In the 1800s, overlapping circles of utopians, mystics, and romantics in both Europe and America develop arguments against meat until “vegetarianism” finally becomes a real movement.
Episode 12: Radicals & Romantics
In the aftermath of the American and French revolutions, the sects and philosophies that embrace a “vegetable diet” multiply – from ecstatic cult to puritan crusades, to utopian community to public-spirited congregation. No longer are they isolated groups – they connect with each other in books, magazines, and letters. Until a single word catches on – “vegetarianism”.
In the United States of America, Ian discovers the the vegetarian sword and shoes of a 1790s “free love” vegetarian sect in a local Massachusetts museum, and visits the failed vegan commune where Louisa May “Little Women” Alcott lived as a child.
And in Salford, NW England, he walks in the footsteps of a nineteenth century vegetarian church, with local historian Derek Antrobus and the vegetarian history specialist Dr Samantha Calvert.
It’s a story that also takes in the French bohemian “cult of the bearded men”, the man who invented the modern idea of Robin Hood, the woman who invented Frankenstein and his creature, Sylvester Graham, and, finally, the creation of modern vegetarianism.
- Timothy Neumann (Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association & its Memorial Hall with 1790s veggie shoes), Massachusetts USA
- Pierre Serna (French Revolution Institute at Panthéon-Sorbonne Paris) (Modern & Contemporary History Institute, ENS)
- Dr Samantha Calvert (@SamCalvert)
- Cllr Derek Antrobus (Salford Council [local government]) (@CllrAntrobus)
- Dr Mike Volmar (Fruitlands, Massachusetts USA) (@Fruitlands)
- Dr Adam Shprintzen, (Marywood University, Scranton PA) (@VegHistory)
- Charles Nodier, on Les Bardus, letter to Charles Weiss,
- Alphonse Lamartine, on Jean-Antoine Gleizes, in 1846
- Joseph Ritson, An Essay on Abstinence from Animal Food as a Moral Duty, 1802
- Dr John Lambe, Water and Vegetable Diet in Consumption, Scrofula, Cancer, Asthma, and Other Chronic Diseases, 1815
- Percy Bysshe Shelley, Queen Mab, 1818
- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818
- Anon (but probably Shelley’s friend Peacock), The Medical Advisor, and Guide to Health and Long Life, “Dinner by the Amateurs of Vegetable Diet“, 1824
- Emmanuel Swedenborg, Divine Love and Wisdom, 1763 (with tweaked translation)
- Sylvester Graham, Lecture on Epidemic Diseases Generally, and Particularly the Spasmodic Cholera, delivered 1832-3, published 1838
- Asenith Nicholson
- Prof William Tyler (Amherst College), on his stay in a Grahamite boarding house, 1833
- William Alcott, Boston Surgical & Medical Journal (now the New England Journal of Medicine), 1836
- Martha Brotherton, advert for Bible Christian cookbook “Vegetable Cookery”, in The Manchester Guardian, 1821
- Joseph Brotherton
- Louisa May Alcott, diary, 1843 published as part of “Louisa May Alcott, her Life, Letters, and Journals” 1898
Geek Reference of the Month
The debates amongst a medical profession stumbling towards usefulness are a big part of this episode, and although the Victorian Dr William Lambe (and other “water cure” fans) were wrong to think distilled water can heal, the converse is true. Polluted water can be very harmful indeed.
Dr John Snow is widely known as the man who identified sewage-contaminated water as the cause of the 1854 London cholera epidemic, and removed the handle of the water pump to halt it; and as the father of epidemiology who mapped cholera cases to show this. But he was also a follower of Dr William Lambe and spent many years of his life on a vegan diet.
It would have taken too long to describe all that in the show. But I wonder (and it should be possible to check) what part his belief in the importance of pure distilled water played in forming the idea that polluted water could transmit epidemic disease.
Back when this series was just an idea, the Messy Vegetarian Cook, Kip Dorrell, mentioned to me at London Vegan Meetup that she had a distant relative who ran some kind of American vegetarian sect long ago. Little did I know I’d end up photographing his shoes next to mine.
It was a stroke of luck that my life took me to New England in 2015 – I hadn’t originally planned to visit anywhere in America for the series. We did try to find the hill where the Dorrelites once lived, and though we ran out of road, we ran into a woman who lived there and knew that it had once held some kind of vegetarian cult. The locals really do still tell stories about William Dorrell.
We also spent half an hour looking for the grave in what’s meant to be his cemetery, but didn’t find it. It’s said to be marked “Soldier of the Revolution” – artfully eliding which side he fought on!
As you can tell from the recording, it was very rainy in Salford; my next fundraising goal might include a mic with a proper windshield.
The curators of the two American sites we visited this episode, Timothy Neumann and Mike Volmar, gave me enormous help with the primary sources on these characters. Photographs of them are by Heidi White, who also drove me up and down Vermont and Massachusetts on the trail of vegetarian history.
The theme music is by Robb Masters. The actors were Jeremy Hancock, Guillaume Blanchard, Amy Saul, Matthew Arenson, Orna Klement, and Ian Russell.
The Romantic period music was by Ludvig van Beethoven – for the Bracknell Circle, his “Pastoral” Sonata No. 15 performed by Paul Pitman (PD), and for Shelley’s circle, his Piano Concerto no. 3 performed by Stefano Ligoratti (CC-BY).
The Bible Christian vegetarian hymns were very kindly performed by The Choir of St. Mary’s Nottingham, directed by John Keys.
The cover picture is from Asenath Nicholson’s “Nature’s Own Book”, 1848 edition.
Originally broadcast on Resonance 104.4 FM March 7th 2017, with a very hoarse narration. I re-recorded once my voice had recovered.