Freethought and Fury

Sally Roesch Wagner

A fiery speaker is calling out Christianity’s “immense persecutions, tyranny, and oppression,” when suddenly two cops break into the convention and arrest three people.

It’s 1878 in Watkins (now Watkins Glen), New York, and the convention-goers are freethinkers. The crime these progressives are accused of? Selling obscene and indecent books, primarily Cupid’s Yokes, a marriage reform tract and birth-control manual. Josephine S. Tilton (sister-in-law of Ezra Heywood, author of Cupid’s Yokes) had asked her friend D. M. Bennett, publisher of The Truth Seeker, the nation’s largest-circulation freethought newspaper, to watch her bookstand while she stepped away for a moment. No sooner had she left than up walked a plainclothes cop who bought the book, and boom, Tilton and Bennett were arrested, along with another freethinker, W. S. Bell.*

In the audience was noted suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage. She shared leadership in the National Woman Suffrage Association with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and edited the organization’s newspaper, The National Citizen and Ballot Box.

Gage spoke shortly after the arrest, pointing out to the audience that “you have seen a great deal of excitement here this afternoon, especially intensified by the fact that a woman was arrested and taken to a town jail because she dared to sell certain literature.” She quickly connected the arrest—and the illegality of women having the knowledge to control their reproduction—to the larger issue of body rights. Women didn’t even have the right to the children they gave birth to in the state of New York. Dying husbands could will away unborn children, and live ones had absolute control over any they fathered. “Do you know that every woman here who chances to be a married woman has the same danger of arrest if she dare to claim her child for her own?” Gage challenged.

The “theory that woman brought sin and death into the world” is the “foundation of the Christian Church,” Gage continued, and woman was placed in a “condition of subjection, of subordination” to man as punishment. Women’s “political, legal, educational, industrial, and social disabilities of whatever character and nature” result from “this prevailing religious idea,” she accused.

The agent of the church who had caused the arrest of the three freethinkers was one Anthony Comstock: an orthodox religious zealot obsessed with the sin of sex, who had relentlessly (and successfully) lobbied Congress in 1872 and 1873 for the authority to determine what was obscene in the United States and, as postal inspector, arrest anyone who crossed his line. He opposed anything related to sex, especially targeting birth-control and abortion information and materials. The federal legislation empowering Comstock quickly became known as the “Comstock Law.” Similar Comstock Laws spread like wildfire through the country, with twenty-four states passing similar legislation.

Anthony Comstock may have been the greatest enemy of freethinkers and feminists in the nineteenth century, since these were the groups he especially targeted. Often they were the same, as the freethought movement was perhaps the biggest supporter of reproductive justice after the woman’s rights movement became more conservative toward the turn of the nineteenth century and dropped the issue.

Gage knew the danger of this man. She watched her friend Victoria Woodhull be arrested by Comstock in 1872 for exposing in her newspaper the hypocrisy of the most famous minister in America, Henry Ward Beecher, who preached against “free love” from his Brooklyn pulpit on Sunday morning while using his position to pressure his woman parishioners into having sex with him on Saturday night.

Gage had her own run-in with Comstock when her major work, Woman, Church and State, a brilliantly documented analysis of the primary role of the Christian church in the oppression of women, was published in 1893. Among other religious atrocities, Gage boldly described a 500-year history of Catholic priests using their position as presumed agents of God to sexually violate children and women with impunity. Nor did she leave Protestant clergy who were violators off the hook. She also exposed sex trafficking in the United States.

Comstock went ballistic when the copy of Gage’s book she had given to her local Fayetteville, New York, school library was sent to him for evaluation by a Catholic school board member. Threatening to arrest Gage and the school board members if they put the book in the school library, Comstock warned, “The incidents of victims of lust told in this book are such that if I found a person putting that book indiscriminately before the children I would institute a criminal proceeding against them for doing it.”

Obediently, the school board returned Woman, Church and State to an outraged Gage. Despite the threat of arrest, Gage didn’t mince words when a newspaper reporter asked her opinion of Comstock. She answered:

I look upon him as a man who is mentally and morally unbalanced, not knowing right from wrong or the facts of history from “tales of lust.” Being intellectually weak, Anthony Comstock misrepresents all works upon which he presumes to pass judgment, and is as dangerous to liberty of speech and of the press as were the old inquisitors, whom he somewhat resembles. A fool as a press censor is more to be feared than a knave, and Comstock seems to be a union of both fool and knave. Buddha declared the only sin to be ignorance. If this be true, Anthony Comstock is a great sinner.

Was she frightened by the threatened arrest? No, she told the reporter, she was invigorated:

You wish to know the effect of this Comstock-Catholic attack upon me? It has acted like a tonic. I have not been well through the summer, not having recovered from over-work on Woman, Church and State, but the moment I learned of Comstock’s letter and read the falsities so freely printed in regard to my book, I grew better and feel myself able to meet all enemies of whatever name or nature.

The enemies arrived. Newspapers reported that Catholics and Protestants alike were calling for the suppression of Woman, Church and State. An energized Gage wrote to her son: “All it now needs is to get into the papal Index Expurgatorious.”

Gage ultimately had the last laugh in her Comstock battle. A dozen years ago, a descendant of Gage, Mac Hudson, brought a copy of Woman, Church and State to Fayetteville and made a formal presentation of it to the school board to put in the library. Hudson’s scathing denunciation of Christian orthodoxy in his presentation speech was worthy of his great-great-great-great-grandmother, causing the school superintendent to place his head on the desk in dismay. But he accepted the gift, and Woman, Church and State sits in the Fayetteville library today, ready to enlighten the young and old alike.

“Not until the church is destroyed will women be freed,” Gage wrote to the editor of Lucifer the Lightbearer, a freethought paper. “I strike the church.”

Oh, and whatever happened to those arrested in 1878 at the Watkins convention of the New York Freethinkers Association (despite its name, a national organization)? That prosecution fizzled out, but Comstock came away bent on getting Bennett any way he could. He did so later, arresting Bennett for selling Cupid’s Yokes by mail. Bennett was sentenced to thirteen months of hard labor and a $300 fine. He was given thirteen months, not twelve, because that extra month meant he couldn’t serve his sentence in a local jail but had to be sent to the prison in Albany, New York. President Rutherford B. Hayes ignored a petition with 200,000 signatures demanding that Bennett be pardoned, and he served his full sentence. Hayes also ignored agnostic orator and Republican campaign speaker Robert Green Ingersoll, who personally lobbied the president to pardon Bennett but met with no greater success.

Bennett’s prosecution proved an important obscenity case. For years, lower courts had used the Hicklin standard of obscenity (named for a famous case at English common law), which defined all material tending “to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences” as obscene, regardless of its artistic or literary merit. The constitutionality of the Comstock Law became firmly established when a federal judge upheld Bennett’s obscenity conviction using the Hicklin standard in 1879. The U.S. Supreme Court adopted the Hicklin test as the appropriate test of obscenity in 1896. That definition prevailed in U.S. law until the Supreme Court determined in 1957 that obscenity should be determined by “whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest.” That standard still prevails today.

When Comstock died in 1915, he left a legacy of 3,600 people imprisoned, fifteen suicides, more than 120 tons of literature burned, and 100 years of loss of legal access to contraceptives and abortion until the last of the Comstock Laws was finally overturned by the Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965.



  • * Three sites related to this event are included on New York’s Freethought Trail (


Sally Roesch Wagner

Rummaging around in her local library, Sally Roesch Wagner “discovered” freethought in Aberdeen, South Dakota, at the age of fourteen, and it has focused her thinking and work ever since. Awarded one of the first doctorates in the country for work in women’s studies (UC Santa Cruz) and a founder of one the first college-level women’s studies programs in the United States (CSU Sacramento), Wagner has taught women’s studies courses for forty-eight years. She currently serves as an adjunct faculty member in The Renée Crown University Honors Program, Syracuse University, and the St. John Fisher Executive Leadership Program and is a Public Scholar with Humanities New York. Author of numerous women’s history books and articles telling “untold stories,” her upcoming suffrage anthology will be published by Penguin Classics in February 2019. She wrote the faculty guide for Not for Ourselves Alone, Ken Burns’s documentary on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and appeared in that film and other PBS women’s history programs. Wagner was selected as one of “21 Leaders for the 21st Century” by Women’s E-News in 2015. Founder and executive director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center for Social Justice Dialogue in Fayetteville, New York, and author of articles on historic house museums, she received the Katherine Coffey Award for outstanding service to museology from the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums in 2012. Wagner serves on the New York Suffrage Centennial Commission.