Anti-obscenity advocate responsible for decades of censorship in American letters. Comstock began his decency crusade in the early 1870s, launching raids against Manhattan booksellers sidelining in erotic books, bringing him to the attention of the New York Young Men's Christian Association. He made his first major case in 1872 in his attempt to suppress an account of an affair between minister Henry Ward Beecher and one of his parishioners, published by Victoria Woodhull, a women's rights activist. His tactic was to employ an 1864 law prohibiting the distribution of nebulously-defined "obscene" publications and images through the U.S. mail: Comstock requested a copy of the book using a pseudonym, and then filed suit.
Comstock's success in this case led to the YMCA appointing him secretary of their New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in November 1872. Comstock used his stature to lobby for stronger obscenity law, realized in the 1873 act for the "Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use", which came to be known as the Comstock Act, extending the 1864 law to allow for the seizure of obscene materials from the mail by federal marshals. Comstock was deputized as a special agent in the New York Post Office, empowering him to inspect the mail, seize what smut he found there, and arrest the senders responsible.
Comstock wielded his power as inevitable censor for the next forty years. He was feared and despised by publishers of literature, suppressing the work of authors including D. H. Lawrence and Theodore Dreiser. Any artwork involving nudity was banned, as were medical texts on abortion, contraception, and even the subliminal girlie rags of scholarly physiology textbooks -- casualties of Comstock's parallel attacks on quackery and other frauds. George Bernard Shaw coined the term "comstockery" to refer to Comstock's rampant censorship; Shaw himself was the target of legal proceedings to keep his Mrs. Warren's Profession (1905) from being performed, due to its theme of prostitution, but the tactic backfired when Comstock lost the case and his negative publicity made the play only more successful. By his death in 1915, Comstock claimed to have pulped over 160 tons of literature, and had brought about the suicide of 15 people.