A Slice of 1850s Boston

I tweeted this the other day (can’t remember where I saw it), from The Paris Review

Thomas Nichols was born in New Hampshire in 1815 of old New England stock—his father was a militiaman in the War of 1812 and his grandfather fought for the rebels in the Revolutionary War.

As a medical student at Dartmouth he attended a lecture on vegetarianism by the influential health reformer Sylvester Graham.

He married Mary Gove in 1848, presided over by a Swedenborgian minister.

Free-love doctrine rested on the belief that no one can honestly vow to love another person forever; once love is lost, a partner is free to pursue their “passional affinities” and find romantic love elsewhere.

Thomas returned to medical school at New York University and graduated in 1850; he and his wife began to promote water-cure doctrines around New York City and launched the Water-Cure Journal, which amassed twenty thousand subscribers. The following year, the couple established the nation’s first school devoted to the principles of water-cure. They hoped to develop the Hydropathic Institute into a “School for Life,” which would act as the movement’s hub and graduate reformists who would lead the communitarian effort to reconstruct society.

Two years later, they relocated the school, which was increasingly popular, to Port Chester, New York, inviting all those “willing to be considered licentious by the world” to join them.

Local outcry swelled, and the school didn’t last long. The Nicholses decamped to Long Island in 1852; they took over Modern Times, an existing utopian community, but doctrinarian and monetary conflicts ensured its brisk demise.

Cincinnati was the next stop, followed by Yellow Springs, Ohio, where they established another water-cure institute in 1856 with some 500 followers. It was formally dedicated on April 7, Charles Fourier’s birthday, under a banner that read “Freedom, Fraternity, Chastity.”

The couple wrote “Marriage: Its History, Character and Results” in 1854.

“Everybody knows the evils of marriage institution, but like disease and death they are regarded as inevitable,”

Throughout her life, Mary had turned to the spirit world for guidance on philosophical and social matters. During a séance in Yellow Springs in early 1857, St. Ignatius of Loyola appeared to her and directed her to study the history of the Jesuits, prompting the couple to convert to Catholicism. The announcement of their sudden conversion was met with stunned surprise by their followers and incredulity by their detractors. Had Mary finally cracked under the relentless public assault? Regardless of the motivations, they improbably remained Catholics for the rest of their lives, continuing to pursue much of their old work, now stripped of free-love doctrine.

There are copies of The Water-Cure Journal online at archive.org. An extract:

From the Report of the Committee of the American Hygenic and Hydropathic Association of Physicians and Surgeons (Chairman Roland S. Houghton, M.D.) July 1851

The most important sanitary measure ever adopted in England was the “Act for the Registration of Births, Marriages, and Deaths, in England and Wales,” which  went into operation on the 1st of July, 1837. This act was brought into  Parliament by Lord John Russell, and supported by Lord Morpeth (now Earl of Carlisle), the late Sir Robert Peel, and other distinguished members. Under the operation of the system which this act established, “a mass of statistics, relating to life, health, and disease, has been accumulating, which will exert, and is exerting, an immensely beneficial influence upon the physical and moral welfare of the population.”

What do I draw out of this rambling little story?(everything above, other than the extract from the Water-Cure Journal, is quoted from the Paris Review piece, though I’ve rearranged bits into chronological order)

First and least importantly, there is the amusing story of the woman who declares permanent marriage vows to be a great evil when she is trying to persuade a second man to take her on after divorcing her first husband, and then converts to Catholicism when she sees holding on to her second husband to be her main priority.

Second, that of course the concept of free love, of destroying the social institutions of European civilisation, did not originate in California in the 1960s. It was going around for more than a century before then.

Third, that alongside the radical element of New England reformism, there is the administrator, or “Man of System.” Gathering population statistics is “the most important sanitary measure ever adopted in England”. This anticipation of the modern omnipresent bureaucratic oversight existed alongside the fashions of feminism, vegetarianism, free love and innovative health practices.

They’re not necessarily quite the same people. Roland Houghton, M.D., who wrote so sensibly about urban public health, was quite likely not keen on Mary Gove Nichols’ idea of marriage. But the Nichols were chased out of towns because they went too far, not because they were going in the wrong  direction. More importantly, the likes of Nichols and the likes of Houghton moved in the same circles—the Water-Cure Journal and so on. The two arms of the modern left—the radical and the scientific—were together, in Boston, in 1851.


4 thoughts on “A Slice of 1850s Boston

  1. Look into the history of feminist communes in the 1800s. Lots of stuff there that we think of as originating in the 60s. Lots of “free love”, communal living, and folks we’d now call radical lesbian separatists.
    I don’t know if it’s just that we forget when stuff started, or if things have just always been like this.


  2. It’s important to remember that Christian Orthodoxy was on its way out in Boston by the end of the 18th century, which is when many prominent Bostonians became, or already were, Unitarian Universalists.


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