On October 18, 1902, the New York Times ran this curious obituary. Readers must have done a morning coffee spit-take:
"Chose Death Before Prison. Ida C. Craddock 'High Priestess,' Was to Have Been Sentenced for Circulating Improper Books"
Ida C. Craddock, 'High Priestess of the Church of Yoga' in Chicago, and an exponent also of Spiritualism, Theosophy, and other creeds, committed suicide in her room, on the top floor of 134 West Twenty-third Street, yesterday, by inhaling illuminating gas and slashing her wrist. It was the day upon which she was to be sentenced again, as she had been several times before, for circulating books and pamphlets explaining her peculiar beliefs, built up from a conglomeration of Oriental religions. . . . Miss or Mrs. Craddock was forty-five years old. She was rather handsome, and was usually well gowned. She was born in Philadelphia, her parents being Quakers.
Leigh Eric Schmidt takes up Craddock's strange, fascinating story in his forthcoming Heaven's Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman (Basic Books). Much of it is startling, to say the least. In an era of buttoned down formality and Protestant prudery Craddock broke more rules than one could shake a ruler at. She dabbled in all manner of fringe-ish religion. The one-time Methodist moved with some ease into Quaker circles, Spiritualism, Free Thought, Eastern Mysticism, amateur biblical studies, Sexology . . . . For some time she lectured as a self-proclaimed expert on phallic cults. Not a typical Chautauqua circuit subject.
Schmidt, with narrative skill and analytical insight, draws on Craddock's life to tell a broader tale of American religion in this age as well. (It's made me wonder about what we can learn about the whole from unusual subjects.) Says Schmidt: "The retrieval of Craddock's life from the vaults of vice suppression offers an entryway into major social and political issues of her day--and, often enough, of our own as well" (xi). She tested the country's Christian identity and it's moral certainty. In small ways, her exotic religious and secular outlook foreshadowed later developments: religious seeking, experimentation, new age dabbling, secular crusading. ". . . Craddoock floats only occasionally into view as a feminist," precursor, Schmidt observes, "a tragic free-speech martyr, a steamy occultist, or a sexologist ahead of her time. The diaphanous quality of those memories should not dissolve the grainy roughness of her life, the audacity and disrepute of it" (273-74).
In the interviews embedded here, I ask Schmidt about Craddock's career and her higgledy-piggledy path from Methodist to sexologist. Schmidt reflects on the larger meaning of religious dissent in these years and discusses the shape of American religion in the late-Victorian age. In part two of the interview he also comments on a couple of his current projects.