The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman
by Leigh Schmidt
Dec 7, 2010
Published by Basic Books
Review by Freeman Presson, Copyright 2010, All rights reserved
Leigh Eric Schmidt is a scholar of religious history (a chaired Professor at Harvard), who fortunately is able to write for an educated lay audience without hypnotic effect. Heaven’s Bride is a detailed biography of Ida C. Craddock, covering not only her life and legal misadventures, but delving deeply into the development of her ideas and their social context.
Ida Craddock lived from 1857 to 1902. She was part of an early wave of religiously-motivated reformers of sexual and marriage mores, who were eventually replaced by more secular activists. Frustrated in her attempt to crack the gender barrier at the University of Pennsylvania, she had to become an amateur scholar (in the present book, there is a discussion of the development of the “Ph.D. Octopus,” which is still quite relevant today). Craddock started as a Freethinker and secularist, and gradually became more explicitly occult and mystical. In particular, she was visited by angelic teachers (principally one “Iases”) and took a deceased former suitor as her spirit husband (known in the Borderland as “Soph”), which even in the heyday of Spiritualism was a shocking claim, and still today divides readers and commentators. She first attracted public notice, including the very unwelcome attention of anti-smut crusader Anthony Comstock, with an article she wrote defending the bellydance exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair from charges of obscenity. She went on from there to attempt to make a living teaching spiritual sexuality to married couples. Since she carried on this business partly in person and partly by mail-order trade in instructional pamphlets, she continued to have legal troubles with Comstock and his ilk, to the extent that she chose to end her life in 1902 rather than serve a likely sentence in Federal prison.
Contrast with the recent Sexual Outlaw, Erotic Mystic by Vere Chappell is inevitable (see my review of that volume). Fortunately for both, the books are complementary. Where Sexual Outlaw, Erotic Mystic showcases Craddock’s writings and deals intimately with their esoteric significance, Schmidt stays above that particular fray and takes the reader through the details of Craddock’s life as evidenced by not only her writings for publication, but diaries, letters, records of her client consultations as a marriage therapist, plus contemporary news reports and writings of other reformers and reactionaries of the time. Thus, a reader whose interests are almost entirely occult might prefer to read Sexual Outlaw, Erotic Mystic alone; one whose interests are purely historical might read only Heaven’s Bride; and one who reads either book and finds Craddock fascinating might well wish to read the other.
Heaven’s Bride is precisely documented, producing some 38 pages of notes (in the pre-press edition). The notes are indexed by chapter and, blessedly, by page headers with “Notes for Pages ___ to ___”. I am one of those nerdy readers who actually looks at footnotes, so I appreciate this touch.
The book is divided into six major sections (the author calls them “Chapters” so as not to call undue attention to their weight): “Belly-Dancing’s Defender,” “Not an Infidel, But a Freethinker and a Scholar,” “Pastor of the Church of Yoga,” “An Expert in Sexology,” “Every Inch a Martyr,” and “One Religo-Sexual Maniac,” plus an Epilogue.
Throughout, Schmidt maintains an old-fashioned scholarly detachment. There was one reference, late in the book, to Craddock’s esoteric life as “imaginative,” which could have been, but does not have to be, read as dismissing Soph, Iases, and so on as products solely of Craddock’s mind. Indeed, I suppose if one is a skeptical rationalist, one is not entertaining any other explanation. I confess that I have not read Schmidt’s other works, so I cannot impute any other point of view to him than that of neutral chronicler as manifested in this work. All authors are biased, and they can deal with that either by stating a clear position or by exercising word-by-word vigilance to avoid showing it. Schmidt has chosen the latter, more traditional path, and it works well enough in this case.
Detached the account is, but not entirely dry. The author indulges himself and us in little wordplays here and there (e.g., discussing Richard Payne Knight’s _Discourse on the Worship of Priapus_ , he calls it a “seminal” work, and then refers to one aspect of the controversy about that book with “As Knight jousted …”).
Schmidt concurs with most sources I have seen that the negative publicity from the Craddock case damaged Comstock’s public image and spent much of his political capital, even though he carried on his campaigns steadily until his death in 1915. Heaven’s Bride has substantial detail on this process, which is a great help in any attempt to assess the effect. For example, Comstock for the first time had to deal with writings like the following, from Episcopal Priest Wm. Rainsford: “I would not like to have to answer to God for what you have done.” I read that sentence through a few times. Sharply across the knuckles cracked the clerical ruler. Craddock’s public suicide note, skewering Comstock as a sadist and lecher (for indeed, who at that time had read more prurient literature than America’s Censor-in-Chief?) was well-aimed as well.
Craddock’s legacy was almost lost. Her papers were preserved primarily by lawyer-turned-Freudian-analyst and free speech radical Theodore Schroeder, who treated Craddock as a specimen in his inquiry into the erotic origin of the religious impulse. This book and Chappell’s have placed her squarely back in her proper and unique place in history. I commend the author’s selection, organization, and presentation of the material by and about Craddock, and give it a strong recommendation.
[Complimentary advance-reader copy from Perseus Group/Basic Books gratefully acknowledged, opinions my own, your mileage may vary, blah and blah.]