The 1st Church of Animal Rights tried to launch the movement in 1921
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2009:
What if the animal rights movement had launched out of the
older humane movement 55 years earlier, 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?
This is no mere fantasy. It could have happened, impelled
by the brief confluence of Diana Belais and Royal Dixon, 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.
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.
“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
Membership cards distributed to donors stipulated that the
purpose of the First Church of 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
Markham, then age 69, 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 ANIMAL PEOPLE. “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,” though Nellen
recalled that he wrote poems entitled The Hummingbird, The Lizard,
and The Panther.
Diana Belais, 63, described at times in press accounts as a
curly red-haired firebrand, and as “middle-aged” at age 77, 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 30. 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.
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 Blais 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 of
At the formation of the First Church of 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
A Wikkipedia 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. He made special
contributions to the newspapers of New York, where he lectured for
the Board of Education. 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
The other six were all born while the author and lecturer was
in mid-career. Five were born in places where he spoke.
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 reapprises some type of flower or
plant.” 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.”
The first assembly of the First Church of 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 of
Animal Rights in 1932. The San Antonio Light mentioned the First
Church of Animal Rights in connection with a Dixon lecture in 1936.
Yet there is no record that the First Church of 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.
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 the Bands of
Mercy and Jack London Clubs.
Still, as of 1921, there was 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
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 as a church–as the Best Friends Animal
Society initially did, 50 years later– ran afoul of religious
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
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.” Dixon
was not among the listed performers during the year that the theatre
Dixon seems to have spent most 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, but in the era before television, 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 resistictions,
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 Belais kept at it
David and Diana Belais, after the short existence of the
First Church of Animal Rights, continued their work much as before.
David Belais in June 1927 won the first and perhaps only
conviction of a vivisector under the 1867 New York state anti-cruelty
law. Recounted Time, “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.
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 she formed the Legion of Hero Dogs in
1930, honoring nine dogs in 1931, 13 in 1933, and more in 1935 and
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.” 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.
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 86,
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