Editor’s note: this story has been changed to include Aida Trapasso, who lived in the house from 1927 to 1955. In the original version, Trapasso had been inadvertently left out of the timeline. Thanks to a reader for bringing this to our attention.
There’s a giant building that looms on the commanding heights overlooking Hopewell Borough. Its view is concealed from the town below by a stand of trees that have no business being in New Jersey, such as Norwegian spruce and Japanese maples. But in the winter, after the leaves fall, passersby can catch a glimpse of the house. The view is best from the graveyard next door. It’s a huge, strangely shaped mansion of brick and dark wood, with two towers at its corners, one round and one square.
It is technically a Victorian house, but everyone in town calls it The Castle. It’s the kind of eerie building that attracts urban legends: that it has secret tunnels; that it was once the headquarters of a cult; that it is like a maze inside; and that it has ties to the origins of one of a powerful international corporation.
Not only are these urban legends true, but The Castle protects yet stranger and darker secrets.
The Castle was built by Webster Edgerly, a 19th-century health guru who made his fortune selling mail order books through an organization he created called the Ralston Health Club. At the height of its popularity, the club claimed 800,000 members and included former American presidents as well as, supposedly, Queen Victoria herself. The club was so popular that Purina Mills founder William Danforth paid Edgerly to endorse his company’s cereal products, going so far as to enter a partnership with Edgerly and change the name of his company to Ralston Purina in 1902.
Edgerly was clearly a notable person in his own time, yet, strangely, he is not the subject of any biography or history book. Before Ralston Purina was bought by Nestle in 2001, the company even took steps to erase Edgerly from its own corporate history, instead attributing the name to a fictional “Doctor Ralston.”
The real history of Edgerly and The Castle would have likely been forgotten if not for the work of an archaeologist named Janet Six.
Episode 4 of our Forgotten History podcast
with host Diccon Hyatt is out now! Featuring
an exclusive interview with Janet Six. Want to
learn more about The Castle and Ralstonism? Click here!
Nothing about Six’s early life suggested she would become entwined in The Castle’s mysteries. She grew up in northern California, dropped out of college at age 18 and moved to Hawaii, where she ran a sport fishing boat. It was there she became friends with Dawn Roberts, whose family had come into possession of a large, old mansion in a place Six had never heard of called Hopewell, New Jersey.
Years later, when Six returned to college, the Roberts family offered to let her stay at The Castle in exchange for working as its caretaker. For the next eight years, Six lived and worked on the property of the old mansion.
At first, the Castle’s inhabitants knew little about the mansion’s past. One hint came with the discovery of a Ralston Purina company magazine in the attic that mentioned a connection to Edgerly. Six, who was studying archaeology at Columbia, was intrigued and began to research the history of the house.
Later, when she was studying for her master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania, Six chose to make a detailed study of Ralston Heights and The Castle for her thesis. It was apparently the first time anyone, anywhere, had investigated the topic seriously.
“When I first got to U. Penn, my advisor was like, ‘This cannot be absent from history. You must be looking in the wrong places,'” Six says. “After five years, he finally conceded that this was absent from history. That no one had written about it and it had been intentionally swept under the rug.”
Edgerly was “run out of town” in MASSACHUSETTS—not for the last time in his life.
Six spent years delving into the life and work of Edgerly. She soon discovered there were very good reasons that the Ralston Purina Corporation preferred to be associated with the fake “Dr. Ralston” to the real Webster Edgerly and the tenets of the Ralston Health Club.
According to Six’s doctoral thesis, “Material Symbol: The Role of the Garden in the Transmission of Meaning,” Edgerly grew up in Massachusetts, the son of Rhoda Lucinda Stone, a cousin of the suffragette Lucy Stone, who named him in honor of the famous orator Daniel Webster. Six’s research determined that Edgerly graduated from Boston University with a law degree in 1876 and founded the Ralston Health Club that same year. The name of the club was a tribute to his mother.
* * *
He began writing books for the Ralston Health Club under the pen name Edmund Shaftesbury. He was a prolific writer, churning out at least 80 titles in his lifetime. At first, the books focused on elocution and oration, and exercises to strengthen the chest. The Victorian era was an age in which respiratory diseases, especially tuberculosis, were very common and very deadly. Shaftesbury’s writings found a ready audience of students who wished to improve their speaking and fortify themselves against disease amid an overall cultural mania for health.
Edgerly married, but left Massachusetts under a cloud of scandal after he suspected his young wife of having an affair. He arranged a sting operation at a hotel where the lovers were meeting and burst in on them. Six says he was then “run out of town,” (not for the last time in his life) and moved to Topeka, Kansas, where he met Danforth. He later moved to Washington, where he lived across the street from scientific luminaries Alexander Graham Bell and Nikola Tesla.
In addition to running the health club, Edgerly offered elocution and acting lessons, and wrote and acted in a number of plays.
“RALSTON” was an acronym: it stood for Regime, Activity, Light, Strength, Temperation, Oxygen and Nature.
As the Ralston Health Club grew in popularity, so too did the scope of Edgerly’s advice to his followers. Over the course of many books, it grew from a series of breathing exercises into something of a religion or even a cult. Ralstonism became a uniquely American combination of occultism, health fad-ism, hucksterism, and appalling levels of racism.
In an attempt to understand the mind that designed The Castle, Six bought every Ralston title she could get her hands on from antiques dealers, collectors, and Internet auctions, in the end collecting 55 of the books. The writings describe an incoherent and scientifically deficient belief system that was nevertheless highly effective at making money for the author.
The books were extremely expensive: One title, Higher Magnetism, sold for $25 in 1892, the equivalent of $650 today. By purchasing a book, one automatically became enrolled in the Ralston Health Club. Subsequently, members could advance through “levels” of the club by buying more books, with the goal of achieving immortality as a Level 100 Ralstonite. (“The highest real honor that can be conferred on any human being,” Edgerly wrote.) To recognize one another, Ralstonites wore black silk armbands called Ralstonettes.
Six says there were elements of multilevel marketing in how the Ralston Health Club was promoted. By buying four Ralston books, members received a fifth for free, and were encouraged to found their own local Ralston franchises.
Edgerly also pioneered the art of advertising to children. Ads for Purina’s Ralston Breakfast Health Food offer free wagons to children who buy enough cereal, and call on young readers to ask their grocer to stock Ralston products and pester their parents to buy them.
Shaftesbury created an acronym to explain the RALSTON name: it stood for Regime, Activity, Light, Strength, Temperation, Oxygen, and Nature. The Regime was a series of activities designed to stop the leakage of “vital force” from the human body. This included refraining from walking in straight lines, only making smooth motions, and walking exclusively on the balls of one’s feet. “Sudden jerks or jars can cause a very expensive leak of vital force,” Edgerly wrote. “The blow upon the heel in walking is unnatural and jerky.”
This resulted in a style of motion that looked odd to outsiders. And Edgerly evidently practiced what he preached. Six discovered a New York newspaper review of a play that Edgerly wrote and performed in which he played Christopher Columbus. The critic, unaware of the Ralstonite practice of toe walking, was baffled by the sight of a man with enormous calves mincing around the stage on the balls of his feet.
The books prescribed further exercises, such as picking up a marble in a circular motion and placing it back on the table with the goal of not having it move, an impossible task. Six said that when she lived in The Castle, she would break out Ralston books at parties make the guests go through the silly exercises found inside.
These exercises were said to increase a quality that Ralston called “personal magnetism,” a phrase he coined, perhaps having been influenced by Anton Mesmer’s concept of “animal magnetism.” Edgerly asserted that if one’s personal magnetism were powerful enough, he or she could communicate telepathically over great distances and even control the thoughts and actions of other people.
Edgerly instructed his followers on every aspect of their lives, including how often to have sex (no more than once every eight days) and with whom. He prescribed that young men have sex with women who are old enough to be their grandmothers, and when they were old enough to marry, in middle age, they choose a bride about 20 years their junior. When Edgerly married for a second time at age 42, it was to an 18 year old.
Despite this, the Ralston philosophy was remarkably generous towards women for its time. In an era when the mainstream opinion was that females were too delicate to exercise, Edgerly encouraged women to garden and ride bicycles, and asserted that women naturally had more personal magnetism than men.
* * *
While Edgerly was apparently less sexist than the norm, he was every bit as racist. “The dark side of the wackiness of Ralstonism is eugenics,” Six says. “He wants to castrate everyone of color and make a master race.”
In Edgerly’s writings, he considered whites to be a superior race, and all other races to be “antiracial.” He advocated that brown-skinned men be subjected to castration to prevent their passing their supposedly inferior intellectual capabilities along to their offspring (in Ralston’s book it was OK for white men to procreate with brown-skinned women, as women were thought only to pass their temperament, not their intellect, to children.)
On this subject, Edgerly was not an outlier in his own time. Six notes that Edgerly was writing during a period historians call the “whitening of America,” when post-slavery racial anxiety was high, and when the eugenics movement was abusing Darwin’s theory of natural selection to seek to breed an “improved” human race. Six notes that while this movement was taken the farthest by Hitler, in the United States about 20,000 people were forcibly sterilized in the name of eugenics.
“I believe in a new race. I believe that it should be strictly Caucasian because nature, the Bible, history and science speak plainly and conclusively on this question,” Edgerly wrote.
As Edgerly’s fame and wealth grew, he decided to found a community where his followers could gather to learn from his wisdom, and where a new race could be established. He settled on Hopewell, the “little Switzerland” of New Jersey, where there was plenty of farmland, access to railroads, and a pre-existing infrastructure to serve his “modern, scientific, garden of Eden.”
Beginning in 1894, he began purchasing land on the heights overlooking Hopewell, laying out a plan for “the future city of Ralston.” The city included 400 home lots, six small farms, and six palatial estates including his own. Notably lacking in the city of Ralston plans were fire stations, utilities, stores, hospitals, or public buildings of any kind other than an enormous “Temple of Ralston” at the center of the community. It seems Edgerly had pioneered another staple of modern American life: the sterile housing subdivision.
Edgerly’s books were so expensive that they were only available to the middle and upper classes, and the same was true of Ralston real estate, which was sold at an inflated price. Unlike many utopian communities designed around the same time as Ralston Heights, there was no pretense of equality: the settlement was intended for “Capitalists from Philadelphia and moneyed men from New York.”
The first building to go up was Ralston’s grand home, which was actually expanded outward from an existing house built by a Civil War colonel who fought for the U.S. The expanded house was a 27,000 square foot structure built of exotic dark wood and faced with bricks imported from England. There was a bathroom on each floor (a luxury in Victorian times, Six says.) Six describes the layout as “a giant maze of interconnecting rooms and doors.” No two rooms are alike. The third floor was devoted to classrooms for teaching elocution.
The overall effect of the building is unsettling. “I lived for eight years in that house,” Six says. “It definitely had a resonance. It had an energy. I don’t know how to explain it. Just like any kind of weird space that you go in — we call it phenomenology. Like when you go into a library, you’re quiet. You go into a church, you’re supposed to be respectful. It had an effect on you. I brought my advisor there from Penn, and he got lost. It would disorient you. It was kind of a mystery house. Kind of a confusing space.”
The house features an odd addition, a small room that Six at first assumed had been stuck on after the house was done. But it turned out Edgerly himself had built it.
Edgerly, who split his time between his Washington Home and Hopewell, claimed only to sleep one hour per night, which partly explains his manic work output. “It’s hard to write 85 books, even bad ones,” Six says.
Edgerly’s furious, and, Six speculates, possibly cocaine-fueled typing evidently drove his young wife crazy, so he built an ancillary building where he could expound on the principles of Ralstonism without disturbing anyone else.
Edgerly did a poor job
building the reservoir. residents
of Hopewell complained of
water tasting of asphalt.
As if the grand edifice of Ralston Manor did not sufficiently communicate the wealth and power of its owner, the estate included sprawling gardens and greenhouses. There were orchards, a vineyard, cottages, wells with windmills, water reservoirs, a water tower, a cement sidewalk network two miles long, an icehouse, a gazebo, and other outbuildings.
The garden included continuously flowing ponds. Edgerly planted maples from Japan, spruce from Norway, and ginkgo trees from China. He cultivated tropical fruits and flowers. He would send garlands and fruit baskets down to the residents of Hopewell to overawe the townsfolk with his mastery over nature.
Six, who combed through the Hopewell Herald for mentions of Edgerly, said his publicity campaign appeared to work for a while. Edgerly’s wealth and gifts earned him goodwill in the town. But then he overplayed his hand, and embarked on a campaign of warning the town residents about the dangers of matches and the vulnerability of their village to the ravages of fire.
To help remedy the scare that he created, he donated land for a new water reservoir, and offered to build it himself. (Some skeptics noted that this water supply would also allow Edgerly to build the rest of the homes he was planning.)
Edgerly did a poor job building the reservoir, and it cracked within two months of completion, and the residents of Hopewell complained of water tasting of asphalt. This episode led to Edgerly being run out of town for the second time in his life. He and his wife retained ownership of Ralston Heights but moved to Trenton.
His scheme of a racial utopia never came to fruition. Only 25 of the lots sold, and Six found no evidence that any homes other than Edgerly’s were ever built. Six said the real estate project likely failed because there was no employment nearby for anyone who might want to take up residence there, and that Edgerly was probably asking too high a price for the land.
* * *
Edgerly died in 1926 while undergoing a colonoscopy in Trenton. The Ralston Health Club died out along with him, but its name was carried on in the Ralston Purina corporation. While it was best known for its pet food, Ralston Purina continued to make products said to be fit for human consumption. In 1984, before it was itself gobbled up by Nestle, Ralston Purina acquired Continental bakeries, the maker of Twinkies.
Edgerly’s wife moved back to Ralston Heights and sold off most of the estate to Aida Trapasso, who lived there until 1955. Two of Trapasso’s four daughters continued to live in the great house, slowly selling off the remaining grounds piecemeal to stay afloat while the Castle fell into disrepair. Feral cats and wild animals moved in and the home took on a ramshackle appearance.
Six says it’s likely that many of the urban legends originated around this time when the home looked dilapidated. In 1971, one of the sisters lost the house in a poker game, Six says. The new owner, Craig Miller, spent $250,000 fixing it up but the bank foreclosed on the property in 1975.
The mansion was vacant until 1979, when Sally Lee Roberts bought it at a sheriff’s auction and began further repairs. In the 1980s and 1990s, the home developed a bohemian reputation as some of the rooms were rented out to guests. Six says John Popper of Blues Traveler lived there while the band was just getting started, and would often play local high school parties.
In 2009, the home was sold to Hope and Kevin Cotter, who further restored the home and now use it to host fundraisers several times a year.
There is one last urban legend: that The Castle was a stop on the underground railroad, and that it has tunnels linking it to the graveyard across the street. Six said this is entirely possible. The owner of the older home on which Ralston Heights is built, Colonel Gordon, did in fact fight for the Union in the Civil War. And Six said that she did discover bricked-off tunnels in the basement.
One day she and some of the Roberts siblings took a sledgehammer to them to see what lay behind, and discovered rubble-filled tunnels before homeowner Phil Roberts put a stop to the impromptu excavation. Six wonders if they were just service tunnels for servants to carry out their duties out of sight, or if they really were for the underground railroad.
Six conducted an archaeological survey of the manor and the gardens, of which only ruins remain. She published her thesis in 2003 and subsequently wrote an article for Archaeology Magazine that kicked off renewed interest in the long forgotten story of Edgerly and Ralstonism. Since earning her doctorate, Six now teaches archaeology at the University of Hawaii and is the owner of Sixth Sense Archaeology.
But she still wants to return to the subject of Edgerly someday and write a book about him that expands beyond the small slice of his life she uncovered in Hopewell. It’s a story that has an almost magnetic pull on Six and others around the world who have begun researching Edgerly.
“It really is a twisted tale of magnetic mind control, castration, and Twinkies,” She says.