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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 757

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This is the grave of John Harvey Kellogg.

Born in 1852 in Tyrone, Michigan, Kellogg grew up in the religious fervor of the late Second Great Awakening. His father was a religious seeker and frequent attendee of revival meetings and finally became one of the biggest supporters of the Seventh-Day Adventists as this crackpot sect development in the aftermath of the Millerites failure to accurately predict the end of the world. In fact, Kellogg’s father was one of the four big funders of the post-Millerite leaders to base their new operations in Battle Creek, Michigan, where the family was now living.

That Kellogg grew up in the world of quackery had a huge impact on his future. John Harvey received almost no formal education because his parents believed it was unnecessary with the world ending so soon. So instead, he went to school for about two years and then at age 11 was put to work in his father’s broom factory. Why brooms were necessary if the world was ending soon seems to not be a question these people asked themselves. Anyway, the young boy was whip smart and became the protege of Ellen and James Springer White, founder of the Adventists. As a teen he became the proofreader and typesetter for their magazine that was focused on the connections between spirituality and food, moving toward a vegetarian diet that was a nearly unknown idea in late nineteenth century America.

Despite Kellogg’s complete lack of formal education, he actually became a teacher at a public school at the age of 16 and then enrolled in what is today Eastern Michigan University, which was then a normal school, for official teaching training. But he didn’t stay long and that was because all the leading Adventists convinced him to instead go to their school in New Jersey for training doctors in Adventist medical methods in order to open their planned sanitarium in Battle Creek. Because Kellogg was rapidly becoming the next big leader for the Adventists, he actually ended up with quite the medical education. After studying at the New Jersey college, he enrolled at the University of Michigan and also took courses at the NYU Medical College at Bellevue Hospital, graduating from that school with a medical degree in 1875. He then returned to Battle Creek to run the sanitarium, now called the Western Health Reform Institute but soon to be renamed by Kellogg as Battle Creek Medical Surgical Sanitarium. He would head this institution for the next 67 years.

As an actual doctor with one foot in the real world and another in the quackery world, Kellogg had a lot of conflicts with other Adventists, who rejected science entirely for a religious outlook. Kellogg believed there was no reason that medicine and Adventism could not coexist and fit it into the bizarre world of their belief system.

As a man in both worlds, one of the ways Kellogg operated was to think a lot about food and its impact on the body. The Second Great Awakening was a gigantic experiment in ignorant people deciding that foods impacted the body in various ways and then acting on it by engaging in fad diets. Believing that certain foods would lead to masturbation and thus sin, for instance, was part and parcel of this world. And while the Second Great Awakening was long over by the time Kellogg became an Adventist leader, its impact was still felt by that sector of Americans who still thought in these ways. So Kellogg was a huge proponent of nuts as a strong food source that could feed a growing population. This actually did make some sense, though the preparations often consisted of being steamed or boiled, which is among the worst ways to eat nuts. He was also one of the first people to come up with peanut butter, though there’s a lot of contestants for that title.

Like his predecessors in food quackery such as Sylvester Graham, Kellogg believed that food needed to be bland to be morally pure. And let’s be honest here: American food was not exactly a cavalcade of spice and complex flavors anyway. Outside of the over the top gourmet world for the Gilded Age elite in New York and other leading cities, Americans tended to eat meat-heavy, greasy, and pretty bland food, combined with overly sweet desserts. The fact of the matter is that the peak time in the history of American food is right now, and it keeps getting better too. The history of American food is….mostly untasty, despite what Michael Pollan and others who dream back to a hazy nostalgia of Grandma spending 14 hours a day in the kitchen might push. In Kellogg’s case, the point of food was to make sure that one did not want to have sex. With sexual desire, however consummated or not consummated it might be, as a great evil, bland food could control the body’s inner passions and lead one to a nice Protestant even-keelness without any excitement at all. Sounds great….

Anyway, this of course leads us to Kellogg’s most famous invention: corn flakes. He began experimenting with creating new bland, soft breakfast foods in 1877. He didn’t exactly create granola in this way, but he was one of the first people to come up with the general idea. Working with his family members, he then came up with corn flakes in 1894. The family spent the rest of their lives arguing over who came up with what, and who really cares. But the patent for “Flaked Cereals and Process of Preparing Same” was filed in 1895 and issued in 1896.

By 1900, the cereal was a huge hit. But John and his brother Will soon got into a huge fight over it. See, Will wisely wanted to add sugar to the cereal so more people would buy it. He was interested in money. John was more interested that people were regular and not having sex. In 1906, the brothers split. Will started what is today Kellogg’s and he made sure John Harvey was not able to use the family name to promote his cereals. Kellogg also faced competition from C.W. Post, who attended the sanitarium, stole the ideas, and started his own cereal company in Battle Creek.

Kellogg also invested in meat substitute products, something that vegetarians have been interested in to the present. We may have finally reached a point where this is a legitimate thing: the Impossible Burger at Burger King is actually genuinely good. As a former vegetarian though, the choices of Tofurkey and other fake meat products was also pretty sketchy, unless you went to Asian vegetarian restaurants, who have long surpassed in Americans in this sector of the food world. Kellogg also just about the first person to use soy milk in the United States, bringing it into his dietary regime for babies in 1934. Kellogg was also interested in other forms of oddball medical treatments and has a few patents on things ranging from vibrating chairs to hot air baths. He is also one of the first people to use light therapy to treat depression, which was necessary in the gray skies of a Michigan winter.

Kellogg was certainly right in his strong anti-tobacco fanaticism, culminating in his 1922 book Tobacconism, or How Tobacco Kills. However, it wasn’t just a health problem he identified here. It was that tobacco also destroys the morals of the user and the national economy. So he couldn’t separate the legitimate concerns about this drug from the quackery. He also believed that not only was alcohol a poison but so was caffeine and so tea and coffee were evil and also destroyed the moral functions of the body through stimulating excitement.

But let’s not forget that the core of Kellogg’s medicine and ideas is that sex was evil. He was married, but it seems the marriage was never consummated. Despite never having sex, he wrote a 356 page book in 1877 titled Plain Facts about Sexual Life. He wrote the second edition on his honeymoon with his wife. Now titled Plain Facts for Old and Young, it came in as a solid 512 pages when it was released in 1879. By 1917, this book was 900 pages long, filled with more “facts” about how sex was bad. On the other hand, what is the difference between this kind of sexual advice and that of Catholic priests? Not much if any.

Even worse than sex was masturbation. In my single favorite line in American history and one that students never fail to love, he stated that in the many masturbation-related deaths he claimed happened ever year, “the victim literally dies by his own hand.” Among the masturbation related diseases Kellogg claimed existed were: cancer of the womb, urinary diseases, nocturnal emissions, impotence, epilepsy, insanity, and mental and physical debility. OK then. How then to prevent masturbation in children? He believed that boys should be circumcised, not when they were born, but when they were old enough to masturbate. The pain would remind them of the evil that existed in their penises. How was this done?

It consists in the application of one or more silver sutures in such a way as to prevent erection. The prepuce, or foreskin, is drawn forward over the glans, and the needle to which the wire is attached is passed through from one side to the other. After drawing the wire through, the ends are twisted together, and cut off close. It is now impossible for an erection to occur, and the slight irritation thus produced acts as a most powerful means of overcoming the disposition to resort to the practice.

And what about girls? Oh, just applying carbolic acid to their clitoris. And for both boys and girls, putting cages around their genitalia and tying their hands in sleep were good methods. Finally, for people who insisted on soiling themselves with sex all the time (what Kellogg considered nymphomania was basically anyone having sex at all), there was this gem of medical treatments:

Cool sitz baths; the cool enema; a spare diet; the application of blisters and other irritants to the sensitive parts of the sexual organs, the removal of the clitoris and nymphae…

And let’s be clear, these were not theoretical treatments. This was standard procedure in Battle Creek. This lunatic was a very evil man.Not sure where we go from there. I could talk about his eugenic beliefs or his hydrotherapy or whatever, but this is plenty. He died in 1943, at the age of 91, still running his House of Quackery, though he had left the Adventist Church at some point.

John Harvey Kellogg is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Battle Creek, Michigan.

That’s quite a way to start a new year of graves. If you would like this series to visit other American cereal people, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Thurl Ravenscroft, who was the voice of Tony the Tiger for a half-century’s worth of commercials, is in Garden Grove, California, and James Caleb Jackson, who sued Kellogg to stop using the word “granola” because he claimed to have invented it, is in Dansville, New York. I am actually taking a long LGM reader funded road trip starting later this week to rejuvenate my grave list that has been shrinking due to the pandemic. I have some real special people lined up to visit. So help make this series continue if you want. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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