The compelling life of a turn-of-the-century free spirit and free-speech activist who was silenced by the evangelical zeal of the vice squad.
Schmidt (American Religious History/Harvard Univ.; Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, 2005, etc.) delineates the life of Philadelphia-born self-styled religion scholar and sexologist Ida Craddock (1857–1902), who navigated two important currents in late-19th-century America: the campaign for “moral purity” waged by a righteous Protestant majority, and a spirit of liberalism and spiritualism as advocated by women’s-rights activists, intellectuals and free-thinkers. Hounded throughout her life by Anthony Comstock and his zealous New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in her attempts to publish her books on various controversial topics such as phallic worship and marital sex counseling, she was tried by jury and locked up, ultimately taking her own life at age 45 to avoid another humiliating incarceration. Craddock’s father died in her infancy, leaving her in the care of her overbearing mother, and she attended the Quaker schools and demonstrated early on her marvelously nimble intelligence and “peculiarities of character.” She hoped to attend college, but her entrance to the all-male University of Pennsylvania was denied. She supported herself by teaching a form of shorthand called phonography, then working as secretary at the American Secular Union. Her forays into folklore and comparative mythology led her into the study of sex worship, and she dreamed of establishing a Church of Yoga, in which all brands of religious messengers—monks, New Thought leaders, Theosophists, mediums, occultists, etc.—would be welcome. Her claims to have a “spiritual husband” named Soph especially alarmed her mother, who instigated her institutionalization, prompting Craddock to flee to England. Championed by editors William T. Stead and Moses Harman, she set up shop in New York City as a marital counselor. Her frank-speaking pamphlets, including “Letter to a Prospective Bride” and “The Wedding Night,” were swiftly snatched up in Comstock’s anti-pornography crusade, spelling Craddock’s untimely demise.
A colorful contextual study of Craddock and her teeming era.