New York’s Civil War– era underworlds aren’t what they used to be. Denounced in their own time by antivice crusaders as being so immoral that decency forbade even vague description, they’ve resurfaced with a vengeance in a remarkable succession of recent books that prowl in minute detail through the inventive urban libertinism of the 1850s and beyond. From these accounts, we know where the brothels were, who ran them, and how a typical evening progressed, from the parlor entertainment to the habits of the madams, johns, and sex workers (male and female) to the houses’ very plumbing. We know about the dives in which the elite met and more than mingled with the underclass they made a point of despising in public. We know who wrote, painted, and photographed the porn and where you could buy it. (Until the 1870s, the industry clustered along Ann and Nassau streets, just south of City Hall.)
Donna Dennis’s Licentious Gotham is the latest contribution to this ongoing recovery of the hidden reaches of nineteenth-century Manhattan. Her models include Timothy Gilfoyle’s City of Eros (1992), a pioneering account of New York prostitution, Patricia Cline Cohen’s The Murder of Helen Jewett (1998), a reconstruction of the life and death of a prostitute killed in a Thomas Street brothel in 1836, and Helen Horowitz’s Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America (2002). Like these writers, Dennis mines a history of lurid disclosures of sex, crime, and graft dating back at least to the 1830s and continuing through Herbert Asbury’s Jazz Age classic, The Gangs of New York (1928).
Dennis’s turf is virtual sex, rather than viva voce. While referring abundantly to prostitution and promiscuity, she is chiefly interested in purveyors of sex literature and their marathon battle with a series of antivice activists, who, beginning in the late 1830s, tried to browbeat the city, state, and federal governments into squashing publishers “of a wicked and depraved mind and disposition,” as a het up 1842 grand jury described them. Anthony Comstock, the most notorious of these crusaders, started out in New York as a stock clerk in a dry-goods store, which may explain why, in his new career as a public scourge, he failed at first to intimidate the city’s tough and amply bribed cops and judges into prosecuting obscenity. Only in 1873 did he hit on a partially successful strategy, when he managed to get himself appointed as filth commissar by the US Post Office. This empowered him to snag pornography in the mail, hitherto the safest and perhaps most frequent form of distribution.
Licentious Gotham suffers from the fact that much of its material has been explored before. Comstock, particularly, is iconic as a sin-obsessed laughingstock; his porn-trolling and odalisque-smashing career is the stuff of legend. Dennis’s chapter on the “flash” newspapers—a short-lived syndicate of scandal sheets that appeared in the early 1840s—has been scooped: Last year, Cohen, Gilfoyle, and Horowitz produced The Flash Press, an exhaustive introduction to the papers, published with excerpts.
Dennis nonetheless offers revelations of her own in sharply etched portraits of resourceful publishers who managed to survive and prosper despite Comstock and his ilk. As Licentious Gotham presents it, the trade depended on two staples: a list of expensively illustrated carriage-trade books, or “fancy” titles, which were affordable only to rich buyers, and a flood of ephemeral cheap print aimed at a mass market, typically dubbed “racy” and illustrated, if at all, with crude pictures. The former category included such classics as Fanny Hill, whose eponymous heroine tells the reader what she calls “the stark, naked truth” about her stint in a brothel and where it led. The latter dove downmarket to twenty-five-cent rush jobs like Scenes in a Nunnery, which, its publisher boasted, uses “very plain words.”
One could buy the racy stuff more widely, from street peddlers and bookstores. Because cheap print depended on impulse buys in public places, writers evolved a language of heavy-breathing euphemism that did the job without recourse to actionable words or images, as in George Thompson’s proto–bodice ripper The Delights of Love: “‘Be my Adonis!’ murmured the lady libertine, as she pantingly sank into the arms of the eager youth, who whispered, as he pressed her yielding form to his wildly throbbing heart—‘I am yours, my Venus!’”
Dennis also strikingly highlights the underestimated role of women both as workers in the business—they specialized in coloring engravings—and as customers. Venus’ Miscellany, a weekly newspaper first issued in 1856 and circulated nationwide, featured a correspondence column that included frequent contributions by female readers, who traded sex tips and boasted about their torrid couplings. (Dennis cautions, however, that such letters may have been fabricated for the sake of arousing male subscribers.)
Perhaps the most significant contribution of Licentious Gotham and its predecessors is the lesson they afford in the futility of keeping secrets, particularly against academic industriousness aided by the collapse of government censorship. Erotica, on the face of it, might seem especially fated for early destruction: cheaply made, energetically used, and often confiscated in raids or shredded in panic when Ma undertook the spring cleaning. But the embarrassments of the past are more durable than their perpetrators prayed. A furtive Victorian wank can inspire a leer for the ages.
Mark Caldwell teaches at Fordham University. His most recent book is New York Night: The Mystique and Its History (Scribner, 2005).