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

cosmin4000/iStock via Getty Images
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.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Is It Illegal to Falsely Shout 'Fire' in a Crowded Theater?

Fortunately, nobody incited a stampede at New York's Metropolitan Opera House on this night in 1937.
Fortunately, nobody incited a stampede at New York's Metropolitan Opera House on this night in 1937.
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If you asked a few random people to name a situation that wouldn’t be protected under the First Amendment’s “freedom of speech” clause, there’s a pretty good chance at least one of them would mention the example of someone shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater (when there’s no fire). Over the last century, the scene has been used far and wide to illustrate that if your “free speech” harms people, you can still end up in the defendant’s chair. But, as is so often the case when it comes to interpreting the law, it’s really not that simple.

Panic Room

The aftermath of the Iroquois Theatre fire.Fire-Truck.Ru, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

When people first started discussing human fire alarms at packed gatherings, it was less about constitutional debate and more about societal menace. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there were dozens of tragedies [PDF]—mainly in the U.S., but also abroad—where false shouts of “Fire!” provoked panic that resulted in multiple innocent, and avoidable, deaths. In 1913, for example, residents of Calumet, Michigan, held a Christmas party for the children of copper miners on strike. Hundreds of people gathered on the second floor of Italian Hall, and when an unidentified perpetrator (possibly motivated by anti-union sentiments) yelled “Fire!” they all rushed to the stairs. The stampede claimed 73 victims, most of whom were children.

The fear of fire wasn’t unfounded. Since not all buildings had sprinkler systems, neon exit signs, and capacity limits, plenty of fatal blazes occurred. More than 600 people died in Chicago’s Iroquois Theater fire in 1903, event though (ironically) that building was actually thought to be fireproof.

In short, shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater was an idea firmly entrenched in the public consciousness by the time judges co-opted the phrase for legal arguments on First Amendment rights.

Discussing Fire in a Crowded Courtroom

We mustache Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. a question about First Amendment rights.National Photo Company, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Wikimedia Commons // No Known Restrictions on Publication

The axiom became popular in legal spheres after Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. mentioned it during Schenck v. United States in 1919, but he wasn’t the first person to use it in court. As Carlton F.W. Lawson pointed out in a 2015 article in the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, U.S. attorney Edwin Wertz had uttered a lengthier version of it the previous year while prosecuting activist Eugene Debs. In fact, since Holmes ruled on Debs’s appeal the very week after the Schenck case, he may have even gotten the idea from Wertz.

Each case involved a violation of the Espionage Act of 1917, which essentially made it punishable to do anything that interfered with U.S. military operations—including speaking out against the draft. Debs, a pacifist who opposed World War I, was under fire for a speech he had given in Ohio; and Charles T. Schenck, the U.S. Socialist Party’s general secretary, landed in front of the Supreme Court for passing out pamphlets that encouraged men to refuse the draft.

Both defendants were convicted, and Holmes justified his ruling on the Schenck case with the explanation that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a theater and causing a panic.” But while his analogy struck an emotional chord, it really had nothing to do with constitutional law.

“The ‘crowded theater’ statement in Schenck never amounted to any kind of binding standard or doctrine,” Nashwa Gewaily, a media and First Amendment lawyer, tells Mental Floss. “It was basically a bit of emotionally charged extra flair from Justice Holmes, outside the official legal determination of that case; a powerful image that endured outside its context ... It was not a high point in American jurisprudence.”

“Revengeance” Is Fine

What Holmes said after it, however, did become a standard for future free speech arguments. “The question in every case,” he said, “is whether the words are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”

For the next 50 years, clear and present danger was the accepted—and slightly vague—metric for discerning if spoken or printed material was protected speech. Then, in 1969, the Supreme Court replaced it with something clearer. The case, Brandenburg v. Ohio, concerned a Ku Klux Klan leader named Clarence Brandenburg who had broken Ohio’s law against advocating “crime, sabotage, or unlawful methods of terrorism” for political purposes. (In his offending speech, he had mentioned the possibility of “revengeance” [sic] if the federal government didn’t stop “[suppressing] the white, Caucasian race.”)

Brandenburg appealed his guilty verdict all the way up to the Supreme Court, which overturned the ruling on the grounds that his threats were too ambiguous to “[incite] or [produce] imminent lawless action.” In order for something to qualify as imminent lawless action, it must: expressly advocate violence, advocate immediate violence, and relate to violence likely to occur.

As Gewaily explains, judges interpret this standard “far more narrowly than many would presume.” While individual institutions may condemn hate speech, for example, it’s technically protected under the law unless there’s “immediate violence” involved.

When Free Speech Is the Least of Your Worries

So, does falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater fall outside the conditions of imminent lawless action, and therefore fall under First Amendment protection? The short answer is that it depends on the circumstances. But here’s the long answer: If you get arrested for doing that, the charges brought against you might make the question of free speech totally irrelevant.

“The falsely shouted warning, while technically speech, could potentially violate a state's criminal laws against disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct, whether or not it provokes a stampede, for instance,” Gewaily says. And if there is a stampede in which somebody dies, you could be charged with involuntary manslaughter. In other words, there’s no law that explicitly prohibits you from crying “Fire” in a theater. It’s the other laws you’d have to worry about.

Shouting “Bomb!” or “Gun!” in public would put you in a similar situation. In May 2018, for example, officials had to evacuate part of Daytona Beach International Airport after a man ran naked through the building screaming about a bomb in the women’s bathroom. There was no bomb, but he was charged with “false report of a bomb,” “criminal mischief,” and “exposure of sexual organs,” among other things. In that case, no self-respecting lawyer would advise him to claim his actions were protected by the First Amendment.

That said, there’s good news for anyone whose panicked cry is an honest mistake. “Someone who shouts a warning in genuine error, with an intent to galvanize movement to safety, would not be properly punished for that speech,” Gewaily says.

And if Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. has taught us anything, it’s that not every word a Supreme Court Justice says automatically counts as constitutional doctrine.

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