sexual outlaw, erotic mystic

heavens-bride_custom-34a2b5a24fe51e1dd24c0df298c4103ac8cf0189-s6-c30Ida C. Craddock was born in 1857, died in 1902, and in between earned a reputation as both “sexual outlaw” and “erotic mystic.” The odd amalgam of beliefs mandating those descriptors put Craddock—a sex educator cum yogi cum “scholar of phallic antiquities”—at odds with both prevailing Christian morality and most of the secular, free-thinking, liberal intelligentsia of her time. Unsurprisingly, that conflict made her life one of unceasing tumult, and minimized minimized her legacy as an advocate for women’s rights and free speech—because after all, you’ve probably never heard of her.

•     •     •

Ida was an intellectually gifted child with big ideas. A journal she kept as a teenager, for example, detailed her decades-long plan to empirically settle the debate over the veracity of psychics, mediums, and spiritual phenomena (a mystery not even father of psychology William James could crack). Her boat-rocking tendency—perhaps her most enduring trait—dates to at least 1882, when she attempted to break the gender barrier at Penn. Despite passing the five-day entrance exam, administrators waited two years before rejecting her, and it would be nearly another half-century before Penn admitted women. Without academic credentials, Craddock was relegated to the fringes of academia and set on a long path of temporary work and temporary residency.

Her politically progressive start came in 1889 with a job at the American Secular Union. The ASU is a useful entry point to grasping Ida’s politics and the backlash they generated. Though America was deeply Christian in the late 19th century, responses to that oppressive ideology were becoming increasingly common. “Communitarians,” (like the Oneidas) took non-mainstream religious, economic, and even sexual practices into their own utopian villages. Spiritualism was all the rage, in the form of psychics, mediums, and seances. The term “Freethinker” came into common parlance, as a catch-all for atheists, religious skeptics, and believers in non-Christian religions (particularly Buddhism, paganism, and anything “Eastern”). Thus, though the ASU was secular, it was not monolithic: one bloc hoped to abolish all religion, while another was focused on establishing the legitimacy of non-Christian beliefs. Ida held the latter view, but because of this split was bound to catch flak no matter which side she was on.

Religious and sexual freethinker
Religious and sexual freethinker

What were Ida’s beliefs? On the one hand was her “scholarly” work: she was seriously studying the history of religion and its role in controlling sexual practice. This intertwining of sexuality and religious dogma was relevant to both the women’s rights and freethinking movements.  Lucretia Mott, for example, used contradictory bible verses to argue her points, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s (wildly heretical) The Women’s Bible was released in 1895. Of particular concern was “sex slavery,” the contemporaneous euphemism for the subjugation of women in wedlock—opposition to which was the foundation of Craddock’s sexual ideology.

Another branch of her research focused on phallicism, a field of study dating back at least to the 1786 treatise Discourse on the Worship of Priapus. Though Craddock produced a historiography of phallic worship, it remained unpublished, probably in part due to her lack of an academic degree and in part to Victorian morals, which presumed the study of the phallus too obscene for delicate female minds. The englightened of the time saw phallic worship as a quaint practice of the savage, one discarded by science, rationality, excellent manners, and superior haberdashery. Craddock, in contrast, saw it as a consecration of sexuality. To her, sex was a holy and spiritual act.

Most of Ida’s published writings were in the form of sex-education pamphlets. Considered obscene at the time, her teachings mix what is now—hopefully—common sense with what is now hopelessly outdated morality. For one thing, “sex reform” really meant marriage reform, as she believed only in heterosexual sex within the confines of marriage, and therefore decried both homosexuality and masturbation. And though the primary basis of her teachings was that women both can and should experience pleasure from sex (this passing for revolutionary thought), she disavowed oral sex (the “French method”) and hand stuff (“there is but one lawful finger of love…”) and thought the clitoris off-limits (to be “saluted, at most, in passing”; this because it was thought to be a rudimentary male organ and therefore to engage with it homoerotic). At the same time, most of her suggestions were frank and obvious: go slow, lots of foreplay, make sure the woman enjoys herself, use lubricants (“patience and a little oil will do wonders”), practice good grooming, try different positions, and don’t be ashamed of your body. About the furthest out-there she got was in espousing the Oneidan ideal of “male continence” during intercourse. See her instructions for the wedding night here.

While her ideas about sex were consistent, her spiritual ones were a moving target. She took to communicating with the dead, to the point of having a “spirit husband” with whom she danced and “had relations.” By the late 1890s, she’d founded a “Church of Yoga,” but “yoga” was more a generic term than one connoting a specific credo. Her spiritual beliefs were never tied to any one religion or school of thought—she moved from Ouija boards to mediums to Buddhism to yogis to whatever caught her fancy, with the only unitary thread being that sex, when done right, was a spiritual act.

Mixing sex and religious mysticism was her calling card. For this, she was badgered by authorities, run out of multiple towns, briefly committed, arrested, and imprisoned.

•     •     •

Besides a serial killer, the Ferris wheel, and assorted technological and alimentary wonders, the 1892 Columbian Exposition in Chicago also introduced America to the Danse du Ventre—the mystic and sexual belly dance. The belly dance, in turn, introduced Ida Craddock to both the public and the censors.

Anthony Comstock, american inquisitor
Anthony Comstock, american inquisitor

Perhaps predictably, the navel-centric novelty riled up the morality police. The curmudgeonly moral crusader Anthony Comstock had managed to position himself as the nation’s censor, a job he took to with considerable gusto—to the point of limiting the sale and distribution of “obscene” anatomy textbooks. Given his hair-trigger sensibilities, it’s not difficult to imagine how he felt about the belly dance (he once awkwardly demonstrated it for a reporter in his office, then suggested, truthfully one hopes, “Of course I can’t do it exactly as they did”). He and his supporters called the dances “writhing exponents of African barbarism,” and one vice cop called the display “the mouth of hell” while suggesting he’d rather bury his children than have them witness it.

Into this fray stepped Ida, with an essay in support of belly dancing published in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. There, she called the dance “the apotheosis of female passion,” a religious memorial, and an educational tool for the pre-nuptial phase. Later the essay was republished in amazingly titled radical journal Lucifer the Light-Bearer: A Journal of Investigation and Reform Devoted to the Emancipation of Women from Sex Slavery and as a pamphlet sold by Craddock—the first of her many “obscene” and “immoral” sex-education pamphlets.

This essay and those pamphlets were one of the first explicit and public ways in which Craddock bound sex with spiritualism. She viewed dancing—including belly dancing—as a sort of spiritual release, a way for man and wife to achieve a mystic, if vague and ineluctable, unity (in a way not too different from what’s described in The Da Vinci Code). And besides being a spiritual endeavor, it was practical: belly dancing “trained the muscles of the woman in the endurance desirable in the wife.”

In 1894, with the public scandalized by her pamphlet, she was warned by the postal inspector about the perverseness of the material (“Anthony evidently objects to pelvic movements being written about,” she said in response). Ida’s mother, concerned with her besmirching of the family name, then attempted to have her committed. With trouble brewing, Ida took a job in London with social reformer and magazine publisher William Stead. Such was her notoriety and polarizing qualities, even in “reformer” circles, that the job offer came with the condition she use a pseudonym.

She returned to Philadelphia in 1895. There, she was warned again by postal inspectors about distributing her pamphlets. In an effort to avoid imprisonment, she began offering face-to-face education and marriage counseling. For a few years, this approach kept her from raising too many hackles, but in May 1898 she was arrested on obscenity charges. She was not sentenced, but her mother this time managed to get Ida committed. One of her “doctors” supported this maneuver after reading Ida’s writings, employing the bulletproof logic that for a single (read: chaste) women to produce such smut left only two options: illicit carnal knowledge or insanity, either of which would earn one’s consignment to a mental institution.

After agreeing to stop distributing her pamphlets, Ida was released. A year later, she was arrested again—this time turned in by women’s rights activist Henry Blackwell for the moral crime of having separated pleasure and procreation. None other than Clarence Darrow posted her bail and negotiated a deal for her release, assuming she turned over her pamphlets to be burned. They were.

A brief move to DC ended with her leaving town after being offered a choice between exile and arrest. Her final stop was Manhattan, were in 1902 she was arrested by Anthony Comstock himself; the hunter finally capturing his quarry. Ida, of course, recognized this for what it was: she called Comstock the father of the American Inquisition and questioned “Is he rolling under his tongue as a sweet morsel, the possibilities of burning me at the stake?”

Comstock brought both federal and state charges against her. At the state trial, a three-judge panel of enlightened and open-minded souls gave her a three-month sentence. The conviction made her a “free speech martyr” (weird subplot: she was vaccinated while in prison, and at the time the right not to be vaccinated was an important goal of civil liberties reformers like the Anti-Vaccination League). Since three months in a squalid prison wasn’t enough for Comstock, he brought the federal charges to trial immediately upon her release. The federal judge proclaimed that her material was obviously obscene, and therefore left for the jury only the decision of whether Ida had mailed it. Having no defense to being railroaded in this manner, she was again found guilty.

Before she could be sentenced, Ida killed herself, suggesting in a letter that “I maintain my right to die as I have lived, as a free woman.” Her death slowed Comstock at least a little—even Christian ministers began to question both his motives and actions, after watching him bully Craddock to her death and then gloat about his victor over a “lecturer of filth.” Unfortunately, Craddock wasn’t remembered fondly: her “spirit husband,” mysticism, and singleness (on this ethereal plane) led her to become a famous case study in psychoanalysis. She was largely forgotten for decades, until a recent rediscovery.

•     •     •

In reading the tragedy of Ida Craddock, it is difficult to disentangle the effects of what she said from how she said it. In the book, Schmidt suggests that the backlash against her intensified as her focus shifted from vague spirituality and discussions of mediums and seances, to the strange and terrifying “otherness” of “Oriental” mysticism. She was espousing ideas antithetical even to some freethinkers of the time, to be sure, but how much more vitriol did she earn by couching that message in non-Christian religious trappings and (even more fundamentally) doing so as a woman?

Perhaps the strangest, and maybe most depressing, thing about Craddock’s legacy is that a person so resolutely spiritual struck her largest blows for the forces of liberal secularism, becoming a martyr more for freedom of speech than the erotic mysticism she spoke for.

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