Nichols, Mary Gove (1810–1884)

views updated

Nichols, Mary Gove (1810–1884)

American author, lecturer, and practicing physician who advocated proper health practices for women and led the early free-love movement in demanding radical changes in marriage. Name variations: as author, nonfiction works up to 1848 are by Mary Gove; most of her fiction under the pseudonym Mary Orme. Pronunciation: NI-ckles. Born Mary Sargeant Neal on August 10, 1810, in Goffstown, New Hampshire; died on May 30, 1884, in London, England, of breast cancer; daughter of William A. Neal and Rebecca R. Neal; had little formal education; married Hiram Gove, on March 5, 1831 (divorced 1848); married Thomas Low Nichols, on July 29, 1848; children: (first marriage) Elma Penn Gove (b. March 1, 1832); (second marriage) Mary Wilhelmina Nichols (b. November 5, 1850).

Converted to Presbyterianism and then Quakerism (c. 1825); moved with husband to Weare, New Hampshire (1831), then to Lynn, Massachusetts (c. 1837); took up study of principles of health; gave first lectures on health for women in Boston (1838); toured northeastern states with health lectures (1838–41); left husband (1841); studied water-cure methods in New England and New York (1842–45); moved to New York City (1845); operated a water-cure boarding house (1845–50); met Thomas Low Nichols (1847); married (1848) after Hiram Gove divorced her; operated health schools in New York state with new husband and embraced the free-love movement (1851–53); lived at Modern Times, on Long Island, then the center of free love (1853–55); became a spiritualist medium (1854); moved to Cincinnati (fall 1855); opened Memnonia, school of life and health, in Yellow Springs, Ohio (July 1856); converted to Roman Catholicism with family (March 29, 1857); left with family for England (1861); operated watercure establishment in Malvern (1867–72).

Selected writings:

Lectures to Ladies on Anatomy and Physiology (Boston: Saxton and Peirce, 1842); Uncle John; or, "It is too much trouble" (NY: Harper & Brothers, 1846); Experience in Water-Cure (NY: Fowler and Wells, 1849); Agnes Morris (NY: Harper and Brothers, 1849); The Two Loves: or, Eros and Anteros (NY: Stringer and Townsend, 1849); Mary Lyndon or, Revelations of a Life (NY: Stringer and Townsend, 1855); A Woman's Work in Water Cure and Sanitary Education (London: Nichols, 1874); (with T.L. Nichols) Marriage (Cincinnati: Valentine Nicholson, 1854).

The 1847 Christmas Eve party in New York City included reformers seeking to establish earthly utopias and literary figures hoping for fame if not much fortune. New York was the center of the most advanced ideas and home to the most earnest reformers in the United States. Edgar Allan Poe was there and recited his "Raven." One of the guests, a small, dark-haired woman, with piercing black eyes, embodied many of the most radical trends of the day. She had moved to New York two years before, where she wrote for Poe's Broadway Journal and other magazines and built a small medical practice at her boarding house based on water cure. Nothing that Mary Gove did, however, went without controversy. Family members of one of her patients discovered to their horror that she had left her husband and that her boarding house included alcoholics and radicals. The Christmas party would change her life more completely than she could have imagined. There she met a journalist whom she regarded immediately as "a mere dandy." But along with her reservations came an attraction, or as it was called at the time, affinity, for Thomas Low Nichols. The two became lovers in the following months and eventually man and wife. Together, they would work to advance causes that Mary Gove had long before embraced—health reform for women, marriage reform (later called free love), and a social reform that would include higher spiritual values.

Mary Gove Nichols was born Mary Neal in 1810, in Goffstown, New Hampshire, the third of four children of William and Rebecca Neal . Some time after 1820, the family moved to Craftsbury, Vermont, where Nichols suffered from homesickness and other ailments. She later attributed her religious conversion, at about age 15, to ill health. Adolescence proved an especially trying time. Nichols joined the Presbyterian church, a move that distanced her from her beloved but freethinking father. Then a quarrel with the Presbyterian minister's wife effectively ended her association with the church. Because she was too bright for the town's schoolmistress, Nichols soon had to pursue her education on her own; her studies included works on physiology borrowed from her brother who was studying medicine. By age 18, she was writing stories and poems for local newspapers. After succeeding in becoming certified, she taught in a local school.

Nichols then turned to the Quaker religion. As there were no Quakers in Craftsbury, her knowledge of their lives and beliefs came from her reading. Soon, she was adopting their simple dress and peculiar form of speech. In 1831, she married Hiram Gove, a Quaker from Weare, New Hampshire, but the union went sour from the beginning. Hiram, who was much older than she, took for granted that his wife should obey him in everything. Because he had failed in business years before and was still paying his debts, the couple needed Nichols' income from needlework, writing, and later from teaching. In 1832, their first daughter, Elma Penn, was born. Four later pregnancies, however, ended either in miscarriages or infant deaths. Nichols found the Quakers of Weare, including her husband, narrow and unsympathetic. When the family moved to Lynn, Massachusetts, the climate of the new religious community remained the same. Her idealized view of the religion was effectively destroyed.

When will woman cease to be an appendage…; the miserable mother of miserable men and more wretched women?

—Mary Gove Nichols

Mary's difficult pregnancies and general poor health led her to further study in medical texts and brought her into the health-reform movement. In the early 1830s, Sylvester Graham, a Yankee lecturer and writer, had started a revolution in the American understanding of health and sickness by condemning personal habits as the major causes of disease. His message appealed strongly to Nichols, who attended all of Graham's lectures when he came to Lynn in 1837. She soon became so active and well known for her advocacy of health reform that another leading health reformer, William A. Alcott, endorsed Nichols as a lecturer on health for women. She began speaking in Boston in 1838 and, in the following years, traveled throughout the northeast, drawing audiences of 400 to 500 women interested in regaining their health. By 1840, she had written articles, under a pseudonym, for the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal.

Nichols became the first and one of the most important advocates of healthy habits for women. The movement to educate women about their bodies, and so give them greater control over their lives, became a primary force in women's liberation in the 19th century. "Health is maintained by a simple nourishing diet, pure air, exercise, cleanliness, and the regulation of the passions," she wrote in Experience in WaterCure. Like Graham and Alcott, Nichols assumed that the perverse practices of society distorted human life and consequently created sickness. Attacks on poor diet were at the center of the health-reform movement, especially eating meat and spicy foods, and drinking alcohol. For women, however, the harm of custom went further. In her Lectures to Ladies, Nichols pointed out that middle-class women took little exercise and adopted fashions "as repugnant to health as they could well be contrived, even had the contrivers sought after the most deleterious mode." From the heavy load of hair, wig, and bonnet to the tight shoes she wore, the middle-class woman bore an enormous weight of bad dressing habits. Nichols repeatedly condemned the "death grasp of the corset" that compressed and collapsed the lungs. By 1853, she briefly adopted the Bloomer costume that eliminated many of the layers of garments that women wore and so allowed greater freedom of movement. Nichols was the first woman to speak out on the evil consequences of masturbation as a problem for young women. She warned that too much sexual gratification, of whatever kind, could cause disease.

The success of Nichols' lectures contrasted darkly with the continued deterioration of her marriage. In Philadelphia, she spoke to an audience of both men and women, a practice still new and unrespectable. But she found support from the medical men of the city. In both Philadelphia and Baltimore, her lectures were received "with all the favor I could ask," she wrote to her friend John Neal. Yet Hiram Gove took the money from her lecture tours as his due under the property laws of the day. Even though her earnings from writing and lecturing had become the major support for the family, she had no control over any money she made. Nichols' personal conflict eventually convinced her that life with her husband had become unbearable and formed the basis for her continued questioning of marriage as an institution.

In 1841, one of her audiences voted to give her a purse with $35 in gold. She used the money to leave Hiram and the Quaker religion. Taking her daughter with her, Nichols went to live with her father, who managed to keep Hiram away. While there, she published her first book, Lectures to Ladies (1842). She also met Henry Gardiner Wright, an Englishman who had come to America to live in one of the many utopian communities of the time. Wright greatly improved Nichols' understanding of water cure, a new medical practice that included frequent bathing in a variety of forms, such as showers, wet sheets, and sitzbaths. From the mid-1840s, Nichols worked as a water-cure physician or hydrotherapist. She studied at a well-known resort in Brattleboro, Vermont, then practiced as the resident physician in Lebanon Springs, New York, in 1844. The brief stay with her father proved an idyllic interlude. She fell in love with Wright and lived free from the domestic tyranny of Hiram Gove. Unfortunately, Wright was also married, and soon returned to England. Around 1845, Nichols' father died. Hiram Gove took advantage of his wife's vulnerability to remove Elma to a Quaker community for several months. With no legal means of regaining her child, Nichols accepted the help of a lawyer who simply led the child out of the community.

Mother and daughter escaped to New York City, where they stayed initially with Dr. Joel Shew in his water-cure establishment. To support Elma and herself, Nichols wrote short fiction under the pseudonym Mary Orme for Godey's Lady's Book and other magazines. During her stay in New York, she also wrote her first novels and became well known in New York's literary circles. One of her admirers was the Southern novelist Charles Wilkins Webber. Nichols also met Poe and tried to gather some support for his work. Poe apparently helped her, as well, since he edited the Broadway Journal that published her story "The Gift of Prophecy." But literature could never become a full-time occupation for Nichols. With the help of a young Jewish Southerner, Marx Edgeworth Lazarus, Nichols opened a water-cure boarding house in New York. Although a trained physician, Lazarus believed in the health-reform movement and enlisted Nichols' care for his sister, Ellen Lazarus , who had traveled north in search of help for her chronic illness. Ellen became the first of several residents and patients at Nichols' establishment. The boarders followed a Graham diet and a water-cure regimen, and gained insights into disease and health from Mary's teaching.

Residents of the boarding house held a wide range of beliefs; several supported the movement to build utopian communities as envisioned by the French theorist Charles Fourier. Albert Brisbane, the leader of the American Fourierist movement, frequently visited Nichols' establishment. The residents freely discussed ideas ranging from new forms of ownership and industry to the end of slavery and the reform of marriage. In her autobiography, Mary Lyndon, Nichols described the boarding house as "a general depôt of ultraisms in thought." The free exchange of ideas, and the unchaperoned mingling of men and women at a time when middle-class women rarely spoke with unrelated mates, left the boarding house without a respectable reputation. "I hear nothing of that establishment except that it is considered to be a place unfit for persons of good character to be connected with," wrote one of Ellen Lazarus' relatives. When Ellen returned home later in 1846 one of her aunts became convinced that "Mrs. Gove is a dangerous person." Another was shocked that

"Ellen uses terms familiarly which shock her [Aunt's] ear and whatever good she may have gained it is most offensively mingled with such knowledge as no lady ought to know exists."

In 1847, when Mary met the journalist Thomas Low Nichols at the Christmas Eve party, a courtship followed that included frequent letters and visits. Although Mary was still married, they decided to live together despite social disapproval. At almost the same time, however, Hiram Gove, who wanted to remarry, instituted divorce proceedings. Mary and Thomas were married on July 29, 1848, by a Swedenborgian minister. They had one child, Mary Wilhelmina, born in 1850. Health and marriage reform became central to their work in the years following. Thomas attended New York University's medical school for one year, emerging as Dr. Nichols and becoming a practicing physician. In general, he spent more of his time writing and publicizing their shared plans and ideas, Mary Nichols remained the primary medical practitioner. In many cases, Thomas adopted his wife's ideas and elaborated them in his writings. "We were," he recalled in Nichols Health Manual, "a mutual inspiration and help to each other." Together, they opened the American Hydropathic Institute in September 1851, with 25 students of both sexes. In 1852, they moved to Port Chester, New York, to open a summer school for women.

Controversy swirled around the Nicholses, however, and eventually ended their efforts to establish a health school in the East. With other advanced thinkers of the time, they had questioned the value of the institution of marriage. In their own lives, they had committed themselves to one another despite social conventions that would have forbidden such a relationship. Not surprisingly, they were among the first to embrace the free-love ideas that appeared in the early 1850s, and Mary Nichols became the bestknown woman to advocate free love before the Civil War. Building on the ideas of Brisbane, Lazarus, Josiah Warren, and other writers of the middle 19th century, she and her husband asserted that love could never be bound by social conventions, and that the only genuine love between men and women was a love that could freely change. In a collaborative work entitled Marriage, Thomas expressed the couple's belief that "marriage and slavery are alike the grave of human liberty." If destroying marriage meant undermining a corrupt society, then they were ready for the consequences: "Let it be destroyed; the sooner the better." Their turn to free love effectively barred their writings from the Watercure Journal, leading them in 1853 to begin Nichols Journal. Under various names, this publication continued until 1856. By 1853, they proposed to establish Desarollo, the Institute of Life, at Josiah Warren's individualist community of Modern Times, on Long Island. Conflicts with Warren, who never supported free love, and the growing controversy surrounding their doctrines, forced the Nicholses to abandon Desarollo and their tract of land in Modern Times.

They moved to Cincinnati in the fall of 1855, determined to open a community dedicated to physical and spiritual renewal. About one year before, Mary Nichols had discovered, as did many women in the rapidly growing spiritualist movement of the time, what she believed was the ability to communicate with spirits of the dead. Messages from beyond the grave extolled her efforts to form a society that would bring its members to the highest level of human existence. She and Thomas promoted both the Progressive Union, which was to be a network of like-minded individuals devoted to spiritual, physical, and social perfection, and Memnonia, a community built on the principles of the Progressive Union and supported by donations from Progressive Union members. Early in 1856, they managed to lease a water-cure establishment at Yellow Springs, 70 miles northwest of Cincinnati. Despite local resistance, the spiritualists in Yellow Springs supported the Nicholses, and in July 1856 they opened Memnonia to about 20 students. The small community followed a regimen of water cure, early morning seances, and close study of the most important reform literature.

By 1856, however, Mary and her husband were moving to new intellectual and spiritual terrain. Earlier that year, they had announced their Law of Progression in Harmony which stated that love might be free, but that sexual intercourse should take place only when a couple intended to have children. While most free lovers believed that the passions should be carefully controlled, they quickly divided over the Nicholses' Law of Progression in Harmony, with most holding that sex every year or so was too infrequent. The spiritual development of Mary and Thomas, however, soon went beyond alienating a few free lovers. Mary Nichols claimed that in the winter of 1856 she began to receive messages from various Roman Catholic spirits, including St. Francis Xavier and St. Ignatius Loyola. These spirits explained Catholicism and urged the Nicholses to convert. On March 29, 1857, Thomas and Mary Nichols, along with Elma Gove, were received into the Roman Catholic Church. They spent a few months in study and meditation at a convent school of the Ursulines in Ohio, after which they continued their work as advocates of health, lecturing to and working with Catholic religious orders from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1860, the Nicholses returned to New York City to establish a water-cure practice, but soon became involved in the political upheavals surrounding secession. Opposing the Union cause, they sailed for England, where they remained active in spiritualist circles and wrote for a variety of publications. They also published their own magazine, Herald of Health. During the late 1860s, Mary Nichols lost her sight to cataracts for five years, until two operations around 1869 restored her vision. From 1867 to 1872, the couple ran a water-cure establishment at Malvern. After they moved back to London, she continued to see patients in their lodgings. Just as she had been in the vanguard of health reform and free love, Mary Nichols remained an outspoken advocate for Roman Catholicism and the rights of women. She wrote to Paulina Wright Davis that "veneration for woman" had always "existed in the hearts of true Catholics." In the same letter, written about ten years before her death in 1884, Mary Gove Nichols provided the best summary of her own life's work in her wish for the future: "I heartily bid God speed to every righteous effort to promote the freedom of woman in love and wisdom, and the consequent purity and health of her own life and that of her children."


Blake, John B. "Mary Gove Nichols, Prophetess of Health," in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association. Vol. 106. June 29, 1962, pp. 219–234.

Gleason, Philip. "From Free Love to Catholicism: Dr. and Mrs. Thomas L. Nichols at Yellow Springs," in Ohio Historical Quarterly. Vol. 70. October 1961, pp. 283–307.

Nichols, Mary Gove. Mary Lyndon or, Revelations of a Life. NY: Stringer and Townsend, 1855.

Nichols Journal (title varies), 1853–1856.

Noever, Janet Hubly. "Passionate Rebel: The Life of Mary Gove Nichols, 1810–1884," Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oklahoma, 1983.

Papers of George Mordecai in the Southern History Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. These include the correspondence of Marx Edgeworth Lazarus, Ellen Lazarus, and various Lazarus and Mordecai aunts.

Papers of Paulina Wright Davis, Vassar College Library.

Richards, Irving T. "Mary Gove Nichols and John Neal," in The New England Quarterly. Vol. 7. July 1934, pp. 335–355.

Stearns, Bertha-Monica. "Two Forgotten New England Reformers," in New England Quarterly. Vol. 6. March 1933, pp. 59–84.

suggested reading:

Nissenbaum, Stephen. Sex, Diet, and Debility in Jacksonian America: Sylvester Graham and Health Reform. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Spurlock, John C. Free Love: Marriage and Middle-Class Radicalism in America, 1825–1860. NY: New York University Press, 1988.


American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts. University of Virginia, Alderman Library, Manuscripts Department, Charlottesville, Virginia.

John C. Spurlock , Associate Professor of History, Seton Hill College, Greensburg, Pennsylvania

About this article

Nichols, Mary Gove (1810–1884)

Updated About content Print Article