The world’s first animal rights organization launched successfully, then fractured & failed without a second meeting
NEW YORK CITY––What if the animal rights movement, as we know it today, had launched out of the older humane movement 55 years earlier?
It nearly happened.
The animal rights movement as a distinct direction in animal advocacy is usually dated from 1976.
In that year, Henry Spira (1927-1998) founded the organization Animal Rights International from his rent-controlled apartment overlooking Central Park. Demonstrating focused, media-savvy tactics, Spira stopped cruel experiments on cats at the nearby American Museum of Natural History and inspired a generation of younger activists to take up the animal cause.
But as Spira himself knew and recognized, his work emerged from the shadows of a little-known predecessor, Diana Belais, who with her husband David had advanced similar ideas from that very same neighborhood, with much more influence than was remembered more than half a century later.
• What if animal rights advocacy had gained momentum before factory farming methods were invented?
• Before laboratory use of animals expanded into big business?
• Before wildlife management was funded by hunting license fees?
• Before the humane movement came to be dominated by an “animal welfare” rather than animal rights philosophy?
• What if the animal rights movement had, from the first, embraced what are today called “intersectional issues,” including women’s rights, opposition to racism, and even LGBTQ rights, half a century before the 1969 Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village initiated the LGBTQ movement, just ahead of, yet entirely separately, from the animal rights movement?
New multi-faceted progressive cause
Women, in 1921, had only gained the right to vote in the U.S. one year previously. The “Red Scare” of 1919 was waning, after having smashed left-leaning progressive causes across the country, but the Ku Klux Klan was at the murderous peak of its influence, culminating in the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, which razed the most prosperous black community west of the Mississippi River.
But the debut of a new multi-faceted progressive cause might nonetheless have succeeded, impelled by the brief confluence of Belais and Royal Dixon, two flamboyant and charismatic personalities whose talents and background, differently mixed, paralleled those of the late Cleveland Amory, who founded the Fund for Animals in 1968, and Ingrid Newkirk, who cofounded People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in 1981.
Began with 300 high donors
Belais and Dixon on March 13, 1921 attracted more than 300 prominent and affluent New Yorkers to the Hotel Astor for the founding meeting of the First Church for Animal Rights.
Their focus was strictly on animal issues, with no evident attention to the “intersectional” issues that lay ahead, and would to some extent disrupt the rest of their lives.
“Services will be held each Sunday at 3 p.m. in the hotel,” reported The New York Times. “A school for children to teach consideration for animals and the prevention and cure of bird and dog diseases also is contemplated. An animal ritual and an animal Bible will be used at the Sunday services. The Bible will contain chapters from both the Old and New Testaments dealing with humanity to animals.”
“The oneness of all life”
Membership cards distributed to donors stipulated that the purpose of the First Church for Animal Rights was
“To preach and teach the oneness of all life, and awaken the humane consciousness;
To champion the cause of animals’ rights;
To develop the character of youth through humane education;
To train and send forth humane workers; to awaken the realization that every living creature has the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness;
To act as spiritual fountainhead and spokesman of humane organizations and animal societies, and give a better understanding of their work and needs to the public.”
Besides Belais and Dixon, both accomplished orators, the speakers included Miles M. Dawson, an early advocate of national health insurance; attorney John Edward Oster, remembered as the definitive biographer of John Marshall, the first U.S. Supreme Court chief justice; and Anna Catherine Murphy, second wife of the poet Edwin Markham.
Markham, then age 69, best known as author of “The Man With The Hoe,” would in 1922 dedicate the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. At his death in 1940 The New York Times lauded Markham as “the dean of American poets.”
Yet almost nothing is known of Murphy. “I had not heard of this before, and there seems to be little written about his wives,” Markham biographer Annette Nellen told ANIMALS 24-7. “Edwin Markham wrote articles about child labor that helped get laws enacted. I haven’t read all of his poems, but don’t recall any animal themes,” Nellen said, while recalling that he wrote poems entitled “The Hummingbird,” “The Lizard,” and “The Panther.”
Diana Belais, 51 then, described at times in press accounts as a curly red-haired firebrand, and as “middle-aged” at age 67, had already been battling on behalf of animals for most of her life.
Published record of her antivivisection activity appears to have started in 1889, when she was 19. She founded The Open Door, an animal welfare magazine, in 1895, and continued publishing it until 1938. Her husband, jeweler David Belais, in 1893 founded the Humane Society of New York (formally incorporated in 1904).
David and Diana Belais appeared to have become dissatisfied with the drift of the then-35-year-old American SPCA away from founder Henry Bergh’s emphasis on doing anti-cruelty investigations and prosecution, into focusing for most of the 20th century on doing animal control for New York City. In 1912 David Belais challenged the ASPCA’s use of $1 million in receipts for the animal control contract to start an endowment, instead of using the money to save more of the 80,000 animals per year that the ASPCA was then killing with carbide gas.
Fought the ASPCA & American Humane Association
Taking a stronger position than the ASPCA against laboratory use of animals, the Humane Society of New York soon found itself ostracized by the American Humane Association, then the only national humane organization, whose focus at the time was on child protection.
Circa 1908 Diana Belais founded the New York Anti-Vivisection Society, to campaign against vivisection more vigorously than the constraints of operating an animal shelter permitted.
For the next two decades Diana Belais made frequent headlines in public debates against prominent medical researchers––in one instance, three against one––and early science fiction writer H.G. Wells, who defended vivisection.
Diana Belais also presaged to some extent the PETA use of eroticism to promote the animal cause. A November 1912 fundraiser for the New York Anti-Vivisection Society held at the Hotel Plaza created a particular stir.
“The identity of two society women who appeared in Greek and modern dances was not disclosed,” said the New York Tribune, but two young women who assisted Belais and may have been the dancers were Maud R. Ingersoll, then 30, and E. Almy Gatter, about the same age.
Maud Ingersoll, daughter of famed rationalist orator Robert Ingersoll, was in her youth a well-known activist in her own right, traveling and sometimes lecturing with her father from age 15 until his death in 1899. But Robert Ingersoll’s notoriety among tent circuit evangelists made a target of his daughter. Several messy episodes after his death gave the evangelists much to talk about.
Maud Ingersoll’s work for the New York Anti-Vivisection Society may have ended before the attempt was made to form the First Church for Animal Rights.
At the formation of the First Church for Animal Rights the star performer was Royal Dixon, author of The Human Side of Plants (1914), The Human Side of Birds (1917), and The Human Side of Animals (1918).
A Wikipedia entry apparently drawn mostly from a 1926 New International Encyclopedia listing says, “Royal Dixon (1885 1962) was an American author, born at Huntsville, Texas, educated at the Sam Houston Normal Institute and as a special student at the University of Chicago. After spending five years with the department of botany at the Field Museum of Chicago, he entered the literary field as a member of the Houston Chronicle staff,” contributing as a columnist from 1910 to 1927.
Dixon “made special contributions to the newspapers of New York, where he lectured for the Board of Education,” Wikipedia continues. “His interest and attention were directed to immigration, as a director of publicity of the Commission of Immigrants in America, and as managing editor of The Immigrants in America Review,” a periodical which vanished without any other trace.
Royal Dixon in 1932 claimed an 1885 birth date, but the Social Security Death Index, which lists all births and deaths of deceased U.S. residents known to the U.S. Social Security Administration, records no such birth.
The Abilene Reporter-News on June 6, 1962 reported that Dixon had died in Houston, stating his age as both 75 and 82. The Social Security Death Index does not list the death of anyone named Dixon near Royal Dixon’s reported death date, either, but does document that eight men have been named Royal Dixon, two of whom had lifespans approximating that of the author.
The other six were all born while the author and lecturer was in mid-career. Five were born in places where he spoke.
Shaved years off his age?
One of the two elder Royal Dixons, 1892-1971, was too young to have the life history that the author claimed to have before producing his first book, and appears to have lived quietly in upstate New York. One of the younger Royal Dixons appears to have been that man’s son.
The other elder Royal Dixon, 1876-1963, appears to be the author––if the author shaved nine years off his actual age in the information given to the New International Encyclopedia. This seems likely: the author Royal Dixon, as late as 1940, was still publicizing his speaking appearances with a profile photo first used at least 25 years earlier, when he asserted in Atlanta that “Every woman reprises some type of flower or plant.”
“Which flower are you?”
The Atlanta Constitution magazine section on that occasion devoted a full page to Dixon’s assessments of socialites including Miss Eva Balfour––a trumpet––and Mrs. Ava Willing Aster––the American Beauty Rose.
Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the June 12, 2016 Pulse LGBTQ nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in which two of his closest friends were killed along with 47 others, went on to found The Dru Project, which provides scholarships to LGBTQ individuals and supports gay-straight alliance groups in schools. Wolf has also published a brief biography of Dixon and Dixon’s longtime companion Chester Snowden (1900-1984).
The Wolf biography fills in many of the gaps, and may indirectly explain what happened to the First Church for Animal Rights.
According to Wolf, “Dixon was born in Huntsville (Texas), in 1880,” five years before his earliest admitted birth date, and died in December 1962. The birth date coincides with the older of the two ages stated at his death by the Abilene Reporter-News.
The first assembly of the First Church for Animal Rights, like much else that either Belais or Dixon did, generated reverberating publicity.
Two months later it was discussed in the Mansfield News, of Mansfield, Ohio.
The Evening Independent of Massillon, Ohio, likened the Bahai religion to the First Church for Animal Rights in 1932.
The San Antonio Light mentioned the First Church for Animal Rights in connection with a Dixon lecture in 1936.
Yet there is no record that the First Church for Animal Rights ever met even a second time, despite the success of the first meeting, and even though the timing for launch looked auspicious.
The U.S. humane movement had enjoyed rapid growth from the formation of the ASPCA in 1867 to 1914, with the American Humane Education Society as an effective recruiting arm for the entire cause.
Bands of Mercy
Formed by George Angell in 1882, 14 years after he founded the Massachusetts SPCA, the American Humane Education Society focused for about 30 years on encouraging the organization of schoolroom humane education clubs called the Bands of Mercy.
More than 265,000 Bands of Mercy were chartered by the time of Angell’s death in 1909. His successor, the Reverend Francis Rowley, hosted a Band of Mercy tent meeting in Kansas City in 1914 that drew 10,000 teachers and ministers to learn about humane education, and 15,000 school children to hear the lessons.
A parallel organization for teens called the Jack London Club claimed 750,000 members. World War I and the post-war recession, however, caused MSPCA fundraising to implode. Rowley had incurred enormous debt in building Angell Memorial Animal Hospital, opened in 1915. To avoid losing the marble hospital, the MSPCA cut back funding for the American Humane Education Society, including the Bands of Mercy and Jack London Clubs.
The American Humane Education Society did, however, keep traveling black humane evangelists Richard Carroll, John W. Lemon, and Frederick Rivers Barnwell on the road, chiefly in the South, where all three narrowly dodged the Ku Klux Klan on many occasions.
There was, in early 1921, the possibility that Belais and Dixon––or someone––could build on the past momentum, recruiting the now adult graduates of the Bands of Mercy and Jack London Clubs and allying with the dynamic American Humane Education Society trio, Carroll, Lemon, and Barnwell, to help educate and inspire another generation of activists.
Why did it not happen?
Hindsight unfamiliar with the conventions of the time might suppose that incorporating the First Church for Animal Rights as a church––as the Best Friends Animal Society initially did, 50 years later––ran afoul of religious conservatives.
Since David and Diana Belais were Jewish, their mere use of the term “church,” usually reserved to Christians, might in retrospect be imagined to have been controversial.
But these were not issues. In that era, incorporating an advocacy organization as a church was quite common and quite uncontroversial, especially with religious conservatives, who typically incorporated societies to promote temperance and chastity as non-denominational churches, and in much of the U.S. welcomed Jewish support.
Lack of funding does not appear to have been an issue, either. Diana Belais enjoyed conspicuous fundraising success even in the depths of the Great Depression.
Dixon hit the road
What the record shows is that Royal Dixon soon moved on. There is no indication that Dixon ever crossed paths again with David and Diana Belais, or even returned to New York City.
Dixon was on the advisory board of the Geographic Players, formed in New York City in 1933 by paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews. More than 50 other cultural and scientific luminaries from around the U.S. endorsed Andrews’ effort to “establish a legitimate theatre, where the world’s geographers, explorers and scientists may present their experiences and records in a popular way.”
But Dixon was not among the listed performers during the year that the theatre lasted.
Lived out of a suitcase
Dixon, to the extent that newspaper clippings document his career, seems to have spent much of the rest of his life traveling the hinterlands, living out of a suitcase. His success as an author of popular books on natural history was already several years behind him in 1921, and so were most of his publications about immigration, in which Dixon emphasized his view that immigrants should be promptly and thoroughly “Americanized.” In the era before television, however, entertaining speakers were in high demand. Almost every week for the next several decades Dixon surfaced somewhere, mostly addressing women’s clubs about flowers and animals.
The arrival of radio, World War II travel restrictions, and eventually television cut repeatedly into the audience for itinerant lecturers. As Dixon aged, he appears to have paid fewer visits to big and even medium-sized cities. Yet he remained on the road quite late in life, explaining evolution in Emmett, Arkansas, passing as a “profound student of the Bible” in San Antonio, and discussing the history of inventions in Corpus Christi.
The hidden side of Royal Dixon
The public record, though, according to the brief biography by Brandon Wolf, appears to represent only one side of a life, the other side of which Dixon appears to have kept deliberately in the shadows.
Wrote Wolf, “Dixon and artist Chester Snowden were Houston’s gay “power-couple” for over three decades, from 1929 to 1962. They were well known to those in Houston’s art circles, and were regular dinner guests of Miss Ima Hogg at her Bayou Bend mansion.”
Hogg (1872-1975), a socially prominent philanthropist who never married, was widely if unofficially recognized as “The First Lady of Texas.”
Snowden, born in Elgin, Texas, relocating to Houston by 1926, “furthered his talent at several art schools,” summarized Wolf, “and worked as an artist and book illustrator throughout his life. Among the literary figures whose books he illustrated were Robert Frost, George Bernard Shaw, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.”
“It’s not clear when they began a relationship,” wrote Wolf, “but a 1929 Houston Chronicle article mentions them participating together in activities at Camp Eagle Lake, in Kerrville. By 1934, they had built their own house. The men nicknamed their home ‘Camellia Place.’ The grounds were lush with shrubs, trees and vines that crept up the walls of their home, and filled it with fragrance. A visitor in 1940 described their home as ‘a jungle of plants and birds in gilded cages.’ Snowden legally changed his middle name to Dixon. They held a joint checking account, with both names printed at the top of their checks, and both signed at the bottom. During the holidays, they mailed out cards with their names printed one beside the other.”
David & Diana Belais kept going
David and Diana Belais, after the short existence of the First Church for Animal Rights, continued their work much as before.
David Belais in June 1927 won the first and only known conviction of a vivisector under the 1867 New York state anti-cruelty law.
Recounted Time magazine, “The doctor was David H. Shelling, who has been trying to determine the relation between dietary restrictions and bone formation at the Jewish Hospital in Brooklyn. Last spring the superintendent of the Humane Society of New York visited the hospital. In Shelling’s laboratory he found a mongrel with her muzzle strapped shut with adhesive tape. She could not eat, drink or lick her wounds. That was cruelty, decided the humane society agent, who forthwith had experimenter Shelling arrested.
“David Belais, president of the humane society, altered his will to cut off the Jewish Hospital from a legacy.
“Magistrate Charles Haubert of Brooklyn knew not what allowances, under the 1867 law, he could make for Dr. Shelling s scientific experiments; found him guilty; suspended sentence.”
The Humane Society of New York superintendent was Harry Daniel Moran, hired in 1918. After attending David Belais’ burial on June 6, 1933, Moran the next day suffered acute appendicitis, followed by pneumonia. He died 13 days later.
“Sorrow at Mr. Belais’s death was believed to have aggravated Mr. Moran’s condition,” the New York Times reported.
Wright & Goode
Were Moran and David Belais a clandestine couple, for whom Diana Belais furnished cover? Was Royal Dixon a threat to their relationship, or to their public reputations?
Was Dixon involved in some sort of indiscretion that obliged him to leave town?
All of this is unknown; but there were several other LGBTQ relationships among people known to them and also prominent at the time in humane work, whose sexuality does not appear to have harmed their careers and reputations.
Best remembered are Alice Morgan Wright, originally of Albany, New York, and her lifelong companion, Edith J. Goode, a native Virginian. The animal foundations that today bear their names were formed after their deaths in 1975 and 1971, respectively, but both were vegetarians, dedicated to animal welfare since childhood.
Wright was a senior at Smith College in Massachusetts when she met Goode, then a freshman. Both inherited considerable estates. While Goode worked quietly in the background, Wright rose to prominence with the Collegiate Equal Sufferage League, and by 1909 was also a recognized sculptor. Sent to Paris to study, as recipient of two major art awards, Wright became involved in both the French and British suffrage movements.
Won right to vote
Most notably, Wright arranged speaking appearances in Paris, the U.S., and London for suffragist orator Emmeline Pankhurst in 1910-1912. After the London appearance erupted into the riot remembered in the 1964 film Mary Poppins, Wright and Pankhurst served two months together in the Holloway Gaol.
Wright went on to become recording secretary for the New York State Women’s Suffrage
Party, one of the organizations most influential in winning passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the vote, in 1920.
Goode and her mother Jane McKnight Goode meanwhile became founding members of the National Women’s Party. Begun in 1913, it promoted legislation until 1997, and still exists as an educational foundation and museum.
Both Wright and Goode participated in 1945 forming the United Nations.
Attempting to promote a proposed global charter on animal welfare, which had initially been presented to the League of Nations in 1922, Wright and Goode also in 1945 cofounded the National Humane Education Association. This morphed into the National Humane Education Society, which is actually a no-kill animal shelter, when Anna Briggs (1910-2011) became involved in 1948.
Eric H. Hansen & William Alan Swallow
While Wright and Goode were quite open about their relationship and their sexuality, another contemporary of David and Diana Belais, humane historian Sydney H. Coleman, was not.
Coleman was “outed” only many years after his death in private correspondence by Eric H. Hansen, his much younger protege, who later headed the Humane Society of Missouri, the American Humane Association, and finally the Massachusetts SPCA.
Hansen and William Alan Swallow, who worked with him throughout his tenures at the AHA and MSPCA, were more-or-less openly coupled for approximately 40 years.
(See How “Quality of Mercy” Swallowed the humane movement, parts 1 and 2.)
“Legion of Hero Dogs”
After Dixon left New York City, and after the 1933 death of her husband, Diana Belais continued lecturing against vivisection through 1935, but appears to have eventually decided that improving the public image of animals would be necessary to achieve legislative progress.
Toward that end, Belais formed the Legion of Hero Dogs in 1930, honoring nine dogs in 1931, 13 in 1933, and more in 1935 and 1937.
As the Legion of Hero Dogs gained national recognition, Diana Belais in January 1932 told media that “A peaceful army is being mobilized in every election district in New York to support humane candidates.”
American Vegetarian Society
Meant as the prototype for organizing a national pro-animal political organization, this may have been a forerunner to the 1947 formation of the American Vegetarian Party by members of the American Naturopathic Association, who hoped to draw support from antivivisectionists. In August 1947 the Vegetarian Party nominated pioneering vegetarian restauranteur John Maxwell, 84, to run for president.
But Diana Belais did not live to see that.
Recognizing her advancing age and considering that she lacked able successors, she resolved in 1935 to disband the New York Anti-Vivisection Society and distribute the assets of the society, valued at $80,000, to other pro-animal organizations that had been crippled by the Great Depression, through no evident fault of their own.
The sum was equivalent in purchasing power to more than $1 million today.
Funding went to others
Diana Belais was immediately challenged by a coalition of society members led by Helen King, a Brooklyn resident described by author Gay Talese in 1960 as “a contest judge who since 1935 has given away 1,000 automobiles, millions in cash prizes, and 300 free trips to exotic lands.”
Failing to oust Diana Belais through internal procedures, King sued seeking to block her plan to redistribute the assets in March 1937. Diana Belais prevailed in 1938. She died, at age 74, on February 12, 1944.
Ironically, the largest bequest ever left to the New York Antivivisection Society, the $460,000 R.M.C. Livingston estate, arrived in May 1945. It was redistributed to six other organizations.
(See also The Human Side of Animals, by Royal Dixon.)