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The current debate over reviving the Comstock Act revives the ghost of Dr. Charles Malchow (1864-1917). Malchow grew up with nothing in northeast Minneapolis and had to leave school young to help support his ailing mother. But he got into medical school, finished first in his class, studied in London, Vienna and Berlin, and set up a practice in downtown Minneapolis, in what is now Renaissance Square. He also taught at the Hamline University medical school.

In his practice he observed many women unhappy in marriage, in part because they knew so little about sex. So Malchow wrote a book about sex called "The Sexual Life," which was aimed ostensibly at pastors and physicians but in fact for a general audience, explaining in ordinary language the basics of human sexuality. Chapter titles included "The Sexual Passion" and "Hygienic Sexual Relations." Malchow advocated for pleasure in marriage (he was careful to frame things that way) equally for women and men. Knowledge, he preached, led to better sex lives and happier people.

Malchow and his publisher-partner, Olly Burton, knew about the Comstock Act. There had been a handful of prosecutions in Minnesota. Leroy Berrier of Minneapolis had been sent to prison for his pamphlets, "Sexuality and its Functions," and "Procreation and Love." So Malchow and Burton went to the Minneapolis postal inspectors before marketing the book, to try to gauge the risk. The postal inspectors declined to answer — they merely referred him to the Comstock Act. Committed to his cause, Malchow went forward. The book came out in 1904 and sold well.

But Malchow paid a heavy price. He was prosecuted in federal court under the Comstock Act for sending obscene material through the mails, the trial held in Minneapolis in October 1904. The prosecution read 12 sections of the book into the record, including three on how to perform intercourse better. The phrase "the friction occasioned by the undulations and the to-and-fro motion" probably provoked a few smiles. The judge, William Lochren, a Civil War hero and man of the world, did not smile. He refused to permit the argument that the book merely contained scientific truth. He all but directed the jury to convict, telling them, "The word obscene has reference to the sexual relations of persons and not other kinds of filth. It is obvious that what is claimed to be obscene and lewd in this book does have relation to the sexual relations of persons." The jurors convicted Malchow, and Lochren sentenced him to two years in prison (later reduced to one year).

Malchow's many supporters — he had married into the Gluek beer fortune — appealed through the courts, unsuccessfully, and then to President Theodore Roosevelt for a pardon. Roosevelt called the book "hideous and loathsome" and declined. Malchow served nine months in the Stillwater prison. Soon after release, he and his wife moved to California; Malchow never practiced medicine again, and he died young.

The Comstock Act has always been used as a weapon in a war against truth and bodily freedom. It cost Minneapolis a brilliant physician; it cost many men and women information that could have helped them live happier lives. (Today you can read "The Sexual Life" freely online.)

Paul Nelson is the author of "Fredrick L. McGhee: A Life on the Color Line" and many articles of Minnesota history published in Ramsey County History, Minnesota History, MNopedia and other publications. "The Sexual Life by Dr. Charles Malchow," co-written with Dr. Ryan Hurt of the Mayo Clinic, was published in the fall 2020 issue of Ramsey County History.