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Free-love “Harmonial Brotherhood” was a disaster

The catastrophic failure of several of the Utopian cult's articles of faith — especially on matters of diet and health care — had doomed the community to misery and sickness before it even got a start.

Patients at the Battle Creek Sanitarium engage in group breathing exercises in 1900. The nutritional and medicinal doctrines of the Sanitarium, guided by John Harvey Kellogg, developed from the same American frontier movement that earlier had inspired the Harmonial Brotherhood group — although Kellogg’s practices were far better developed and devoid of the “free love” part. (Image: Postcard)

It was late fall of 1859 when the schooner Santiago arrived in port in La Ventosa, Oaxaca, Mexico, and disgorged its cargo of pilgrims of the Harmonial Brotherhood sect, on their quest to found their own Central American Utopia.

Those pilgrims were a different bunch, though, than the starry-eyed naïfs who had boarded the Santiago in San Francisco. Back then, they had been in the full bloom of their innocent belief in the doctrines of the Harmonial Brotherhood sect and its leader, Oregon orchard pioneer Henderson Luelling. Now, after a hungry and grueling month or two at sea, the faith of the strongest among them was at least a little bit bruised.

Their sect preached vegetarianism, the therapeutic use of cold water, abstinence from stimulating drink of all kinds, communitarianism, and free love. This last point of doctrine had made it hard for them to live in San Francisco, and so they had embarked for Honduras to found their own new Utopia on the shining azure seas of a place called Tiger Island.

La Ventosa was quite close to Tiger Island. They were almost there. And yet, surely, some of them by now were starting to realize what a bad idea it all was.

The biggest problem was, they were all starving. Their diet plan — the “Harmonial Diet,” which Luelling apparently crafted arbitrarily out of then-prevalent faddish nutritional theories and invested with the full power of religious belief — relied heavily on coarse-ground whole wheat flour. Anything that might actually be fun to eat — sugar, coffee, tea, all animal foods — was strictly forbidden. So, naturally, they had brought none of that sort of stuff on board.

By the time they got to La Ventosa, they were ravenous.  So they poured into town in a great wave of hungry, unwashed bodies with money in their hands, looking for meat.

Amid this tumult came the event that would split the Harmonial Brotherhood into warring camps, and earn for it the nickname “Discordant Devils” among the Santiago’s crew: The Egg War.

It seems Luelling, having found a vendor selling about eight dozen eggs, bought them all and then went off to fetch a suitable container to carry them in. While he was doing that, his great alpha-dog rival (the self-styled spiritualist and ex-circus performer identified only as “Dr. T” in the newspaper account) spotted the eggs and hastened to purchase them, not knowing they’d already been sold. The vendor, quite sensibly, accepted his money (doubling his profits) and quit the scene before the mistake could be discovered. Then, as Dr. T was gathering the eggs up, Luelling arrived to collect them, and ....

Neither of the two Harmonial Brothers would accept the other’s claim on the eggs. Each intended to have every one of the eggs he had paid for, and other claimants be damned.

From this pathetic display of truculence at the highest levels of Harmonial Brotherhood leadership sprang an epic civil conflict among the ranks, with different Brothers taking sides against each other and battling most un-Harmonially with words and perhaps with fists as well — the newspaper article hints at physical violence, although it doesn’t specifically say.

Luelling called a meeting of the faithful and made a passionate speech on his own behalf, hinting that his claim on the eggs had the backing of divine authority. Dr. T accused him of abusing his authority and vowed revenge. The other Harmonial Brothers took sides, and (this is a direct quote from the newspaper article) — “the women, also, who called each other liars and no ladies.”

Eventually, though, the rebellion was quelled and the Santiago, with most of its cargo of lapsed vegetarians still aboard, was on its way to Tiger Island.

Tiger Island is a big pyramid-shaped island in the middle of the Gulf of Fonseca, where the borders of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua meet the Pacific Ocean. Upon arrival there, the pilgrims made excursions to various nearby places where they thought they might establish their home. Finding nothing suitable by the sea, they explored up the Como River on the mainland, and finally found a spot about 60 miles inland that they thought would do.

They thought wrong. Honduras is deep in the tropics, and the spot they staked out was subject to all the tropical diseases to which the residents of northerly climes are so susceptible. Almost immediately the pilgrims started getting deathly ill with what was probably malaria or yellow fever.

Harmonial Brotherhood doctrine held that the unusual healthfulness of their “harmonial diet” of ground-up wheat berries and cold water would ward off all sickness, but that was now turning out to be yet another hopeful fantasy. So they turned to the practices of hydropathy to treat the sick.

Hydropathy, a.k.a. “Water Cure,” is mostly a discredited practice today, but in 1860 it was almost mainstream. It advocated the use of water — usually cold water, but sometimes hot, taken internally or used externally — to cure all disease. Extremist hydropathy, such as the kind espoused by the Harmonial Brotherhood, eschews all other medicines. Now, with many pilgrims desperately ill, it was time for the Brotherhood’s medical dogma to be put to the test as its nutritional dogma had been on the journey from San Francisco. Would it fare as poorly?

It would.

“They took Mrs. C., while raging with the fever, wrapped her in a wet blanket ‘til she perspired profusely, and then threw cold water over her,” recounts the newspaper article. “The speedy result was her death.”

Most of the stricken fared better, in spite of the Harmonial hydropathic interventions. But several others died, either from the fever or from the treatment.

By this time, things had gotten really bad for the pilgrims. Dr. T and his wife had seceded from the group. Several others had abandoned the whole affair and were making their way back to “civilization” as best they could. Finally, the Harmonial Brotherhood disbanded entirely and, the Santiago once again under their feet, proceeded to slink back to San Francisco.

Luelling survived the fever and returned on the Santiago, living for a time in San Jose with friends, possibly under a pseudonym. In 1878, while clearing land to plant a new orchard there, he died of a heart attack.

(Sources: Anderson, Heather Arndt. Portland: A Food Biography. New York: Rowman, 2014; “The Emigrant Free Lovers,” Sacramento Daily Union, 19 May 1860)