Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Francis Ellingwood Abbot (1836–1903) was nothing if not determined. In 1872, as editor of The Index, the nation’s leading free-thought magazine, he began to muster the full force of his small army of subscribers against what was being called “the God-in-the-Constitution amendment.” A philosopher and theologian, he sought to reconstruct theology in accordance with scientific methodology.

From the offices of his Boston publishing house, Abbot used The Index to rally free-thinkers to petition Congress to reject a proposal crafted by the National Reform Association (NRA) for a constitutional amendment affirming the hand of Divine Providence in the nation’s founding. Largely due to Abbot’s work, U.S. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was able on January 7, 1874, to present Congress with a document containing more than 35,000 signatures and extending 950 feet in length. After five years of paralysis over the amendment, the House Judiciary Committee took less than one month to act.

NRA first began to take shape in 1864 at a meeting in Allegheny City (annexed in 1907 by Pittsburgh and known since as the city’s North Side) of the Christian Amendment Movement (CAM). Members of CAM proposed the American Civil War had been nothing less than divine retribution for the failure of the nation’s founders to acknowledge the ultimate authority of God in the Constitution. In 1868 CAM’s leaders changed the organization’s name to the National Reform Association and, under the leadership of Pennsylvania Supreme Court (and soon to be U.S. Supreme Court) Justice William Strong (1808–1895), began to push not only for a Christian Constitution but also for tightening up the Sabbath laws and gaining a mandate for Protestant prayer and Bible reading in public schools. (PHMC installed a state historical marker memorializing Strong in 1951 at the site of his law office and residence in Reading, Berks County.)

Although NRA would go on to win some victories, a constitutional amendment would not be among them. In 1873 NRA’s members celebrated the passage of the Comstock Act (which amended the Post Office Act, and made it illegal to send any material deemed “obscene” through the mail), but on February 18, 1874, the House Judiciary Committee decided NRA’s proposal for a constitutional amendment should be tabled indefinitely.

A triumphant Abbot began to more seriously contemplate a suggestion by one of his readers that liberal thinkers follow the example of religious groups and participate in the Centennial Exhibition to be held in Philadelphia in 1876. With the defeat of NRA’s proposed amendment, the mood among liberals was ripe for a national initiative. And what better place and time than the nation’s birthplace on its 100th birthday to honor the memory of free-thinking heroes such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen? All eyes looked to Philadelphia and 1876.

Organizers intended the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, formally known as the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine, to be a celebration of the landmark anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia. As its lengthier moniker made evident, however, the extravaganza in the city’s Fairmount Park was less interested in commemorating history and tradition than with celebrating the Gilded Age’s fabled technological achievements and the rapidly expanding international marketplace. With a salute to patriotism, the Centennial would be a spectacle of progress, power and profit created to dazzle spectators from throughout the world. Opened on May 10 and continuing to November 10 the six-month spectacle sprawled over 285 acres which contained 250 buildings and structures. By the time the event ended more than 30,000 businesses and firms and 37 nations flaunted their wares for nearly nine million visitors.

Abbot and The Index issued the call and by July 1, 171 delegates had gathered at a concert hall on the Centennial grounds. These were to be the charter members of the National Liberal League (NLL), the first national organization in American history devoted to a completely secular state. The league was made up of free-thinkers, free-lovers, spiritualists, suffragists, socialists, secularists, anarchists and reformers of every hue and stripe. Liberal leagues from urban centers throughout the nation including Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Milwaukee, San Francisco and St. Joseph, Missouri, were represented as were smaller leagues from Pennsylvania’s Oil City and Clearfield County. Freie Gemeinde (German Free Thinkers) in Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., also sent delegates as did the Union of Radicals of North America and the First Congregation of the Religion of Humanity.

Some delegates were atheists, some theists. Some were anti-religion, some pro- and others neutral, but all supported the absolute separation of church and state as well as untrammeled freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. Most rejected authoritarian orthodox religion as an enslavement of the mind and an enemy to freedom. Superstition must give way to science, they urged, and any morality worthy of the human species needed to be grounded in reason and a thorough understanding of human nature. They hailed the end of slavery and railed against the submission of women.

In support of the unequivocally secular state they desired, league members endorsed a document entitled “The Nine Demands of Liberalism,” first published by Abbot in April 1872 in The Index. The demands called for an end to tax exemption for churches, judicial oaths and chaplaincies in federal and state legislatures. There was to be no more expenditures of public money to support religion, no Bible reading in public schools and no further government declarations of fast days and religious holidays. Liberals also demanded repeal of the Sabbath laws and laws attempting to enforce Christian morality or to favor a religion in any way. To emphasize the final point, league members endorsed the adoption of an expansion of the First Amendment which they called the Religious Freedom Amendment. The amendment would make the First Amendment directly applicable to the states and erase any semblance of doubt that government under the Constitution was intended to be anything but absolutely and thoroughly secular.

While members generally understood that once the league was fully formed, Abbot would be honored with the first presidency but they needed a temporary president in the interim. Caroline “Carrie” Burnham Kilgore (1838–1909) was nominated, seconded and easily elected. Kilgore, who moved to Philadelphia in 1865, was president of the Philadelphia Liberal League and highly respected in free-thought and women’s suffrage circles. With the assistance of her husband, attorney Damon Young Kilgore, she was the first woman admitted to and in 1883 graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. This was no easy feat. At least one dean of the law school swore he would resign before having to lecture to blacks or women. Of 1,300 lawyers in Philadelphia not one was female before her. There were but five female attorneys in the entire country. Even after she passed the bar the male-dominated profession limited her to pleading cases only in Philadelphia Orphans’ Court. A determined Kilgore fought back and won the right to argue cases before the highest courts in the country, including the U. S. Supreme Court. “When I had graduated and was finally admitted to the Bar,” Kilgore remembered, “it was familiarly said to be ‘the greatest victory since the Civil War.’”

Penn’s law school redressed the grievance in 2013, the 130th anniversary of Kilgore’s graduation, by organizing the Kilgore Society, a network to help facilitate communication and networking among its outstanding alumnae community. Kilgore fought for 10 years to gain admission to the school and earned a number of “firsts”: the first woman accepted to Penn Law in 1881; the first woman to graduate from Penn Law, 1883 (and one of the first women in the United States to graduate from a three-year law school program); the first woman admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar, 1886 (after petitioning the state legislature three times); and the first woman to serve in a state judiciary. She worked tirelessly to give women voting rights and represented the Citizen’s Suffrage Association of Philadelphia at conventions of the National Woman Suffrage Association, founded in 1869 by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

And so the newly minted Centennial Congress of Liberals was ready to begin its work. President Kilgore gave the initial oration entitled “Democracy” in which she revisited President James Madison’s warning that democratic societies must be on guard against a “tyranny of the majority.” For free-thinkers it was the religious majority that threatened freedom most of all. As a case in point, Kilgore noted that Exhibition management had caved to pressure from the majority religion to close the Exhibition on Sundays, effectively barring many workers from attending and forcing Jews to neglect their own Sabbath day observances if they wanted to participate. In Kilgore’s view, if Christians wished to treat Sunday as something more than just another day of the week they were perfectly free to do so, but in a truly democratic society they would not be empowered to tell those of other faiths – or of no faith at all – what they were allowed to do (or not do) on Sunday or any other day.

Also scheduled to address the convention Damon Kilgore was, like his wife, an activist for women’s rights and a spiritualist and ardent believer in free-love. He was trebly misunderstood and mistrusted by some circles. To the public free-love was nothing more than wanton lust. To its proponents, though, free-love simply meant love without coercion. Just as spirituality was possible without traditional religion, a deep and lasting sexual relationship was possible without marriage and divorce laws that amounted in the final analysis to the institutionalized oppression of the female sex. Like the Kilgores, many free-lovers were married, but married or not they continued to insist the civil and ecclesiastical sanctions for marriage were not only unnecessary but potentially harmful and might best be entirely eliminated.

For many liberal thinkers free-love, feminism and spiritualism formed a web of mutually agreeable doctrines. Spiritualism was the belief that through the help of a gifted medium one could commune with the spirits of deceased loved ones. Spiritualism imparted hope without imposing a creed or a code of behavior enforced by guilt and the fear of damnation. While traditional religion left women clinging to the bottom rung of a hierarchy populated almost entirely by males, in the spiritualist camp there was no hierarchy to speak of and many of the most highly regarded mediums were female.

On July 3 Kilgore delivered his address entitled “Ecclesiasticism in American Politics and Institutions.” He began by recounting how the nation had repeatedly strayed from its commitment to liberty of conscience. The earliest settlers, he noted, came to America to escape religious intolerance and almost immediately began the most violent suppression of any who dared to dissent. Quakers in particular were reviled as an “accursed race of heretics” and either banished by the Massachusetts authorities or subjected to the whip, the pillory or the hangman’s rope. The Puritans of New England, especially in Connecticut and Massachusetts, exceeded the abuse and cruelty that members of the Religious Society of Friends had experienced in England. Just the outcome we should expect, Kilgore commented, when religious fanaticism was wedded to civil power.

Even Pennsylvania, Damon’s adopted home state, prohibited societies labeled as “infidel” from being incorporated and barred atheists from giving testimony in its courts. How ironic, observed Kilgore, that Pennsylvania was originally established on principles of tolerance by William Penn and members of that very denomination of accursed heretics so despised in New England. “Liberals of America!” Kilgore exhorted his audience, “Believing in the natural right of individual self-government we demand that the State shall equally protect all its citizens from injustice, regardless of their religious creeds … Let us save from superstitious chains the future of our nation … and make the human mind completely free.”

Unable to attend the Centennial Congress, a number of the country’s renowned free-thinkers such as Massachusetts abolitionists Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison sent letters of support. The group of well-wishers included DeRobigne Mortimer “D. M.” Bennett, a charter member and vice president of the league who was also editor and publisher of The Truth Seeker, a free-thought weekly published in New York City and rivaled only by The Index for readership and influence among liberal thinkers.

D.M. Bennett and Francis Abbot were polar opposites. While Abbot typified Bostonian reserve and refinement Bennett was confrontational, defiant and at times heedless. By decade’s end the distinctive differences between the two men fractured the league in a dispute over how liberals should respond to the Comstock anti-obscenity laws. It was a conflict that threatened the league’s very survival and would pit Bennett at the center of one of the most sensational trials of the day.

A founding member of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and a so-called special agent to the United States Post Office Department, Anthony Comstock, self-anointed arbiter of morality, vigorously set out to cleanse the nation of “evil reading.” He showed no qualms whatsoever about digging through the nation’s mail to ferret out purveyors of what he judged to be obscene, lewd or lascivious material. In return critics ridiculed him as the Protector of Public Morals and the Self-Constituted Censor. When Comstock pursued promoters of birth control, all of whom he vigorously decried as “abortionists,” one of those he arrested was E.B. Foote, a physician and author of Plain Home Talk and Medical Common Sense, a volume that had sold more than 250,000 copies. In utter disdain of the rabid vice hunter Bennett defended Foote in The Truth Seeker and described Comstock as an individual who “placed himself beneath the contempt of honest and good men.”

Comstock returned the favor by arresting Bennett – not once but three times. He first attempted to prosecute Bennett in 1877 for the publication of two “obscene” pamphlets, “An Open Letter to Jesus Christ,” written by Bennett, and “How Do Marsupials Propagate Their Kind?,” a scientific article on opossums by Arthur B. Bradford, a Presbyterian minister and outspoken anti-slavery advocate whose handsome brick residence, Buttonwood, near Darlington in Beaver County served as a stop on the Underground Railroad and a meeting place for staunch abolitionists. Bradford also wrote a tract entitled “God in the Constitution,” published in 1871 by the Index Association, in which he discussed the topics of church and state and freedom of religion. Bennett’s intentionally blasphemous “An Open Letter” fell under the anti-obscenity law because, in Comstock’s view, whatever served to undermine Christianity also eroded morality. In his notes regarding Bennett’s first arrest, Comstock described Bennett as one who “Publishes most horrible and obscene blasphemies … indecent tracts that purport to be Scientific … also quack medical works … He is everything vile in Blasphemy and Infidelism.”

Unable to silence Bennett with the two arrests Comstock resorted to one of his favorite ploys: entrapment. Writing to Bennett under an assumed name he requested a copy of “Cupid’s Yokes,” a free-love pamphlet by Ezra Heywood, an anarchist author who Comstock previously sent to jail for “obscene material” attacking the traditional notions of marriage. When the pamphlet arrived Comstock had his evidence and he had his man.

The case of The United States vs. D.M. Bennett began on March 18, 1879, in a New York City courtroom. Undeterred and unwavering, Bennett saw the entire affair as an opportunity to raise the curtain on Comstock’s assault on the Bill of Rights. The press – from correspondents to publishers – saw it as an opportunity to sell more newspapers. When Bennett’s defense attorney adopted the strategy of reading in open court passages from works more widely published and more ostensibly obscene than “Cupid’s Yokes,” the New-York Tribune, for example, found plenty of material with which to titillate its readers, all the while holding itself up as a moral counterweight to the libertinism of these “long-haired men and strong-minded women.”

Bennett never stood a chance. In the courtroom of Judge Charles Benedict, Comstock never lost a case. Judge Benedict sentenced Bennett to thirteen months of hard labor, after which adherents and admirers celebrated him as a martyr for the liberal cause. Not everyone was reveling, however. Leaders of the conservative wing of the National Liberal League – individuals such as Abbot and Robert Green Ingersoll – believed that given the public’s suspicion and misunderstanding, free-thinkers could not afford to be perceived as supporters of obscenity. Known as “The Great Agnostic,” Ingersoll was a former Illinois Attorney General whose oratorical gifts had made him perhaps the best known and most respected doubter in the nation. Among his admirers were Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and James Garfield, poet Walt Whitman, inventor Thomas Alva Edison, industrialist Andrew Carnegie, preacher Henry Ward Beecher, women’s rights advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton and writer Mark Twain. At the risk of losing Ingersoll, Bennett continued to press liberals to join the war against “Comstockism” with the result that by 1880 Abbott no longer served as president and Ingersoll had broken with the league altogether. Without Ingersoll, a friend of many prominent politicians and government leaders, the league would lose its most valued source of political influence.

From the chaos the league eventually reconstituted itself as the American Secular Union (ASU) reinvigorated by a renewed focus on the Nine Demands of Liberalism with Ingersoll as president. By 1889 more than 200 chapters of ASU had been formed with headquarters at 1707 Oxford St., Philadelphia, the law offices of ASU’s president-elect Richard Broadhead Westbrook, a former Presbyterian minister. Westbrook vehemently opposed the melding of religious and civic affairs. He was especially outraged at what he called the “religious brigandage” being perpetrated at Girard College, where the required daily church services ran counter to the secular purposes set forth in the will of the college’s founder, financier and philanthropist Stephen Girard (1750–1831).

In the preface of his self-published Girard’s Will and Girard College Theology (1888) Westbrook explained, “The publication of this book is a matter of conscience. The author, as a theologist and lawyer, thoroughly believes that the present system of religious instruction at Girard College is in palpable violation of the Will of the Founder and not well adapted to promote ‘the purest principles of morality.’ If the present policy is not soon discontinued or greatly changed, the citizens of Philadelphia should appeal to the courts to judicially enforce conformity to the conditions upon which this great charity was intended to be founded.” Girard bequeathed $2 million – the equivalent of approximately $4.5 billion today – for the creation and operation of a “permanent college” for “poor, white male orphans, between the ages of six and ten years.” In his highly detailed and lengthy will Girard did make but a few restrictions, one which Westbrook cited as violating the benefactor’s intent. “I enjoin and require that no ecclesiastic, missionary, or minister of any sect whatsoever, shall ever hold or exercise any station or duty whatever in the said college … In making this restriction, I do not mean to cast any reflection upon any sect or person whatsoever; but, as there is a multitude of sects, and such a diversity of opinions among them, I desire to keep the tender minds of the orphans, who are to derive advantage from this bequest, free from the excitements which clashing doctrines and sectarian controversy are apt to produce; my desire is that all instructors and teachers in the college shall take pains to instill into the minds of the scholars, the purest principles of morality, so that, on their entrance into active life, they may from inclination and habit, evince benevolence towards their fellow creatures, and a love of truth, sobriety and industry, adopting at the same time such religious tenets as their nurtured reason may enable them to prefer.”

During his free-thought activism Westbrook became acquainted with a young Girard College teacher of shorthand, Ida C. Craddock (1857–1902), born in Philadelphia and raised as a Quaker to whom he eventually offered a position as corresponding secretary of ASU. An original and progressive thinker in her own right, Craddock’s association with Westbrook offered the higher-level education otherwise denied her by the University of Pennsylvania where, in 1882, after passing the entrance exams and being accepted by the faculty she was denied admission by the board of trustees.

Craddock did yeoman-like work for ASU and for two years was second only to Westbrook as the public voice of the organization. What she really wanted, though, was to acquire the scholarly credentials that would earn her the respect of the free-thought movement’s intellectual elite. Although never married Craddock had definite ideas about the ideal married life. She contended sex and spirituality were linked as if sexual passion was the physical equivalent of mystical experience. She advocated that sexual gratification should be pursued without embarrassment or guilt and discussed openly and frankly by marriage partners. Unfortunately, her high visibility with ASU and her unconventional ideas on marriage and religion made her an easy mark for Anthony Comstock and his henchmen.

In 1898, thanks to an able defense by Carrie Burnham Kilgore, Craddock barely avoided imprisonment in Philadelphia for distributing her pamphlet “Advice to a Bridegroom” through the mail. She later moved to Chicago, set herself up as a marriage counselor and was again arrested for a work of hers entitled Right Marital Living. None other than Clarence Darrow took the case and won her a suspended sentence. The “Holy Fathers of the American Inquisition,” as she called them, arrested her in New York City on both state and federal charges. Imprisoned at the Woman’s Workhouse on Blackwell’s Island (renamed Welfare Island in 1921 and Roosevelt Island in 1973) in the East River, Craddock endured three months of forced labor in dank, overcrowded, rat-infested conditions only to be convicted shortly after her release on federal charges carrying a potential five-year sentence. It was more than she could take. On October 16, 1902 the day of her sentencing hearing, she locked herself in her tiny room in New York and took her life at the age of 45. Reports are contradictory; some claim she slashed her wrists, others contend she inhaled natural gas and several believe she did both.

And the relentless crusader?

Comstock never showed remorse and claimed responsibility for 4,000 arrests and 15 suicides of which he boasted until his death in 1915 at the age of 71.

In a letter addressed “To the Public,” written on the day she committed suicide, Craddock warned the public about the outrageous censorship practiced by Comstock whom she described as “a sex pervert” and “a Sadist,” and implored Americans to protect her books from being banned and burned. “Comstockism can be used,” she cautioned, “as was the medieval Inquisition at times, to gratify private malice, as the complainant does not need to appear in court. This was done to me in Philadelphia because, while holding a petty position as amanuensis [an individual who takes dictation or copies records and manuscripts] in the Bureau of Highways, I declined right along to pay political assessments to the Quay party.” (U.S. Senator Matthew S. Quay, an immensely powerful political boss once dubbed “kingmaker” by President Benjamin Harrison, dominated Pennsylvania politics and state government for nearly two decades and played a prominent role in national affairs.)

Ida C. Craddock is buried in the Woodlands Cemetery less than a half mile from the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Whether one labels her as a woman of courage and integrity, misguided or eccentric, a visionary scholar or idealist and wide-eyed dreamer, Craddock shared with her brothers and sisters in the 19th-century free-thought movement an unwavering commitment to the struggle to make and keep the mind free. In her day – and even now – she was labeled a sexual revolutionary, erotic mystic, visionary, radical, priestess of love, sexual outlaw, anarchist, a danger to the public for her candor about sexuality, martyr and madwoman. (Her mother repeatedly tried to have her committed to a mental institution and she did spend three months from June 16 to September 7, 1898, at the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, Philadelphia, although a court never adjudged her to be insane.) She was the brave forerunner for individuals such as 20th-century sexologist Alfred Kinsey and feminist Gloria Steinem. Craddock’s name and those of her courageous compatriots may be all but forgotten but many of the causes for which they stood remain topics of popular (and often heated) discussion.


“In God We Trust”

National Reform Association member James M. Pollock (1810–1890), appointed Director of the U.S. Mint at Philadelphia in 1861 by President Abraham Lincoln, was instrumental in placing the motto “In God We Trust” on U.S. coins. In response to instructions by Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase to suggest alternative wording for “the trust of our people is in God” to appear on coinage. Pollock offered several recommendations including “Our Trust Is In God” and “God We Trust” to which Chase added “In.” The 1864 two-cent piece was the first United States coin to include “In God We Trust” which is inscribed today on all American coinage. Pollock served as governor of Pennsylvania from 1855 to 1858.


Excerpt from Ida C. Craddock Letter to Her Mother on October 16, 1902

I know you will grieve over me for having taken my life … My dear, dear mother, oh, how sorry I am to hurt you, as I know this act will do. But, oh, mother, I cannot, I will not consent to go to the asylum, as you are evidently planning to have me go. I know that this means a perpetual imprisonment all my long life, unless I either recant my religious beliefs or else hypocritically pretend to do so. I cannot bring myself to consent myself to any of these three alternatives. I maintain my right to die as I have lived, a free woman, not cowed into silence by any other human being. If, on the other hand, the prison to which Judge [Edward B.] Thomas evidently proposes to send me were to be my destined lot (you know very well that he wishes and means to lock me up for a long, long term, which is practically my death sentence), my work is ended so far as this world is concerned.


Craddock Today

Although largely unknown today Ida C. Craddock has piqued the curiosity of scholars and researchers as well as occultists, sex counselors and freethinkers. In 1988 sexual techniques culled from her Psychic Wedlock (1899) were included in Sex Magick by Louis T. Culling. Her fierce battle with Anthony Comstock is the subject of Smut, a stage play written in 2006 by Alice Jay and Joseph Adler, which had its world premiere at GableStage in Miami, Fla., the following year. The year 2010 was a banner year for individuals interested in Craddock. After nearly a century of her work being out-of-print Teitan Press, York Beach, Maine, republished Lunar and Sex Worship, edited and accompanied by an introduction by Vere Chappell. Also that year Chappell compiled Sexual Outlaw, Erotic Mystic: The Essential Ida Craddock, which he describes as “anthology of works by Ida Craddock, embedded in a biography.” The book reprints The Danse du Ventre (1893), Heavenly Bridegrooms (1894), and The Wedding Night, among others, in addition to her last letters to her mother and the public (1902). Heaven’s Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, written by award-winning historian Leigh Eric Schmidt, also made its debut in 2010. Craddock’s manuscripts, notes and papers are preserved in the Special Collections of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.


Wayne L. Trotta is a free-lance writer, licensed psychologist and nationally certified school psychologist. His article entitled “James Wilson, Forgotten Founding Father,” about the individual second only to James Madison in his influence on the Constitutional Convention of 1787, appeared in the Fall 1992 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage. He has written for publications including Pennsylvania Educational Leadership, The Humanist and Free Inquiry. The author’s current research interest is the history of free-thought and the separation of church and state in the United States.