The essential Ida Craddock
by Tom Ruffles
[ bookreviews ]
Ida C Craddock was a forthright and extraordinarily brave woman who lived - and died - for her beliefs. She was at the forefront of the movement at the turn of the 20th century to educate men and women in sexual matters, yet is little known today. Vere Chappell's valuable effort to present her life, accompanied by a selection of her works, should facilitate a long overdue assessment.
Born in Philadelphia in 1857, Craddock began her career as a stenographer, and wrote a book on Pitman Script. In the late 1880s, she became interested in occultism and attended classes in Theosophy. She read esoteric literature, reading she later put to good use in her own writing, which displays a wide-ranging knowledge drawn from a variety of cultures and periods. In the later 1890s, she became a pioneer in the reform of sexual relationships, and in the provision of advice to married couples.
The turning point had come in 1893 when she witnessed the danse du ventre (ie belly dance) at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (she may have come across a young Harry Houdini, who was also performing on the Midway). The display of dancing was under intense pressure from Anthony Comstock of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and self-appointed guardian of public morals, who considered it an obscene display, or as he put it, "a hoochie-coochie dance". Needless to say, it attracted large and enthusiastic crowds.
Craddock wrote to the New York World defending the dance as an echo of religious worship which had symbolic sexual elements. This was too ripe for Comstock, and when an expanded version was later published in the Chicago Clinic, he was able to use his position as a volunteer postal inspector to declare the issue obscene, making it illegal to distribute it through the mail. Her writings gained Comstock's attention, and he pursued her energetically.
Expanding on sexual intercourse as a sacred act, Craddock began a career in sex counselling. She wrote pamphlets which outlined her philosophy as applied to marriage relations, which must have been a godsend to young couples ignorant of the basics of sex. As well as a frank discussion of the mechanics, there was a firm emphasis on women's rights and feelings in sexual matters. For example she stressed that intercourse without the wife's consent was rape. Her lectures, private consultations and pamphlets were enormously popular, if striking the modern reader as occasionally eccentric.
She saw sexual fulfilment in spiritual terms, and provided a three-step programme which paralleled esoteric teaching. At the first stage, sexual union is forbidden except for the purpose of procreation. The second stage, the most difficult to achieve and requiring intense training, involves prolonged sexual contact reaching orgasm but without ejaculation (unless procreation is intended, so a clear example of planned parenthood). The highest stage is "Communication with Deity as the third partner in the marital union" which affects the universe as the couple offer the Great Thinker a share in their "delight". Craddock was advocating a tantric yoga practice, coitus reservatus. This moved sex away from a functional operation only for procreation to one that resulted in heightened pleasure and closeness between married couples, and a spiritual act. She stressed that it should last perhaps an hour, to allow the wife enough time to reach orgasm.
Craddock became a significant figure in the Free Thought movement and it was people like her who laid the foundations for the freedoms in matters of personal choice than we, at least in the West, take for granted today. In some ways she was of her time, for example in her belief that masturbation, fellatio and homosexuality were wrong (ironically, views with which Comstock would have agreed). She also felt that condoms were masturbatory and stressed that the only preventative method should be self-control. Yet the thrust of her message was positive, one of sex as something to be embraced enthusiastically, not ignored, but within a framework of love and mutual respect. Far from being regarded as a crackpot by the medical establishment, she received encouragement from a number of doctors despite her lack of medical qualifications. Comstock, on the other hand, could not see beyond dirtiness.
Perhaps Craddock's most startling assertion was that she had married a spirit called Soph with whom she had a sexual relationship. Clearly the claim was problematic, and she had to fend off criticisms of her mental state, but it allowed her to call herself "Mrs Craddock" (rather than Mrs Soph), which got round the problem of how an unmarried woman could have so much practical knowledge of the sex act in an age when having pre-marital sex was more worthy of condemnation than having it with a spiritual husband. This, like so many of her actions, did not go down well with her fundamentalist Christian mother, with whom she had a difficult relationship and who was definitely not sympathetic to her daughter's esoteric beliefs, to the extent of trying to have her committed. Craddock fille's advice does seem to display a practical knowledge; Chappell believes that she had two sexual relationships, and the second lover had ability to withhold ejaculation.
To justify this unorthodox relationship, Craddock penned Heavenly Bridegrooms (1894). It is a strange book in which she bolsters her claim to have a physical relationship with a spirit husband in a highly detailed treatise showing how common are unions (or "Borderland nuptials") between living and angelic beings, including the Virgin Mary and her "heavenly bridegroom". She is erudite, utilising a vast number of sources to support her arguments. However, here as in other works she piles on the examples too much, a sign perhaps of insecurity. Nevertheless, Aleister Crowley was enthusiastic about Heavenly Bridegrooms, and his review is included as an appendix.
Comstock pursued her relentlessly, to the extent of trying to trick her by sending decoy letters posing as a 17-year-old girl. Rather than give up or modify her beliefs, Craddock was briefly committed to an asylum, was incarcerated in a workhouse with petty offenders where she was badly treated, and had her stock of pamphlets destroyed. Eventually she became tired of having to make compromises in order to continue her crusade. In October 1902 she went on trial accused of sending The Wedding Night, which the judge declared obscene, through the post. Found guilty, she killed herself the night before she was to be sentenced rather than endure a long prison term. Her suicide, which she laid explicitly at Comstock's door in her last polemical act, a letter she penned just before she died, heralded the beginning of the end of the campaigner's influence.
It is largely thanks to the English Spiritualist and social campaigning journalist WT Stead that her unpublished manuscripts have survived. Craddock had lived for a time in London under Stead's protection, and later ensured that her papers were shipped to him for safekeeping to avoid their destruction at the hands either of her mother or the authorities. Theodore Schroeder, a lawyer, writer and secretary of the Free Speech League, became interested in Craddock in 1913 and began to research her life. As well as interviewing people who had known her, he contacted William Stead's daughter Estelle (Stead having died the year before on the Titanic) and she sent Craddock's manuscripts and diaries back. The papers Schroeder gathered are now at the University of Southern Illinois. Chappell erroneously refers to Estelle Stead as William's widow (his wife was called Emma).
Making use of this resource, Chappell has collected biographical information on Craddock, though his emphasis is more on the occult aspects of her writings than a concern to place her in the free thought and social purity movements (what Taylor Stoehr calls the "continence theorists") within which she operated. Chappell has combined this with an annotated selection of her writings, in chronological order. Most of these are complete, ranging from her expanded article on the Danse du Ventre to the two letters she wrote, one to her mother, the other to the public, just before she committed suicide.
Only an excerpt is provided from her lengthy The Marriage Relation, but other unpublished works are forthcoming. Craddock has been promoted by the Grand Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis (of which Chappell is a member) in the United States because of her occult beliefs, and they have set up a website devoted to her. A much fuller biography with the extravagant title Heaven's Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman, by Leigh Eric Schmidt, is promised for early 2011. All these efforts will help further to reinstate Ida Craddock to her rightful place as a pioneer in sex education, one who preferred to pay the ultimate price rather than yield to Comstockism and all it represented.