...in 1878, several thousand supporters of Ezra Heywood held an "Indignation Meeting" at Boston's Faneuil Hall. They were protesting his conviction and imprisonment on obscenity charges. Educated for the ministry, he had come to reject all forms of social control. He was an ardent abolitionist and, after the Civil War, a strong supporter of women's rights. He sought not just suffrage for women but their right to be free from the "sexual slavery" he believed marriage entailed. Together with his wife Angela, he published a journal and pamphlets that advocated free love and birth control. In doing so, he knowingly violated federal obscenity laws. He paid for his beliefs with his own freedom, spending two years at hard labor in a Dedham jail.
Ezra Heywood lived most of his life in Princeton, a small town in central Massachusetts. His family was of old Yankee stock, and even as a young man, he identified strongly with the ideals of the American Revolution, particularly with the "inalienable right" to liberty. Heywood believed men and women should be free to act according to their own consciences and principles. He would spend his life resisting all efforts to control personal freedom. Ezra Heywood was a home-grown radical a Yankee anarchist.
Born in 1829, Heywood was caught up in the great religious ferment of the Second Great Awakening. Evangelical Protestantism started Heywood down the path to social reform. He believed that perfecting the world would bring about the Second Coming and embraced the evangelical's obligation to cure society of it sins. He entered Brown University in 1852, planning to study for the ministry.
Heywood graduated from Brown in 1856 and spent two more years there preparing for the ministry. As he grew increasingly disillusioned with the church's failure to condemn slavery unequivocally, he came to view organized religion as "churchianity" self-righteous abstractions that ignored the suffering of slaves, poor people, wage laborers, and women. He never became a minister.
True freedom, he decided, came only when every individual followed his or her conscience rather than the dictates of the church or state; sovereignty rested solely with the individual.
By the early 1860s, Ezra Heywood had become an anarchist. His goal was a society where small communities would govern themselves without a central authority. He was not alone. His kind of radical individualism was, as one historian puts it, "a significant feature of nineteenth-century social reform." After the Civil War, many reformers rejected the idea that responsibility for social change rested with the government, rather than voluntary associations or individual efforts. Some went as far as Heywood, who equated legislated "reforms" with social control and dedicated himself to resisting any government action that restricted personal liberty.
Once an ardent abolitionist, in the 1870s Heywood poured his energies into securing women's rights. He collided head-on with Victorian efforts to legislate morality. In 1865 Heywood had married radical feminist Angela Tilton of Worcester. Together they ran a publishing company that produced a monthly journal and pamphlets promoting various radical causes, especially the reform of marriage laws. Although they themselves had married, they argued for "free love" the abolition of marriage as a legal contract. The Heywoods did not endorse promiscuity or licentiousness; in fact, both believed in and enjoyed a long-term monogamous union. But love, they insisted, must be voluntary and every sexual act must be engaged in freely and willingly.
According to the Heywoods and other "free lovers," marriage subjected women to "sexual slavery" in exchange for economic support. They advocated not just political suffrage for women but for their right to complete self-determination, extending from matters of the mind and heart to sexual relations, birth control, and abortion.
People in Princeton generally respected the Heywoods for their commitment to their principles and the integrity of their private life, but the couple had powerful enemies on the national scene. In 1873 a federal statue was passed against mailing obscene matter. The prime mover behind the law was Anthony Comstock. A self-appointed guardian of Victorian morals and U.S. Postal Inspector, Comstock was part of a larger social purity movement that advocated temperance, anti-prostitution measures, and censorship.
In 1873 he went to Washington and successfully lobbied Congress to pass an anti-obscenity bill that included a ban on information about birth control. In the fall of 1877, Comstock used an assumed name to order a copy of one of Heywood's books. On November 2, 1877, he appeared at a Boston meeting of the Free Love Society and arrested Heywood for mailing obscene literature. In June of 1878, Heywood was convicted and sentenced to two years hard labor in a Dedham jail.
In the crowd of around 5,000 who attended the "Indignation Meeting" at Faneuil Hall were advocates of Free Love, but many more were people who came to defend free speech and freedom of the press. The demonstration prompted President Rutherford B.Hayes to pardon Heywood after he had served six months.
But the Heywoods did not give up fighting Comstock and the obscenity laws. The defiant couple continued to print and mail literature that provided explicit information on sexual education and birth control. They took great pride in their four children, but supporting them was a constant struggle. The family was constantly on the brink of financial ruin.
Ezra Heywood was arrested four more times; three times he went free. On the fourth occasion, a conservative judge sent him back to prison for two years of hard labor. Now in his sixties, Heywood was worn down by years of poverty and contention. He contracted tuberculosis in jail and died within a year of his release.
The two men whom he most admired were Jesus and the abolitionist John Brown. Heywood's family and supporters believed that he, too, died a martyr.
Free Love and Anarchism: The Biography of Ezra Heywood, by Martin Henry Blatt (University of Illinois Press, 1989).
Dictionary of American Biography, "Ezra Heywood," Vol. IV.
Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002).