I first encountered Webster Edgerly's work when I found a copy of Sex Magnetism (or to give its full title Private Lessons in the Cultivation of the Magnetism of Sexes, Teaching the Development and Wonderful Enlargement of Those Powers and Influences that Nature has Invented to Aid Every Human Life) by 'Edmund Shaftesbury' in a local charity bookshop. It is a substantial volume of crankish advice and opinion, and it intrigued me. Who wrote it, and when?
I consulted the Library of Congress online catalogue, which revealed Edgerly as the author, gave his dates (1852-1926) and provided a list of fifty-something different titles on such subjects as diet, hygiene, exercise, punctuation, longevity, telepathy and voice training. The next step was to track down more of his books, which was easy enough using the Internet. So far I have acquired a further six of them, enough I think to qualify me to reveal some of his true ghastliness to the world.
Edgerly was a man who believed himself to be always RIGHT, in emphatic capitals. Knowing as he did the secrets of Nature, it was his role to pass them on through the movement he called 'Ralstonism'.
"We believe that Ralstonism, since it is becoming universal, is as necessary as food, light or water. This movement is the grandest, noblest, and already the most far-reaching power that has originated in the present age.
"Ralstonism is the grandest movement that man is capable of establishing".
These resistible claims of his come from the Book of Star Ralstonism, the Book of General Membership of the Ralston Health Club, a sort of instruction book for novice Ralstonites. Ralstonism is mainly concerned with matters of diet, health and longevity; but - not content to limit himself to these areas - at the same time Edgerly was also promoting his teachings on psychological self-improvement through 'The Magnetism Club of America', whose key text Instantaneous Personal Magnetism is still in print today.
The high point of Edgerly's career was reached in about 1900, when the founder of the Purina Wholefood Company, William Danforth, observing that Ralstonism was gaining popularity and that its teachings on diet were largely compatible with his own views, invited Edgerly to participate in his enterprise. Despite Edgerly's pompous avowal in the Book of Star Ralstonism that
"It is our intention to hereafter endorse no goods or enterprises bearing the name 'RALSTON' in any form, but to reserve the word solely for the Club and its educational interests",
the company took a new name, Ralston Purina, under which it still flourishes today - though the brand is nowadays mainly associated with pet foods. With further zealous enthusiasm, in 1905 Edgerly attempted to put his ideas into practice when he founded "Ralston Heights", a house built to his own design to contain a community of Ralstonites. Like all such Utopian endeavours, it was not a success.
Given the scale of Edgerly's output and the fact that his books still sell, it would seem odd that he is so little-known - until you actually try to read his books. His style is so long-winded and sententious that any normal discriminating reader is likely to abandon any of them after a few chapters. For the connoissseur of kookery, though, there are plenty of delights. For a start there is the grandiosity of his claims, as instanced by the quotes at the head of this article, or this, from Operations of the Other Mind:
"Against the growing errors, vagaries, morbid theories, occult teachings, and wild beliefs that are darkening present-day life, depressing the mind, weakening the nerves, preying on the health and creating gloomy forebodings, this work comes as an inspiring guide and a practical instructor.
"It has been our wish and purpose to make this course of training one of the most important and valuable ever published. So, into the book we have put the great study, 'HOW TO EMPTY THE MIND.' Recall the countless times you have been mentally upset, worried, bothered with troubles. Think of what it would have meant-and will know mean - to know how to cast all such mental torture out of your mind. The relief and peace of mind this one study alone can bring you can be worth thousands of dollars."
(Certainly, an empty mind helps when reading this stuff). His titles, too are remarkable: I already mentioned Sex Magnetism, but I also like Brain Tests: A New System to Determine the Place of Every Human Being in the Scale of Civilization: A Study in Practical Psychology Which Takes Minds That Are Wrong and Makes Them Right. No half-heartedness about that, is there? Many of his works have likewise an impressive organisational scheme: not divided into anything as mundane as chapters but for example 'cycles' or 'departments'. Within this framework what you typically find is some sound if unexciting advice - such as suggesting that it is a good idea to clean your teeth, or not to eat indigestible food before giving a lecture (I would second this one, having once haplessly burped my way through an after-lunch presentation), mixed with slightly stranger stuff, like his recommendation in Sex Magnetism that every young man should engage with a form of probationary marriage with a woman old enough to be his grandmother, and the infamous quote in Star Ralstonism that:
"Watermelons are poisonous to most Caucasians".
Edgerly liked to claim a scientific basis for his beliefs, but actually he was remarkably ill-informed, even for his time. For instance, we learn in Instananeous Personal Magnetism that:
"All growth in the kingdom of plants, flowers and trees is due to the magnetism of the sun in drawing the material from the earth. If this were lacking, nothing could have life."
And in Mental Magnetism:
"The brain, when very shallow, is round and smooth, comparatively speaking. It is never perfectly round, nor is it perfectly smooth. Even the brain of an idiot has some indentations and convolutions."
Some of Edgerly's propositions are hard to refute because impossible to understand:
"... diffused atomic magnetism when brought into a collective condition becomes the magnetic power of life"
or otherwise bizarre:
"The eye has been described by scientists as a small-sized volcano"
(Both these last from Instantaneous Personal Magnetism).
To locate such little gems as these one has to dig into deep and unpromising seams: Edgerly was a master of padding, in which respect one of his favourite techniques was to pile anecdote upon anecdote in support of his argument. For example in the just two chapters - sorry, 'cycles' - of Operations of the Other Mind, there are no less than 43 anecdotes, of which this is a typical if short example:
"A man who had also carried in his mind a secret that he would not have known under any condition, began to think too much about it. The result was that his sister caught the impression and began to think at times of the very same thing. At length she sought information concerning it, and pursued the matter until she had ascertained the whole secret".
I have not counted how many there are in the whole book, but it has 27 'cycles', so there are probably hundreds of them. Imagine if you can the deadening effect they have when read in bulk. In general they are either completely anonymous, concerning 'a banker', 'a doctor', 'a lawyer' or 'a clergyman'; or else they feature one of Edgerly's favourite famous folk, such as Daniel Webster, Edison, or:
... Gladstone, the great Prime Minister, whose personal magnetism won him the highest honours in the gift of the nation. He not only possessed the Shaftesbury works but, at the solicitation of Queen Victoria, presented her with one of them that she admired. These facts were published at the time.
- this from the introduction to the British edition of Instantaneous Personal Magnetism. Although it refers to 'Shaftesbury' in the third person it is unmistakeably in Edgerly's turgid style. (Which book did Queen Victoria admire? Where were the facts 'published at the time'? It couldn't be that Edgerly just made this stuff up, surely?).
When I wanted to know the numbers of anecdotes referred to above, there was no need to count since Edgerly had thoughtfully numbered them. He must have liked numbered lists, since his books are filled with them: lists of rules, of foods, of personality types and traits, of exercises, of things to avoid ... In a chapter entitled 'Wreckage' of Sex Magnetism, he enumerates 62 'great truths', of which this is typical:
"Every woman should have a man. If she has no husband let her cling to her father, son or brother. If these are lacking, let her entertain in a social way, and have men and women call to see her, and call upon men and women. It is not good for women to see only women, for they soon become gossips."
Finally, I want to mention one of the most revealing of Edgerly's books, Brain Tests. In his introduction he asserts that it
"... should be made a part of every school and college training; for it surpasses in importance the whole fabric of knowledge taught by the greatest universities."
Its title would suggest that the provision of some set of criteria by which the merits of different brains can be judged, but in fact it is actually a series of written lectures - rants really - which are justified on the unconvincing premise that ones brain is tested by reading and attempting to understand them. If you follow, and presumably agree with, Edgerly's arguments, you have a fit brain. What these 'tests' actually demonstrate is Edgerly's darker side, those views that are only hinted at in most of his other books, such as his racism:
"The yellow race are seeping in very rapidly, despite efforts to keep them out"
And his totalitarianism:
"Tramps, idlers, loafers and the whole slum crowd should be deported."
"Make cordons round the pest sections of the cities; move these cordons forward month by month, year by year, closing in on the criminals, narrowing their zone, and eventually ending their worthless careers."
He also believed that taxation was far too high - a familiar refrain from his end of the political spectrum - and that political parties and the jury system should be abolished. "Weak-minded" people should be sterilised. Heavy smoking was a sign of inherited syphilis:
"It is wholly impossible to coax, induce, flatter or shame a woman into smoking cigarettes if her blood is pure and free from syphilis".
Which illustrates I hope what a warm and gifted man Edgerly was, and how tragic it is that his name has become so obscure, though he does have at least one living devotee.