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Webster Edgerly certainly knew how to think big.
Born in 1852 in Massachusetts, he found the Ralston Health Club in the same year that he graduated from law school. There was also some evidence that he was embroiled in a nasty divorce case in which he publicly accused his wife of infidelity. It was the notoriety over the case that inspired him to use "Edmund Shaftesbury" as a pseudonym for much of his writing. Around the same time, he made a name for himself as an acting coach, including writing books on such topics as "Lessons in the art of facial expression", "Lessons in artistic deep breathing for strengthening the voice", and "Lessons on Grace." Along with running the Ralston Health club, he also ran the Academy of Acting in Washington, D.C. (later to become the "Martyn College of Elocution and Oratory") and frequently directed stage plays. Though his college would eventually fold following allegations of fraud, Edgerley stayed active in the world of acting while promoting Ralstonism. Both of these interests would dovetail nicely as sold his health ideas to the world.
So, what is Ralstonism? Glad you asked. As Edgerley would later describe in his handbook for Ralston Health Club members, "Ralston" was an acronym for Regime, Activity, Light, Strength, Temperation,Oxygen, and Nature, though he also used Everett Ralston as one of his many pseudonyms. As he boldly stated in his handbook, "This is an age of Ralstonism" and that "Ralstonism is the grandest movement that man is capable of establishing." He also proposed a series of basic principles which all of his club members were expected to follow. These included being educated in the "Natural Laws of Life" (all of which could be learned by purchasing and reading the length series of book Edgerly's publishing company had to offer). Along with following Edgerly's dietary restrictions, he stressed the importance of avoiding drugs and alcohol as well as anything that might lead to "racial mixing." An avowed eugenicist, Edgerly's grand philosophy was exclusively reserved for Caucasian and he argued that all non-Caucasians should be castrated. His followers were also ordered to avoid all foods that he believed were poisonous to Caucasians (including watermelons among other things).
One news story published in 1896 provided a glimpse at Webster Edgerly's movement at the height of its influence. Titled "The Man With Glame", it described Edgerly's movement in less flattering terms and suggested that he was facing investigation for possible mail fraud. Mentioning that the Ralston club was now claiming a membership of 11 million (!), it also stated that Edgerly's club was proclaiming that members who shared his secret for prolonging life had a potential lifespan of 200 years. The drawback, of course, was that would-be followers needed to buy all of Edgerly's books (at one dollar each) to learn what he had to say about living longer. According to insiders (anonymously quoted in the news story), most of the "secrets" Edgerly had to share were simple, common-sense directions concerning sensible diet and exercise. What set Edgerly's advice apart from what medical doctors and other health advocates had been telling people for years involved a mysterious principle that he called "glame."
What is glame, you ask? Even for people who read Edgerly's books, the concept of glame seemed hard to understand. That was mostly because Edgerly only described it in vague terms at best. Though he outlined different breathing exercises that would allow his disciples to "draw in glame" as needed, he never provided a real definition. Still, for those few who mastered the ability to replenish glame as needed, health and vitality were guaranteed. As he described in one book, "If stupidity, sluggishness, or ennui may be classed as your troublesome attendants, draw glame and see how quickly they disappear." He also pointed out that "some people" were simply incapable of drawing in glame due to some presumed flaw on their part (no word was given on whether these "glame-free" individuals ever got a refund).
Despite calls for Edgerly's organization to be formally investigated over the possibility of mail fraud, his political influence seemed enough to prevent this from ever happening. If anything, Edgerly became eagerly sought after due to his reputation as an authority in health matters. This was what inspired William Danforth, founder of the animal feed company Purina Mills, to seek Edgerly's endorsement for a new line of Ralston breakfast cereals. The joint venture became so profitable that the company name was changed to the Ralston-Purina company in 1902. Yes, along with Purina Dog Chow, Cat Chow, etc., the Purina company was also promoting breakfast cereals with Webster Edgerly's seal of approval.
But that was only the beginning. Between 1894 and 1895, Edgerly bought up huge parcels of land in New Jersey's Hopewell Valley. It was there that he planned to build a "scientifically proven Garden of Eden" to be populated exclusively by his followers. He also built an enormous mansion that he named Ralston Heights. With vast turrets and round rooms connected to the house by connecting hallways, Edgerly's mansion would be only one of the palaces he planned to build for his new community. Along with his mansion, Edgerly also constructed an enormous garden that was hidden behind an eight-foot brick wall. All of the remaining grounds were arranged in a circular pattern because Edgerly believed that walking in a straight line drained people of their vital energy.
Webster Edgerly also laid out grandiose plans for his new city, including a Temple of Ralston where residents could practice the daily exercises that would give them glame and "personal magnetism", or the ability to control the thoughts of other people. He felt that his new city would allow followers to escape the irrational beliefs of regular society and practice the kind of "scientific living" that would ensure their health. This included allowing young men and women to engage in "probationary marriages" and to learn to communicate using Adam-Man-Tongue, a special language he developed (it had an alphabet of thirty-three letters).
Despite his grandiose plans, including printing pamphlets billing his proposed community as a "land for fruit, flowers, pure air, pure water, health, home, and happiness", the new city never really materialized. The buyers he hoped would come to share his dream stayed away even though Edgerley and his wife spent eight months out of the year there. Eventually his movement petered out and Webster Edgerly faded into obscurity. When he died in 1926, his widow sold Ralston Heights the following year. Though the mansion is still standing, most traces of Webster Edgerly's dream have been swallowed up by the town of Hopewell, New Jersey.
About the only lasting legacy of Webster Edgerly's influence was with the Purina company which retained the name of Ralston-Purina for many years afterward. By 2001, the companyy had merged with Nestle and dropped the Ralston part of the name at last. While Purina remains one of the most prominent pet food companies in the world, their website make no mention of Webster Edgerly or Ralstonism.
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