A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The story of New Jersey's failed "Garden of Eden"
I first laid eyes on Ralston Heights in the dead of winter ten years ago. The late-nineteenth-century New Jersey estate, across the street from a graveyard, looked bleak in the afternoon light. As I made my way onto the grounds, I could see several ruined buildings and what looked to be the remains of a roadway leading into the woods from a crumbling gate. A mansion, known by locals as the "Castle," loomed at the top of a circular driveway, its round turret barely visible through the mist. Inside the mansion, I found a maze of interconnecting hallways and circular rooms so disorienting that for a time I was unable to find my way back out.
This spooky mansion and its decaying grounds are all that remain of one man's vision of utopia. Between 1894 and 1895, Webster Edgerly, the charismatic leader of a social movement known as Ralstonism, bought up large chunks of farmland along the northern slope of central New Jersey's Hopewell Valley. Here, in what he called "a scientifically proven Garden of Eden," Edgerly was intent on building a future "City of Ralston" to be populated by just a few of his 800,000 followers. Ralstonites (the name came from an acronym of Edgerly's seven principles for living: Regime, Activity, Light, Strength, Temperation, Oxygen, and Nature) bought Edgerly's books and health-food products, followed his strict dietary prescriptions, and did bizarre physical exercises to attain "personal magnetism," which Edgerly promised would give them control over the thoughts of others. Edgerly was also a strong proponent of eugenics and saw his followers as the founding members of a new race free from "impurities."
While the mansion underwent a series of renovations in the years since Edgerly died, the surrounding grounds did not fare as well. Much of the estate lies in ruins, buried beneath decades of leaf fall and decay. Over the years, the site's history has become muddled by local ghost stories, scandalous legends, and one particularly persistent rumor that its construction was some how connected to the Ralston-Purina company, famous for its line of pet chows.
In 1999, in conjunction with graduate work in historical archaeology, I began actively researching the history of Ralston Heights. I wanted to understand Edgerly's motivations behind the construction of the site, especially the Great Walled Garden, an area closed off from the rest of the estate by a formidable eight-foot-high brick wall. Was the estate laid out according to the principles of Ralstonism? Or was Edgerly simply another wealthy entrepreneur using his property as an elaborate display of wealth and power? Using an archaeological approach by mapping the ruins and closely studying the layout of the mansion and garden, I felt I might be able to answer the question.
Janet Six is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently a lecturer at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo. She would like to thank B.W. Johnson and William Michael Williams for their generous assistance.