Sand Eating Cult
When staff was brainstorming ideas for “Tea and Talk” programs for 2018, someone suggested that we do one on the weird and wonderful in Muncie. I gladly took the suggestion as I had recently found a newspaper story about the Muncie sand eating cult. How are you going to find a story weirder than the one about people who ate sand?
In 1913, three men from Muncie all suffered from digestive issues. They were former congressman and lawyer George Cromer, John Fitzgibbons, president of Muncie Ornamental Iron Company, and Harry W. Long, lawyer and prosecuting attorney. One day, while in the throes of the pain of gastritis, Fitzgibbons was gazing at his chickens as they rolled in the dirt and dust and occasionally stopped to nibble sand. His thought, according to an article in the Muncie Evening Press of September 1, 1913 was, “Did anybody ever hear of a chicken having the tummy ache? … He inquired among his poultry fancying friends and not one had ever heard of a fowl with a painful stomach.”
Fitzgibbons next questioned if humans ever ate sand. No, they didn’t. From these observations, he came up with two premises: (1) chickens eat sand and don’t have stomach problems. (2) Humans don’t eat sand and do have stomach problems. Fitzgibbons immediately incorporated sand into his diet and his stomach distress subsided. While initially reluctant to share his discovery, Fitzgibbons did finally tell his friends Cromer and Long about his discovery. Long tried the cure, and a few hours after eating sand, according to the newspaper article, “jumped from his bed like a ten-year-old school boy and single-handedly threw off his premises two burly tramps that were threatening to burn his home if they were not fed and clothed.”
The sand cure still wasn’t well known until Fitzgibbons recommended it to a newspaper friend, who “betrayed his friend’s trust not only by failing to try the same cure but by rushing into print with the story.” The story was picked by newspapers in Indianapolis and Fort Wayne and as far afield as Boston, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia. The three sand-eaters were immediately besieged with letters from fellow sufferers asking for details about the sand diet. Fitzgibbons gave a general recipe for the sand while saying that variations were perfectly all right. He suggested that sand should be taken from a lakeshore and each grain should be about the size of a pinhead. Before eating the sand, it should be boiled or baked – not for taste, I presume, but to make sure the microscopic creatures in it were destroyed. Fitzgibbons preferred his sand baked.
Another devotee of the sand cure was someone we’ve talked about before – Diamond Heels Hattie a.k.a. Harriett Mitchell Anthony. The Indianapolis News reported in July 1914 that “Mrs. Harriet Anthony, who went to Europe to Surprise Paris With Indiana-Made Dresses and Diamond-Heeled Slippers, Keeps in Good Condition with Sand from the Desert.” Yes, Hattie ate sand and was a member of the Muncie sand-eating cult. Along with many trunks carrying her numerous gowns, Hattie carried thirty-five pounds of Arizona desert sand in a specially prepared receptacle. It seems that Hattie didn’t adhere to the notion that lake sand was best. A few of Hattie’s friends were surprised to learn that Hattie had joined the sand eating craze, since they had never known her to be in ill health. Instead, according to the newspaper article, she “sought the sand cure as a method of improving still further a physical condition that was generally regarded as nearly perfect.”
Unfortunately, I don’t know how long the sand cult lasted. I didn’t find any info on it after 1913 other than the story about Hattie from 1914. Maybe everyone was cured. I do know that Hattie lived to age 77 and Fitzgibbon, Cromer, and Long were in their 70s and 80s when they died. Maybe they found the secret to a long life.