July 2, 2014 | by Adee Braun
The free-love couple who pissed off nineteenth-century America.
In the summer of 1853, the Tribune of New York published a pointed letter directed at the proprietors of the American Hydropathic Institute, a “health institute” in Port Chester, denouncing the establishment for spreading “free and easy notions respecting Love and Marriage.” Its reputation locally was as a bawdy place, a breeding ground for anarchy, free love, and other dubious socialist practices. Shortly after this public cudgeling, enrollment dropped, the institute closed, and its proprietors disbanded, taking their unsavory ideas with them to Long Island. On one hundred acres of wooded land, they rebuilt the institute with the modest aim of rectifying society’s ills.
The institute was, at least nominally, a school for hydrotherapy, or water-cure, a popular nineteenth-century health movement that rejected drugs in favor of precise bathing regimens and an ascetic lifestyle aimed at keeping the body, mind, and spirit in careful order. The school was the vision and creation of Dr. Thomas Low Nichols and his wife, Mrs. Mary Gove Nichols. She was a freethinking novelist, an early feminist, and a health reformer; he was a physician, a progressive journalist, and a social agitator. Together they amassed fervent followers and passionate detractors, synonymizing the name “Nichols” with licentiousness and radicalism.
In the years before the Civil War, America was inundated with reformist ideologies—a response to societal shifts brought on by rapid social and economic changes. The Nicholses embodied this anxiety: they embraced a smorgasbord of nineteenth-century reform movements, sampling generously from socialism, free love, spiritualism, mesmerism, phrenology, hydrotherapy, and other progressive health and social ideologies. Few radical figures were as devoted to the twin causes of individualism and love. Their ideal union was one in which plurality of love was openly embraced and each individually sovereign man and woman was “drawn together solely by the charm of a mutual attraction,” as they jointly wrote in Marriage: Its History, Character, and Results in 1854. “Such a union seems to us to constitute the true marriage of mutual love in perfect freedom.”
Mary was a thirty-eight-year-old mother and a newly minted divorcée when she married Thomas, a bachelor six years her younger, in 1848. The newlyweds swathed themselves in a mantle of free-love utopian idealism under a halo of mysticism. At their wedding in New York City, presided over by a Swedenborgian minister, Mary vowed to Thomas: “I enter into no compact to be faithful to you. I only promise to be faithful to the deepest love of my heart … If my love leads me from you, I must go.” Free-love doctrine rested on the belief that no one can honestly vow to love another person forever; once love is lost, a partner is free to pursue their “passional affinities” and find romantic love elsewhere. Loveless marriages were poisonous, and yet these false unions formed the basis of society. “Everybody knows the evils of marriage institution, but like disease and death they are regarded as inevitable,” the couple wrote in Marriage. The Nicholses recoiled at the idea that the government could legislate love—they likened a woman’s married life to that of a slave’s. They wed as a concession, in exchange for the legal protection marriage afforded them until the laws could be reformed. But by all accounts theirs was a happy marriage—full of shared interests and mutual intellectual admiration.
In their quest to promote freedom and love, and the freedom to love, they influenced and alienated leading figures across the social reform spectrum. Edgar Allan Poe lauded Mary’s writing; he counted her among New York’s literati. On the other hand, Horace Mann, the newspaper editor and social reformer, regarded the pair as highly indecent. The suffragists wrinkled their righteous noses at them, but surreptitiously embraced their central belief: that marriage inherently subordinated women. More than a century and a half later, American society continues to take cues from the Nicholses’ radical attitudes on gender roles, love, sex, and marriage—and remains uncomfortable in its confrontation of those attitudes.
* * *
Thomas and Mary were both born in New Hampshire, she in 1810 and he in 1815. Thomas came from old New England stock—his father was a militiaman in the War of 1812 and his grandfather fought for the rebels in the Revolutionary War. As a medical student at Dartmouth, he attended a lecture on vegetarianism by the influential health reformer Sylvester Graham; he was instantly converted to Graham’s carefully regulated lifestyle system, which promoted physical and moral restoration through hygienic living and a diet free of stimulants and meat. Thomas left Dartmouth believing that he could better attend to his new convictions as a journalist. He made his way to New York City and found work at The Herald, where he wrote a lot of self-described “sad trash.” He was only twenty-one, but growing restless.
He moved to Buffalo and founded a paper to target the local political ring. His denunciations met with rancor, provoking the destruction of his printing press. Undaunted, he continued his counterattacks, which eventually landed him in the Erie County jail on charges of libel. Thus sprouted his first book, A Journal in Jail, and the beginnings of his literary career. After his stint in prison, he returned to New York City, where politics and social reform increasingly occupied him. He was particularly enraptured by Charles Fourier, the French philosopher, whose utopian theories formed the basis of most socialist thought in America at the time. From Fourier, Thomas and Mary acquired a lifelong commitment to the ideals of a liberated society based on plurality of love and communal living.
Mary Gove’s work, meanwhile, can be traced to a single question: To whom does my body belong? While her contemporary early feminists targeted voting reform, Mary devoted herself to educating women on their health, the mastery of which she believed was their sole path to autonomy and equality. A lonely, sickly, and inquisitive child, she married in 1831; though her husband was dismayingly conventional, she found freedom by opening a school and giving talks to women on female anatomy and physiology. But when tensions between the couple grew, culminating in a separation, the backlash was immediate—papers that had previously supported her now refused to publish the work of a woman who had broken her marital vows. This reception would become something of a lifelong trend. By the time she met Thomas at a Christmas party in 1847, she had fallen in with a Fourierist crowd, establishing herself as a potent and controversial voice in New York City, where she also ran a water-cure boarding house frequented by many of the city’s radical thinkers.
Mary was by far the most public female advocate for free love in the 1840s and 50s. Free love is commonly conflated with promiscuity, but the Nicholses advocated—and seemed to have practiced—moderation, based on the Grahamite belief that excessive sex was physically harmful. Still, her reputation was complicated by her promotion of the idea that women possessed healthy libidos and had the right not only to choose their partners, but also whether to become pregnant—and the father, or fathers, of their children. Her suffragist contemporaries were equally devoted to advancing women’s liberties, but Mary’s prurient reputation was a liability to the movement, which actively distanced itself from Mary even as it promulgated her thinking. Effectively, they wrote her out of their history.
In the fifteen years following their marriage, the Nicholses were rarely out of the public eye, and never far from a scandal or a reformist melee. They established various free-love communities around the Northeast, each of which inevitably folded under the weight of public objection. Thomas returned to medical school at New York University and graduated in 1850; he and his wife began to promote water-cure doctrines around New York City and launched the Water-Cure Journal, which amassed twenty thousand subscribers. The following year, the couple established the nation’s first school devoted to the principles of water-cure. They hoped to develop the Hydropathic Institute into a “School for Life,” which would act as the movement’s hub and graduate reformists who would lead the communitarian effort to reconstruct society.
Two years later, they relocated the school, which was increasingly popular, to Port Chester, New York, inviting all those “willing to be considered licentious by the world” to join them. Local outcry swelled, and the school didn’t last long. The Nicholses decamped to Long Island in 1852; they took over Modern Times, an existing utopian community, but doctrinarian and monetary conflicts ensured its brisk demise. Cincinnati was the next stop, followed by Yellow Springs, Ohio, where they established another water-cure institute in 1856 with some 500 followers. It was formally dedicated on April 7, Charles Fourier’s birthday, under a banner that read “Freedom, Fraternity, Chastity.” Horace Mann, the president of nearby Antioch College, was a vocal dissenter. But before he could lead the latest charge to remove them, the strangest twist in the Nicholses’ story came to pass.
Throughout her life, Mary had turned to the spirit world for guidance on philosophical and social matters. During a séance in Yellow Springs in early 1857, St. Ignatius of Loyola appeared to her and directed her to study the history of the Jesuits, prompting the couple to convert to Catholicism. The announcement of their sudden conversion was met with stunned surprise by their followers and incredulity by their detractors. Had Mary finally cracked under the relentless public assault? Regardless of the motivations, they improbably remained Catholics for the rest of their lives, continuing to pursue much of their old work, now stripped of free-love doctrine.
They lectured on their newfound faith around the Midwest, returning briefly to New York with the outbreak of the Civil War, and then moved permanently to England in 1861. In London they continued dabbling in spiritualism and social movements. Occasionally Thomas ventured into other topics, like How to Live on Sixpence a Day, the title of his 1878 book. He also frequently wrote for the New York Times from London during the Civil War. Mary remained a prolific lecturer and writer and outspoken advocate for women’s health for the rest of her life. She died in 1885 at the age of seventy-five; Thomas followed six years later, at eighty-six.
The recent debate surrounding marriage is not precisely the one that the Nicholses had hoped for—Thomas considered homosexuality to be amongst the least harmful of vices, an established practice that the government had no business interfering in—but surely they would have relished the public conversation. The two could not envision a nation in which women would enjoy legitimate rights while the traditional marriage constructs remained intact. Their audacious commitment to what amounts to a rather romanticized view of love, compounded by their confusing conversion, ultimately marginalized them, but it also paved the way for the Sangers, Motts, and Anthonys of early American feminism. They acted as a rare bridge between the private and public realms at a time when exposing a woman’s ankles was considered salacious. As Mary wrote nearly seventy years before women won the right to vote: “The day that I was able to say, I owe no fealty to a husband, or any human being, I will be faithful to myself, was my first day of freedom.”
Adee Braun is a writer in New York City. Her work has appeared on The Atlantic Online, Lapham’s Quarterly Online, NPR.org. and other sites.