Wednesday, May 09, 2012

inmates of Blackwell's Island

Prior to 1921, Roosevelt Island was called Blackwell's Island (it was called Welfare Island from 1921 - 1973) and it is notable for the number of famous women who visited, and for one of two reasons - prison or insane asylum: Emma Goldman (imprisoned several times for being pro-anarchy, pro-birth control and anti-draft); Mae West, on public obscenity charges for her play SEX; Billie Holiday on prostitution charges; and Nellie Bly, who had herself committed to the Women's Lunatic Asylum so she could report on the atrocious conditions there.

There were a few other women there who are not so famous now, but were in their time: Becky Edelson, an associate of Emma Goldman; Madame Restall, infamous for performing abortions, and accused of causing the death of Mary Rogers due to failed abortion, although it's generally thought Rogers was outright murdered (her death was the inspiration for Poe's The Mystery of Marie RogĂȘt"); and Ida Craddock, described by Wikipedia as "advocate of free speech and women's rights."

Craddock is a fascinating figure, in that she had bizarre religious beliefs - although really, all religious beliefs are bizarre by ordinary workaday rules of logic and rationality. Hers were just more idiosyncratic than most. The infamous censor Anthony Comstock seems to have made persecuting her his personal past-time - he eventually drove her to suicide - she made sure to name him in her suicide note. George Bernard Shaw also despised Comstock and coined the term "comstockery" in his honor.

Much of her work can be seen at and here's a taste of her Heavenly Bridegrooms - Craddock claimed to have sexual relations with an angel:
It has been my high privilege to have some practical experience as the earthly wife of an angel from the unseen world. In the interests of psychical research, I have tried to explore this pathway of communication with the spiritual universe, and, so far as lay in my power, to make a sort of rough guidebook of the route.
Which sounds pretty helpful. Later on she points out the erotic nature of some Christian practices:
The celestial being who, whether as God or an angel, becomes the Heavenly Bridegroom of an earthly woman, is better known to the literature of the Christian Churches than most people who are not theologians are aware. But he is not peculiar to Christianity. He has been known and recognized throughout the world in all ages. The woman to whom he comes is, as a rule, distinguished for her purity of life. Usually she is a virgin; but where already married and a mother, she must be recognized as chaste or, at least, there must be no stigma of impurity upon her reputation. I am not at the present writing aware of a single exception to this.

Let us, however, first consider the Heavenly Bridegrooms of Christianity, from the popular orthodox standpoint.

There are two Heavenly Bridegrooms--the Holy Spirit and Christ.

The first of these, the Holy Spirit, is, according to the New Testament, the Being through whose agency she whom the Catholic Church delights to honor as the Blessed Virgin became incarnate with Jesus. The second of these, Christ, is the Being honored alike by Catholics and by Protestants as the Bridegroom of the Church; by Catholics also as the mystic Spouse of the ecstatic and purified nun, as in the case of Saint Teresa; and by Protestants as the Bridegroom of the Soul, in that popular hymn beginning:

"Jesus, Lover of my soul,
"Let me to Thy bosom fly!"
I once attended a young women's revival meeting at Ocean Grove, held under the auspices of an evangelist who was noted for his success in converting young girls. When the enthusiasm flagged, and his hearers were slow in responding to his appeals to "come to Christ", he started the above hymn, and the ardor of his fair congregation was at once kindled, girl after girl rising to publicly give herself to Christ. That which earnest pleading for their soul's salvation had failed to accomplish, was brought about by this simple suggestion of the "Lover of the Soul". In thus stimulating the untrained emotions of a maiden to aspire to the Divine through symbolism of earthly affection, this revivalist not only showed keen insight into human nature, but was also instinctively true to the teachings of the innermost truth of all religions, as I hope to show further on.
Ocean Grove is a town just south of Asbury Park, NJ, and is still known to this day as a location for Methodist "camp meetings" and as a religious resort.

Pointing out erotic aspects of Christianity is, I'm sure, what drove Comstock to consider her Public Decency Enemy #1.

The Heavenly Bridegroom, unfortunately, shares almost no "practical experiences" of being the wife of an angel. Instead almost the entire thing is devoted to quasi-scholarly justifications for her belief system. She uses the Bible extensively to support her theology.

What it really comes down to is a woman's response to the extreme constraints placed on female sexuality on the Victorian era, as well as the disappointments of marriage to earthly men:
The angelic bridegroom, as well as his earthly partner, must live a correct moral life and think clearly; and this means that he must exercise a tenderness, a considerate regard for his wife's comfort and happiness, and also a marital self-control of which too many earthly men are ignorant. No wonder, then, that on the plane of sentiment she should prefer this ghostly spouse to "anie mortall man". And on the plane of physiological relations, I think I have already shown that the husband who is an initiate in the third degree, who has trained his wife therein, can assure her of "connubial bliss which is perpetual". The Borderland bridegroom has this advantage, too, over the earthly bridegroom: being able to read his partner's thoughts, he can adapt himself to her most delicate fluctuations of sentiment at a moment's warning, and so never fail to be truly her companion.