This is the grave of Sylvester Graham.
Born in 1794 in Suffield, Connecticut, Graham grew up in a tough household. For one, the family had 17 children. For another, his father was 72 when Sylvester was born. For a third, his mother suffered from mental illness, possibly from being a household with 17 children, I don’t know. In 1796, his father died. His mother, unable to take care of the small children, farmed them out to relatives. Graham moved around. He saw a lot. Among the things he saw was a lot of drinking.
Now, it’s worth noting here that early Americans were drunkards of an amazing order. It was a nation of massive alcoholics. And this wasn’t some 3.2 beer either. This was brandy, rum, and raw corn whiskey. John Adams, a man who took two tankards of hard cider with his breakfast, routinely wrote of the disastrous drunks of America. And Adams was still basically a Puritan in both thought and deed.
So when we are talking about someone like Graham, one of the genuine weirdos of American history, we have to keep this in context. He saw a lot of bad stuff as a kid. He grew to hate alcohol and it what it did to people. That’s one thing. But as Graham moved into adulthood, the world was changing rapidly. The rapid expansion of transportation technology, first through the canals and then the railroads, combined with the growth of the factory system to create what seemed to be a new society overnight. And if everything had changed, then why not everything else? In other words, this is the milieu of the Mormons, the Shakers, the Millerites, and so many other weird new religious movements. It was the milieu of people thinking that maybe women should vote or that slavery should end. In other words, it was the Second Great Awakening and there was going to be plenty of room for a man like Graham to push weird new ideas based on his hatred of booze and his belief in reforming the entire body.
In any case, Graham was also pretty sickly as a child and young man. He worked in all sorts of things, but eventually decided to become a minister so he could avoid the physical labor that he really couldn’t do. Not sure that’s the best reason to become a Man of God, but hey whatever. But he was hated by the fellow students in his minister school, who thought him a strange guy, and he left and this caused him a massive personal crisis. What could he do if not preach?
The answer was to become a body reformer. Graham married, worked in the temperance movement a bit, but became a vegetarian and that was his gospel. This was the beginning of vegetarianism as a movement. Remember that the body was still poorly understood. The differences in medicine between 1870 and 1900 would be greater than the differences in medicine between 1300 and 1870. This was still the age of bleeding and the four humours and all of that junk. So become a vegetarian wasn’t about not killing animals, but about thinking of the body as pure and avoiding anything that caused unusual excitement. And unusual excitement, well that was something that Graham thought a lot about.
The Second Great Awakening allowed people to question everything. So it was an era of wild sexual experimentation as well, both in terms of free love and abstinence. The Mormons could have multiple wives, the Shakers couldn’t have the sexes touch each other. Lots of these reformers thought that sex was at best a necessary evil and that if such things were necessary, it was only biologically, not socially. Thus, sexuality outside of a very channeled response, should be regulated and repressed.
Graham was all in on this. He thought there was a great evil in the world and that evil was masturbation.
Self-pollution was an obsession in this era and not only to Graham. The Victorian reformist world had its upsides I suppose, but bodily control was really central to a lot of what they were about. And nothing screamed that you don’t control your body than the fearful nocturnal emissions or, even worse, intentional daytime emissions.
How to control for this unwanted sexuality? For Graham, it was pure food. Now, let’s be clear–despite modern half-baked beliefs that past Americans in our more rural landscapes ate pure food, they did not. Food was adulterated all over the place, often with some pretty sketchy stuff. It’s not as if these farmers of the past were these autonomous individuals who lived in some kind of self-sustainable way. They were part of the market and while they grew some of their own food, they traded and bought a lot of food too. So people did often eat things that weren’t necessarily super healthy, or even very safe.
Thus, one can see how someone like Graham would connect eliminating the pollution you were ingesting through food and eliminating the pollution that would come out through the evils of masturbation. If that’s your society and that’s how people see the body, well, it doesn’t take much for a weirdo like Graham to make those connections.
Graham became a preacher for whole food. He developed the Graham cracker as the ultimate in a rough grained bread designed to keep out impurities and stop you from jerking off. And lest you think I am exaggerating, he wrote a pamphlet in 1834 called On Self-Pollution that went into all of this. He was an intense preacher–think of a wide-eyed evangelical–which is part of the reason that his fellow ministry students hated him back in the day. So he went on the road pushing this stuff. He really doubled down on the bread making as a solution to all problems. In 1837, he published Treatise on Bread and Bread-Making, which is seen as a classic in the bread genre today.
Graham developed a series of boarding houses and austere resorts for people to clean up and eat the right way. No heavy meats, lots of brown bread, lots of pure water, definitely no alcohol. In 1837, he co-founded the American Physiological Society, probably the first vegetarian-based organization in the U.S. It only lasted until 1840, but did have at least a couple hundred members. Then in 1850, he co-founded the American Vegetarian Society, which was longer-lasting and more influential.
But look, if you are Graham, and the body is something to speculate on, you might be doing a bunch of other stuff that you think is healthy but maaaaaaaayyyybe is not. Think of Marin County liberals doing yoga and not getting their kids vaccinated for measles today. Well, that was Graham too. In 1851, Graham underwent a series of opium enemas. Yep, that’s right. Now, understand that the enema was a big part of this bodily reform movement stuff. I think it was Graham (though it may be someone else) who advised eating yogurt while receiving a yogurt enema at the same time. Lovely thought! Anyway, would it surprise you that a series of opium enemas could kill you? No, I don’t suppose it would. That’s what offed Graham. He was 57 years old.
Graham remained influential to the next generation of food faddist weirdos, such as John Harvey Kellogg.
Sylvester Graham is buried in Bridge Street Cemetery, Northampton, Massachusetts.
If you would like this series to visit other American food faddists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. The amazingly named Benedict Lust is in Butler, New Jersey and John and Vera Richter, owners of an influential early 20th century raw food restaurant named Eutropheon, are in Los Angeles. Previous posts in this series are archived here.