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).

What do you think? Leave a comment!

Social Media Updates

Over the past few weeks a considerable amount of news has been released about TNT’s TV adaptation of The Alienist, along with Caleb Carr’s upcoming novel, Surrender, New York. As more news will continue to appear over the coming weeks and months for both of these projects, I’ve decided to take this opportunity to highlight a few social media channels that may help you stay up to date. In addition to these, remember that the fastest way to stay up to date is via Twitter and Google+.

Instagram

If you haven’t already taken a peek at 17th Street’s new instagram account, I recommend you do so. In addition to posting occasional news from 17th Street, it is currently featuring a virtual tour of several New York City locations from The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness, presented in the order they appear in the novels along with relevant quotes from the novels. So far (see below) we have visited John at 19 Washington Square North, accompanied him to the first murder scene at the Williamsburg Bridge, and have arrived at the Kreizler Institute for Children to visit Dr. Kreizler. What location will be next? To find out, follow us @17thstreetnet!

Facebook

Although 17th Street does not have a dedicated Facebook page, you can find the latest information about Surrender, New York at a Facebook page that has recently appeared. As we get closer to the release of the novel, presumably the dates and locations of book signings, along with any other news that may be of interest of Caleb Carr’s readers, will be released there as well as on 17th Street.

2 Comments

Surrender, New York – Cover Released

Surrender, New YorkEarlier this week, the finalised cover for Caleb Carr’s upcoming novel, Surrender, New York, was released by Random House — and I, for one, love it! To view the cover in full size, click the image to the right.

Atmospheric and reminiscent of The Alienist’s original cover, it seems like a perfect fit for a contemporary thriller whose protagonist, Dr. Trajan Jones, is described in the novel’s synposis as, “the world’s leading expert on the life and work of one Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, the hero of The Alienist, in whose brilliant but unconventional footsteps he follows.” On the novel’s page at Amazon, Caleb Carr also noted, “This book is essentially a modern application of the principles and theories of Dr. Laszlo Kreizler to criminal behavior, especially that directed at children.” To read the full synopsis, please visit the new Surrender, New York page in the ‘Other Books’ section of 17th Street.

This should be an exciting addition to Mr. Carr’s oeuvre for readers who enjoyed the Alienist books, and it is due for release by Random House on August 23, 2016. If you would like to pre-order, you can do so at Amazon or via one of the other retailers listed on the Penguin Random House website.

6 Comments

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 →

3 Comments

« Older Entries