The Story of Ralstonism, One of History's More Bizarre Health Movements

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cosmin4000/iStock via Getty Images

When Webster Edgerly appeared on stage in a late 19th-century play about Christopher Columbus, he performed while balancing on the balls of his feet. Critics were confused, but Edgerly—a part-time actor, author, and soon to be leader of a wildly successful health movement known as Ralstonism—believed that strolling like a centaur, his body weight on his toes, would avoid leakage of what he labeled “vital forces” of the body.

The critics might have thought it was a character choice. For Edgerly, it was a lifestyle choice.

In time, Edgerly would write over 80 books, count Queen Victoria among his readers, and offer his pseudoscientific advice on everything from sex (once every eight days, and no more) to walking (avoid straight lines at all costs). He envisioned a sprawling city full of his acolytes, and bought up real estate in New Jersey for exactly that purpose. He believed Ralstonism was the key not only to health but to telepathy and other spectacular powers. Nearly a million people followed his views, and he even had a hand in originating the Ralston cereal brand. But if history seems to have forgotten such a peculiar man, there's a very good reason for that.

 

Named after the famous orator Daniel Webster, Edgerly was raised in Massachusetts and attended Boston University, where he graduated with a law degree in 1876. Though he was interested in theater as an actor and playwright, it seemed his true calling was as a guru. The same year he finished school, Edgerly founded the Ralston Health Club, a business devoted to wellness. He named it Ralston by using the letters of his mother’s name, Rhoda Lucinda Stone, and later retrofit it to become an acronym for Regime, Activity, Light, Strength, Temperation, Oxygen, and Nature—all things Edgerly valued.

The Ralston Health Club had no formal location. It existed mostly in Ralston’s head, which also conjured a series of self-help titles such as Lessons in Artistic Deep Breathing and Sexual Magnetism. Written under the pen name Edmund Shaftesbury, these tomes were verbose and offered dubious advice, like picking up a marble from a table and swinging it around in order to increase one’s “personal magnetism,” or what Edgerly believed was a person’s energy and charisma. Young men were advised to bed women old enough to be their grandmothers and then marry women 20 years their junior. (Edgerly, already married once, married again at age 42 to an 18-year-old.) He also propagated a new language he called Adam-Man Tongue. He promised that continued study of this assorted wisdom might ultimately result in the power to control the thoughts and actions of others—or even achieve immortality.

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These advanced abilities were, of course, attainable only after buying many of his books, which were sometimes priced at an exorbitant $25 in 1892 (about $730 today). The cost may have contributed to a feeling that Edgerly’s advice was rare and valuable. The books sold well, affording Edgerly a lavish lifestyle. He eventually counted over 800,000 Ralstonites; Queen Victoria was said to have a complete set of his works. Members identified themselves with black armbands called Ralstonettes.

In Star Ralstonism, a kind of member guidebook published in 1900, Edgerly wrote:

“It is gratifying that all honest doctors who have investigated Ralstonism are its friends and recommend it, or rather prescribe it, in place of medicines, to their patients. A doctor who has investigated this system, and does not affirmatively aid and use it, may be set down as dishonest and unsafe to employ.”

A blend of huckster and quack, Edgerly nonetheless commanded attention in key places. In addition to his royal readership, he became friendly with William Danforth, the founder of the Purina company. Edgerly had long recommended a whole-grain breakfast, a surprisingly rational bit of instruction, and Danforth believed that Edgerly's paid endorsement would help sell boxes of shelf-stable wheat germ cereal in stores. Ralston Wheat Cereal went on sale in 1898 and was successful enough that Danforth decided to unite with Edgerly commercially to create the Ralston Purina company in 1902. To consumers, Ralston had taken on a connotation of good health.

Unfortunately, Edgerly’s beliefs were not always well-intentioned. He was a proponent of eugenics—an abhorrent attempt to "improve" the human race using selective breeding—and his books often espoused racist ideas, such as recommending that all non-Caucasian males be castrated. A principal tenet of Ralstonism was the idea of a strictly Caucasian "new race" that could live to be 100 and without illness. His quest for a “superior” human soon led him to New Jersey, and a project even more ambitious than his book series. He wanted a congregation.

 

For years, Edgerly had moved around, from Massachusetts to Topeka, Kansas, to Washington. In 1894, he started buying up land overlooking the farming community of Hopewell, New Jersey, with the goal of creating an entire city of the Ralston faithful. He imagined 400 homes, six farms, and six estates, including the one he purchased, renovated, and named Ralston Manor. A towering Victorian comprised of 27,000 square feet, the house contained a veritable maze of hallways and had a third floor devoted to a classroom for elocution lessons. The sprawling 72-step staircase was built with a 36-piece orchestra in mind—one band member on every other step. Edgerly planted trees from Japan, Norway, and China to add to its exotic aesthetic. With a rich fruit and vegetable garden, he dispatched fresh goods to residents in town, hoping to be perceived as a generous benefactor. In the house, he continued his prolific writing, which so bothered his wife that he reportedly built a separate room so she wouldn’t be disturbed by his typing.

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Despite the success of his books, the Ralston utopia failed to meet his expectations. The lots in Hopewell were expensive, even for his upper-class clientele, and there were few job opportunities nearby. Only 25 of them sold. Worse, his attempt to befriend the townspeople did not go as planned. After Edgerly built a water tank on his property that fed the area, residents complained it tasted foul. The tank had indeed developed a crack, letting contaminants in. Soon, Edgerly was declared unwelcome in Hopewell and was essentially forced to move to Trenton, where he lived until his death in 1926.

Ralstonism largely faded into a historical footnote until an archaeology student, Janet Six, stayed in Ralston Manor in the 1990s. The house had come into the possession of friends after passing through numerous hands. She began investigating the history of its most infamous owner and wrote a thesis about his life. Six helped bring Edgerly back into focus, but the Ralston Purina company seems to hold little curiosity about—or reverence for—their radical and racist forebearer. There’s no mention of Edgerly in the company’s official history, only vague references to a “Doctor Ralston,” one of Edgerly’s pen names. The company was bought by Nestle in 2001 and the name changed to Nestle Purina.

Ralston Manor still stands today; the current owners use it for art and fundraising events, and locals know it as the Castle. They still sometimes talk about the eccentric who once patrolled its halls, thinking up elaborate ways to spread the word of Ralstonism while bouncing on the balls of his feet.

12 Creative Ways to Spend Your FSA Money Before the Deadline

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stockfour/iStock via Getty Images

If you have a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), chances are, time is running out for you to use that cash. Depending on your employer’s rules, if you don’t spend your FSA money by the end of the grace period, you potentially lose some of it. Lost cash is never a good thing.

For those unfamiliar, an FSA is an employer-sponsored spending account. You deposit pre-tax dollars into the account, and you can spend that money on a number of health care expenses. It’s kind of like a Health Savings Account (HSA), but with a few big differences—namely, your HSA funds roll over from year to year, so there’s no deadline to spend it all. With an FSA, though, most of your funds expire at the end of the year. Bummer.

The good news is: The law allows employers to roll $500 over into the new year and also offer a grace period of up to two and a half months to use that cash (March 15). Depending on your employer, you might not even have that long, though. The deadline is fast approaching for many account holders, so if you have to use your FSA money soon, here are a handful of creative ways to spend it.

1. Buy some new shades.

Head to the optometrist, get an eye prescription, then use your FSA funds to buy some new specs or shades. Contact lenses and solution are also covered.

You can also buy reading glasses with your FSA money, and you don’t even need a prescription.

2. Try acupuncture.

Scientists are divided on the efficacy of acupuncture, but some studies show it’s useful for treating chronic pain, arthritis, and even depression. If you’ve been curious about the treatment, now's a good time to try it: Your FSA money will cover acupuncture sessions in some cases. You can even buy an acupressure mat without a prescription.

If you’d rather go to a chiropractor, your FSA funds cover those visits, too.

3. Stock up on staples.

If you’re running low on standard over-the-counter meds, good news: Most of them are FSA-eligible. This includes headache medicine, pain relievers, antacids, heartburn meds, and anything else your heart (or other parts of your body) desires.

There’s one big caveat, though: Most of these require a prescription in order to be eligible, so you may have to make an appointment with your doctor first. The FSA store tells you which over-the-counter items require a prescription.

4. Treat your feet.

Give your feet a break with a pair of massaging gel shoe inserts. They’re FSA-eligible, along with a few other foot care products, including arch braces, toe cushions, and callus trimmers.

In some cases, foot massagers or circulators may be covered, too. For example, here’s one that’s available via the FSA store, no prescription necessary.

5. Get clear skin.

Yep—acne treatments, toner, and other skin care products are all eligible for FSA spending. Again, most of these require a prescription for reimbursement, but don’t let that deter you. Your doctor is familiar with the rules and you shouldn’t have trouble getting a prescription. And, as WageWorks points out, your prescription also lasts for a year. Check the rules of your FSA plan to see if you need a separate prescription for each item, or if you can include multiple products or drug categories on a single prescription.

While we’re on the topic of faces, lip balm is another great way to spend your FSA funds—and you don’t need a prescription for that. There’s also no prescription necessary for this vibrating face massager.

6. Fill your medicine cabinet.

If your medicine cabinet is getting bare, or you don’t have one to begin with, stock it with a handful of FSA-eligible items. Here are some items that don’t require a prescription:

You can also stock up on first aid kits. You don’t need a prescription to buy those, and many of them come with pain relievers and other medicine.

7. Make sure you’re covered in the bedroom.

Condoms are FSA-eligible, and so are pregnancy tests, monitors, and fertility kits. Female contraceptives are also covered when you have a prescription.

8. Prepare for your upcoming vacation.

If you have a vacation planned this year, use your FSA money to stock up on trip essentials. For example:

9. Get a better night’s sleep.

If you have trouble sleeping, sleep aids are eligible, though you’ll need a prescription. If you want to try a sleep mask, many of them are eligible without a prescription. For example, there’s this relaxing sleep mask and this thermal eye mask.

For those nights you’re sleeping off a cold or flu, a vaporizer can make a big difference, and those are eligible, too (no prescription required). Bed warmers like this one are often covered, too.

Your FSA funds likely cover more than you realize, so if you have to use them up by the deadline, get creative. This list should help you get started, and many drugstores will tell you which items are FSA-eligible when you shop online.

10. Go to the dentist.

While basics like toothpaste and cosmetic procedures like whitening treatments aren’t FSA eligible, most of the expenses you incur at your dentist’s office are. That includes co-pays and deductibles as well as fees for cleanings, x-rays, fillings, and even the cost of braces. There are also some products you can buy over-the-counter without ever visiting the dentist. Some mouthguards that prevent you from grinding your teeth at night are eligible, as are cleaning solutions for retainers and dentures.

11. Try some new gadgets.

If you still have some extra cash to burn, it’s a great time to try some expensive high-tech devices that you’ve been curious about but might not otherwise want to splurge on. The list includes light therapy treatments for acne, vibrating nausea relief bands, electrical stimulation devices for chronic pain, cloud-connected stethoscopes, and smart thermometers.

12. Head to Amazon.

There are plenty of FSA-eligible items available on Amazon, including items for foot health, cold and allergy medication, eye care, and first-aid kits. Find out more details on how to spend your FSA money on Amazon here.

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65 Years Later: 10 Fascinating Facts About the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted on February 22, 1956, by Deputy Sheriff D.H. Lackey as one of the people indicted as leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott.
Rosa Parks being fingerprinted on February 22, 1956, by Deputy Sheriff D.H. Lackey as one of the people indicted as leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott.
Associated Press // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The Montgomery bus boycott is remembered as one of the earliest mass civil rights protests in American history. It's also the event that helped to make both Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. household names when, enraged with the way Black Americans were treated, they helped organize and carry out the boycott, which lasted more than a year.

On December 1, 1955, a segregation-weary Parks famously refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white rider, an action that led to her arrest. Her trial began just a few days later, on December 5, 1955, which marked the beginning of the 381-day boycott that led to the desegregation of public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama. On the 65th anniversary of this historic event, read on to learn more about the people behind the headlines and the unsung heroes of this revolutionary event.

1. Rosa Parks was a lifelong activist.

Rosa Parks is sometimes portrayed as someone who first stood up to power on December 1, 1955. Quite the contrary. “She was not a stranger to activism and civil rights,” Madeline Burkhardt, adult education coordinator at The Rosa Parks Museum and Library, tells Mental Floss. Parks and her husband Raymond were active in the local and state chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She had served as secretary of both branches, during which time she investigated sexual assault cases.

“She was an assertive Black woman against racism, though in a quiet way,” Dr. Dorothy Autrey, retired chair of the history department at Alabama State University, tells Mental Floss. “It’s a myth that she was physically tired that day [she was arrested on the bus], but she was tired of seeing racism against her people.”

After the Montgomery bus boycott, Parks participated in the 1963 March on Washington and went on to serve on the board of Planned Parenthood. She received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999.

2. Rosa Parks was arrested twice.

Parks was initially arrested on December 1, 1955, for violating bus segregation laws. However, this wasn’t her most photographed arrest. Her famous mugshot and those pictures of her being fingerprinted (including the one seen above) are from during her second arrest, in February 1956.

Local police issued warrants for the arrest of Parks along with 88 other boycott leaders for organizing to cause the bus company financial harm. The protests had a mighty financial impact; according to Burkhardt, the protest led to losses of approximately $3000 a day, which would be the equivalent of $28,000 a day in 2020. The organizers dressed in their Sunday best, took a photo in front of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, then turned themselves in.

3. Rosa Parks wasn’t the first—or only—person arrested for disrupting bus segregation.

On March 2, 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat on the bus to a white woman in Montgomery, Alabama.The Visibility Project // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Nine months before Parks made headlines, a 15-year-old named Claudette Colvin was arrested when she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white woman. Civil rights organizers didn’t initially hold Colvin up as a movement figurehead because the unmarried teen became pregnant shortly after her arrest. However, leaders later revisited her case, and she became one of five plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the federal court case that ultimately overturned segregation laws on Montgomery buses and ended the boycott on December 20, 1956. Parks wasn’t one of the plaintiffs, but several other local women were, including Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanatta Reese (though Reese later withdrew).

4. Rosa Parks had a previous run-in with bus driver James F. Blake.

In 1943, Parks got onto a bus James F. Blake was driving and paid her fare at the front. As she began walking down the aisle of the bus to make her way to the Black seating section at the back (instead of exiting the bus and re-entering through another door as was required), the driver forced her off the bus and pulled away before she could re-board. Blake was driving the bus Parks boarded on December 1, when she refused to give up her seat.

5. Although ministers are often celebrated as the boycott’s organizers, women were behind the initial protest.

Indoors at the National Civil Rights Museum stands a recreation of the bright yellow Montgomery city bus where Rosa Parks defied the city's segregated bus transport policy. Location: Location: memphis, Tennessee (35.135° N 90.058° W) Status: Courtesy of the National Civil Rights Museum // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

When Alabama State College professor Jo Ann Robinson caught wind of Parks’s arrest, she and the Women’s Political Council (WPC) jumped into action. A bus driver had verbally assaulted Robinson shortly after she moved to Montgomery to teach, so when she became president of the WPC, a local Black women’s professional organization that fostered civic engagement, she made bus desegregation a priority.

They hand-cranked 52,000 mimeographed political flyers in one night to advertise the planned boycott. Robinson initially asked citizens to protest for one day, Dr. Autrey says. “They weren’t sure where the boycott would lead. They had no idea it would last over a year.” However, local ministers and the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization that formed to oversee the protests, took up the mantle and helped the boycott last.

6. The turnout in Montgomery was massive.

More than 45,000 people, representing 90 percent of the Black community in Montgomery at the time, participated in the boycott. “Even with social media today, I don’t think we would ever have the level of organization they were able to get from flyers and church sermons,” Burkhardt says.

7. Initially, the protestors weren't looking for Montgomery to desegregate its public transportation system.

The boycott organizers' demands didn’t require changing segregation laws—at first. Initially, the group was demanding seemingly simple courtesies, such as hiring Black drivers and having the buses stop on every corner in Black neighborhoods (just as they did in white neighborhoods). The also asked that white passengers fill the bus from the front and Black passengers from the back, so that Black passengers weren’t forced into standing-room only sections while white sections remained sparsely seated. Those goals gradually changed as the boycott continued and Browder v. Gayle moved through the federal and supreme courts.

8. Martin Luther King Jr. was only 26 when he joined the movement.

John Goodwin/Getty Images

King was a relative newcomer when he was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), an organization founded on the same Christian principles of nonviolence that guided King throughout his career. His principles were put to an early test when an unknown white supremacist bombed his home on January 30, 1956. (Fortunately, no one was harmed.) King was chosen because he was largely unknown, unlike E.D. Nixon, the local NAACP leader, who was instrumental in organizing the community, but who also had a long history of confrontations with local politicians.

9. Carpools and underground food sales helped fund the boycott.

To help people avoid taking buses, Montgomery churches organized carpools. They purchased several station wagons to help with the operation, dubbing them “rolling churches.” However, local insurance companies wouldn’t provide coverage as they didn't want to support the protests, even indirectly. Instead, King found insurance through Lloyd’s of London, which, ironically, had once insured ships that carried enslaved people during 18th- and 19th-century ocean crossings.

Funding to buy these vehicles, insurance, and gas came from across the community, including from Georgia Gilmore, a cook who organized an informal diner called the Club from Nowhere to feed boycotters and raise money.

10. Working-class Black women were instrumental in the boycott’s success.

At the time of the boycott, Rosa Parks worked was a seamstress at the Montgomery Fair department store, and she was hardly the only working-class woman who made the boycott a success. “Were it not for maids, cooks, and nannies, the boycott would not have succeeded,” Dr. Autrey says. “They were the primary riders, and they also received the brunt of the hostile treatment. These women were fed up and were primed to take a role in the boycott.”

Many women walked miles to work instead of riding the bus or even carpooling. When a reporter asked one such woman, Mother Pollard, if she was tired, she responded, “My feet is tired, but my soul is rested.”

Though the Montgomery bus boycott ended more than 60 years ago, the effects of the movement are still felt—and honored—today. Beginning this month, a new initiative—spearheaded by Steven L. Reed, Montgomery’s first Black mayor—the city will be reserving one seat on every Montgomery bus in Rosa Parks’s honor.