DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett (1818-1882) was 19th-century America’s most controversial publisher and free-speech martyr. Bennett founded the "blasphemous" New York periodical The Truth Seeker in 1873, and his publications were censored and prohibited from newsstands long before the expression "banned in Boston" was heard. In less than a decade, the former Shaker and self-described Thomas Paine infidel became the most successful publisher of freethought literature in America — perhaps the world. Mark Twain, Clarence Darrow, and Robert G. Ingersoll, "The Great Agnostic," were only a few of the illustrious freethinkers who subscribed to the periodical devoted to "science, morals, freethought and human happiness." But Bennett’s opposition to dogmatic religion and puritanical obscenity laws so infuriated Anthony Comstock, the U.S. Post Office’s "special agent" and self-proclaimed "weeder in God’s garden," that the freethinking publisher was eventually prosecuted, subjected to a controversial and widely publicized trial, and finally imprisoned.
Based on original sources and extensively researched, this in-depth yet accessible biography of D.M. Bennett offers a fascinating glimpse into the turbulent period of late 19th-century America—the Gilded Age, a time when our nation was controlled by pious politicians, powerful manufacturers, and censorious clergymen. Roderick Bradford follows Bennett’s evolution from a devout Shaker to an unremitting skeptic and America’s most iconoclastic publisher. He details the circumstances that led to Bennett’s historically significant New York obscenity trial and the monumental, though ultimately unsuccessful, petition campaign for a pardon. This was the largest protest of its kind in the 19th century and one that went all the way to the White House. Bradford also investigates Bennett’s prominent role in the National Liberal League, his interactions with leading suffragists and the National Defense Association (a forerunner of the ACLU), and his flirtation with spiritualism and theosophy.
Roderick Bradford has written a valuable historical contribution, a long-overdue tribute to a free-speech champion, and a colorful depiction of memorable characters and events during a period of great change in American history.
"Roderick Bradford reintroduces a significant nineteenth-century reformer whom mainstream historians have unfairly neglected. D. M. Bennett was the most influential publisher during America's Golden Age of freethought. Even more important, through his dogged opposition to morals campaigner Anthony Comstock - and the high price he eventually paid for it - Bennett mounted a heroic defense of freedom of expression, in the process helping to shape twentieth-century free speech standards in ways that few appreciate today. Displaying a masterful command of the historical material, Bradford deftly rescues the memory of D. M. Bennett, truly an American none of us should forget."
Tom Flynn, Editor, Free Inquiry Magazine
Author of The Trouble with Christmas
"Rod Bradford's D. M. Bennett, The Truth Seeker is the first complete biography of freethought publisher and social activist D. M. Bennett. This highly researched account is an important contribution to the history of 19th century reform that documents the career of a man who stood up to postal censor Anthony Comstock and who, like his hero Thomas Paine, believed that service to mankind is the only true religion."
Kenneth W. Burchell, Historian and Co-founder
of the Thomas Paine Institute
"Rod Bradford’s highly readable and engaging book reveals a man who is strikingly relevant to our times—politically, socially, and intellectually—for today we face the same sort of intolerance that Bennett did in his day. Comstockery, McCarthyism, and demagoguery are not dead; they still stalk our society and government at all levels. More than ever, we need the spirit of D. M. Bennett to defend the liberty on which this country was founded and is based."
Professor Emeritus of English, University of Georgia