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Mission Implausible

The charismatic leader of one of the century's most popular utopian movements is remembered by a faithful few.

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By Jeffrey Felshman

Alfred Lawson's legacy could have been writ larger than a sign by the roadside. He was a pioneer in the early days of baseball: playing, managing, owning teams, and starting leagues. Then he switched careers, and, just five years after the Wright brothers left the ground at Kitty Hawk, started the first magazines devoted to aircraft, coining the word in the process. After he'd built the first airplane large enough to be called a passenger airliner in 1919, a reporter called Lawson "the genius of the air." In the 20s he began to publish his own books, one after another, and with the onset of the Depression mobilized and led a popular movement, publishing a newspaper that claimed a circulation of ten million by 1942. Lawson was forever attempting to build empires. He never quite succeeded.

Lawson has been dead for 44 years now, and where he is remembered at all it is as one of the all-time crackpots--"one of the nation's great unintentionally comic figures," in the view of science writer Martin Gardner. Practically all that remains of an 85-year lifetime spent in continual motion is a sign bannered across a fence facing Interstate 94 about a mile south of the first exit to Racine, Wisconsin. It reads "University of Lawsonomy." The sign conceals the last outpost of the "Lawsonian immutable religion" established by Lawson in 1948, the principles of which he predicted would be accepted "by all races prior to the year 2000."

There are few signs of life in the empty fields along the frontage road, but on one farm a defunct wind catcher the size of a carousel stands on a rise above the road, with what look like 50 megaphones hammered out of sheet metal hanging off its arms. Merle and Margie Hayden live in the house behind the wind catcher. Merle, who directs the university, is usually working in the fields, but his wife can call him in at a moment's notice by ringing the cowbell that's kept by the door.

Merle Hayden has short dark gray hair, a face that's weathered but not beaten, and light blue eyes, remarkably clear. She's a thin woman, white-haired, with a soft, welcoming smile overshadowed by her large glasses. Margie is 79 and Merle is 78. Both began following Lawson when they were teenagers and are still loyal. They are not the last living Lawsonomists in the world, Merle promises. How many Lawsonomists are there in the world? "Not enough," he answers.

Their kitchen takes up one end of a long room on the bottom floor. A lectern stands off to the side, and pieces of Lawson memorabilia float about. Four model airplanes hang on wires from the ceiling. A photo dated August 27, 1919, shows a few men standing in front of a biplane with "Lawson Airlines" painted on its tail. There are trophies of some type on the mantel. Everything except a Ping-Pong table looks at least 50 years old.

Merle conducts monthly meetings in the room, reading from one or another of Lawson's 50 books and discussing the ideas in them with the students. "We get a few young ones from Racine," he says. "We even had a wedding here a couple of weeks ago." But there are no resident students; Lawsonomy is a home-study course given free of charge. "This is a nonprofit private school--probably the most nonprofit outfit in the country," Merle insists. "But the IRS won't give us nonprofit status."

The University of Lawsonomy was established in 1943 when Lawson purchased the campus of the University of Des Moines, in Iowa. Approximately 70 students moved in after Lawson took over, growing vegetables and eating them raw, planting flowers in the football field, and studying the collected works of Alfred Lawson. In 1952 the IRS revoked the nonprofit status given the university by the state and dunned it for back taxes. In response, Lawson, whose thought processes were, by his account, between 10,000 and 20,000 years ahead of his time, closed the school.

Merle converted this site, which had been an athletic camp and the University of Lawsonomy Farm, into the university itself in 1957, three years after Lawson's death. There are no admission requirements to study Lawsonomy, but the course work is no day at the farm. To earn a degree certifying the graduate as a "knowlegian" takes 30 years.

"I can't explain all this stuff in an afternoon," says Merle, who is a knowlegian and knows. "I've been studying it for more than 50 years myself."

When the general public calls the university asking for more information, Merle sends out a sheet of paper labeled "brochure" and a copy of a four-page newspaper, the Benefactor. The banner headline on the Benefactor is an attention grabber. In big, black, bold tabloid letters it says MOTHERS. Beneath that, in smaller letters, it continues HAVE MERCY UPON YOUR UNBORN CHILDREN. The text exhorts women to take care of their bodies, for their children's sake. It attacks cigarettes, red meat, and other common evils. But the theory and language behind the attack are novel if not downright strange. The writer, Lawson himself, discusses good and evil microbes that he calls "menorgs" and "disorgs," disgorges sentences such as "The foundation of sex is SUCTION AND PRESSURE," and cites a "law of Penetrability." Lawson's article, which provides most of the content of the newspaper, was copyrighted in 1943.

The brochure offers a short history of Lawsonomy and the university on one side and a course list on the other. The curriculum covers physiology, metaphysics, spirituality, theology, health, physics, economics, and the history of aircraft. A real potpourri. And that, according to the brochure, is only a partial listing.

Merle became interested in Lawson's thoughts on these matters when he was 13. "I got into it from listening to my dad," he remembers, "just listening. He didn't try to indoctrinate me. In fact, he didn't talk to me about it at all. I got into it on my own. But I listened to him when he talked about it to others."

Merle and his father first heard about Lawson in 1933. One morning they were sitting on their porch in Toledo, Ohio, when a man passing by asked Merle's father if he'd like to have a look at something that could change the world. "My father was a tough man," Merle recalls. "Most of the time, somebody came around he'd get his shotgun out." But Merle's father was intrigued enough to ask the man what he was selling. The man said he wasn't selling, he was giving away. "He asked this man, 'What's it about?' The man answered, 'It's about justice for everybody that harms nobody.' Well, my dad said that sounded OK to him, let's have a look. Dad was giving out that same paper the same day."

This was Direct Credits Magazine, a precursor of the Benefactor, which began publishing in 1934 as the official organ of the Lawson-led Direct Credits Society and by 1942 claimed a circulation of ten million. "Supreme Journalism" was contained within, advertising claimed. "The pen of one man built up the largest newspaper circulation on earth. Alfred Lawson, the most practical thinker in the world, writes exclusively for the Benefactor." You couldn't read his articles anywhere else, it continued.

The theory behind the Direct Credits Society was simple: interest charged and paid on money was the cause of most of the injustices of the world. It shouldn't take money to make money, Lawson thought. Eliminate interest and there'd be more money around for working people. "Lawson said that this is the people's money," Merle says. "The founding fathers didn't intend for money to be a business. They said bond is slavery." Merle says he can back this up, adding, "Jefferson outlawed the first private bank in 1811. You won't read it in the history books, but if you look in the cobwebs you'll find out."

There was more to the Direct Credits Society than an economic theory. There was Lawsonomy, and according to Lawsonomy, direct credits was a facet of natural law. "One of the laws that Lawson taught us is that for every act there's a react," Merle says. "And now we got a national debt in the trillions, and most of the debt is interest. For every act there's a react.

"But the financiers control everything. They control the newspapers, the education system, and they won't allow you to hear the truth. If you give it any thought at all, if you think for yourself, you know that it's wrong that money should earn more money than a person does by the sweat of his brow. But they don't want you to think for yourself. And most people don't."

Merle continues, "America was bankrupt in 1930, absolutely bankrupt. They signed a bankruptcy agreement in 1931, and sold the country to the financiers. Lawson knew about this agreement--he knew the financiers from when he was trying to get financing for his airline." Merle has a photograph taken of Lawson at a banquet. Also at the banquet, sitting at another table, was J. Paul Getty. "Lawson tried to tell the people about it, and they wiped his name right out of existence."

In 1931, in the depths of the Depression, Lawson declared he would spend the rest of his life propertyless and moneyless. He started the Direct Credits Society in the same year, and two years later it was among the more popular movements in the country. At that time, according to Merle, Lawson's name had been listed in who's who. But by 1933 his name had disappeared. "Why?" Merle asks. "The financiers wanted to keep the people ignorant. Lawson's ideas were dangerous to them."

The Direct Credits Society went from Lawson to thousands of members in a couple of years. "If there was ever grass roots, this was it," Merle asserts. "In 1933, 16,000 people heard Lawson speak at the Olympia auditorium in Detroit. In 1935 he spoke to 12,000 people at the International Amphitheatre in Chicago. These speeches weren't advertised, weren't mentioned in the newspapers or on the radio, but all these people came out. Think about that."

Though it was scornfully called "a movement of milkmen" (which referred to its uniforms), the Direct Credits Society ("Justice for Everybody Harms Nobody" was its motto) swept the midwest. In parades in Detroit in 1933, in Cleveland in '34, in Saint Louis, in Milwaukee, led by "generals" whose rank was conferred by the society and by Lawson himself, who was called the commander in chief, thousands outfitted in white uniforms with red sashes and caps bearing the legend "Lawsonomy" above the visor marched alongside floats with slogans such as "All Nations Need Direct Credits for Little Children and Feeble Old Folk" and "Leader of the World's Greatest Economic Movement" and "Destiny." These were preceded by marching bands playing the anthems "Hark to Lawson," "Songs of Lawsonomy," and "A Messenger of Truth."

("Mighty Menorgs," a tribute to constructive microbes, sounds like a combination of "Rock of Ages," "Little Boxes," and the Jetsons theme. Its first verse is sung as follows:

Menorgs have fin'lly built a man

who can teach us of their plan

To advance Humanity

through sublime Lawsonomy

As these marvelous truths are told,

Creation's mysteries unfold.

The song ends on a hopeful note: "For from out dim ages past / Mankind evolved at last!")

It seemed Lawson was on his way to becoming a national figure. He was investigated by the FBI, which thought that he might be a demagogue along the lines of Father Coughlin and that his movement might be a more popular version of the Silver Shirts, American Nazis of the time. But neither Lawson nor his movement expressed any racist or fascist beliefs. They were proud Americans. They were evolving a better human being. They were perhaps a little nutty, but they had the strength of numbers.

"But," Merle continues, "then the war hit." Membership in the Direct Credits Society plummeted during World War II. Merle is philosophical about it, theorizing, "When abundance comes in the door, necessity goes out the window." America became the land of plenty again, and people lost interest. Of course there were other reasons for falling membership, but some hung on even after the Direct Credits Society was turned into the Lawsonian religion in 1948.

Margie's father was an officer in the Direct Credits Society in Detroit, and she marched in her first parade when she was 14. "My father made my majorette uniform. He painted the boots and made a hat for me out of a muff." But Merle's father wound up quitting Lawsonomy for far-right factions that, Merle says, "blamed everything on the 'niggers and the Jews.'" He shakes his head sadly. "My dad knew Booker T. Washington, knew him personally and admired him. It just shows that anyone can get twisted." He adds, "Feelings can be obstacles against reason."

According to the program for the "Lawsonomy Students Reunions," which were held at the University of Lawsonomy Farm in May, June, and September of 1954, Lawsonomy was born along with Alfred William Lawson in London, England, on March 24, 1869. Its evolution began somewhat later. Lawson's study of the movement of matter started when he sucked in his breath one day and discovered that dust particles floating around the room were pulled toward him. The particles hurtled in the opposite direction when he blew them away. Lawson was four years old at the time.

Later he came up with the "zig-zag-and-swirl" theory to describe how matter is in constant motion. He came up with penetrability in 1922 ("this put science on a solid basis," Merle says), and discovered six dimensions in 1938.

The program was printed a few months before Lawson died, in San Antonio, Texas, in November 1954. Today pieces of his biography are floating around on the Internet. Lawson lived his 85 years in a zig, zag, and swirl of careers and directions, and though nothing he did seems to have benefited mankind as much as he would have liked, when the dust settled he had some accomplishments to his credit.

Before his career in commercial aviation, Lawson spent 19 years in professional baseball as a player, manager, and owner. He supposedly had great stuff in the minor leagues, but his National League career as a pitcher with the Boston Beaneaters and Pittsburgh Alleghenys was both short (1890) and terrible. He didn't win a game and he didn't get a hit. In 1891 he assembled an "all-star team" that played in Cuba. One of the players on that team was John McGraw, who would go on to manage the New York Giants and be elected to Cooperstown. According to Cap Anson (who detested Lawson), McGraw was the only decent player on Lawson's squad. Lawson also assembled teams that barnstormed through Europe and Australia.

As an owner in the early 1900s, Lawson was ahead of his time. He tried rigging up electric lights in the outfield. He scheduled games between white teams and black teams. He once sent a midget up to bat. But these innovations were unsuccessful, and he was embarrassed to acknowledge them later.

In 1908 Lawson founded the magazine Fly (later Aircraft), and he was an influential figure in the early days of flight. The biplane that he built in 1919 could hold up to 26 people, he claimed, and flew successfully, if with some crash landings, in a test run from Milwaukee to Chicago to a farm outside of Toledo and to Cleveland, then on to Buffalo, New York City, and Washington, D.C. But Lawson Airlines never got off the ground, and credit for the invention of the passenger airliner is generally assigned elsewhere.

Lawson's venture went bust in 1922. He wrote Manlife, the Lawsonomy manifesto, in 1923. It's out of print, as are the other 50 or so books that Lawson wrote, but Merle still has copies. "The Milwaukee Public Library has something like 16 of Lawson's books," Merle says.

A man wearing a headband around his long gray hair enters the kitchen, and Merle introduces him as Gary Turner. "He does the maintenance here." Turner, who will be 67 in July, arrived at the University of Lawsonomy in 1968. He was on the road then, seeking the object of life. "I met a fellow who was selling health products and he told me about this place." He's been here since.

"Do you know what the object of life is?" Merle asks, then quotes Lawson in response: "The object of life is usefulness." He excuses himself for a moment and heads upstairs to check on Margie.

While Merle is gone Turner says, "I'm about 50 percent into this. Merle is a hundred percent, but, well, I'm a freethinker. I like the vegetarian philosophy, and I do think that if there was a just monetary system you'd get more information. But some of it..." He trails off.

Margie and Merle return from upstairs and Turner has to go fix his car, which had been sideswiped by a drunk driver the night before. Margie says good-bye, adding, "Have a good react!"

"I always say that instead of 'Have a nice day,'" she says. "Did you know that for every act there's a react? So I say, 'Have a good react!'"

The Haydens married when he was 40 and she was 42. They don't have children. Margie recalls, "I was a professional secretary back in Detroit, and I could have retired with a nice pension. But I have no regrets. Life is wonderful."

Merle has had to defend that life since he chose to live according to Lawsonomy principles. Going back to the 30s, Merle's endured wisecracks over his vegetarianism, over his firm opposition to smoking and drinking, over his philosophy. "It's hard to buck the crowd, and I took some ribbing. But if you keep consistent to your principles, people will come to respect you."

Margie remembers that even among students at the University of Lawsonomy, Merle kept a low profile. "He was introverted, sat by himself in the back of the class not talking to anyone," she says affectionately. "But he came out of his shell."

"You know, Lawson said that prior to the year 2000 all races will accept Lawsonomy principles," Merle points out, sure that no one's going to believe this could happen. But he says that we already have. "Racial barriers are breaking down. Knowledge and information are exploding all over the place. These are Lawsonomy principles. You know, Lawson talked about telepathy in the 1930s. If you mentioned telepathy even five years ago people looked at you cross-eyed. But now nobody questions it. That encourages us."

The diplomas of six deceased knowlegians line the mantel in a large living room on the second floor that doubles as a study hall. There's a photograph of Margie taken in the 1930s, all dressed up in the majorette uniform her father made for her. There's a photograph of Merle taken in the 1950s, dapper in a suit and tie. The largest picture in the room is of Alfred Lawson standing next to an airplane. "We are still trying to make the world a better place," Margie says. "Merle and Fred [another old-time Lawsonomist] go out to the nursing home every week and play music for the folks. Merle plays guitar and Fred plays accordion. Oh, they enjoy it.

"Merle worked with Lawson the last couple of years he was alive," Margie says proudly. "You know, Lawson didn't want us to worship him. All he wanted was our love and respect." Lawson never built that empire, but 44 years after his death Margie calls out "Have a good react" and smiles at the cars passing the sign on the highway.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Alfred Lawson photo by John E. Platz; Merle and Margie Hayden photo uncredited; uncredited photos.

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