D.M. Bennett: forgotten free-speech provocateur

Friday, March 2, 2007

The Truth Seeker, edited by D.M. Bennett, was a “modern” liberal newspaper founded by Bennett in 1873. It was “Devoted to Science, Morals, Freethought, Free Enquiry and the Diffusion of Liberal Sentiment,” as Bennett’s letterhead described the monthly publication. In the moral crusader Anthony Comstock’s eyes The Truth Seeker was a “vile paper.”

Few historical figures in 19th century America were as controversial as DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett (1818-1882). And few Americans were as courageous — or suffered more — in the search for truth and in the cause of “free speech, a free press, and mails free from espionage and Comstockism,” as Bennett put it. He was the most revered and reviled publisher-editor of the Gilded Age. Loyal supporters lauded him as the “American Voltaire”; his Christian adversaries called him the “Devil’s Own Advocate.”

Inspired by the radical pamphleteer Thomas Paine, Bennett founded The Truth Seeker in Paris, Ill., moving the paper to New York at the end of 1873. In less than a decade, he became the country’s leading publisher of liberal literature. Mark Twain, Clarence Darrow, and Robert G. Ingersoll — the “Great Agnostic” — were only a few of the illustrious freethinkers who subscribed to The Truth Seeker.

Bennett took pride in debunking the Bible and exposing hypocritical clergymen. He was the first editor in America to report routinely the misdeeds of ministers, compiling a list of crimes by clergymen that he published as “Sinful Saints and Sensual Shepherds.” A prolific and provocative writer, Bennett was vilified by religionists for denouncing Christianity, which he called “the greatest sham in the world.”

Bennett’s publications were censored, prohibited at newsstands, and denied access to the U.S. mail long before the expression “banned in Boston” was heard. At the same time Bennett began publishing The Truth Seeker, free speech came under attack by Comstock, the U.S. Post Office’s “special agent” and America’s self-appointed arbiter of morals. Comstock, who bragged of driving 15 people to suicide in his “fight for the young,” was the chief vice-hunter of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an organization founded by wealthy and powerful purity crusaders including soap tycoon Samuel Colgate.
Roderick Bradford’s D.M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker (Prometheus Books, 2006) discusses, in considerable detail, Bennett’s uninhibited manner and how that was reflected in his always controversial newspaper. From Bennett’s conversion to-and-from the Shaker way of life to his long efforts to repeal the oppressive Comstock laws, Bradford illustrates the difficult yet illustrious life Bennett led. For example, he published a supposedly blasphemous and obscene pamphlet, “An Open Letter to Jesus Christ.” He likewise did not pause to publish and sell a free-love pamphlet by Ezra Heywood, “Cupid’s Yokes.” That work advocated birth control. Such ventures in publishing got Bennett hard labor in New York’s Albany Penitentiary.
After his release from prison in 1880, Bennett traveled extensively throughout Europe. There he met with men of similar background to his, including Charles Bradlaugh, a British politician who had been arrested for publishing a birth-control manual. Before Bennett returned the United States, the National Secular Society of England honored him with a banquet.
Throughout this time, Bennett continued to write for The Truth Seeker while chronicling his colorful life in Europe. Those chronicles were later published as a book, Infidel Abroad, later renamed A Truth Seeker in Europe. Bennett then continued his travels, going around the world. Meanwhile, his “Open Letter to Jesus Christ” received wide attention — it had been translated into several languages, including Sinhalese.
Before Bennett died in 1882, one of The Truth Seeker’s most significant controversies was its defense of Walt Whitman. Whitman’s collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, incurred Comstock’s censorial disapproval. About that time, Eugene Macdonald, who then edited The Truth Seeker, published a letter by William O’Connor in Whitman’s defense. The letter quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson praising the poem. In his introduction to the letter, Macdonald equated Comstock’s application of American obscenity laws with “Russian censorship.”
On Oct. 26, 1882, Ezra Heywood was arrested for selling two of Whitman’s poems — “A Woman Waits for Me” and “To a Common Prostitute” — through the U.S. mails. Surprisingly, Bennett seemed somewhat indifferent to the arrest. As Bradford tells it: “Although Bennett did not wish to censure, he confessed that he wondered why Heywood mailed the matter. ‘We are in favor of free mails, the same as free thought,’ the editor declared, ‘but we are not in favor of sending indecent matter by mail, or any other way.’” For that sentiment, Bennett was roundly criticized by many of his anti-censorial followers.
Though one of Bennett’s early biographers, James Parton, granted that his subject “was not a perfect character,” he said Bennett nonetheless made it “less difficult” for others to embrace “unpopular causes.” Bradford’s book tells that important story in all its glory and tragedy. It is a story that might have been largely lost if not for this book.