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.
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.
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.