Along with being a fierce advocate of free speech and women's rights during the 19th century, Ida Craddock was also a tragic example of the dangers posed by Anthony Comstock's morality crusade.
Born in 1857, her father died when she was only four months old and she was raised by her puritanical mother. Despite this stern upbringing, Ida Craddock became a freethinker relatively early in her life. After being blocked from entering the University of Pennsylvania as its first female undergraduate, she went on to teach stenography to women students at Giraud College in Philadelphia. She also joined the National Liberal League and was part of the Free Thought movement.
By the time she was 30, Craddock developed a strong interest in Theosophy and the occult which took her in a rather unusual direction. Along with trying to combine religious and mystical writings from around the world into a single discipline, she began lecturing on sexuality. Her topics focused on religion and sexuality with titles such as "Survivals of Sex Worship in Christianity and in Paganism" and "What Christianity Has Done For the Marital Relation". Since the first English translation of the Kama Sutra had become widely available by 1843, the book developed a strong, if discreet, following throughout the Western world despite it being regarded as obscene by many moral crusaders, including Anthony Comstock. For Ida Craddock however, the book was a revelation and she eventually declared herself to be a Priestess and Pastor of the Church of Yoga.
Considering she was an unmarried woman living in the last part of the 19th century, becoming a student of various forms of eroticism was a shocking development (it certainly shocked her mother). While became romantically involved with two men during this time in her life (thus putting theory into practise), she never married. Despite the best efforts of Anthony Comstock and his moral league, the Free Love movement was still encouraging greater openness about sexuality and Ida Craddock became one of the movement's leaders. Along with becoming a sex therapist in Chicago, she also wrote a series of books and pamphlets that would establish her as an authority on religion and sexuality. Two of her books, "Lunar and Sex Worship" and "Sex Worship (Continued)" reflected her radical ideas about religion and sexuality. This included her suggestion that the cross is a symbol of sexual union and the sex instinct was the underlying principle of all religion.
Ida Craddock's most controversial book, "Heavenly Bridegrooms" was first published in 1894. In the book, she openly admitted to being sexually active despite having no husband. In her case however, there was no scandal since she actually was married - to an angel named "Soph". Not only did "Soph" visit her nightly, but their sexual relations provided her with divinely-inspired enlightenment. In her book, Craddock stated that sex with her "husband" was often so noisy that the neighbours complained! She expanded on the ideas in her book in a later paper titled "Psychic Wedlock" about the spiritual justification of her angelic marriage. As she pointed out, the Virgin Mary had herself been impregnated by a heavenly bridegroom.
Though her mother tried to have Ida Craddock committed at one point, there is no real evidence that she was mentally ill. From today's perspective, her writing about an angelic husband may have either been pure delusion or a clever way for an unmarried woman to explain her sexual experience without being regarded as promiscuous. Whatever the explanation, Heavenly Bridegrooms was largely overlooked during Ida Craddock's lifetime and may helped explain why she has been so completely forgotten as a sexual and feminist pioneer. When she is remembered at all, it is for her numerous pamphlets and marriage manuals on sex education and birth control, which predated Margaret Sanger by decades.
Her pamphlets must have seemed radical enough though. Along with endorsing birth control and more sexual freedom for women, she also argued that husbands who forced themselves on their wives without their consent were guilty of rape - an unheard-of notion at the time. She also suggested that intercourse be prolonged to give women the opportunity to reach orgasm along with their husbands. In one often-quoted passage from her pamphlet, "The Wedding Night", she suggested that:
Even when a woman has already had pleasurable experience of genital contact, she requires each time to be aroused amorously, before that organ, in its state of activity, can become attractive. For a man to exhibit, to even an experienced wife, his organ ready for action when she herself is not amorously aroused, is, as a rule, not sexually attractive to her; on the contrary, it is often sexually repulsive, and at times out and out disgusting to her. Every woman of experience knows that, when she is ready, she can cause the man to become sexually active fast enough.
Considering that a husband's "rights" were considered to automatically trump a wife's "duties" at the time, Ida Craddock was proposing nothing less than a major shift in the relationship between men and women. Though she was hardly the only sexual heretic during that same period (Havelock Ellis was fighting his own battles with censors in the United Kingdom), her books and pamphlets came under fire by Anthony Comstock's morality crusade. In 1894, Ida Craddock wrote an article defending a controversial belly dancer "Little Egypt" whose erotic performances led to Comstock's demand that her burlesque show be shut down. After attending the dancer's performance at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Craddock wrote that the dancing was actually a sign of a woman's sexual self-control. In an article published in "The World", she even went so far as to suggest that the same dance be taught to married women to enhance their own sex lives.
Anthony Comstock declared her article to be "obscene" and banned any attempt at sending it through the mail (which blocked national distribution for the paper that published it). In the meantime, Ida Craddock's mother was making arrangements to have her daughter committed and even threatened to burn all her papers and manuscripts if successful. Though she was forcibly admitted to the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane in 1898, she was released after only three months without any legal decision being made about her sanity.
After failing to have Little Egypt's show shut down, Anthony Comstock decided to go after Ida Craddock instead. Not long after her release from the hospital, Comstock had her arrested for sending copies of her pamphlet "Right Marital Living" through the mail. She was released after famed lawyer Clarence Darrow came to her defense. She followed up on this victory by moving to New York City and providing sex counseling right under Anthony Comstock's nose. About her decision to move to New York City, she would say that: ""I have an inward feeling that I am really divinely led here to New York to face this wicked and depraved man Comstock in open court."
But her battle against Anthony Comstock was likely hopeless from the start. Not only did he have far more supporters than Craddock was able to overcome, he had the law on his side as well. On March 5, 1902, Ida Craddock was arrested for trying to send copies of her pamplet, "The Wedding Night" through the mail. Her trial was a foregone conclusion since the judge labelled her work "indescribably obscene" and refused to have it presented to the jury. The members of the jury declared her guilty even though they had to rely on the judge's opinion completely. According to one newspaper, the jury found her guilty without even bothering to meet in private to discuss the case.
Sentenced to three months in the local workhouse, Ida Craddock had to cope with the harsh prison conditions as well as abuse from the guards and other prisoners. Despite free speech advocates rallying to her cause, she was immediately rearrested under the federal Comstock law once her sentence was completed. In the new trial, she refused to let her lawyers try to help her with an insanity plea. On October 10, she was found guilty and sentenced to a five-year sentence.
Ida Craddock likely felt she had no options left at that point since she would never survive in the federal women's prison. On October 16, the day before she was to report to prison, her body was found in her apartment. She had slashed her wrists and left the gas running in her apartment although which of these actually killed her is still a mystery.