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(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

From 1870 through 1872 Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claflin (1845-1923), published Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, a newspaper that supported equality between the sexes, woman suffrage, and other reforms. Woodhull’s outspoken advocacy of sexual liberation made her a frequent target of Protestant critics. In an effort to expose hypocrisy among her opponents, she published an article in her newspaper, in November, 1872, accusing Henry Ward Beecher, the most famous Protestant clergyman in the United States, of having committed adultery. Shortly afterward, Anthony Comstock of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice appealed to federal authorities in New York to arrest Woodhull and Claflin for violating U.S. postal regulations banning obscene materials from the mail.

Federal authorities jailed Woodhull and Claflin for twenty-eight days before releasing them on bail. In June, 1873, the sisters were tried on federal obscenity charges. Benjamin Butler, a member of the congressional committee that had written the law under which they were charged, publicly stated that the law was not meant to apply to newspapers or to the kind of article that Woodhull had published. It was, he stated, aimed only at “licentious books and other matters . . . published by bad men for the purpose of the corruption of youth.” The sisters’ judge agreed, and their jury acquitted them.

Beecher himself was acquitted on adultery charges after a well- published trial in 1875. Two years later Woodhull moved to England, where she lived another fifty years. Meanwhile, Woodhull’s trial brought Comstock national attention. In 1873 he successfully lobbied Congress to enact tougher laws banning obscene materials from the mail. The new federal statute, known as the Comstock Law, added newspapers and books to the material subject to banning.