Anthony Comstock Character Profile

As regular 17th Street visitors would be aware, I am (very) slowly completing the supporting character profiles for historical figures that appear in The Alienist. As part of this, I recently completed the profile for the notorious United States Postal Censor, Anthony Comstock. You can now find his character profile below as well as on the supporting characters list.

Anthony Comstock

Comstock, Mr. Anthony

Appears in The Alienist

The fanatical moral reformer Anthony Comstock (1844-1915) only appears in The Alienist on one occasion, but he plays an important role in the novel behind the scenes. Born in Connecticut and raised in a devout Congregationalist home, Comstock served two years in the Union Army before moving to New York City where he married and found work in a dry-goods establishment. Appalled by the city’s rampant vice, Comstock helped to form the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1872. The following year, he came to prominence for convincing legislators that abortion and birth control was as much of a threat to public morality as the “obscene” material (i.e., pornography and indecent literature) targeted by existing legislation. He argued that the consumption of such material resulted from increasing promiscuity among younger generations that was concealed through contraceptive use and abortifacients. Until this point, there had been no federal restrictions on abortion or birth control.

As a result of Comstock’s lobbying, Congress passed An Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use, better known as the Comstock Law, in 1873. The act strengthened existing legislation as well as banning the importation, sale, or distribution of any materials relating to abortion or contraception. Penalties for breaking the law included fines of up to $5,000, or jail and hard labor for a maximum of 10 years. Following the passage of the act, Comstock was appointed as a “special agent” of the United States Postal Service, a role he maintained from 1873 to 1915. During his time as Postal Censor, Comstock’s zealous enforcement of the law resulted in more than 3,600 arrests, and drove at least sixteen people to suicide, including the well-known abortionist Ann Lohman.

Although originally concerned with birth control and abortion, Comstock’s moral crusade had expanded to such a point by the time The Alienist was set in 1896 that he was even attempting to suppress nudity in artwork and medical anatomy textbooks, resulting in indiscriminate raids on art galleries and art schools. By this time, he had also written several books to educate the public about moral dangers in the urban environment.

Click here to read more. Warning: Contains spoilers for The Alienist

Sources and further reading: Kenneth T. Jackson (Ed.), “The Encyclopaedia of New York City” (1995), Wilbur R. Miller (Ed.), “The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America: An Encyclopedia” (2012), and Luc Sante, “Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York” (1991).

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Thomas Byrnes, New York’s Premier Detective

Last year I began the slow process of completing the supporting character profiles for the historical figures that appear in The Alienist. To do this, I have aimed to read at least one biography for each of these figures to aid me in completing their profile. While this proved to be a fascinating process for the first figure on my list, Police Superintendent Thomas Byrnes, it has resulted in my putting together a considerably longer profile than I had originally intended! As a result, I have only posted a summary of Byrnes’ role in the novel on the supporting characters list, and have decided to post his full character profile here instead as a history blog. So, if you are interested in learning more about this complex and interesting character, please read on. For any interested visitors, you can find the sources used in putting together this profile at the conclusion of the blog.

Thomas Byrnes

Early Life and Career

Although Thomas Byrnes, former Police Superintendent and Chief Inspector of the Detective Bureau, only appears in The Alienist on one occasion, he plays a prominent role in the novel behind the scenes and is mentioned a number of times throughout the text. Born in Ireland in 1842, Thomas arrived in New York City as a 10 year old when his family fled the Potato Famine, and grew up in the notorious Five Points district. When his father began drinking heavily and walked out on the family following the death of Thomas’ younger brother, Thomas and his mother were left to fend for themselves. To help them get by, Father Coogan of St. Patrick’s Cathedral managed to obtain a position for Thomas as helper in a firehouse, while his mother worked as a seamstress and his two sisters found employment as house maids. Even though Thomas had never been formally schooled, Father Coogan helped in this as well by providing his young charge with books for self-education.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, 19 year old Thomas joined Ellsworth’s Zouaves, the Eleventh New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and served during the Battle of Bull Run. He did not otherwise see much combat during his two years in the Union Army, and returned to New York following his discharge from the service in 1863. Shortly after this, he joined the New York City Police Department as a patrolman, and saw his first major action when the draft riots broke out. During the riots, in which a mob of Irish immigrants caused nearly $3 million of damage to the city and killed eighteen men during a week long spree following the first military draft, Thomas was recognised for his valiant efforts to protect the 233 children in the Orphan Asylum for Coloured Children, as well as assisting Police Superintendent John A. Kennedy who had been violently attacked and was lucky to escape with his life. Byrnes quickly rose through the ranks during the period that followed, becoming a Sergeant in 1869 and Captain of the Fifteenth Precinct in 1870 at only 28 years of age.

Byrnes’ posting in the Fifteenth Precinct undoubtedly helped his remarkable rise from Captain to Chief Inspector of the Detective Bureau during the ten years that followed. During his time as Captain, Byrnes investigated a myriad of cases ranging from petty theft to murder, and his name appeared in newspaper crime reports on an almost weekly basis. None of his cases, however, were was as well-publicised as the Manhattan Savings Institution heist of 1878. The robbery remains one of the greatest in New York’s history, with $3 million in bonds and cash (over $50 million in today’s dollars) stolen from the bank’s vault. During the long and complex investigation that followed, Byrnes successfully identified most of the culprits but there was a frustrating lack of convictions in the case due to the suspected bribery of jurors. Even so, the case helped to cement Byrnes’ reputation as an unrelenting crime fighter willing to go to any lengths to protect the interests of New York’s wealthiest citizens. | Continue reading →

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Following The Footsteps of Dr. Kreizler: A Travel Blog – Part Two

View Part One and Part Two of Following The Footsteps of Dr. Kreizler: A Travel Blog.

As regular visitors would be aware, I took a slightly different approach with the 17th Street blog last week by posting up an account of my recent Alienist-related travels that took me from Toronto, down through New York state following the Hudson River, before finally arriving on the Upper West Side of New York City. This week, I conclude my travel blog with an account of the second half of my holiday in New York, predominantly spent in the historic districts around Union Square where I was finally able to visit the locations that make up the heart of the Alienist novels. Enjoy!

The Inn At Irving Place

Following my short walk in Central Park with thunder rolling in the distance and storm clouds threatening, I moved from my hotel on the Upper West Side to my second hotel in the East 17th Street/Irving Place Historic District where I stayed for my final five nights in the city. When I had originally decided that I wanted to spend at least a portion of my trip down in the Union Square area, I looked at a number of different hotel options but ultimately couldn’t go past The Inn at Irving Place.

Ideally situated, the boutique hotel offered an experience I would not get anywhere else: an opportunity to get a taste of my favourite characters’ lifestyles by staying in a restored New York brownstone located only two blocks from Gramercy Park to the north, two blocks from Stuyvesant Square to the east, and one block from Union Square to the west. After checking in with the manager whose desk was located in the front parlor (see photos 3-4 below), I stayed in the “O Henry room” (see photos 6-12 below) which was tastefully appointed with genuine antiques and was well-proportioned, quiet, and had an unexpectedly large bathroom (for New York City). Located at the back of the brownstone on the second floor, the room had a pleasant view of the terrace and surrounding buildings (see photo 13 below). My regular breakfast spot in the tea room on the first floor also offered a delightful view, both inside and out (see photos 14-15 below).

All in all, I couldn’t have been happier with my choice of hotel and highly recommend it for any Alienist readers or lovers of history who want to experience life from an earlier time in a restored New York brownstone. Watch the steps, though — they are steep! (Something I experienced later on at the Merchant’s House Museum, too.)

Given the storm that had moved in, I decided to stay close to the hotel for the rest of the day by getting a spot of lunch at Barnes & Noble on Union Square before going for a wander across to a very wet Stuyvesant Square where I saw an astonishing number of squirrels — a novelty for this Australian, and the most I had seen in any one spot during my entire trip! — until I finally admitted defeat and retreated back to The Inn. I couldn’t help feeling on this first afternoon as I listened to the thunder overhead and saw the trees outside my window being blown around that I had been transported into the summer storm described in Chapter 53 of The Angel of Darkness which the characters quietly wait out in the safety of Dr. Kreizler’s home, watching the wind-tossed trees in Stuyvesant Square across the road. | Continue reading →

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Following The Footsteps of Dr. Kreizler: A Travel Blog – Part One

View Part One and Part Two of Following The Footsteps of Dr. Kreizler: A Travel Blog.

Coinciding with our author’s 60th birthday today (many happy returns, Mr. Carr!), I have something a little different to offer for 17th Street’s visitors this week. For the past three months, I have been away from my Australian home and hearth for work-related travel in Canada. Given my close proximity to New York during this trip, I decided to take the opportunity to add on two weeks of pleasure-related travel at the end of the trip for a holiday in New York City — my first ever visit to the city! The following two-part blog series documents the Alienist-related components of my travel. Although I have tried to focus these blogs on locations visited during the books, I have also included a few other historical attractions that might be of interest to readers of the Alienist books even though they are not directly relevant to the books. So, without further ado, I invite you to join me as I follow the footsteps of Dr. Kreizler and the rest of the team on my holiday in Canada and New York.

The Bata Shoe Museum

The first attraction that I want to document might be the only one not located in New York state, but it is also the only one that quite literally involves following the footsteps of Dr. Kreizler — or, at least, Sara Howard. Those of you who have ever visited the History section of 17th Street will know that I have long adored historical clothing, particularly 19th century clothing, so you can imagine my excitement when I saw, on my final day in Toronto, that the Bata Shoe Museum was featuring an exhibition (until June of 2016) on “the pleasures and perils of dress in the 19th century.” The “Fashion Victims” exhibition showcases the Bata Shoe Museum’s collection of 19th century footwear along with a smaller but no less stunning array of matching dresses and under garments, including a pair of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s impossibly narrow shoes and gloves, and a beautiful but deadly Emerald green ball gown containing arsenic.

Although the exhibition featured footwear and clothing from as early as 1820, the photos I have shown here are a small selection of my favourite footwear exhibited from the late 19th century, not unlike those Sara would have kept in her wardrobe for more formal occasions; she presumably would have also kept a wide selection of more practical footwear for her day to day and sporting activities — not to mention the nail-studded climber’s boots we see her don in Chapter 2 of The Angel of Darkness. From left to right, the photos shown below include: a pair of elegant embroidered boots created by the firm of the most famous French shoe manufacturer of the late 19th century, Jean-Louis Francois Pinet, from approximately 1885; a pair of calf-hugging handmade, bespoke Swedish or German boots designed to look like a stockinged leg from the 1890s; a pair of button boots made with brocaded fabric (an alternative to the embroidery seen on the other boots in these photos) from the 1870s; a mass-produced boot made by the Parisian shoe manufacturer L. P. Perchellet with its original shoe box from 1875; and a stunning embroidered boot also created by Jean-Louis Francois Pinet from the 1880s.

In addition to the Fashion Victims exhibition (worth the price of admission alone), while I was there the museum also featured exhibitions of footwear through the ages, “the curious history of men in heels,” footwear of famous individuals donated to the museum, and something that probably would have been of great interest to Franz Boas and Clark Wissler: an exhibition of native North American footwear. As enjoyable as those exhibitions all were, as they weren’t relevant to the Alienist books I haven’t included any photos here. However, if you happen to be in Toronto at any stage in the future and have an interest in historical clothing, I can highly recommend that you allocate half a day to visit the museum. It was, without question, one of the highlights of my three month trip.

A Journey Down The Hudson River

After departing Toronto, I travelled by train down to Niagara Falls where I spent a day and night (an amazing experience that I would highly recommend if you ever get the chance) before embarking on a nine hour rail journey via Amtrak’s Empire Line down through New York state to New York City. While the first half of the journey took us through several hours worth of pretty if somewhat unremarkable farming scenery along with the occasional (mostly industrial) view of cities like Buffalo and Syracuse, the second half of the journey — from Albany onwards — saw the train snake alongside the Hudson River until we reached New York City, and this was unquestionably another of the highlights of my trip. I had been utterly unprepared for the size and beauty of the Hudson and mountains that lay beyond, bringing to mind my all-time favourite quote from either of the two Alienist books, spoken by the ever insightful Stevie Taggert.

The Angel of Darkness, Chapter 13:

“But it wasn’t any attempt at being rational that finally mended my spirits; no, it was the sight of the river itself, which always made me feel, somehow, like there was hope. She has that quality, does the Hudson, as I imagine all great rivers do: the deep, abiding sense that those activities what take place on shore among human beings are of the moment, passing, and aren’t the stories by way of which the greater tale of this planet will, in the end, be told…”

Nevertheless, those of you who have read The Angel of Darkness will know that the majestic Hudson River plays far bigger role in the novel than the scene in which Stevie makes that observation. Indeed, during The Angel of Darkness the team are are drawn from their usual haunts around Manhattan to the small town of Ballston Spa in upstate New York where they stay for at least half the novel; and to get to Ballston Spa, Dr. Kreizler decides to travel up the Hudson River on a steamer, the Mary Powell, as far as Troy (a town near Albany), before taking the train to their final destination. On this scenic interlude in the novel, the book’s narrator, Stevie Taggert, spends a considerable portion of his time smoking on the promenade deck with various other characters, first taking in the beauty of the Palisades and then at the “manor houses of the old Dutch and English river families” that dotted the hillsides further upstream. However, for Stevie, as for me, it was the untamed beauty of the Catskills and other mountains on the route that struck most profoundly. | Continue reading →

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