932 SECOND AVE. (49/50), NEW YORK, NY
THE TRUTH SEEKER - D.M. BENNETT
NYC ATHEISTS BRUNCH
DECEMBER 11TH (SUNDAY) / 12 NOON
SUBJECT: D. M. BENNETT
D.M. BENNETT [masked]) was pronounced guilty for violating the Comstock Law in New York on March 21, 1879. “The trial of Dr. Bennett for sending obscene matter through the mails is one of the most important of the day,” declared The New York Sun. The judge’s ruling, a Washington Capitol newspaper reporter opined, “surpassed anything of the sort since Pontius Pilate, and would make it dangerous to mail a Bible or a copy of Shakespeare to anyone.”
On June 5, 1879, the editor of The Truth Seeker was fined $300 and confinement at hard labor for thirteen months to be executed in the Albany Penitentiary. (A twelve-month sentence would have allowed the 60-year-old writer to remain incarcerated in New York City where friends and family could have visited.) “There was malice in that thirteen month sentence,” wrote future Truth Seeker editor George Macdonald. The judge also denied D.M. Bennett’s request to have the sentence deferred until the Supreme Court could hear the case.
D.M. Bennett was imprisoned for mailing Cupid’s Yokes, a polemical pamphlet written by free-love advocate Ezra Heywood which promoted women’s rights and criticized puritanical obscenity laws. As an American citizen––and a passionate opponent of censorship––Bennett believed that he had the right to challenge the ill-defined Comstock Law and sell the pamphlet.
D.M. Bennett’s conviction and imprisonment became a cause célèbre for freethinkers and free-speech advocates. Authors, abolitionists, physicians, reformers, scientists and suffragists supported Bennett’s fight for freedom of the press. A petition with more than 200,000 names––the largest petition campaign of the 19th century––was sent to President Rutherford B. Hayes asking for a pardon for the elderly editor.
D.M. Bennett languished in the Albany Penitentiary where, despite suffering from the stigma attached to selling alleged “obscenity” and near death from harsh prison conditions, he managed to write numerous unrepentant letters published in The Truth Seeker and later compiled in a book. Robert G. Ingersoll––The Great Agnostic tried to persuade his fellow Republican to pardon the gravely ill editor. The eminent attorney provided the president with a list of New York booksellers who openly sold the ubiquitous pamphlet. According to his presidential diary, Hayes was already aware that Cupid’s Yokes was sold “by the thousand” at bookstores.
On his annual spring visit to observe prison conditions at Albany Penitentiary, the Attorney General’s Acting Commissioner C. K. Chase informed Bennett that Attorney General Devens, and every man that was prominently connected with the government had pronounced his imprisonment a “gross outrage.” Chase added, “Yes, that is just the way it is; every man I know of connected with the government is in favor of your liberation, except the president, and him alone. The fact is, Bennett, the church is too strong for you; that influence has secured the cooperation of the president, and it is too strong for you.”
Chase was correct, “every man” was in favor of Bennett’s liberation. But not the First Lady who was lobbying her “Ruddy” in the White House. Lucy Hayes a devout Methodist known to have considerable influence over her husband received advice from her pastor and along petition from Sunday school students opposing a pardon. “There is great heat on both sides of the question” Hayes wrote in his diary. “The religious world are against the pardon, the unbelievers are for it.” Cupid’s Yokes author Ezra Heywood was also convicted, imprisoned, and pardoned. President Rutherford B. Hayes––pardoned the author of the pamphlet––but refused to pardon a man who merely sold it. On March 27, 1892––a decade after D.M. Bennett’s death––Hayes confessed in his diary: “I was never satisfied, as I would wish with the correctness of the result to which I came chiefly in deference to the courts. ‘Cupid’s Yokes’ was a free-love pamphlet of bad principles, and in bad taste, but Colonel Ingersoll had abundant reason for his argument that it was not, in the legal sense, ‘an obscene publication.’” We firmly believe that after 138 years, D.M. Bennett deserves to be unequivocally exon- erated for mailing a pamphlet which he did not write and was not obscene. Therefore, we are asking New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo to grant a posthumous pardon to D.M. Bennett: THE TRUTH SEEKER.
VIDEO: D.M. BENNETT written, directed and produced by Roderick Bradford
Roderick Bradford is a freelance writer and independent video producer. He has written articles forAmerican History, American Atheist, Free Inquiry, Truth Seeker, and The Quest. He is also a contributor to the New Encyclopedia of Unbelief.
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