The University of Lawsonomy

The story of Alfred Lawson's utopian, non-profit university is one of the stranger episodes in the history of the Midwest.

In 1943, Alfred Lawson, former professional baseball player, manager, and owner, aviation pioneer, and more recently economic philosopher, purchased the six buildings and 14 acre grounds of the former University of Des Moines campus (closed since 1929) for $80,000. The newly created University of Lawsonomy opened that fall with 70 students, who grew vegetables (part of the Lawsonian philosophy was a vegetarian diet, often eaten raw), and studied a curriculum based on the works of Alfred Lawson (around 50 books and numerous articles and pamphlets), covering subjects such as physiology, metaphysics, spirituality, theology, health, physics, economics, and the history of aircraft. A degree certifying the holder as a ‘knowlegian’ could take 30 years or more to achieve.

Who was Alfred Lawson? That is a question with many answers. He was born in London, England in 1869, and was first noted as a promising minor-league baseball player in the United States in the 1880s. However, his first (and only) major-league season as a pitcher in 1890 ended quickly and ignominiously with no wins and no hits. With this end to his career as a player, he moved into managing teams and players, assembling teams that played in Cuba, Europe, and Australia. Eventually he owned some of these teams himself, which gave him the room to try some new ideas of his own. During the early 1900s, he experimented with various innovations, trying out electric lights for night games and scheduling games between white teams and black teams.

However, by the late 1900s his fertile imagination had been captured by something else: powered flight. In 1908 he founded a magazine titled “Fly” – the first magazine devoted specifically to airplanes. He later changed the title to “Aircraft”, and in fact this coined the word. He became a pioneer in aviation himself, eventually designing and building what some argue was the first passenger airplane in 1919 and popularizing the word ‘airline’. His airliner carried 18 people, had a projector onboard to show in-flight movies, and made a flight from Milwaukee to Chicago to a farm outside of Toledo and to Cleveland, then on to Buffalo, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Perhaps because of a few crash landings on this initial journey, and the fact that his next (26 passenger) airliner crashed on its very first test flight in 1921, Lawson Airlines never really took off, and went bankrupt by 1922.

After this disappointment, Lawson began to write more about his ideas and philosophies, starting with a book titled “Manlife” in 1923. This and many other later books and articles received only minor interest until 1931, when the Great Depression brought attention to his economic philosophies. Lawson declared he would spend the rest of his life propertyless and moneyless. He started the Direct Credits Society in 1931, publishing his own newspaper and pamphlets, and two years later it was among the more popular movements in the country, especially in the Midwest. Thousands attended his speeches in Detroit and Chicago in the mid-1930s, despite them not being publicized in any mainstream media, and Lawson’s followers staged parades complete with marching bands, specially written songs, and snappy white uniforms. The slogan of his Direct Credits Society was “Justice for Everybody Harms Nobody”, and his opposition to interest charges certainly had great appeal during the hardest years of the Depression – even if much of the rest of his writings and speeches were obscure and difficult to understand, including his ideas about good and evil microbes he called ‘menorgs’ and ‘disorgs’, the principles of zig-zag-and-swirl, discussions of six dimensions, and the ‘Law of Penetrability’.

When the United States entered World War II, however, Lawson’s utopian sentiments and bizarre ideas lost appeal rapidly. In 1943, when Lawson University opened its doors, he had only 70 students – a far cry from the thousands of followers he had led just a few years earlier (though he would still claim to have 2000 students). In 1948, the tax assessor of Des Moines inspected the site and concluded that it was “a university in name only” and was better described as “a colony for a community within the community for the purpose of eulogizing Alfred Lawson”. In the aftermath of WWII, Lawson also took the opportunity offered to educational institutions to buy up war surplus machine tools. However, instead of using them for educational purposes, he ran a discreet side hustle selling some of this equipment off to private buyers within the US. This, of course, was not an activity allowed for a non-profit university who had been sold government property for pennies on the dollar, expecting it to be used for training students. In 1952, this resulted in the now almost completely delusional Alfred Lawson being brought before a US Senate Investigative Committee where instead of protesting his innocence or seeking a plea deal, he used his time before the senators to try to explain Lawsonian religion and philosophy to them. They reacted with a mixture of amusement and irritation, and had the IRS revoke the nonprofit status given the university by the state, demanding it pay back taxes. In response, Lawson closed the school. Shortly thereafter, in 1954, Alfred Lawson died.

A few years later, in 1957, a former student and follower named Merle Hayden reopened the University of Lawsonomy on a farm outside Racine, Wisconsin. This property had previously been the University of Lawsonomy Farm, and now formed the whole of the campus. The university operated in this location with no tuition or fees (and very few students) until 2017, when Merle Hayden, the last Lawsonian, died.

The Des Moines site of the University of Lawsonomy, at 2nd and Euclid in Highland Park, is now occupied by the Park Fair Mall.



100 E Euclid Ave, Des Moines, IA 50313