Nearly 200 years ago, the lectures of a celebrity vegetarian visiting Portland caused a riot

Susan S. Johnson

People across the United States were abuzz with talk of the Portland Graham riot in the summer of 1834, a time when vegetarian ideas were in vogue locally. The “Agitation,” as headlines in Boston, Philadelphia and Albany called it, was a violent mob that attacked the Temple Street Chapel, where […]

People across the United States were abuzz with talk of the Portland Graham riot in the summer of 1834, a time when vegetarian ideas were in vogue locally. The “Agitation,” as headlines in Boston, Philadelphia and Albany called it, was a violent mob that attacked the Temple Street Chapel, where celebrity vegetarian lecturer Sylvester Graham was giving his popular course on the “Science of Human Life.” Newspapers here and across the country had much to say about the riot but were left to wonder at its cause.

Was it Graham’s advice to eat whole wheat bread and skip animal-based foods? Or was it something else, something unprintable?

Curiously, few if any Maine historians have examined the riot. However, scholars in other disciplines have explored its causes and implications, while historical news reports reveal fascinating details. Graham’s 1834 visit to Maine exposes widespread sympathy for vegetarianism in Portland and Brunswick, reveals the launch of Maine’s first commercial health food products and highlights local women’s rights concerns.

The Boston Saturday Morning Transcript’s July 5, 1834 newspaper printed a letter from a Portland correspondent who reported that Graham’s “private lectures to married ladies have caused so much excitement that he will probably be unable to continue his course of essays on diet. A mob broke up his lecture last evening, and made some considerable disturbance.”

When celebrity vegetarian Sylvester Graham delivered his popular lecture series in Portland in June 1834, a group of “almost crazy” men attacked the church where he was speaking to stop him from conveying his radical message. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

By the summer of 1834, Graham had been delivering his food reform lectures across the Northeast for years. “An impassioned speaker, Graham attracted large audiences, and the crusading minister became an overnight sensation,” Andrew F. Smith, who teaches food studies at the New School in New York, wrote in “Eating History.”

Graham began his Portland lectures on June 5 and continued throughout the month.

Last year, I wrote about Rev. Henry Aiken Worcester who, after attending Graham’s Portland lectures, penned a letter remarking on the widespread adoption of Graham’s principles in Portland, including among the city’s doctors. Since then, Wheaton College history professor Jonathan D. Riddle informed me of a July 22, 1834 letter signed by nine members of the Portland Medical Association giving their full support to Graham’s “diet and general regimen.” The letter from the Maine doctors was reprinted in newspapers and appeared in Graham’s 1835 “A Defence of the Graham System of Living.”

The month before giving his course in Portland, Graham delivered the same lectures at Brunswick’s Congregational Church, where the lecture series was chaired by none other than Maine’s sitting Governor Robert Dunlap, a Brunswick resident. More than 300 people attended the Brunswick course, and from their ranks a committee made up of three professors, three doctors, two attorneys and a general, drafted resolutions supporting Graham’s “principles,” which they said if widely adopted would lead “to the highest earthly welfare of the human family.”

Graham’s visit to Maine was championed by Dr. Reuben D. Mussey, who from 1831 to 1835, was the anatomy and surgery professor at the Medical School of Maine, part of the Bowdoin College campus from 1820 to 1920. Mussey was a Grahamite who in 1850 would become a founding member of the American Vegetarian Society and the fourth president of the American Medical Association. Prof. Mussey was known for converting students to the vegetable diet. 

Graham, the food influencer

The “History of Brunswick, Topsham, and Harpswell, Maine,” written in 1878, mentions the influence of Graham’s lectures on the people of Brunswick, stating “The doctor was an attractive lecturer, and his theory gained many adherents. The meat-market ran low, and butchers feared for their calling. Some really feared that their occupation was gone.”

In addition to urging people to avoid animal-based foods, Graham told people to shun alcohol and all stimulants (including spices, coffee, tea, chocolate, tobacco and opium). He urged them to eat vegetables and whole wheat bread and to drink pure water. By 1834, whole grain flour was known as Graham flour and the bread made from it was called Graham bread.

Beginning on June 24, Allen’s Bakery on Willow Street began running ads to let readers know it had “Graham Bread, Constantly on hand and for sale cheap.” On June 27, baker John Pearson alerted readers in his own ad that he sold Graham Bread at his Casco Street Bake-house, too. On July 9, the Blake & Howe bakery ran an ad stating: “We manufacture the bread recommended by Dr. Graham of good stock brought from New York expressly for the purpose.” As the summer wore on, merchant John Cox, who did business on the Central Wharf, advertised that the steamer Macdonough would arrive Aug. 18 with 10 barrels of Graham flour.

But not all merchants welcomed Graham’s presence in Portland. Within Graham’s unpublished, handwritten lecture notes housed at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, he writes: “A woman keeping a confectionary shop in Portland told Dr. J. W. Mighels that if she should meet Graham in the Street and had a pistol she would shoot him for he had damaged her more than a hundred dollars by his lectures.” Graham counseled against eating sugar, which Dr. Mighels, as one of the nine doctors who signed the letter endorsing Graham, would know.

The reported drop in demand for meat in Brunswick and sweets in Portland combined with the ads for Graham bread mark the start of Maine’s commercial health food market. Natural food expert Joe Dobrow writes in his 2014 chronicle of the health food industry, “Natural Prophets,” that “New England … had a long history in health foods, starting with Sylvester Graham.”

A minister who came from a family of doctors, Graham was well known for his love of wholewheat bread and his vegetarian physiology message. He also lectured on sexual physiology, which proved more provocative than counseling people to eat bran bread. Graham’s temperate philosophy extended to sex and treated men and women equally. He argued in favor of extreme sexual restraint for both men and women at a time when a sexual double standard prevailed, women lacked basic rights and men wielded tremendous power over women’s lives and bodies.

Graham delivered his lecture on sexual physiology to male-only crowds without problem. But as historian April R. Haynes writes in “Riotous Flesh,” Graham’s “lecture on chastity became inflammatory when delivered to women because it insisted that all bodies were subject to the same set of God-given ‘laws of life and health.’ In this way, reform physiology minimized the significance of physical differences such as sex, and implicitly, skin color. Rioters perceived Graham’s sexual universalism as challenging the basic hierarchies of gender and race that limited and defined Jacksonian democracy.”

Despite the speculation of some newspapers, it wasn’t Graham’s advice to eat wheat bread and vegetables that created the “agitation” in Portland. Instead, it was Graham’s Lecture to Mothers with its radical equal rights message that summoned the Portland mob, according to Haynes.

Anti-Graham mob

On Jan. 10, 1870, the Eastern Argus newspaper in Portland published a lengthy, front page story about wholesome bread, which it said should be made from whole wheat without sour milk or lard. The author, under the pen name Agricola (Latin for “farmer”), observes that 36 years after Graham’s lectures, Graham bread was now in “general use.” Agricola then recalls Graham’s visit stating, “These lectures to the women excited the wrath of some of the wealthiest and most respectable citizens, and the excitement culminated in a mob which one evening surrounded Temple St. church. The street was full of people and the excitement ran high. Brickbars were hurled through the windows, shouts went up outside and the woman shrieked inside the church. The lecture was broken up and Graham was compelled to leave the church in disguise and seek a place of refuge from the mob. It was a disgraceful affair, and some men seemed to be almost crazy.”

During Graham’s visit, the June 13, 1834 Eastern Argus praised his lectures as “worthy to be attended by all who can afford the expense.” In contrast, historian Haynes calls the Portland Daily Advertiser “active in drumming up hostility” against Graham. We see the first hints of this in the June 17 newspaper, where a letter writer named Simplex (Latin for “simple”) writes that Graham had been lavished with “over-strained praise” and instead deserves “reprehension.” However, even Simplex concedes Graham “is rather a personable man” and “has a good voice.”

The newspaper also promoted a comedic evening planned for June 30 titled “The Yankee at Home” where performer Mr. G. H. Hill would recite a “New Yankee Story” called “Aunt Nabby’s love of Graham Bread, and the starved Rats.”

This detail of John Cullum’s 1836 map of Portland shows the Temple Street Chapel, where Sylvester Graham lectured in 1834. Courtesy of the collections of Maine Historical Society, Map F 601 (detail)

But most strikingly, the Portland Daily Advertiser ran a notice for an “Anti-Graham Lecture” scheduled for 8 p.m. on June 27 at Portland City Hall (located where Monument Square is today and just around the corner from the Temple Street Chapel, which sat roughly where the entrance to the Nickelodeon movie theater parking garage is today).

One detail about the 1834 Graham riot that remains elusive is its precise date. However, it seems probable that the initial riot took place on June 27, the same night a hostile crowd gathered nearby. Haynes documents that mobs prevented Graham from lecturing the following night and when he returned a month later.

Further evidence that June 27 could be the night of the initial riot comes from the date attached to seven resolutions praising Graham and the correctness of his lectures that were adopted unanimously by 160 women who attended his Lecture to Mothers in Portland. In a bold move for the time, five prominent local women attached their names to the document, which expressed regret over “the misrepresentations … so freely disseminated … by individuals from whom we had a right to expect better things.” The July 22, 1834 Alexandria Gazette in Virginia reports the women’s “resolutions are highly complimentary to Mr. Graham.”

While both local and national newspapers reported on the riot, its cause remained unclear and open to interpretation. For instance, the New York Commercial Advertiser, which was quoted in several other newspapers, stated that “if Mr. Graham has been instructing the wives and mothers of Portland to cram any of his bread down the throats of their husbands and children we don’t wonder at the excitement.”

Graham, who published widely, never printed his Lecture to Mothers and no copy remains. However, Haynes documents that in the lecture Graham taught reproductive anatomy, counseled marital sex for procreation only and condemned masturbation, all topics he commonly spoke about at the time.

On June 26, 1834, the Christian Mirror, a Congregational newspaper, printed a letter from Helen of Brunswick, who praises Graham’s lectures, noting that “even here in New England — this moral Eden of the world — we fear there is scarcely a village, which is not contaminated by the lewd conduct of some pests —(they deserve not the name of men).” Helen’s statement, though veiled, likely speaks to sexual violence, harassment and gender-based power imbalances.

“The nature of Graham’s lectures and the audiences exposed masculine fears of women empowered by knowledge of their own bodies,” historian Adam D. Shprintzen writes in “The Vegetarian Crusade.”

On the very last page of Graham’s 350-page lecture notes, he lists five Portland men under the heading: “The character of those men who got up a mob against me in Portland June 1834 — according to common and accredited report.” He names names and then outlines each man’s character, including such observations as “a rich man — an infamous whore master — having a wife and child he is said and believed to have seduced two girls last winter”; and “a violent (Andrew) Jackson man — a bitter opposer of the temperance cause and is generally considered an Atheist.” Another Portland rioter, Graham writes, was a white man “reputed” to have fathered a child out of wedlock with a Black woman.  Haynes finds no evidence of the child but notes “Graham’s depictions of the other alleged conspirators can be confirmed.”

Turns out Sylvester Graham was a threat not only to the culturally-accepted practice of eating animals but, more provocatively, to gendered social norms, according to Haynes. In reaction, a group of “almost crazy” men incited the 1834 Graham riot to reinforce and maintain the existing social hierarchy.

One final note of interest here at the start of the 2021 tourist season: Back in 1834, newspapers in Providence and Boston were among those that reprinted a story from the New York Times citing “Mr. Graham, the cold water lecturer,” among a short list of entertainments in Maine that summer that prove “down-easters are becoming a famous people for amusements and exhibitions.” Not only did Graham stoke the smoldering local interest in vegetarianism, his eventful 1834 visit helped cultivate Maine’s early Vacationland image

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at [email protected]
Twitter: AveryYaleKamila


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