this reimagined city. I add a new interpretation of the law of obscenity and its relation to the commercial side of urban male culture, elements essential to understanding how America’s public sexual culture was reshaped in the late nineteenth century.3
     My own work began with a seemingly simple question: How did Americans imagine sexuality in the early nineteenth century? I began to study the impact of new understandings of the body, especially of the reproductive organs and the nervous system, on the conception of desire. I then came to ask how sexual knowledge and the questions it posed shaped the ways in which sexual matters could be written about and discussed in the public arena. This led me to the study of sexual representation and censorship, beginning in the late 1820s and culminating in the 1870s. My particular interest in this work is not sexual feeling or behavior as such but rather “representation,” that is, depiction in writing or pictures, especially when printed and sold to the general public. What was allowable under law? What was censored by the courts?. . .

There are about 16616 more words in this article. Please log in (or, if you are not yet an authorized user, please go to the User Setup page) to gain full access rights. Or if you’re already logged in register your subscription.