Author's note: This is the second part of a three-part series on bodybuilder and health advocate Bernarr Macfadden. Look for part III on our blog on Tuesday, Sept. 5.
Before he had even reached the age of 30, Bernarr Macfadden was already a standout in the world of physique culture.
Having grown from a sickly child to a muscular, robust health enthusiast, Macfadden sought to spread his message to others who desired better living through exercise and diet. At the turn of the century, he burst into the publishing world with "Physique Culture," a magazine that would inspire others throughout the 20th century, including Bob Mizer's "Physique Pictorial." Now a resident of New York, Macfadden began publishing his magazine in 1899, and its liberal use of illustrations and photographs was considered groundbreaking for the time. "Physique Culture" remained in circulation for more than half a century. Though he marketed the magazine toward a male audience, Macfadden also founded a health magazine designed for women, titled "Beauty and Health." That magazine only lasted for a few years.
By the time he began actively promoting bodybuilding competitions in 1904, Macfadden was easily recognizable in the streets of New York. Entrants in Macfadden's contests in later years included bodybuilding legend Charles Atlas, as well as Pudgy Stockton, whom Mizer himself would later photograph.
And, like Mizer, Macfadden's advocacy caught the attention of critics, moral purists, and law enforcement officials. In 1905, Anthony Comstock, the religious zealot namesake of the Comstock Act, sought to have Macfadden arrested when he learned the promoter was planning a bodybuilding expedition at Madison Square Garden on the grounds that it was a "lewd display of carnality." Thankfully, Macfadden only received a suspended sentence, and the expedition went on, filling the venue to capacity. Indeed, Comstock's legal action inadvertently promoted Macfadden's event.
That same year, Macfadden realized his longtime dream -- to open a physical culture community. Dubbed Physical Culture City, the sprawling commune occupied nearly 2,000 acres of land in New Jersey and heavily stressed the benefits of exercise and living with nature. Roughly 200 people signed up to live at the commune, but it soon closed due to financial hardship. Undeterred, he went on to found the Bernarr Macfadden Institute, a school that trained students in his exercise methods.
Macfadden's success was interrupted in 1907, when again he was arrested and tried for distributing "obscene material" in his magazine (the offending material was an article on the dangers of syphilis). He didn't escape prosecution this time -- Macfadden was convicted, though he didn't serve jail time, he was fined $2,000. Macfadden fought the conviction tirelessly, and he was finally pardoned by U.S. President William Howard Taft in 1909.
Macfadden biographer Jim Bennett's observations about Macfadden's support of free speech and free expression should sound familiar to fans of Bob Mizer.
"Macfadden was one of the first to challenge laws which restricted freedom of speech," Bennett says in his book "Muscles, Sex, Money and Fame." "He taught that feelings of guilt and shame were destructive to a person's overall health. ... He believed that the body and especially sex were naturally good and wholesome; it was prudery that made them seem otherwise."
As the 20th century progressed, Macfadden had a long list of professional successes to his name, and some personal successes, too (he moved to England in 1913, and shortly thereafter married popular English athlete Mary Williamson, herself a household name in the United Kingdom; by the end of World War I in 1918, they would have four daughters).
Macfadden's steadfast commitment to spreading the good word about health and exercise continued unabated by his troubles with the law. And though they weren't yet finished, Macfadden found that as he aged, his resolve to continue spreading that message only grew stronger.