The free-love couple who pissed off nineteenth-century America.
A lithograph against polygamy from an 1850 book.
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.” Read More