Meet the Turn-of-the-Century Sex Worshipper Who Married an Angel
“Mrs.”—not Miss—Ida Craddock preserved her virginal virtues despite being an unmarried and graphic “sex reformer” in the early 1900s… by having “a husband in the other world,” the angel Seroph.
On October 17, 1902, the three—or four—times-married Mrs. Elizabeth Decker of Philadelphia, awaited her high-spirited, controversial daughter Ida in a restaurant on 23rd Street in Manhattan. “Mrs.” Craddock was outrageously late, Lizzie Decker was agitated, as usual. After all, she had an unmarried daughter publishing detailed advice about the subject no Victorian lady was even supposed to know about.
A member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, Mrs. Decker already had tried committing her crazy daughter in 1894. Now, this self-styled “High Priestess of the Church of Yoga,” teaching the “gospel of marriage” was in deeper trouble. Craddock had foolishly confronted Anthony Comstock, the moralizing postal inspector who headed the Society for the Suppression of Vice. After lunch Craddock was due in court to be sentenced to five years in jail for mailing obscene material.
Decker probably wondered how she failed. Born in 1857, Craddock had a suitably repressive, upbringing. And Decker had become increasingly pious.
Craddock was, as one contemporary said, “very clever but queer.” She was smart enough to get into the University of Pennsylvania in 1882 half-a-century before women could enroll—but couldn’t sway the registrar. She was talented enough to write a textbook on stenography that experts hailed as “the best” beginners’ guide “ever printed.” And she was kooky enough to flirt with spirits—and transform what was probably a sustained affair with a skilled lover into an oxymoronic career as a Victorian Sex Therapist.
Craddock couldn’t tolerate Americans’ ignorance about this basic biological function—or resistance to its spiritual potential. In “Survival of Sex Worship in Christianity and in Paganism," "What Christianity has done for the Marital Relation," “Psychic Wedlock,” and other pamphlets, along with a thriving private practice on Chicago’s Dearborn Street, this “Instructor in Divine Science,” helped spawn our Republic of Tinder and Porn.
In Heavenly Bridegroom (1894), Craddock wrote: “It has been my high privilege to have some practical experience as the earthly wife of an angel from the unseen world.” Heaven of the Bible (1897) detailed some celestial “industrial workers,” including “Stone-cutters and polishers… Harp-makers. Trumpet-makers… Gardeners to attend the plants in Paradise… Tooth-brushes to be used after each luncheon from the tree of life.”
Craddock also had a vivid view of what occurred in many marital chambers during the wedding night—on earth—and it wasn’t pretty. There’s an unaddressed problem, on that “night of mystery and passion.” When “the last grain of rice has been thrown upon the newly wedded pair … the young girl, who has never been alone in a locked room with a man in all her life, suddenly finds herself,” naked, exposed “to be used” at her man’s “will and pleasure.”
Many well-educated brides were clueless; many supposed gentlemen turned brutish. The expectations mismatch quickly spiraled many first kisses into marital rape. Go slow, she advised, offering a moral lesson: “We human beings are so constituted that when we seek happiness for ourselves, it eludes our grasp. But when we seek to make other people happy, happiness comes and abides with us.”
Alas, Craddock’s writing triggered bouts with what she called “The Holy Fathers of the American Inquisition” in Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, and, finally, New York City. There, she decided to “stand my ground and fight to the death” against “that unctuous sexual hypocrite, Anthony Comstock,” who is allowed “to wax fat and arrogant, and to trample upon the liberties of the people, invading, in my own case, both my right to freedom of religion and to freedom of the press.” One friend, watching the lovely, lithe Craddock face the lumbering, surly Comstock recalled “beauty and the beast.”
Beauty was outgunned. Thanks to the Comstock Act protecting the U.S. mails, obscenity was not only “Banned in Boston” but nationwide. By 1903, Comstock would boast of arresting 2712, convicting 2009, and destroying 38 tons of “obscene” books, pamphlets, periodicals, plus 1,023,655 lewd pictures.
In 1899, Comstock had Craddock arrested. The Chicago super-lawyer Clarence Darrow helped keep her out of jail. By 1902, “nine long years” of facing “social ostracism, poverty, and the dangers of persecution by Anthony Comstock” sapped Craddock. “For your sakes, I have struggled along in the face of great odds,” she wrote to “the public”; for your sakes I have come at last to the place where I must lay down my life for you, either in prison or out of prison.”
On March 5, 1902, New York police charged Craddock with violating Section 217 of the Penal Code, “using the mails improperly.” Finding the material “extremely blasphemous,” the judge sentenced her to three months. Her own lawyer Hugh O. Pentacost “pleaded in extenuation that the prisoner had been committed on a former occasion to an insane asylum by her mother and it was apparent that no woman in her right mind would publish such a work.”
Upon Craddock’s release, the police re-arrested her for mailing her literature again. On October 10, 1902, she endured what she deemed a “most unfair trial, before a thoroughly partisan judge.” He unilaterally declared The Wedding Night “obscene, lewd, lascivious, dirty,” limiting the jury to the question “did the defendant mail the book?”
As her mother waited for her for lunch, the 45-year-old Ida Craddock concluded: “At my age … confinement under the rigors of prison life would be equivalent to my death-warrant.” When Lizzie Decker reached room 5, 34 West Twenty-Third Street, she found her daughter dead.
Ida Craddock had slashed her wrist and inhaled gas “to call attention to some of the salient features of Comstockism, in the hope that the public may be led to put down this growing menace to the liberties of the people.”
In her suicide note to the public, she rejected what Comstock the “sadist” charged. Actually, “these little pamphlets have evoked from their readers commendation for their purity, their spiritual uplifting, their sound common sense in treating of healthful and happy relations between husbands and wives…. The book has been favorably reviewed by medical magazines of standing, and has been approved by physicians of reputation.” She challenged the public: “voice your demand” for her next book, “Right Marital Living—protect it from Anthony Comstock.”
The “world is not yet ready for all the beautiful teachings which I have to give it,” she wrote her mother. “Other people will take up my work,” she predicted. Sticking to her stubbornness, she would “be only a hindrance to your respectability. Moreover, my individuality has some rights. I cannot recant my beliefs and throw aside a principle for which I have toiled and struggled for nine years, even at the behest of a mother that is dear to me.”
Craddock hoped: “Some day you'll be proud of me.” And she pleaded: “Do not grieve, dear, dear mother; the world beyond the grave, believe me, is far more real and substantial than is this world in which we to-day live.” She concluded: “The real Ida, your own daughter, loves you and waits for you to come soon over to join her in the beautiful blessed world beyond the grave, where Anthony Comstocks and corrupt judges and impure-minded people are not known.”
Biographers say Comstock’s reputation never recovered after he drove this lovely loon to suicide. And, Craddock won, for better and worse. Today’s Over-Stimulated States of America is partially her Lascivious Memorial, her Statue of Libertinism.
Ida Craddock, Sexuality and the Spiritual Feminist: The Collected Articles of Ida Craddock, 2018.
Ida Craddock, Lunar and Sex Worship, 2010.
Leigh Eric Schmidt, Heaven’s Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida. C Craddock, 2010.
Vere Chappell, Sexual Outlaw, Erotic Mystic: The Essential Ida Craddock, 2010.