Book Review: Heaven's Bride In a new biography of 1890s sexual activist Ida C. Craddock, Heaven's Bride, professor Leigh Eric Schmidt brings to light the life of the little-known "mystic, martyr, and madwoman."
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A Wanton Woman: The Life of Ida C. Craddock

Heaven's Bride
Heaven's Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman
By Leigh Eric Schmidt
Hardcover, 352 pages
Basic Books
List Price: $28.95

Read An Excerpt

Ida C. Craddock. Don't feel bad if you've never heard of her. Neither had I. But according to her most recent biographer, Leigh Eric Schmidt, this is a travesty. She deserves a place in our pantheon of polymaths. A professor of American religious history at Harvard, Schmidt champions Craddock as a secular oracle, civil liberties proponent and religious therapist. His aim with the biography, Heaven's Bride, is to retroactively legitimize Craddock, a self-taught, quasi-academic dismissed by the intellectuals of her day and all but forgotten in ours.

Schmidt plays devil's advocate, structuring his book with rhetorical questions: "What made her anything more than a scribbling amateur, a dabbler among real experts and professionals?" But we don't doubt for an instant where his loyalties lie. Her field, the "science" of studying religion, was dominated at the time by credentialed males, which clearly put Craddock at a disadvantage. She was never affiliated with a university; instead she remained "a love-steeped mystic, adrift and exposed, [and] the object of scientific scrutiny."

And though auto-didacticism is not a glittery or singular enough basis upon which to historicize an individual, it becomes clear over the chapters that Craddock's most basic attributes -- her "unregulated intelligence" and her "destructive impulse to impart knowledge without discrimination" -- are actually her most impressive. Craddock's intellectual infatuations ran the gamut, but most were "peculiar" or at least arcane: Ouija boards, Alaskan totem poles, tantric yoga. She herself was a wunderkammer of marvels.

In the 1890s, Craddock scandalized many of her contemporaries by defending belly dancing as a "much needed blend of sexuality and spirituality," rather than the "horrible orgy" many thought it to be. From this concept of sexualized spirituality would foment all her subsequent work -- as a pseudo-scholar, supporter of First Amendment rights, and practicing sexologist. As Schmidt writes, "Her conviction that married couples needed to bring a mood of religious aspiration into the bedroom grew more detailed over the years, but the outlines of it were clearly present in her defense of belly dancing. Without an ambiance of religious longing, sexual partners would not experience 'complete satisfaction'; they could fail to become 'one in flesh and once in spirit.' "

Schmidt deals sentences just as lapidary as his subtitle (The Unpredictable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman) leads us to expect. "Since the end of the eighteenth century," he writes, "a good number of freethinkers had seen such fertility symbolism as a rich lode to mine for anticlerical nuggets, but no woman had ever joined this particular fraternity of gentlemanly dilettantes and antiquarians." And later: "The pile of unpublished manuscripts that [Craddock] produced (on everything from lunar mythology to heavenly bridegrooms to animal rites) left little doubt about the extent of her egghead dedication."

Leigh Eric Schmidt is the Charles Warren professor of the history of religion in America at Harvard Divinity School. His past work includes the award-winning book Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment. Jonathan Beasley hide caption

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Jonathan Beasley

But gems like these, frequent as they are, stand as somewhat isolated moments of greatness within a relatively unmotivated text. Schmidt quotes from one of Craddock's schoolmates who remembers that Ida had "glorious brilliant blue eyes." From this, Schmidt extrapolates that it was "as if Ida could not quite contain the light within her." Similarly on her love of dance, he writes: "To Craddock, nimbleness of body and vivacity of soul were joined together, and she even started to dream of 'being levitated,' of being lifted off the ground in a moment of perceptible spiritual elevation." There's a lot of suspicious speculation like that, which wouldn't be so bad if Schmidt's subject weren't already on the fringe of reliability.

The most interesting information in the book is deployed by way of sidelong glances, as plot-advancing byproducts. The primary sources he quotes from on the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago are stellar, as are the inset photographs. Anthony Comstock, the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (and staunch opposer of certain exhibitions at the World's Fair) is presented as Craddock's nemesis. By way of the dramatic tension between Craddock and Comstock, we learn about this fascist-sounding American institution we might otherwise have never heard of.

There's an inverted logic to college course descriptions. The more interesting-sounding the class, the more tedious the actual syllabus. The Athenian Century, Microeconomics, Introduction to Comparative Anatomy -- those are the sorts of courses that end up being great. It follows then that books written by academics -- regardless of whether they're published by university presses -- should operate on this same principle. Heaven's Bride: The Unpredictable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman certainly does. Just reread that subtitle! Qualifiers that compelling -- mystic, scholar, sexologist, martyr, madwoman -- rarely benefit from cumulative association.

But Schmidt's research is extensive, the details he includes are delicious, and if he seems to have contracted a bit of his subject's own fatigue, it's a noble failure of overexertion. Heaven's Bride is full of fascinating information, and the portrait he renders of Craddock is undeniably compelling, if we take her as Schmidt seems to, as a cast of idiosyncratic characters somehow embodied in a single woman.

Excerpt: 'Heaven's Bride'

Heaven's Bride
Heaven's Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman
By Leigh Eric Schmidt
Hardcover, 352 pages
Basic Books
List Price: $28.95

Belly Dancing's Defender

For years she had referred to them as "the Holy Fathers of the American Inquisition." When Anthony Comstock, head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and three of his deputies arrived at her New York City apartment in February 1902, Ida Craddock was not surprised. She had long anticipated a last-ditch showdown with Comstock, America's most formidable censor, and his smut-fighting organization. About a week earlier Comstock had warned her directly against any further violation of federal and state anti-obscenity laws, and, as a repeat offender, she was well aware of her vulnerability. So when Comstock and his fellow inspectors showed up at her cramped residence on West 23rd Street with a warrant for her arrest, Craddock steeled herself anew. "I wish to fight right through to a finish," she wrote her lawyer shortly afterward. "All I ask is that you use me in the most effective way possible." As an unabashed sex reformer and a mystic founder of her own Church of Yoga, Craddock was to Comstock a twice-damned purveyor of obscenity and blasphemy. He wanted to shut down her whole operation—the distribution of her pamphlets, the delivery of her lectures, even her face-to-face counseling sessions. "I am taking my stand on the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States," Craddock countered, "guaranteeing me religious freedom, freedom of speech and freedom of the press."

Craddock could do little more than watch as Comstock conducted his raid. Scanning the shelves of her private library, he found sixty-one books and 536 circulars worthy of removal, all of which he could use as evidence against her before once again pulping such filth. A heavy-set man with mutton-chop sideburns and creased blue eyes, Comstock had been at this for a while, having led the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice since its incorporation in 1873. For three decades now he had been frustrating the designs of shady booksellers, sketchy impresarios, dime novelists, condom distributors, abortion providers, birth-control advocates, and taboo-breaking artists. Imbued with a strong sense of Christian discipline from his Connecticut youth, he had further honed his self-control through prayerfully resisting the temptations of army life during the Civil War—the whiskey drinking, coarse language, and tobacco chewing that marked the camaraderie of his fellow soldiers. "Boys got very drunk," Comstock noted of his army mates at one point in his diary. "I did not drink a drop. . . . Touch not. Taste not. Handle not."

After the war Comstock had settled in New York City where he got a job working as a clerk in a dry goods store. Still in his early twenties, he navigated his way through the urban streets with the moral compass of the Young Men's Christian Association. Metropolitan leisure looked, if anything, even worse than army unruliness; the snares of the city, Comstock decided, required systematic efforts at vice suppression. He soon formed a local obscenity-busting committee, and, with the help of well-heeled allies in the Protestant business community, he built it into one of the most powerful agencies of evangelical reform in the country's history. Shrewdly targeting the U.S. mails as the chief conduit for the national dissemination of printed matter, Comstock established himself as a special agent of the U.S. Post Office, a role that gave him far reaching authority to monitor and control the circulation of any and all indecent materials. The federal postal system, with its transcontinental reach, became his ticket for limiting the flow of objectionable media. By the close of 1903, he calculated that his vice society had obtained 2,712 arrests and 2,009 convictions through its inspective vigilance. He also proudly tabulated the seizure and destruction of thirty-eight tons of obscene books, pamphlets, and periodicals, not to mention 1,023,655 lewd pictures and photographs. Adding a few pounds of contraband from Craddock's shelves hardly looked like much of a haul in light of Comstock's weighty caseload.

The zealousness of Comstock's campaign for moral purity made him an outsized figure in Victorian America. To his evangelical admirers, he was a broad-shouldered, sinewy hero; to his lusty caricaturists, he was a corpulent, greasy villain. Few looked on his two-hundred-and-tenpound frame with indifference: Was that a fighter's build or a Falstaff 's belly? From one side, Comstock appeared a godsend to a Christian nation, the great protector of American family values; from the other, he looked like the joyless face of an evangelical theocracy, the destroyer of American liberties. Craddock was only one among thousands of his targets, and yet her case ended up giving this cultural divide an almost mythic cast. "[Miss] Craddock was a surprisingly lovely woman," one observer sympathetic to her plight noted.

Craddock's pretty lady-like exterior never fooled Comstock. She always stood out in his mind as a particularly repulsive troublemaker: "I do not know of any obscene book . . . that contains matters more dangerous to the young, than the matters this woman has published," Comstock wrote at the time of her arrest. "It is not a question of sympathy, or lack of sympathy for this poor woman. But it is a question of preventing the youth of this great country, from being debauched in mind, body and soul." In the Society's Annual Report for 1902, which detailed the group's usual successes against America's "Moral-Cancer- Planters," the coverage of Craddock's indictment far outstripped that of all other cases. For a group that combated everything from bawdy plays and gambling dens to contraceptive devices and indecent pictures on the walls of saloons, Craddock had somehow become the focal point in Comstock's crusade against obscenity and vice. The author of "indescribably nasty books" and the purveyor of "outrageous blasphemy," she was, Comstock swore, "a disgrace to her sex" and a danger to the public peace.

Having already been arrested in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., on similar charges, Craddock well knew that Comstock and his three deputies had come to her apartment to take her into custody. All were playing their expected parts, but, as Craddock stood waiting for Comstock to finish inspecting her belongings, she heard the great "apostle of purity," as she wryly called him, whistling a tune with a peculiarly composed and calm air. Craddock took it to be a sign that his imagination, so prone in her view to salacious and even sadistic fantasies, was drifting off into its favored territory of erotic reverie. With a disturbing coolness, the federally appointed protector of innocent youth was humming the music of "the Koochy-Koochy Dance," a notorious form of belly dancing only recently introduced to American audiences and one that had quickly become a byword for sensually charged dancing, the Hootchy-Kootchy or Danse du Ventre.

Perhaps, as Comstock inspected her bookshelves, he had alighted on a stray copy of the second edition of Craddock's own Danse du Ventre, "revised and enlarged, bound in yellow," a remarkable defense of just such hip-shaking performances. Craddock certainly made that connection herself; shortly after her arrest she sent a copy of the pamphlet to her lawyer, marking it as "especially important . . . because Anthony evidently objects to pelvic movements being written about,"despite, she noted bitterly, having had belly dancing very much on his mind as he rummaged through her office. Or, perhaps Comstock, a man who definitely liked to keep close count of his wins and losses, had not drifted into erotic fantasy at all, but was whistling a premeditated victory song. Perhaps he was taunting Craddock, shaming her by scandalous association—just as he did later in taking her to jail aboard the elevated train, loudly calling attention to her with "opprobrious epithets" about the filth and blasphemy of her writings. No doubt he wanted to bring her to justice, but even more he wished to bring her into disgrace.

After all, with this search-and-seizure operation, he was evening an old score, one that went back at least a decade to the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893 and one that would come to a crushing end in October 1902 eight months after this raid.

Excerpted from Heaven's Bride by Leigh Eric Schmidt. Copyright 2010 by Leigh Eric Schmidt. Excerpted by permission of Basic Books.

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