4 Utopian Communities That Didn't Pan Out

N.E. Baldwin, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
N.E. Baldwin, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every once in a while, a proud little community will sprout up just to let the world know how Utopia should be run. With chins raised almost as high as ideals, the community marches forth to be an example of perfection. But in most cases, all that harmonious marching gets tripped up pretty quickly. Here are four "perfect" communities that whizzed and sputtered thanks to human nature.

1. Brook Farm (or, Ripley's Follow Me or Not)

Perhaps the best-known utopian community in America, Brook Farm was founded in 1841 in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, by George and Sophia Ripley. The commune was built on a 200-acre farm with four buildings and centered on the ideals of radical social reform and self-reliance. For free tuition in the community school and one year's worth of room and board, the residents were asked to complete 300 days of labor by either farming, working in the manufacturing shops, performing domestic chores or grounds maintenance, or planning the community's recreation projects. The community prospered in 1842-1843 and was visited by numerous dignitaries and utopian writers.

However, Ripley joined the unpopular Fourierism movement, which meant that soon the young people (out of a "sense of honor") had to do all the dirty work like repairing roads, cleaning stables, and slaughtering the animals. This caused many residents, especially the younger ones, to leave. Things went downhill from there. The community was hit by an outbreak of smallpox followed by fire and finally collapsed in 1847.

2. Fruitlands: A Utopian Community (for Six Months Anyway)

After visiting Brook Farm and finding it almost too worldly by their standards, Bronson Alcott (the father of Louisa May) and Charles Lane founded the Fruitlands Commune in June 1843, in Harvard, Massachusetts.

Structured around the British reformist model, the commune's members were against the ownership of property, were political anarchists, believed in free love, and were vegetarians. The group of 11 adults and a small number of children were forbidden to eat meat or use any animal products such as honey, wool, beeswax, or manure. They were also not allowed to use animals for labor and only planted produce that grew up out of the soil so as not to disturb worms and other organisms living in the soil.

Many in the group of residents saw manual labor as spiritually inhibiting and soon it became evident that the commune could not provide enough food to sustain its members. The strict diet of grains and fruits left many in the group malnourished and sick. Given this situation, many of the members left and the community collapsed in January 1844.

3. The Shakers

Officially known as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, the Shakers were founded in Manchester, England, in 1747. As a group of dissenting Quakers under the charismatic leadership of Mother Ann Lee, the Shakers came to America in 1774.

Like most reformist movements of the time, the Shakers were agriculturally based, and believed in common ownership of all property and the confession of sins. Unlike most of the other groups, the Shakers practiced celibacy, or the lack of procreation. Membership came via converts or by adopting children. Shaker families consisted of "brothers" and "sisters" who lived in gender-segregated communal homes of up to 100 individuals. During the required Sunday community meetings it was not uncommon for members to break into a spontaneous dance, thus giving them the Shaker label.

As pacifists they were exempted from military service and became the United States' first conscientious objectors during the Civil War. Currently, however, there isn't a whole lot of Shaking going on. As the younger members left the community, converts quit coming, and the older ones died off, many of the communities were forced to close. Of the original 19 communities, most had closed by the early 1900s.

4. Pullman's Capitalist Utopia

Located 15 miles south of Chicago, the town of Pullman was founded in the 1880s by George Pullman (of luxury railway car fame) as a utopian community based on the notion that capitalism was the best way to meet all material and spiritual needs. According to Pullman's creed, the community was built to provide Pullman's employees with a place where they could exercise proper moral values and where each resident had to adhere to the strict tenets of capitalism under the direction and leadership of Pullman. The community was run on a for-profit basis—the town had to return a profit of 7 percent annually. This was done by giving the employees two paychecks, one for rent, which was automatically turned back in to Pullman, and one for everything else. Interestingly, the utopian community had very rigid social class barriers, with the management and skilled workers living in stately homes and the unskilled laborers living in tenements. The experiment lasted longer than many of the other settlements, but ultimately failed. Pullman began demanding more and more rent to offset company losses, while union sentiment grew among the employee residents.

This article originally appeared in the Mental Floss book Forbidden Knowledge.

10 Juicy Facts About Leeches

Ian Cook
Ian Cook

Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. 

1. Not all leeches suck blood.

Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.” 

2. Leeches are everywhere.

Japanese leech on a log
Pieria, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech. 

3. Leeches have made a comeback in medicine.

Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.” 

4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.

Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”

5. Leeches can get pretty big.

The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.

6. Leeches make good bait.

Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”

7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.

Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”

8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.

Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)

9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents. 

“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”

10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species. 

Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”

22 Weird Jobs From 100 Years Ago

Metal Floss via YouTube
Metal Floss via YouTube

Before everyone started working in tech, people actually had their choice of eclectic and strange vocations that put food on their old-timey tables. Discover what lamplighters, lectores, and knocker-uppers did back in the day as Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy runs down 22 Weird Old Jobs from 100 Years Ago.

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