Of Breakfast Cereals and Cults

So I went down a rabbit-hole a while back and I ended up in a weird place. It started innocently enough, with a Facebook post back in October about the fall season and the special treat it affords; not the ubiquitous pumpkin-spice everything, but the annual return of General Mills’ monster-themed breakfast cereals, Count Chocula, Franken Berry, and Boo Berry.

Keep your pumpkin spice, the real fall treat is General Mills’ monster cereals.

Subsequent discussion centered on the two forgotten flavors, Fruit Brute and Yummy Mummy, then drifted to other mascot-branded cereals including Quisp, Quake, and Quake’s ancillary brand, Orange Quangaroos; eventually the discussion led to that 1970s classic cereal, Freakies.

At that point, I got curious about who made Freakies and what the current status of the brand is, so I fired up the Google… and suddenly it got weird.

Who grew the Freakies tree?

Here’s the normal part: It turns out that Freakies was made by Ralston-Purina, a company better known for its many pet and animal foods (including Purina Monkey Chow), though it was also in the breakfast cereal business for a while. To get the boring stuff out of the way, the company went through a lot of mergers, acquisitions, break-ups and divestitures over the years, including buying and selling other brands including Post, getting to the current state of affairs; Nestle now owns the Purina brand, General Mills acquired the company’s cereal brands (which is mostly the different varieties of Chex), and Ralston is now Ralcorp, a company that makes private label foods, basically the store-brand knock-offs of other companies’ products. While they were still a breakfast cereal company, Ralston-Purina didn’t really go in for cartoon mascots, except for the aforementioned Freakies. But that one had seven cartoon characters, so I guess it all evens out.

Fun fact: The personalities of the Freakies were inspired by employees at the ad agency that designed the characters.

But I said it got weird.

I would think that if there were going to be some kind of weird metaphysical woo-woo involving breakfast foods, it might be Quaker Oats, because of the connection to a religious sect; but no, there’s actually no connection between the oat company and the Society of Friends. The Quaker Oats people just co-opted the name “Quaker” because the popular image of the Quakers was one of “purity, honesty, and integrity,” and therefore using their name was an easy way to “borrow” a good reputation for their start-up company. (The actual Quakers were not entirely happy about it sometimes.) (The company logo was allegedly intended to be William Penn, but he is officially a generic “Quaker Man,” and is named Larry.) But it turns out there are in fact two cereal companies that do have weird history, one of which is Kellogg’s.

T. C. Boyle’s historic fiction novel about Dr. Kellogg’s health resort.

A lot of people may know that the Kellogg’s company was founded by a nutty doctor named John Harvey Kellogg and his brother Will Kellogg, as described in the book The Road to Wellville, by T. Coraghessan Boyle, later adapted to a film, also titled The Road to Wellville, starring Anthony Hopkins as the doctor.

Kellogg was concerned about many aspects of health, including a bizarre fixation on sex; specifically, the importance of not having any. He adhered to the Seventh-Day Adventist doctrine of the time, which taught that all sex is bad and sinful. His own marriage was allegedly never consummated, and he had really extreme views on what he called “Onanism” or “The Solitary Vice,” to the point of advocating physical mutilation to prevent masturbation. His corn flakes were, like graham crackers, invented to be deliberately bland so as to not “arouse the passions.”

But the biggest problem with Dr. Kellogg was his firm adherence to racist ideals of white supremacy, including devotion to the theory of eugenics, creating a white master race through “good breeding” and mandatory sterilization of those deemed “inferior stock.” But as it turns out, the Kellogg’s company is not the only breakfast food company with ties to racist nuts. It’s not even the nuttiest.

Ralston Wheat Chex, sponsor of kid shows in the 1950s and ’60s.

When William H. Danforth, the owner of Purina Mills, wanted to expand into the human breakfast food market, he decided to follow the Quaker Oats lead and attach his company to a name known for good health;  he settled on a “clean living” movement called Ralstonism, the invention of a self-styled health guru named Webster Edgerly. Since Edgerly was already promoting the health benefits of whole-grain cereals, it made sense to Danforth to seek an endorsement so he approached Edgerly about a deal. By 1898, the fictional Dr. Ralston was endorsing Ralston-Purina’s wheat germ breakfast cereal. Eventually they added a number of other cereals, including Chex and eventually, Freakies.

And now we’re at the weird stuff.

Like Kellogg, Edgerly was an advocate of eugenics, and even more hard-core about it; he advocated the forced sterilization of non-caucasian males at birth. Also, he considered it forbidden for a man of color to have relations with a white woman, because he believed any resulting children would inherit the father’s supposed inferior intelligence and other undesirable traits, but it’s perfectly okay for a white man to hook up with a woman of color, because he thought a woman does not pass on her intelligence to her children, only her temperament, and he decided non-caucasian women had agreeable and pleasant temperaments. But that’s just where the fun begins with this guy.

Webster Edgerly, AKA Edmund Shaftesbury, AKA Dr. Everett Ralston, quack and would-be guru.

Edgerly, writing under the pen names “Edmund Shaftesbury” and “Everett Ralston,” produced over 80 books about topics as varied as speech, diet, movement, acting, “artistic deep breathing,” and ventriloquism. Of particular interest was his theory of “magnetism,” including “mental magnetism,” “personal magnetism,” “sexual magnetism,” and a variety of other topics, which made up the bulk of his overall philosophy of “Ralstonism.” Ralston was originally derived from Edgerly’s mother’s name (Rhoda Lucinda Stone), later became the pseudonymous “doctor” name under which he wrote, and finally was reverse-engineered into an acronym of the Ralston philosophy, standing for “Regime, Activity, Light, Strength, Temperation, Oxygen, and Nature.”

A few of Edmund Shaftesbury’s 82 books

Surprisingly, or maybe not so much, Edgerly’s Ralstonism was not cheap; his books sold for about $25 in the 1890s, which is equivalent to about $700 today, and his philosophy put some weird demands on its followers, such as always walking on the balls of the feet; the jolt of pounding one’s heels on the floor supposedly causes the loss of one’s “vital forces,” which is what leads to old age and death. No sudden movements, no sharp angles, and no walking in straight lines, that’s the ticket to immortality. Or at least part of the ticket.

He also had ideas about sex, because of course he did. Among them: you should only have it once every eight days, no more, no less; young men should first have a “practice marriage” (translation: sex) with a woman old enough to be their grandmother. Then they should go off and build a career, and finally, in their 40s, they should marry a woman at least 20 years younger. See if you can guess who might have done that.

Ralstonism awarded its members ranks, called degrees, like the Masons. Buying a single Ralston book automatically enrolled one in the Ralston Health Club, and each subsequent book purchase was good for a five-degree bump, with the peak being a 100-degree Ralstonist, and Edgerly promised that advanced study of Ralstonism would give its practitioners psychic powers including telepathy and mind control. Amazingly, there were over 800,000 Ralstonists at one point, all willing to pony up princely sums of money for Edgerly/Shaftesbury/Ralson’s books. Queen Victoria had a whole set. Enough people bought into his hokum that Edgerly soon became filthy stinking rich.

Edgerly as Christopher Coumbus

Even when he had more money than he could spend, he still indulged in other creative pursuits, including acting and directing. There exists a newspaper review of his performance in the lead role of a play he wrote about Christopher Columbus, describing this actor with muscular calves mincing around the stage on tip-toe, the author apparently unaware of Edgerly’s weird ideas about proper walking.

This seems to me like kind of a weird thing. It seems, despite his obvious intent to cash in and bilk this followers, he seemed to actually believe his own half-baked theories. You’re never sure if he’s a con-man or a genuine nut.

The Hopewell Castle

Naturally, Edgerly eventually came to the conclusion that he had to build a utopia, so in 1894 he started buying up land overlooking the town of Hopewell, New Jersey, where he planned to build the city of Ralston, inhabited only by his rich white followers. He built a gigantic mansion for himself and laid out plots for 400 homes to be sold at inflated prices to upper-class twits. Only 25 lots were ever sold, and nobody built on them. The reservoir he built for the town of Hopewell leaked and the water tasted like asphalt, and finally he was run out of town. He died in 1926, and his legacy was forgotten, apparently deliberately.

As the years went by, and Edgerly’s insane theories about race, sex, walking, and pretty much everything else fell out of popularity, the Ralston-Purina Company set about distancing themselves from him and his cult. Even before the company was acquired by Nestle, Ralston-Purina had only a passing mention of the fictional Dr. Ralston in their official history, and eventually that was dropped too.

In the late 1990s, a young archaeology student named Janet Six was living in the big weird house on the hill and serving as its caretaker, and got curious about why the house was so weird and who the nut was that built it. She dug up the story of Hopewell and the Ralstonism Movement, which became her Master’s thesis. It’s largely due to her work that we know much of anything about Ralstonism today.

And now you know just how freaky the company that created the Freakies was.

5 Comments

  1. Edo Bosnar

    Interesting stuff. I never knew any of that background on Ralston-Purina and Ralstonism, but – it doesn’t surprise me a bit.
    I knew a bit about Kellogg, though. Just a correction, the company that made the cereal was established by Will, after he and John Harvey developed corn flakes at the latter’s sanitarium. Will wanted to keep the recipe secret, but John constantly showed patients/guests the process. As the story goes, one of those guests was a guy named Post, who then started his own company to make corn flakes (which eventually became General Foods). So Will, incensed, went off and started his own cereal company to play catch up. Man, so much drama in the history of breakfast cereals…

    By the way, this is the first time I heard of Freakies. Never saw them as a kid. And I only learned of the existence of Frute Brute and Yummy Mummy after the internet became a thing. I used to love Boo Berry and Franken Berry, though.

      1. Edo Bosnar

        Re: Post/General Mills. Yeah, like I said, Post became General Foods, which happened after a bunch of acquisitions in the 1920s. That was after the original Mr. Post died and his daughter (Marjorie) ran the company for a time, and then hired a few really shrewd business/finance managers (read: sharks).

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    Knew the Kellog stuff (I checked out the back cover of Road to Wellness when I ran the receiving department, at Barnes & Noble) and have heard a bit about Edgerly.

    The eugenics stuff was en vogue in that era, which captured the imagination of many important (read rich & white) people, especially as a rationalization of why they got to stick it to the lower classes and minorities. Like most things, it was always massaged to fit their own little kinks (black men can’t mate with white women, but white men can enjoy a little “brown sugar.”). You see this crap come up in a lot of embarrassing circles, including people we were taught to revere. Amazing how many so-called “heroes” of industry and politics were actually nasty little SOBs.

    Using religion and self-improvement ideas to fleece the masses? Such things are unheard of! Why, next you will suggest that minor pulp writers will walk out on their family, fabricate a military command career, and create a religion that talks about aliens and other crap and use a neurotic pulp magazine publisher to help sell it to the gullible, until they can operate from a converter cattle boat, outside the 3-mile limit, of all of the countries who have kicked them out for being dangerous kooks! Or evangelicals who want you to be wealthy and, if you send them money or buy their books (same thing) they will teach you how, via prayer, while they accumulate tax-exempt luxury and political influence, causing Ray Stevens to query, “Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?”

    As for cereals, don’t forget Uncle Sam Cereal, a natural laxative!

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