D.M. Bennett: The Nineteenth Century’s Most Controversial Publisher and American Free-Speech Martyr: Roderick Bradford

By Roderick Bradford


D.M. Bennett

D. M. Bennett was the founder and editor of The Truth Seeker from 1873 until his death in 1882. He was the country’s leading publisher of freethought literature and a lightning rod for controversy. Bennett was the most revered and reviled publisher during the Gilded Age. To his thousands of supporters he was a free-speech martyr; to others Bennett was the “Devil’s Own Advocate.”

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

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. And while their apostasy and marriage was a shocking event for everyone involved, the couple stayed on friendly terms with the Shakers for the remainder of their lives. “They [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 couple 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 and the works of Voltaire, Charles Darwin, and Thomas Paine, whose book, The Age of Reason, converted Bennett to a freethinker and unremitting skeptic.

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 humankind’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 “infidel” letters, Bennett founded The Truth Seeker, and devoted it to science, morals, freethought and human happiness. “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,” Bennett declared in The Truth Seeker.

Later that year, Bennett moved The Truth Seeker to New York City, where for nearly a century it continued to provide a forum for freethinkers. Bennett transformed The Truth Seeker into the best-known and most controversial reform journal in America. 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 50,000 devoted readers and several illustrious subscribers, including Mark Twain, Clarence Darrow, and Col. Robert G. Ingersoll, “the Great Agnostic.” Bennett’s weekly was the official organ of the National Liberal League, an association of freethinkers devoted to complete separation of church and state.

The enterprising editor popularized the Darwinian discoveries and promoted birth control. Bennett 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 reported misdeeds by the clergy and published them in 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 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), freethinking writers, and publishers. Comstock arrested “liberal” publishers and birth control advocates mislabeling the latter “abortionists.” According to Comstock, 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 mission to “save the young.” 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. “Worse than all other mean acts are those performed by hypocrites under the cloak of purity and virtue,” is a quote attributed to Bennett.

Bennett was a prolific and provocative writer whose publications were prohibited from the mail and newsstands long before moralists coined the phrase “banned in Boston.” 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” was extremely offensive to Christians. In his “Open Letter” (sold as a pamphlet and published in The Truth Seeker) he referred to Christianity as the “youngest mythology” and asked a series of over 200 rhetorical questions. Bennett wondered if Christ participated in the crusades or approved of the “Holy Inquisition. . . . Has not the religion called after your name caused more bloodshed, more persecution, and more suffering than all the other religions of the world?”

In 1877, Anthony Comstock arrested Bennett for selling a scientific tract (written by a former minister) and “An Open Letter to Jesus Christ.” (The charges against the editor were dropped after Robert Ingersoll, the famous lecturer and eminent attorney, interceded on his behalf.) Bennett was also 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 for mailing Cupid’s Yokes to Anthony Comstock, who used a fictitious name to entrap the editor. “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” that 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 expose incited freethinkers to boycott Colgate products for years.)

Bennett’s 1879 “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. Presiding over the trial was Judge Charles L. Benedict. Comstock often boasted that he never failed in Judge 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 permitted work to be judged by introducing only isolated passages and not the intention of the author. Judge 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: “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!”

Judge Benedict, however, allowed the prosecuting attorney to refer several times to Bennett’s authorship of “An Open Letter to Jesus Christ.” The sixty-year-old 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. Judge 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.”

Bennett’s conviction and imprisonment became a cause celebre for freethinkers and freedom of speech proponents. Authors, abolitionists, reformers, and suffragists supported Bennett’s “cause” for “free speech, a free press, and mails free from espionage and Comstockism.” A petition with over 200,000 names was sent to President Rutherford B. Hayes asking for a pardon for the elderly editor. (It was 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 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 children. “The religious world are [sic] against the pardon, the unbelievers are for it,” Hayes wrote in his diary.

Hayes was feeling “heat” on both sides of the issue. 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 children 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. Despite suffering from the stigma attached to selling “obscenity” and near his death from harsh prison conditions, he managed to write numerous letters while incarcerated. 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, 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 Dec. 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 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 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 Yokeswas 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.’ “

“Mr. D.M. Bennett was a man wholly extraordinary, and his career was not less so,” James Parton, the famous 19th-century biographer wrote about his friend, 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. . . .

Roderick Bradford is the author of D.M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker and a contributor to the forthcoming The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, both published by Prometheus Books. Bradford’s articles have appeared in American History, Free Inquiry, The Truth Seeker, and The Quest. When not writing, Bradford pursues his passion for photography and documentary video production.

Freedom From Religion Foundation