American Biography: D.M. Bennett | HistoryNet MENU

American Biography: D.M. Bennett

By Roderick Bradford
3/31/2016 • American History Magazine

As the country’s leading publisher of “free thought” literature, D.M. Bennett, the founder and guiding light of The Truth Seeker from 1873 until his death in 1882, was the most revered and reviled editor of the Gilded Age. To his thousands of supporters he was a free-speech martyr; to his detractors Bennett was the “Devil’s Own Advocate.”

DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett was born on December 23, 1818, in Springfield, N.Y. At 15 he joined the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, more commonly known as the Shakers. Bennett was a devout member of the celibate communitarian society for 13 years and worked as an herbalist, physician and ministry appointed scribe, recording “divinely inspired” messages during the Era of Manifestations, the Shakers’ decade long period of intense spiritualistic revival.

When the revival subsided, some of the younger members lost their religious fervor, including Bennett and his future wife Mary Wicks, a schoolteacher, with whom he eloped in 1846. While their apostasy and marriage were shocking events for everyone they knew, the couple maintained friendly relations with the Shakers for the rest of their lives. “[Shakers] are industrious, frugal and honest people,” Bennett wrote. “And so far as religion is concerned they probably have an article that is as practical, as useful and as sincere as any in the world.”

For the next 27 years the Bennetts moved around the country and invested in various business ventures, owned drugstores and successfully marketed “Dr. Bennett’s Family Medicines.” During this period he read “infidel” publications such as the works of Voltaire, Charles Darwin and Thomas Paine, whose book The Age of Reason led Bennett to become a staunch freethinker and unremitting skeptic.

Creation of the Truth Seeker

Bennett and many of his fellow freethinkers were former devout Christians who retained a good deal of the religion’s moral spirit. “Without doubting,” Charles Darwin asserted, “there can be no progress.” Freethinkers argued that doubt was the first step to knowledge, and they were convinced that man’s well-being was best served by rationalism and total separation of church and state.

In 1873, while living in Paris, Ill., Bennett got into a spirited debate with clergymen over the efficacy of prayer. After the local newspapers refused to print some of his letters, Bennett founded The Truth Seeker: Science, Morals, Freethought and Human Happiness, declaring, “We embrace, as in one brotherhood, Liberals, Free Religionists, Rationalists, Spiritualists, Unitarians, Friends, Infidels, Freethinkers and in short all who care to think and judge for themselves.”

Later that year, Bennett moved The Truth Seeker to New York City where for nearly a century it continued, under a succession of editors, to provide a forum for freethinkers. Bennett built The Truth Seeker into the best-known and most controversial reform journal in America. In its pages he called Christianity the “greatest sham in the world, without truth in its history, without loveliness in its doctrines, without benefit to the human race, and without anything to sustain it in the hold it has upon the world.” Bennett’s journalism “was of the sort called personal,” one of his successors noted. “The Truth Seeker was Bennett, and in advertising himself he advertised the paper.”

The Truth Seeker had several illustrious subscribers among its 50,000 devoted readers, including Mark Twain, Clarence Darrow and Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll, “the Great Agnostic.” Bennett’s weekly was the official organ of the National Liberal League, an association of freethinkers devoted to the complete separation of church and state.

The enterprising editor popularized Darwinian theories, promoted birth control and the taxation of church property, supported women’s rights, opposed dogmatic religion and took great pride in debunking the Bible and exposing hypocritical clergymen. He was the first editor in America—perhaps the world— who routinely wrote exposés on the misdeeds of clergymen, eventually publishing them in a compilation titled Sinful Saints and Sensual Shepherds.

At the same time Bennett began publishing The Truth Seeker, free speech came under attack by Anthony Comstock, America’s self-appointed arbiter of morals. Comstock was a special unpaid agent of the U.S. Post Office and secretary and chief vice hunter for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an organization that was part of the social purity crusade. A religious zealot, Comstock waged war on “obscene” books (including some classic works of literature) and freethinking writers. Comstock arrested “liberal” publishers and birth control advocates, mislabeling the latter “abortionists.” According to Comstock, Bennett, as the editor of The Truth Seeker, was “everything vile in blasphemy and infidelity.”

Some of the country’s most powerful and pious citizens backed Comstock, who routinely terrorized his victims and bragged about driving 15 people to suicide in his crusade. “I’ve convicted (of obscenity) enough persons to fill a passenger train of 61 coaches,” he once boasted, “60 coaches containing 60 passengers and the 61st not quite full.” There was little protest against the nebulous Comstock Laws in the nation’s newspapers and magazines. Like politicians, most publishers felt that opposing the vice hunter and his often ballyhooed “fight for the young” might be interpreted as tolerating crime. Censorship and church hypocrisy, however, were two of Bennett’s favorite subjects. In Comstock and his “Vice Society,” as the editor dubbed it, he found both. Bennett persistently scrutinized, ridiculed and challenged “Saint Anthony” and soap tycoon Samuel Colgate, the president of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Referring to them, Bennett reportedly claimed, “Worse than all other mean acts are those performed by hypocrites under the cloak of purity and virtue.”

Bennett was a prolific and provocative writer whose publications were prohibited from the mail and newsstands long before the phrase “banned in Boston” became common. He was vilified by religionists for his lecture “An Hour With the Devil” and article “Was Jesus Christ a Negro?” Bennett’s incendiary “An Open Letter to Jesus Christ” (published in the November 1875 issue of The Truth Seeker and later sold as a pamphlet) was extremely offensive to Christians. In it he referred to Christianity as the “youngest mythology” and asked a series of more than 200 rhetorical questions. Among them, Bennett wondered if Christ participated in the Crusades or if he approved of the Holy Inquisition, and queried, “Has not the religion called after your name caused more bloodshed, more persecution, and more suffering than all the other religions of the world?”

Bennett’s Several Arrests

In 1877 Anthony Comstock arrested Bennett for selling “An Open Letter to Jesus Christ” and a scientific tract titled “How Do Marsupials Propagate Their Kind.” (Apparently Comstock was offended by open discussion of the sexual habits of both man and beast.) The charges against Bennett were dropped after Robert Ingersoll, the famous lecturer and eminent attorney, interceded on his behalf. Bennett was later arrested at a freethought convention for selling Cupid’s Yokes, a prosaic sociological pamphlet written by Ezra Heywood, a free-love advocate. In the 19th century, free-love proponents believed marriage was similar to slavery or prostitution and advocated commitment based on individual choice and love, not on legal restraints. (The case never came to trial.) Bennett was arrested a third time on December 10, 1879, for mailing Cupid’s Yokes to Anthony Comstock who, using a fictitious name to entrap the editor, had requested a copy. “The charge is ostensibly ‘obscenity,’” Bennett wrote. “But the real offense is that I presume to utter sentiments and opinions in opposition to the views entertained by the Christian Church.”

A month before his trial, Bennett wrote his “Open Letter to Samuel Colgate,” which was published in The Truth Seeker and mailed (along with Cupid’s Yokes) to the soap manufacturer. Bennett accused Colgate of mailing a booklet with “prohibited information” advertising Vaseline as a form of birth control. “You violated the law,” Bennett wrote, “yet you escape, while you are trying to send me to prison for not breaking the law at all. If this is justice, it must be Christian justice, or Colgate justice, which will not bear investigation.” (Bennett’s exposé incited a boycott of Colgate products for years.) Bennett’s obscenity trial was “one of the most important of the day,” the New York Sun reported. Samuel Colgate attended the trial in support of the prosecution’s sole witness, Anthony Comstock. (Bennett’s “Open Letter to Samuel Colgate” was introduced into evidence by the prosecutor.) Bennett’s attorney was Abram Wakeman, a former New York postmaster and close confidant of Mary Todd Lincoln, and presiding over the trial was Judge Charles L. Benedict. Comstock often boasted that he never failed in Benedict’s court. The four-day trial and sensational standing-room-only press reports of the prosecution of the “blasphemous” publisher sold newspapers, including The Truth Seeker.

The Hicklin standard—introduced in America at Bennett’s trial—was based on a British case from 1868 and was an ambiguous “test” for obscenity that turned on what society deems inappropriate for “those whose minds are open to… immoral influences,” and permitted a work to be judged by introducing only isolated passages and not by the intention of the author. Thus Benedict would not permit Bennett’s attorney to read Cupid’s Yokes in its entirety in order to put the purported “obscene” passages into context. The Hicklin standard’s ambiguity caused concern for most justice loving Americans—but not Anthony Comstock, who trumpeted: “If this law is good enough for Great Britain and the United States of America, it ought to be good enough for a handful of mongrels calling themselves Liberals!”

Benedict, however, allowed the prosecuting attorney to refer several times to articles Bennett was not on trial for, including “An Open Letter to Jesus Christ.” On March 21, 1879, the 60-yearold editor was convicted of sending prohibited matter through the U.S. mail, fined $300 and sentenced to 13 months of hard labor at the Albany Penitentiary. Benedict’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.”

Attempts to Free A Martyr

Bennett’s conviction and imprisonment became a cause célèbre for freethinkers and free-speech proponents. Authors, abolitionists, reformers and suffragists supported Bennett’s fight for free speech, a free press and mails free from espionage and Comstockism. A petition with more than 200,000 names was sent to President Rutherford B. Hayes asking for a pardon for the elderly editor—the largest petition campaign of the 19th century.

Ironically, even the Shakers signed the petition and championed Bennett, whom they considered “an illustrious martyr, suffering from acts of the most devilish bigotry of our day.” The Shakers visited Bennett in prison and expressed their indignation in The Truth Seeker and their own periodical The Shaker Manifesto. One prominent Shaker defended Bennett’s right to doubt and, echoing Darwin, proclaimed: “It is not the ‘faithful believers’ that have advanced the world. History tells us it is to the doubters—the ‘infidels’—that the world owes the greatest debt of gratitude.”

Robert Ingersoll, who campaigned for Hayes in 1876, met with the president and informed him that Cupid’s Yokes was not obscene and asked him to pardon “the poor old man.” (Hayes had already pardoned Ezra Heywood, the author of Cupid’s Yokes.) Ingersoll provided the president—who, according to his diary, knew that Cupid’s Yokes was sold “by the thousand”—with a list of New York booksellers who openly sold the booklet. The president also met with Anthony Comstock, who presented petitions signed by prominent religious leaders and Sunday school students. “The religious world are against the pardon, the unbelievers are for it,” Hayes wrote in his diary.

Hayes was feeling heat on both sides of the issue. In his circle, the most influential member of the religious world was Mrs. Hayes, a devout Methodist called “Lemonade Lucy” because of her no-alcohol policy at White House social occasions. The first lady, who was known to have considerable influence over her husband, received advice from her pastor and a long petition from Sunday school students opposing a pardon. “Was Bennett pardoned?” Anthony Comstock asked and answered in his book Frauds Exposed. “No, not even with the most extraordinary petition of 200,000 names. Why? We have a clean man for President. It needs no word of mine to sound his praise.”

Bennett languished in the Albany Penitentiary where, despite suffering from the stigma attached to selling “obscenity” and near death from harsh prison conditions, he managed to write numerous letters. The long, unrepentant letters were initially published in The Truth Seeker and later compiled and published as From Behind the Bars: A Series of Letters Written in Prison.

A few days after his release from prison on April 29, 1880, Bennett was given a hero’s reception at New York’s prestigious Chickering Hall. Three thousand supporters attended the sold-out event that The New York Times characterized as “a queer Sunday night meeting—listening for two hours to some plausible talk and more blasphemy and filth denouncing Anthony Comstock and the Republican party.” Bennett dismissed the Times as “a semi-religious panderer.”

Three months later, Bennett sailed to Europe to represent American liberals at the Congress of the Universal Federation of Freethinkers in Brussels, Belgium. His letters from Europe were published as An Infidel Abroad. He traveled abroad for a year and chronicled his journey in A Truth Seeker Around the World. During his visit to India he joined the Theosophical Society, whose motto is: “There is no religion higher than truth.”

On December 6, 1882, a few months after returning home, D.M. Bennett died in New York City. Another firestorm of controversy erupted when Bennett’s friends planned to erect a memorial to “The Defender of Liberty and Its Martyr” in Green-Wood Cemetery. The rumor of a monument containing blasphemous inscriptions caused controversy for the officials of the Brooklyn cemetery filled with crosses, praying cherubs and mourning angels. Nevertheless, the monument is still standing today and the granite is inscribed with Bennett’s philosophical principles and the proclamation, “When The Innocent Is Convicted, The Court Is Condemned.”

“Mr. Bennett was a deeply religious man,” a close friend declared at the dedication of the monument erected to honor the founder of The Truth Seeker. The woman went on to explain her statement by quoting Thomas Paine’s motto: “To do good is my religion.” If that was Paine’s highest work, she asserted, it made it his religion. “It is in this sense that Mr. Bennett was a religious man; and if we measure his religion by the measure of his devotion to his work, he was a deeply religious man.”

A decade after Bennett’s death, Anthony Comstock went to Fremont, Ohio, to preach at a Presbyterian church. While in Fremont, he paid a visit to Rutherford B. Hayes, the president he had lauded as a “clean man” during the Bennett petition drive. Once again Comstock praised the former president for his decision not to pardon Bennett. Hayes, however, was not as satisfied with his decision as the obsequious crusader. “Cupid’s Yokes was a free-love pamphlet of bad principles, and in bad taste,” Hayes wrote in his diary, “but Colonel Ingersoll had abundant reason for his argument that it was not, in the legal sense, ‘an obscene publication.’”

James Parton, the famous 19th-century biographer, wrote about his friend, “Mr. D.M. Bennett was a man wholly extraordinary, and his career was not less so,” adding: “He was not a perfect character as he well knew and frankly acknowledged; but his merits, considering all things, were very great and very rare….His wonderful labors have made the escape of others easier than he found it. He embraced an unpopular cause; he made it less difficult for others to do so….”

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