Vice Wars: Researching New York City's Scandalous Censorship Past

By Rhonda Evans, Assistant Chief Librarian
September 25, 2017

New York Times, May 6, 1937

On April 29, 1947 a man entered the office of the Random House publishing company in mid-town Manhattan. He told the receptionist that he would like to purchase a book of poetry published by Random House called The Blue Hen's Chickens. The receptionist sold the book to the man for $2.55 and he left. The following day, a small raiding party of police detectives entered the Random House office, thrusting a summons and a search warrant in the receptionist's face. The raiding party searched the storeroom and confiscated ten copies of The Blue Hen's Chickens, claiming the book was in violation of Penal Law Section 1141 as an "obscene print or article." At the helm of the raiding party was a white-mustachioed man, John S. Sumner, head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV).

Upholding "Public Decency"

The confiscation of ten books of poetry was a poor showing for the NYSSV (although a few days later they raided Random House's shipping room and took another 800 copies of The Blue Hen's Chickens). The previous year the NYSSV's annual report boasted the confiscation of "1,086 magazines, 1,792 pictures, and 16,963 novelties." Although a good showing, the numbers had dropped significantly from a decade earlier when the NYSSV claimed seizure of, "5,000 elaborately bound volumes and 18,000 paper covered books." They also took responsibility for, "forty-two arrests and twenty-nine convictions, with aggregate sentences of two years, nine months and ten days. There were $2,425 in fines; and book and sheet seizures of 9,773 pounds, and seizures of 2,000 circulars and catalogs. 222 plates for book printing and 4,631 obscene pictures and postcards." The drop in numbers may have been due to the fact that by the late 1940s the tide of public opinion had turned against them, and the power they held over "public decency" for over seventy years was beginning to wane.

The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (at other times know as The New York Society for the Prevention of Vice and the Society to Maintain Public Decency) was established in 1872 by Anthony Comstock. Comstock had moved to New York City in 1871 where, according to Margaret Anderson, "he was appalled by the flourishing traffic in what he termed pornography: sexually risque books, adventure stories for children, and tawdry pamphlets and pictures." With the support of the President of the Young Men's Christian Association and several other prominent New Yorkers, the Society was formed.  The NYSSV was immediately successful in seizing "obscene materials" and securing the arrest of anyone involved, however those arrests rarely turned into convictions. Comstock then co-authored an anti-obscenity bill which he was able to get passed in the New York Legislature in 1873. The bill:

[P]rohibited the production, sale, or shipment through the mail of any obscene, lewd, or lascivious and every filthy book, pamphlet, picture, paper, letter, writing print, or other publication of an indecent character....

Anthony Comstock

Life Magazine, September 27 ,1906. Anthony Comstock denied entrance by St. Peter. NYPL Digital Collections

With the police department at its disposal, the passage of the bill gave the NYSSV its teeth. However, Comstock was given even more power with the creation of a new position, Special Agent of the Postmaster General. Comstock as the "Special Agent" could inspect all U.S. mail and arrest people without warrants. During his tenure Comstock caused the destruction of fifty tons of books. However, in 1915 in what some referred to as an "overthrow," Comstock was out.  The Assistant Secretary of the NYSSV, John. S. Sumner, took the reigns and would hold on to them until the end.

Battling Literature

Sumner vowed to crack down on vice harder than his predecessor, and he succeeded. The NYSSV attacked every art form imaginable. They went after plays, burlesque shows, art pieces, and magazines, they even managed to put Mae West in jail for eight days for starring in the play Sex. However, the main target of the NYSSV was literature.

One of the most famed cases involving the NYSSV was its fight against James Joyce's Ulysses. In 1921 Ulysses was serialized in  the magazine The Little Review . Sumner and the NYSSV took the magazine to court in attempt to suppress the relevant issues and prosecute the publishers. The NYSSV won the fight, but the case drew lots of attention and lots of criticism. One columnist from The New York Tribune wrote:

Mr. Sumner seems incapable of appreciating anything so frivolous as a joke, but the joke of this particular prosecution is so unusually delightful that even he might see it and laugh at it himself. In brief, it is that nobody , not even the most radical literary Futurists has been able to make out what James Joyce is writing about in Ulysses. The thing is a novel evidently....So if Mr. Sumner is able to be shocked by it he deserves not only cheers from the pure of heart but the congratulations of every literary student.

Other famous literary targets were D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover and Margaret Sanger's writings on birth control. The NYSSV was also successful in forcing public libraries to withdraw a number of books from their collections.

The End of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice

The Logo of The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

After the Ulysses court fight New Yorkers began to push back hard against the NYSSV. During debates and public talks audiences would hiss at Sumner. Judges and magistrates began to repeatedly rule against the NYSSV, and authors began to sue Sumner and the NYSSV for false arrest after their criminal cases were dismissed. Then in 1927 a New York Assemblyman, F.L. Hackenburg, began the long fight to repeal the 1873 Act that gave the NYSSV so much power. The work of the courts and the public began to slowly strip the NYSSV of its strength, but the Society held on until Sumner chose to retire in 1950 and with him went the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. 

This blog post was researched entirely using NYPL's electronic resources. With more than 500 online research options available, many accessible from home with a library card, we challenge you to go beyond the search engine and dig deeper online with NYPL. 


If you would like to learn more about the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice take a look at the electronic resources used for this blog below. You can also view the NYSSV's early Annual Reports and two books written by Anthony Comstock in the Crime, Punishment and Popular Culture database. 

"5 TONS OF BOOKS SEIZED IN VICE WAR." New York Times (1923-Current file): 26. May 06 1937. ProQuest. Accessed 15 Sep. 2017.

"880 MORE VOLUMES OF POEMS ARE SEIZED." New York Times (1923-Current file): 19. May 02 1947. ProQuest. Accessed 15 Sep. 2017.

Anderson, Margaret C. "Mr. Comstock and the Resourceful Police." Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, edited by Dennis Poupard, vol. 13, Gale, 1984. 20th Century Literature Criticism Online. Accessed 14 Sept. 2017. Originally published in The Little Review, vol. 2, no. 2, Apr. 1915, pp. 2-5.

A, Staff C. "End of Vice Suppression Society Urged at Albany." New York Herald Tribune (1926-1962): 2. Feb 10 1927. ProQuest. Accessed 15 Sep. 2017.

"BOOK SELLER FINED $200." New York Times (1923-Current file): 14. May 13 1933. ProQuest. Accessed 15 Sep. 2017.

"Bookseller Sues Sumner." New York Times (1923-Current file): 15. Feb 08 1933. ProQuest. Accessed 15 Sep. 2017.

Comstock, Anthony. Frauds Exposed; or, How the People Are Deceived and Robbed, and Youth Corrupted: Being a Full Exposure of Various Schemes Operated through the Mails, and Unearthed by the Author in a Seven Years' Service as a Special Agent of the Post Office Department and Secretary and Chief Agent of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice: by Anthony Comstock. J. Howard Brown, [c1880]. Crime, Punishment, and Popular Culture 1790-1920. 18 Sept. 2017.

"COURT CLEARS NEW BOOK." New York Times (1923-Current file): 17. Jun 08 1933. ProQuest. Accessed 15 Sep. 2017.

"Court Puzzled by Experts on Book's Morals." New - York Tribune (1911-1922): 5. Feb 15 1921. ProQuest. Accessed 14 Sep. 2017.

"Anthony Comstock." Life Magazine. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.…

"Mae West: Sex Symbol at 82." The Atlanta Constitution (1946-1984): 1. Jul 01 1975. ProQuest. Accessed 18 Sep. 2017.

"Mr. Sumner is Shocked again." New - York Tribune (1911-1922): 8. Feb 16 1921. ProQuest. Accessed 14 Sep. 2017.

"NEW NAME CHOSEN BY SUMNER GROUP." New York Times (1923-Current file): 22. Jul 03 1947. ProQuest. Accessed 15 Sep. 2017.

Special to The New, York Times. "WOULD SHEAR SUMNER AND SOCIETY OF POWER." New York Times (1923-Current file): 9. Feb 10 1927. ProQuest. Accessed 15 Sep. 2017.

"Sumner Brings would-be Book Seller to Court." New York Herald Tribune (1926-1962): 10. Jul 20 1934. ProQuest. Accessed 18 Sep. 2017.

"SUMNER DEFEATED IN FIGHT ON A BOOK." New York Times (1923-Current file): 19. May 24 1933. ProQuest. Accessed 15 Sep. 2017.

Sumner, John S. "Credit to Mr. Summer." New - York Tribune (1923-1924): 1. Dec 23 1923. ProQuest. Accessed 15 Sep. 2017.

"Sumner must Pay $500 for False Arrest of Bookseller Over Pictures on Nudism." New York Times (1923-Current file): 6. Apr 16 1936. ProQuest. Accessed >15 Sep. 2017.

"Sumner and Raiders Seize Book of Poems from Publishing House." New York Times (1923-Current file): 1. May 01 1947. ProQuest. Accessed 15 Sep. 2017.

"SUMNER SEES DANGER OF VICE RISE IN WAR." New York Times (1923-Current file): 28. May 23 1942. ProQuest. Accessed 15 Sep. 2017.

"VICE GROUP GLOOMY ON CITY'S MORALS." New York Times (1923-Current file): 13. Apr 25 1935. ProQuest. Accessed 15 Sep. 2017.

"VICE FOE SUES GRAPHIC." New York Times (1923-Current file): 2. Feb 11 1927. ProQuest. Accessed 15 Sep. 2017.

"VICE SOCIETY HEAD HISSED BY WOMEN." New York Times (1857-1922): 5. Nov 18 1916. ProQuest. Accessed 18 Sep. 2017.

"WHAT OTHER PAPERS SAY." The Washington Post (1877-1922): 6. Oct 06 1922. ProQuest. Accessed 15 Sep. 2017.