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Excerpt: 'Heaven's Bride'

Heaven's Bride

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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Leigh Eric Schmidt