Thursday, March 8, 2018

Mary Aikin—the First (Only!) Grinnell Woman Imprisoned for Causing an Abortion

In the early years of the twenty-first century we are perhaps accustomed to discussions of abortion. Even on the heels of Roe v. Wade, the case that the Supreme Court used to make abortion legal in the United States, some groups continue to press for more limits upon abortion even as other groups defend women's right to choose. In nineteenth-century Iowa, there was perhaps less public disagreement, but that does not mean that abortion was unknown or uncommon. According to a recent study, in the early days of statehood Iowa law tolerated abortion so long as the act preceded "quickening," the first movement of the fetus (estimated to occur usually in the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy). Experts estimate that, because of this leniency, as many as a quarter or a fifth of all Iowa pregnancies in this era ended in abortion. Only in 1878 did the Iowa Supreme Court uphold the conviction of an abortion performed prior to quickening, and in 1882 the Iowa legislature lengthened imprisonment for crimes of abortion—from one to five years (along with a $1000 fine).
Grinnell Herald, September 27, 1898
Into this environment came Mary Herma Aikin (also known as Aiken or Aikins—all three forms will appear in this post), one of the first women to practice medicine in Grinnell. Sometime around 1878 she opened an office in Grinnell, specializing in gynecology. In the male-dominated medical profession (in a male-dominated town), Aikin was definitely an outlier, unlikely to have blended successfully into the deeply conservative society of early Grinnell. Moreover, especially after the Haymarket Affair of 1886 and the highly-publicized 1887 execution of the men judged to have been its instigators, Aikin embraced an increasingly radical politics that put her at odds with many of her Grinnell neighbors. And perhaps for that very reason, despite the rarity of convicting Iowa doctors of the crime of abortion and the general rarity of convicting women of crime, in September 1898 Aikin was indicted for having performed an abortion. When she came to trial the next spring, despite her denials, and despite her poor health and advanced age, Mary Aikin was promptly convicted and hauled off to the Anamosa prison to serve a five-year sentence that death interrupted in 1902.
Anamosa State Penitentiary (Reformatory), ca. 1910
(Digital Grinnell)
This Grinnell Story examines the life of Mary Aikin, concentrating special attention upon her encounter with the judiciary and the law on abortion. Among other things, we will try to explain how, in the midst of relatively tolerant Iowa attitudes to abortion, Aikin became entrapped in a prosecution that put her into an Iowa prison.
After 1873, performing an abortion on a woman in Iowa was illegal, "unless such miscarriage shall be necessary to save [the woman's] life." Punishment included a stiff fine and imprisonment for up to five years.
New revised annotated code of Iowa...being the Iowa code of 1873 as amended...(Des Moines, 1888), p. 1239.
Even though lawmakers paid increasing attention to the issue as the century waned, Iowa prosecutions for performing an abortion remained rare, and, so far as I know, no Grinnell physician before Aikin had been brought to trial over the accusation (and perhaps none afterwards either).

But then, in late September 1898 the Grinnell Herald reported that on September 16, the county grand jury had indicted Mary Aikin, "charging her with abortion and ordering her arrest." The newspaper noted that Aikin had recently been ill, which is why the warrant was served at her residence at 1221 Park Street. The article asserted, sympathetically, that "it is impossible to give the evidence before the grand jury which caused the indictment, the accused person herself being kept in ignorance of its character." A brief note in the Herald the following week (October 4) hinted that the charge was based on "some very direct testimony," but allowed that the "Doctor doubtless will be able to introduce some counter testimony that will have a bearing on the case."

Aikin was due in court November 8, but because of poor health, the trial was delayed, physicians expressing doubt about Aikin's ability to withstand the process. Delays prompted grumbling in some quarters. After her case was put off for a second time in January 1899, the Montezuma Democrat ridiculed the affidavit of two doctors who had asserted that
the defendant's health is such as to render it dangerous to try the case now. Dangerous to what? Her conviction? This is the second or third time the same kind  of a plea has been accepted! This woman has been indicted by the grand jury on two or three counts for the crime of abortion, and we are told the evidence is conclusive of her guilt. How long, O Lord, how long, is this case to be continued? (January 24, 1899; thanks to Pat Rowell for sharing this clipping with me)
Back in Grinnell the delays seem not to have caused much comment, but when Aikin's case came before the Montezuma court again on March 24th, and Aikin continued to plead for postponement, Judge Scott pressed ahead. He summoned two doctors to court to examine Aikin, and when they reported "that she could probably stand the trial comfortably," he immediately called the proceedings to order.

As the Grinnell Herald noted, there were only two witnesses: "Mrs. Myrtle Noble on whom the operation was performed and her mother, Mrs. [Mary] Kilmer, who testified that she was present and witnessed the operation." Aikin, testifying in her own behalf, contradicted the state's witnesses, and denied that Mrs. Noble had ever been in her office. The case went promptly to the jury, who could not have debated long. Although nothing indicates the exact hour when the jury retired, we know that by 10 PM of that same day it had returned a verdict of guilty. Aikin was released on bond, but the county sheriff collected her April 6, delivering her to Anamosa where she began serving her five-year sentence. In prison she was one of about twenty women among more than 400 men, an indirect indication of how rarely women were convicted of serious crime in nineteenth-century Iowa.

Immediately after the verdict, Aikin's attorney filed an appeal for a new trial, which the judge summarily rejected. Then her attorney appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, which heard the matter December 12, 1899. Writing for the court, Judge Deemer noted that "The indictment negatived the exception found in the statute, and the court instructed that the state must show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the miscarriage produced by the defendant was not necessary to save the life of the mother." Defendant's counsel argued that "the verdict is contrary to the instructions of the court," that the state had not "negatived" the statute's exception. In other words, the difference in viewpoints hinged on this one question: was the abortion necessary to preserve the life of the woman?

The court's deliberation is worth quoting at length:
All that is disclosed by the that the woman on whom the operation was performed went with her mother to the office of the defendant, who is a doctor, and requested her to perform an abortion. The woman was advanced in pregnancy for from five to six months, and the operation was successfully performed. There is no evidence of illicit intercourse, no showing as to whether she was married or unmarried, and nothing to indicate the condition of her health, except that she walked to the office of the defendant two or three times. Surely, this does not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the miscarriage was not necessary to save the life of the mother...It is a matter of common knowledge that many persons walk to hospitals and to offices to have operations performed that are necessary to save life...There was not sufficient evidence to support the material allegations of the indictment, and defendant's motion for a new trial should have been sustained...For the error pointed out, the judgment of the district court is reversed, and the case is remanded for a retrial (Reports of Cases at Law and in Equity determined by the Supreme Court of the State of Iowa, May 26, 1899, December 14, 1899, vol. 20 [=109] [Des Moines: Geo. H. Ragsdale, publisher, 1899], pp. 645-46).
Gratifying though this result must have been to Aikin and her attorney, it did nothing to change Aikin's situation at Anamosa. As before, she remained in the prison hospital, her health so poor as to prevent her returning to Montezuma for a new trial. It seems hardly credible, but more than two years later Aikin was still in the prison hospital, her health deteriorating daily. She died in prison March 6, 1902, never having reclaimed her freedom after the 1899 conviction. The Anamosa Prison Press announced Aikin's death and published an obituary in its March 8 (!) issue. The Anamosa Eureka (March 13, 1902) also remarked on her death, observing (incorrectly) that Aikin was nearly 74 years old, and that a friend had claimed the body for burial in Riverside cemetery, Anamosa.
Gravestone for Dr. Mary H. Aiken (1829-1902), Riverside Cemetery, Anamosa, Iowa
Only twelve days after her death did the Grinnell Herald (March 18, 1902) carry a brief notice in place of an obituary. The Herald reported only that the Anamosa prison newspaper "contains an account of the death of Dr. Mary Aikin in the hospital of the woman's prison last Thursday. Her death was due to a tumor."
Davenport Weekly Republican, May 5, 1897
In this rather sad way the tale of Mary Aikin comes to an end. Given the woman's age and health difficulties, her continued stay in prison after her conviction had been reversed begs for an explanation. Indeed, it is difficult to understand how she merited the maximum sentence in the first place. In a similar case from 1897, a Davenport dentist, Dr. John Cleland, 72 years of age and in poor health like Aikin, was convicted of having performed an abortion, but was sentenced to only nine months' imprisonment, even though Cleland admitted having performed an abortion; more than that, his "patient" had been so damaged by the operation that she required hospitalization. Nevertheless, Davenport residents organized petitions in favor of pardoning Cleland, arguing that even nine months in jail would kill the aged and ailing dentist. No public demonstrations in Grinnell and no petitions for pardon on Aikin's behalf are reported, nor did the judge in her case find it possible to lighten the sentence, even after the conviction was reversed by the Iowa Supreme Court.

How did Mary Aikin end up deserted and unfairly imprisoned, and why did her hometown offer her no support, despite her having practiced in Grinnell for more than twenty years, and despite the fact that the Iowa Supreme Court had thrown out her conviction? There are no easy answers to these questions, but careful examination of Aikin's biography provides some possible explanations. 
Aikin's early history is especially obscure, the records full of contradictions. Her obituary (Anamosa Prison Press, March 8, 1902) reports that she was born in July, 1829 in England, and in an 1893 letter she confirmed that her origins were "English (north country), Scotch and Norse, Danish." The obituary adds that her father was a "professor" at St. John's College, Oxford, but does not supply either his or his wife's given names or surname. Without firm evidence of her parents' identity (or at least her maiden surname), identifying Aikin's birth and marriage is impossible. Nevertheless, a few stray pieces of evidence tantalize.

For example, it may be that Aikin's maiden surname was Herma, as she often used "Herma" as a middle name when she signed letters or entered her name in official lists ("Mary Herma Aikin"). But as an English surname, Herma is quite rare, and is better attested in German records. Nevertheless, I did find in a January 1830 parish register from St. James Church, Shere, Surrey a christening record of Mary, daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth Herma. The date of christening might be late for a July 1829 birth, but not impossible. More troublesome is the fact that Surrey is not very close to Oxford, where "our" Mary's father reportedly worked, and certainly cannot easily be called "north country" England. Moreover, although the girl's parents bear the surname "Herma," the christening record identifies the baby's father not as an Oxford don, but rather as a "laborer." So, this might be the correct christening record for Grinnell's Mary Aikin, but only if we accept that other claims in her obituary were invented and false.
Extract from January 1830 parish book of St. James, Shere, Surrey
( Surrey, England, Church of England Baptisms, 1813-1912 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2013. Original Data: Anglican Parish Registers. Woking, Surrey, England: Surrey History Centre)
Aikin's obituary also asserts that she had been married, in which case Aikin would likely be her husband's surname. The 1902 obituary continues, saying that this husband was himself a medical doctor who died "about twenty-five years ago"—that is, about 1875. But finding evidence of her husband-doctor has also proven frustrating. If, as the obituary maintains, Aikin came to the US "about 1870," she would have arrived, presumably, in the company of her husband. However, no passenger lists or border crossing data presently available confirm the arrival of Dr. and Mrs. Aikin (or Aiken or Aikins) in any East Coast ports in the years around 1870.

After some effort I was able to locate in the 1870 US Census of Grand Rapids, Michigan a Nathan J. Aikin, "physician," age 29, born in New York, and his wife, "Mary H," age 32, born in England and then "keeping house." The English birth, together with the woman's initial of her middle or maiden name, allow us to think that this might be the woman who later resided in Grinnell (if one accepts that the census age is incorrect).
Extract from 1870 US Census for Ward 1, Grand Rapids, Michigan
( 1870 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch)
However, far from dying in 1875, as Mary Aikin's husband was said to have done, Nathan J. Aikin reappeared in the 1880 US census of Grand Rapids, this time with a different wife, Edna. This is approximately the same time when Mary Aikin came to Grinnell, so it is conceivable that she left Nathan, who remarried, but I found nothing to confirm this speculation.

In Michigan periodicals Aikin regularly published advertisements that declared him "doubtless the most skilled Ladies' Physician in the world," perhaps a connection with the medical specialization of Grinnell's Mary Aikin. However, before long, the Michigan Dr. Aikin moved to Oakland, California where he attracted the unwelcome attention of federal postal authorities for having used the US mails to sell home-made remedies. Convicted and sentenced to prison, Nathan Aikin poisoned himself June 1894 before officials could put him behind bars in San Quentin. Could this man once have been Mary Aikin's husband? If so, why does her obituary report his death at least twenty years before he did in fact die?
San Francisco Morning Call, June 10, 1894
Exactly when Mary Aikin arrived in Grinnell is unclear, but it may be that she came to town shortly before the 1878 city directory went to press. Iowa physicians' directories for 1878 do not list her name, but the Grinnell city directory of that same year does mention her: the first page of the 1878 directory identifies "Aiken Mrs. Dr. M. H." One of nine physicians listed in the directory's classified section, Aikin had offices in the Grinnell Block on Broad Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues. At the time Grinnell could boast one other female doctor—Rachael Harris—but Aikin clearly directed her practice at women patients, and emphasized a specialty in gynecology, "having for many years devoted exclusive attention to The Medical and Surgical Diseases of Women" (learned perhaps from Dr. Nathan Aiken).
Advertisement in 1878 Grinnell Directory
Records from Grinnell's Congregational Church indicate that "Mrs. M. H. Aiken" joined the church in 1878, an action that might be expected from a church-goer or from someone new to town who wanted social connections to help jump-start her practice. Even if she was an atheist, Aikin might have been attracted to the abolitionist sentiments of J. B. Grinnell and his fellow Congregationalists, making church membership something of a political, if not a religious, statement. In any event, Aikin failed to attend regularly, so that at a January 4, 1884 meeting at the Congregational Church Aikin (along with another two dozen people) was stricken from the rolls, "owing to long-continued absence."
Records of Grinnell Congregational Church, Book 4: Records of First Congregational Society, 1860-1900, p. 299
(Drake Community Library microfilm)
Aikin's medical practice seems to have occupied the bulk of her attentions. Here, too, however, the evidence betrays inconsistencies that complicate our picture of Mary Aikin. The 1880 edition of the Medical and Surgical Directory of the State of Iowa, for example, identifies "Akins, Mrs. M. H." in Grinnell as having graduated in 1864 from the "Woman's Med. Coll. Philada." But in an email reply to my inquiry of the Drexel University College of Medicine Legacy Center Archives and Special Collections, where the records of the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania now rest, Ms. Joanne Murray reported that Mary Herma Aikins (or Aikin or Aiken) does not appear "in the Annual Announcements as an 1864 graduate, or [graduate of] any other year since [the school's] inception up to 1880," in which year Aikin listed the Woman's College as her alma mater.
Charles H. Lothrop, Medical and Surgical Directory of the State of Iowa for 1880 and 1881 (Clinton, IA: 1880), p.131
It is not altogether surprising, therefore, that in Polk's Medical and Surgical Directory of the United States published in 1886, Aikin claimed graduation in 1857 (!) from a different institution: Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia (now the Sidney Kimmel Medical College). The 1890 edition of this same register recalls "Aiken Mrs M H," but with only an asterisk to indicate that Aikin did not provide the requested data. It seems likely, therefore, that Mary Herma Aikin never completed medical training at a recognized institution.

This circumstance may explain the surprisingly critical reaction of Iowa physicians to Aikin's conviction. The 1898 Iowa Medical Journal (p. 400) carried word of Aikin's arrest for "producing an abortion." Although admitting that the editors knew nothing of her guilt, the journal went on to hope that "every abortionist in the state will be brought to terms," alleging that "this crime is altogether too prevalent in the medical profession." A notice in the 1899 volume announced Aikin's conviction and sentencing, and abandoned the effort at fair-mindedness evident in the 1898 issue:
The doctor has the reputation of being an old offender in this line. Now that the courts have started on this good work we hope they will not let up until they have rid the profession of these murderers, many of whom are using their certificates of practice largely for the purpose of taking life rather than of saving it (Iowa Medical Journal 5[1899]:166).
The Woman's Medical Journal (8[1899]:245-46) was even more critical. Reporting news of Aikin's conviction, the periodical printed her name and title in quotation marks, noting that she was registered as an "eclectic, but is starred [in the register], that is, declines to give date and place of graduation...," and was therefore of dubious credentials.
Prior to her indictment, Aikin attracted little attention from the Grinnell newspapers. However, as we learn from some letters she wrote, over time Aikin was increasingly attracted to radical politics, and was especially affected by the so-called Haymarket Riot of 1876 and the subsequent execution of those convicted of the bombing. In a letter published in the journal Commonweal (May 4, 1889), Aikin expressed disgust that the Illinois State's attorney who prosecuted the alleged Haymarket bombers (Julius Grinnell [1842-98]) was a cousin of Iowa's J. B. Grinnell, and that J. B. Grinnell had "vouched to the court for the good character of Harry Gilmer," the only witness who positively identified the men as having tossed the bomb. Even more appalling to Aikin was the way in which the town of Grinnell received news of the conviction and sentencing of the men in Chicago:
On the day our Chicago comrades were sentenced to death [August 20, 1886] all the bells [in Grinnell] were rung in rejoicing; the same thing was done at noon on the day of the murder [i.e., the executions, November 11, 1887], and at night they had bonfires and general rejoicing.
Observing that she was the lone Anarchist in town, Aikin reported her own very different reaction to events in Chicago: "I draped my office in mourning, put on a mourning costume, and then went to work to make converts to the cause, right here among its most bitter enemies." By her own account, Aikin had organized in Grinnell a group of some ten or eleven persons who identified with the International Working Peoples Association. "Six [of these men] are mechanics and common labourers of very poor education," she wrote. "These men cannot read Marx, Proudhon, or Spencer; the language, the logic, the science are all far above the reach of my poor friends. And they have so little time. When night comes they are too tired for books, too tired to think..." In this summary Aikin repeats the observations (and frustrations) of Lenin and many other agitators who tried to enlighten and motivate the working class. But hard evidence confirming the existence or membership of such a group in Grinnell is so far wanting.

Issues of the Grinnell Herald from August 1886, when the Chicago verdict was announced, or from November 1887, when the convicted were executed, contain no news of bells ringing or bonfires burning in celebration. Nor do the newspaper's "personal" columns relay details of Mary Aikin's mourning costume or her office decorated with black crepe, so it is difficult to confirm her reports. All the same, there can be little doubt that Aikin had turned an important corner, pitting herself against the larger, more conservative world around her. Consequently, especially if she had overtly advertised her solidarity with those executed in Chicago, or if she was known to be tutoring workmen in political radicalism, Aikin's politics will have become increasingly clear to the Grinnell public.
Coded word in an Extract from a May 24, 1893 letter of Mary Aikin to Voltairine de Cleyre showing her coded reference
(Grinnell College Libraries Special Collections and Archives, File 20pG88aik)
A handful of 1893 letters reveals Aikin's deepening involvement with America's late-nineteenth-century radicals. Writing to Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912) in Philadelphia, Aikin acknowledged that she had regularly been sending $10 a month to "L," almost certainly Dyer Daniel Lum (1839-1893), an associate of and successor to Albert Parsons, editor of the anarchist newspaper The Alarm (Parsons was among those executed in Chicago in 1887). In addition, she reports having regularly received letters from L, who had evidently been planning some illegal action which obliged Aikin to encrypt its name in her letter. Aikin acknowledged that she felt herself under surveillance, which explains why so many other references in the letters bear only initials or are reported in code. At one point, Aikin complained that the US Postal Service was now in the employ of the Russian tsar, and regularly monitored the mail of people like her and de Cleyre.
Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912)
What stimulated Aikin to compose the 1893 letters, however, was the apparently unexpected suicide of Lum, April 6, 1893. How or when Aikin met Lum I do not know, but her letters betray a deep, almost fanatical love for the man, who was, after all, long-time consort to de Cleyre herself. In one letter Aikin likened L to Jesus at Calvary, complaining that "the dread Powers...have 'taken' my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him." And yet, she resumes, "I know my dear one is not dead and he who tells me so is the 'Strong Son of God, Immortal Love.'" Aikin goes on to describe how "For many days I was in darkness, so sad, broken-hearted, all was gloom. His photograph framed on my table seemed to look at me and seek for comfort....Then, all at once came divine peace. It was as if he had taken my hand and said 'Dear Comrade, I am here.'"
Dyer Daniel Lum (1839-1893)
Language like this might embarrass a teen-ager, but when she wrote these lines Aikin was 64 years old, making no concession to age. In a letter dated May 24, 1893 she told of her crisis reaction to a letter in which de Cleyre reported details of L's death:
Oh, the suffering of reading your precious letter, telling how he went away—I would not read it here. I wanted to be alone with him. I went to Colfax, thirty miles west, did not tell where I was going, so as to shut out telegrams and people. And then—dear comrade I cannot say what happened—it would have been heaven to die anyhow to what I felt...this short while has whitened my hair almost to silver—it was just beginning to be gray—and made me so strangely calm and silent that my friends say to me, "What is the matter? what troubles you so deeply?" Tell them? No! This grief is for you and me.
This girlish romantic sensationalism contrasts with another part of Aikin's letters in which she analyzes her own sexual identity:
I am not like other women, I fancy, indeed one of my friends, an English captain of cavalry, says that by some mistake I was put into a woman's form. Tears come to me so terribly as to a man and as seldom. Emotion takes the form of utter calm outwardly. I am not what is called "affectionate" and because I am like this I loved dear L as men love each other, without weakness, without sentiment, but with faith and truth, loved him so well that I could have helped him go to certain death for Freedom, and let him see only smiles of approval.
The evidentiary shards from Aikin's private life make one wonder how locals viewed her. A woman who practiced medicine, and who—by her own account—did not much act like other women, and who increasingly put herself at odds with the prevailing political opinion must have attracted criticism, even if none made it onto the pages of the newspaper.

These considerations made me reexamine the abortion case that originally brought Mary Aikin to our attention. I wondered what motivated Myrtle Noble—who, although five months into her pregnancy,  had voluntarily come to Aikin in search of an abortion—to complain against Aikin for the very service that she herself had requested? Nothing in the record indicates that Noble was in any way harmed by Aikin's action, and her mother, Mary Kilmer, who joined Noble in testifying against Aikin, admitted that she had been present for the operation, implying her consent. Why then did these women later accuse Aikin, who, we should remember, denied that Noble had ever been in her office? Is it possible that Noble was suborned to accuse Aikin falsely?

Myrtle Kilmer, it turns out, was not an ideal representative of late nineteenth-century Grinnell. For one thing, she lived near Malcom, so she had to have made some effort to locate Aikin and seek her assistance. It would not be surprising to learn that the two women, so different in age and background, had never met. Furthermore, by the time Noble sought an abortion from Aikin in 1898, Myrtle had already delivered herself of her first child, Roy, who was born in September, 1896, the same month in which Myrtle married Lester Noble, presumably the child's father. So in 1898 Myrtle Noble was married and already a mother when, by her account, she sought an abortion from Aikin. An obvious explanation escapes me; it seems more likely that Myrtle would have wanted an abortion for the child conceived before marriage, not for one generated after marriage. Of course, it is possible that by 1898 Myrtle and her relatively-new husband had discovered that life together was not what they had hoped. Reluctant to give birth to a child sprung from this unloved husband, Myrtle—and her mother—decided to have the child aborted.
William Kilmer Household in 1900 US Census of Washington Township, Poweshiek County
Indeed, when federal census officials came to Washington Township two years later, Myrtle and her son, Roy, were living apart from their husband/father and with Myrtle's parents, William and Mary Kilmer. Although I found no record of divorce, Myrtle and Lester clearly had separated, as the following year Myrtle married George Peters; Lester Noble did not die until 1914.

So what happened? Did a very pregnant Mrs. Myrtle Noble (in the company of her mother) seek out an abortion from Mary Aikin? And if she did, why did she? Satisfyingly confident answers to these questions remain elusive. There can be no doubt that Mary Aikin stood out from the more conventional society of late nineteenth-century Grinnell. She did not act as women were expected to act, nor did she attend church or adopt the Republican politics commonly endorsed in early Grinnell. Ambiguities of her biography could only have sharpened criticism, and if, as she herself claimed, she was trying to educate working men to the politics of anarchism, town fathers might well have been scandalized and alarmed.

Were they? Did men in power fashion a means by which to punish and remove Mary Aikin? I could find nothing that directly confirms this suspicion, but the peculiar circumstances of the charge leveled against Aikin and the maximum penalty given her—along with the fact that she was not released after her conviction was overturned—cast suspicion upon the entire episode of Grinnell's first judicial encounter with abortion.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Black American Most Fair in Early Grinnell

When I began this blog a few years ago, I asked "Whose Stories Deserve to Be Told?" Noting that those at the margins of society—especially the indigent and people of color—often lost their places in the history of Grinnell, I set out to add their stories to the master narrative. Along the way I have enjoyed learning about the talented members of the Renfrow family, Jim Tibbs and his family, and some of the black pioneers in Grinnell. So it is appropriate in this Black History Month to introduce another African American who shared pioneer Grinnell with some of the town's most famous founders, but whose name appears only fleetingly on the pages of Grinnell's history. Emma A. Morgan (1851?-1872) was born in slavery, but around 1867 she came to Grinnell. An outstanding student who impressed others with her moral sense and behavior, Emma also stood out because of her color: though born African American in the South's citadel of slavery, Emma's skin appeared white, probably the result of a sexual encounter between one of her ancestors and a slaveowner. Between the ages of 15 and 20, Emma lived in Grinnell, establishing a reputation for intelligence and Christian integrity. Yet, when she died in 1872, the victim of an unnamed but torturous illness, her body was consigned to Hazelwood's potter's field without a grave marker or any explanation; quite literally,  Emma Morgan disappeared from the record of Grinnell, almost as if she had never been here. As it happens, however, a small artifact survives with which we can tease out some insights into the life of this remarkable African American woman.
Holy Bible (1865), Grinnell Historical Museum #1000.35.1
Emma Morgan came to my attention quite accidentally. With some Grinnell Historical Museum board members I was recently helping sort and identify a large collection of the museum's books. Among a clutch of bibles was a small, black, leather-bound bible with the name "Emma Morgan" stamped on the outside. Within I found a small sheet of paper on which a hand-written note identified the bible's owner as "a colored girl whom the Ladies Social brought to Grinnell from New Orleans to educate her." The note continued by observing that Emma had lived with "Grandpa" Bartlett (Stephen N. Bartlett [1802-1879])—a deacon in the Congregational Church and one of the town's earliest and most prominent settlers—and that at her death she had given this bible to her friend and fellow-orphan, Alice Howard (later Longley) (1859-1915).
Note found within Emma Morgan's Bible and written by Ethel C. Longley (d. 1961), daughter of Alice Howard Longley
I knew nothing about Emma Morgan; indeed, when not long ago I composed a post for this blog about African Americans in early Grinnell, I did not encounter her name. Sure, there was Ned Delaney, Mumford Holland, and the several students who attended Iowa College, but no Emma Morgan. How had I missed her? 

Well, it turns out that I was not the only one to have missed Emma Morgan, neglecting to count her among early Grinnell's small population of African Americans. Already in 1870 when US census officials visited Grinnell and inventoried Stephen Bartlett's household, the census-takers identified Emma as white, just like her friend, Alice Howard, and everyone else then resident in the Bartlett household.
1870 US Census for S. N. Bartlett household in Grinnell
So I retraced my steps in search of more details about Emma Morgan: who was she? how had she gotten to Grinnell? and what had happened to her? A few slivers of evidence survived, tucked away in remote corners of the past.
In the first months of 1874 the Grinnell Herald published a series of short articles on the "Early History of Grinnell, 1854-1874." Reprinted in 1915 as a booklet, these articles examined various moments in the early history of the frontier settlement, including some reflections on "Negroes in Grinnell." "At an early day," the newspaper began,
some very good but timid men, and others really sordid, greatly feared that the radical people here and their wide repute in aiding the fugitives from slavery would forbid Grinnell being, as they expressed it, anything more than a "nigger town" (p. 29).
The writer, distinguishing himself from this view, went on to note that "Several colored persons gained respectable standing as students" in Grinnell, and had gone on to admirable careers as teachers. Moreover, the writer continued, there was also an outstanding African American young woman:
Emma Morgan, from New Orleans, [whom] the ladies of the Congregational society for several years supported, [and] who gave good promise... She was a light quadroon, and not easily distinguished from her companions... (ibid.).
To prove the point about Morgan's color the writer recalled an occasion when a stranger visited Grinnell's Congregational Church Sabbath school. His guide noted that the church school boasted "young and old, and all colors, some very white for colored," then asked the stranger "to designate the colored girl in a large class." Surveying the group of young women (among whom was Emma Morgan), the visitor, operating on the theory that skin color determined race, looked for the darkest skin tones, and chose as "colored" the daughter of his white guide, overlooking Emma Morgan.

A similar story emerged from a review of Grinnell schools published in the Poweshiek County Herald on February 9, 1870. After identifying a handful of high school students who demonstrated great competence in geometry, the writer pointed to "Miss Emma Morgan, who though born a southern slave, possesses a complexion fair and shadeless as her character is pure and spotless."
An 1860s photograph showing the different skin color of New Orleans African American orphans
(Gilda Lehrman Collection:
Histories of Louisiana have remarked on the frequency of light skin color.  During both French and Spanish occupations of Louisiana, sexual encounters across color lines were common, leading to so-called "creole" coloring. Moreover, the institution of slavery made its own contribution toward skin color, empowering slaveowners to rape and assault slaves, in the process adding genes that remained within slaves' genetic inheritance. Back in Grinnell, Iowa, however, famous as a bastion of abolitionism and as a way-station on the Underground Railroad, a fair-skinned African American was something new.

Nevertheless, to judge by the skimpy written record, Emma Morgan attracted only minimal attention from Grinnell's early residents. For example, when she died in June, 1872, the local newspaper had little to say, barely mentioning her demise. Readers learned nothing of the girl's origins or that bright promise that her school teachers and church school friends had noticed. And although she was buried in Hazelwood Cemetery, she took her final rest not in a regular plot with a stone marker, as the former slave Ned Delaney had, but rather in an unmarked grave in potter's field (of which I learned through the kind efforts of Ms. Dorrie Lalonde at Drake Community Library).
Grinnell Herald, June 5, 1872
The apparent terseness with which Grinnell marked Emma's Iowa sojourn and the seeming reluctance to regret the young woman's premature death—she could have been only about twenty years of age when she died—stimulated my curiosity.  Why had Emma not occasioned more attention, I wondered. And why had she ended up buried next to unknown visitors and the homeless, when she had lived in the home of one of the Congregational church's deacons, had been supported by the women of the Congregational Church, and had been received as a member of that church? An excellent student with a "character...pure and spotless," Emma Morgan slipped off the pages of Grinnell's history, leaving barely a trace.
The 1870 census, referenced above, noted that Emma had been born in Mississippi, but the story narrated in "Early History" claimed that she had come to Grinnell from New Orleans. Was one of these contrasting narratives in error?

With the evidence at hand, it is difficult to reply with confidence. As a slave—especially as an enslaved child—Emma would not have appeared in any of the censuses of free persons conducted in the US South before the Civil War; census officials identified slaves only on so-called slave schedules, where the subjects often appeared without so much as a given name—age, sex and color were sufficient, even if the slaves had given names. And since it was customary for slaves to take surnames from their owners, young Emma Morgan was probably born on a plantation owned by someone named Morgan. Slave schedules from 1860 Tippah County in Northern Mississippi, for example, include a slaveowner by the name of Morgan who owned several unnamed slave children, including two females aged 8 and 9—about the age that Emma would have been in 1860.
1860 Schedule of Slave Inhabitants, Tippah County, Mississippi
Is this where Emma began life? Without more definitive evidence, it is impossible to know, since more than a few Mississippi planters bore the name Morgan. For example, in 1850 Copiah County (south central Mississippi) there were at least three planters whose surname was Morgan. No doubt there were more Morgans elsewhere in the state.

But if Emma had been born in Mississippi as she told the Grinnell census-taker in 1870, how did she end up in New Orleans? A confident and specific answer to that question also remains impossible. As historians of the US Civil War have noted, battles between Confederate and Union armies raged over Mississippi and Louisiana for several years, ruining numerous plantations and disrupting families. Historians of New Orleans have pointed out that by the end of the Civil War, the city was teeming with orphans, both slave and free, victimized by the war. One result of this human flood was to stimulate well-intentioned activists to found orphanages. Unsurprisingly, given the immediate history of slavery, several of the new orphanages were built especially for "colored" orphans. For instance, in 1865 the Louisiana Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans founded its first orphanage, originally in the Soulé mansion, then later in its own building (John Blassingame, Black New Orleans 1860-1880 [1973], p. 170). An 1881 government report on The History and Present Condition of New Orleans, Louisiana identified more than twenty orphanages, at least three of which were dedicated to "colored orphans." Consequently, there were certainly institutions in New Orleans in which Emma, the orphan slave, might have taken refuge.
Soulé Mansion, Original home of Colored Orphans' Home
And that is apparently exactly what Emma did. Although no Grinnell newspaper carried Emma's obituary, a Grinnell resident known only by her initials ("F. S. R.") did publish a remembrance of Emma in American Missionary, the national organ of the Congregational Church's American Missionary Association. Created in the 1840s to "abolish slavery, educate African Americans, and promote racial equality," the association did great work in the South, especially during Reconstruction. And, according to F. S. R., Grinnell had a presence in this work in New Orleans, where "a kind hearted [but here unnamed] physician and his estimable wife...found [Emma Morgan] in an asylum for colored children, though neither her complexion [n]or features indicated African blood." In other words, Emma, like numerous slave children of the day, riding the flotsam of war, had drifted into New Orleans where she had gained shelter in an orphanage and where someone from Grinnell found her. Saying so does not mean, of course, that Emma was not born in Mississippi, as she later told the census-taker in Grinnell. But New Orleans was definitely the home that young Emma Morgan left to travel to Grinnell.
But who was this anonymous "kind-hearted physician and his estimable wife" who were said to have found and rescued Emma? The 1878 Grinnell city directory—the oldest surviving Grinnell directory—identified nine doctors in Grinnell.
1878 Grinnell City Directory
The database at Drake Community Library includes no obituary for Dr. Mary H. Aiken, whose practice centered on gynecology. Nevertheless, she and her practice attracted the unwanted attention of the authorities. In 1899 she was convicted of having provided an abortion, and was sent to the state penitentiary for five years and fined $1000. In any case, she could not have been the physician who, with "his estimable wife," had rescued Emma Morgan. Thomas Hedges was born in Pennsylvania, but completed his medical education in Keokuk, Iowa,  arriving in Grinnell in 1865. Although he had served in the Civil War before coming to Grinnell, Hedges evidently had never traveled so far as New Orleans. John Lewis was also Pennsylvania-born, but began the practice of medicine in Indiana, where he met his future wife and married. So far as I know, Lewis never traveled to Louisiana and only arrived in Grinnell in 1869.  E. W. Clark, who occupied numerous city offices and later also served in the Iowa legislature, is perhaps the best-known of this group, but Clark first reached Grinnell in 1871, by which time Emma Morgan was already living here.
Advertisement from 1878 Grinnell Directory
The story is different for Ephraim and Rachael Harris, however. Ephraim Harris was born in 1827 in Pennsylvania where he did his physicians' training and began medical practice. He and his family in 1852 reached eastern Iowa where Harris resumed the practice of medicine. That same year he married Rachael Hamlin, and the couple moved to Grinnell in 1855, not long after J. B. Grinnell himself. In 1863, his obituary recalls, Harris "went into the army, becoming surgeon general of Louisiana and the head of the big marine hospital at New Orleans," and evidently remained in these duties until 1868. Rachael Harris, who had done medical training in both New York and Chicago, also had a medical practice in Grinnell. Moreover, Rachael joined her husband in New Orleans for at least one year, having "entered the Freedmen's Bureau as teacher in an orphan asylum," her obituary reports. Rachael Harris, therefore, must be the "estimable wife" alluded to in Emma's obituary, and evidently it was she who first discovered Emma Morgan in one of the "colored" orphan asylums in New Orleans. The details remain opaque to us, but somehow she and Ephraim arranged to transport Emma to Grinnell, probably no later than 1868 when Harris left his duties in New Orleans.

F. S. R. notes that Grinnell's Congregational Church supported Emma for several years, although the obituary identifies the group as the "Ladies' Benevolent Society," whereas other reports cite the Ladies' Social, a group that was only formed in 1869. J. B. Grinnell himself recalled that the Ladies' Social was very active in Grinnell, having arranged for the church a series of socially-minded speakers like Wendell Phillips and Horace Greeley. Grinnell reported that these famous visitors brought "thousands of dollars to the treasury of the Young Ladies Social," with which the group "lighted, cushioned and carpeted the beautiful church house"—the so-called Stone Church erected in 1877 (Men and Events of Forty Years: Autobiographical Reminiscences of an Active Career 1850-1890 [1891], p. 116). The Young Ladies Social also raised funds with which to purchase an organ for the new church, as an article in the March 30, 1870 Poweshiek County Herald explained. Regrettably, I was unable to discover any of the group's records to determine how much the Young Ladies Social had expended in support of Emma Morgan. But the evidence here adduced confirms that the Young Ladies' Social—which was certainly a benevolent association—was a socially-conscious and well-funded organization whose resources were certainly healthy enough to have allowed the group to sponsor Emma.
How long was Emma resident in Grinnell? The best information on that question comes from the 1872 obituary in American Missionary, which claims that Emma attended Sunday School in Grinnell for five years. If accurate, this report indicates that Emma arrived in Grinnell in 1867, after which she demonstrated "diligence, serious attention, and eagerness to learn the truths of God's word (all so new to her)." Indeed, Emma's bible, now part of the collection of the Grinnell Historical Museum, contains on one of the fly-leaves a dim, penciled inscription with Emma's name, the date of January 8, 1866, and a note on location—New Orleans.
Faint, faded inscription on fly-leaf of Emma Morgan's Bible (Grinnell Historical Museum)
The syrupy poem that follows (and separately copied out on the back of the sheet enclosed within the bible) may have served as a first Christian expression to the teenaged orphan:
Lord Jesus, be my constant Guide.
Then when the word is given,
Bid death's dark stream its wave divide
And land me safe in Heaven.
If Emma's obituary be believed, when Emma reached Grinnell, the dogma of Christianity was "all so new to her." When still in New Orleans the young girl apparently had no knowledge of or commitment to Christianity. The inscription in the bible fly-leaf, therefore, must have belonged to the person who gave her the bible, probably Rachael Harris. Perhaps the same hand added (again in dim pencil) on the last fly leaves of the bible a long list of verses, presumably for Emma's instruction.
Back Fly-leaf of Emma Morgan's Bible (Grinnell Historical Museum)
More than a dozen scriptural references—several of which are so dim as to be indecipherable—fill the page. The list provides only the references, but the texts of these biblical suggestions are revealing. At the top of the page, one finds Isaiah 55:8-9:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Other citations resonate with the conservative theology that prevailed among Grinnell's nineteenth-century Congregationalists:
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins... (I John 1:8-10).
For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9). 
What Emma Morgan made of these biblical nuggets is hard to say, but a 1905 publication celebrating the first half-century of Grinnell's Congregational Church reports that Emma A. Morgan was admitted to membership in May, 1871 on "profession of faith" (A Record of Fifty Years [1905], p. 51). This fact means that Emma had satisfied church authorities that she was genuinely converted. On her June, 1872 deathbed, too, her obituary relates, Emma had proclaimed "her trust in the Lord Jesus, whom she had taken for her friend and Savior more than a year before"—precisely the time she was admitted to church membership. Consequently, although Emma may not ever have plumbed all the depths of Christian scripture, the bible she had received in 1866 came to occupy an important place in her life in Grinnell, accompanying her into a deeply-held Christian piety.
The details are missing, but her obituary observed that Emma in extremis endured a "severe and protracted illness, during which...her sufferings were extreme." Without knowing the specifics—how long she was ill, and what symptoms she presented—it is impossible to decide what felled the young woman. So-called "spotted fever" had passed through Grinnell some years earlier with deadly results, and smallpox, tuberculosis, whooping cough and other maladies were common and deadly afflictions of the era.
List of Receipts to American Missionary Association from Iowa
(American Missionary 16[1872]:192)
Whatever the exact cause, Emma A. Morgan, one of the earliest African Americans to live in Grinnell, died June 3, 1872. Having expressed the intention of one day becoming a teacher to freedmen in the South, Emma left behind a small treasury of $6.21, money given her by one of her Grinnell teachers. This financial mite—supplemented by another dollar from her obituarist, "Mrs. F. S. R."—was donated to the American Missionary Association. Her modest wardrobe went to the Home for the Friendless in Chicago, but other of her "little treasures,...carefully marked and nicely kept...tokens of regard from those who had felt an interest in her," remained behind. What happened to the rest of her "little treasures" is not known. Luckily for us, however, the bible that accompanied Emma to Grinnell remains. Given to her friend and fellow orphan, Alice Howard, that bible eventually came to rest in the Grinnell Historical Museum, a quiet testament to the brief Grinnell sojourn of Emma Morgan, a former slave orphan who had "complexion fair and shadeless as her character is pure and spotless."

Friday, January 26, 2018

When Murder Stalked the Halls of Ivy...

Regular readers of this blog might recall a 2016 post about mentions of Grinnell in recent fiction. The subject came to mind again recently as I read Dean Bakopoulos's Summerlong, which situates its entire plot in Grinnell, Iowa. So far as I know, except for the occasional geographical and topographical references to Grinnell, Summerlong's plot and its characters are entirely fictional. The situation was different for another novel that seventy years ago took Grinnell as its focus. This post examines that mystery—Prominent Among the Mourners—and how it represented the town of Grinnell and the college where most of the action takes place.
Newspaper advertisement from Des Moines Register, March 1, 1947
Prominent Among the Mourners did not once use the name "Grinnell," but nevertheless produced a sharply critical and extremely precise narrative image of Grinnell College and its small-town context. Published in 1946 by J. B. Lippincott as part of its "Main Line Mystery" series, Prominent was authored by "Carolyn Thomas," a pseudonym that seems to have been derived from the names of two people who had lived in Grinnell in the early 1940s: Thomas William Duncan (1905-1987) and his wife, Actea Carolyn (Young) Duncan (1913-1990). Reported by a female narrator who arrives in Larkinville (founded by J. B. Larkin), a small Iowa town, to begin a job in the publicity department of Larkin College, Prominent narrates a series of homicides that interrupted placid, small-town Iowa life; in this respect the novel is perfectly ordinary.

Along the way, however, the mystery's narrator and central character authors some serious character assassination whose waves lapped the Grinnell College pond for some time after publication. According to long-time Grinnell College historian, Joe Wall, Prominent Among the Mourners "was the conversation piece on campus" when Wall arrived back in Grinnell in 1947 to begin teaching. Wall claimed that at the time the book "was virtually required reading for all new faculty members" (Grinnell Herald-Register, May 11, 1978).

But townsfolk as well as college personnel were attracted to a book so closely identified with their home turf. According to a February 9, 1947 article in the Des Moines Register, Grinnell's Stewart Library, which then rented books at two cents a day, could not keep the mystery on the rental shelves. "So heavy has been the demand," the Register wrote, "that the library is keeping no reservation list. Library patrons have to be there when it hits the rental shelf" or miss their chance to check it out.
Gravestone of the Duncans, Masonic Cemetery, Las Cruces, New Mexico
I do not intend to use this post to spoil the mystery for any readers anxious to explore the tangle of a serial homicide in fictional 1940s Grinnell. In my opinion—and I have read more than my share of murder mysteries—Prominent is not badly written, especially in its first half. But what caught my attention was the way in which the author—later revealed to have been Mrs. Duncan—so precisely plots the places and persons of early 1940s Grinnell. Despite affixing fictional names throughout, Prominent provides a surprisingly transparent map of Grinnell as it existed seventy-five years ago when the Duncans lived here. Margaret Matlack Kiesel, who grew up in Grinnell and attended Grinnell College, some years ago wrote up a key to the persons and places identified in Prominent, and I have made use of her work, only occasionally differing from her conclusions.
Let's begin with the places. Much of the college's recent building has hugged Eighth Avenue and extended to the north, a part of town wholly undeveloped in the early 1940s. But to many of today's Grinnell citizens, what seems most changed in the college's landscape is the band of land along Sixth Avenue. Before there was a Burling Library (1959), and before there was a Roberts Theater and Fine Arts Complex (1961; 1998) occupying the north side of the Sixth Avenue bow, four old buildings—all erected on the heels of the 1882 Cyclone—dominated the college landscape: Goodnow Hall (1885; renovated 1995); Chicago (Magoun) Hall (1883); Blair Hall (1882-86); and Alumni Hall (1882).
Grinnell College Front Campus (ca. 1900)
All these buildings were still in use in 1942 when the Duncans reached Grinnell. Today Goodnow is the only one still standing, but this fine Richardsonian structure plays no part in the action in Prominent. Blair Hall is gone, but it, too, made scant appearance in the mystery. Alumni Hall (Music Building) and Chicago Hall (christened Burmal Hall in the novel) both have parts to play in Thomas's mystery. The first makes only a brief showing in Prominent, and plays no direct role in the plot. Nevertheless, the building's description leaves little room to doubt the author's impression:
[The Music building] stood at the east edge [of campus], over by the railroad track. A warehouse of a building, it was two stories high, with a steeple like a dunce cap (Prominent, p. 144).
Alumni Hall (ca. 1910) (
A great deal of the mystery's action is situated in Burma Hall, the fictional stand-in for Chicago Hall. The home of most college administrative offices, "Burma Hall" is the scene of numerous meetings, at least two murders and two assaults. Even without these elements of plot, however, the building evokes little appreciation from the novelist:
Alumni and faculty were given to drooling about dear old Burma, but to an objective eye the most charitable estimate was that it constituted a fire hazard...Burma looked old, too—old and secretive…The building towered massively, its juttings [sic] and cornices casting gargoyle shadows… (Prominent, p. 25).
Chicago Hall, 1915 postcard (
Prominent is quite right to say that most Grinnell College administration offices were housed there.  As a consequence, the book's central character, the newly-arrived publicity director at "Larkin College," has reason to spend time in this building without, however, developing any affection for it:
I hoped I would never have to work at night in my office; the old walls of Burma were surely alive with mice. Probably even rats in the basement, where the back files were kept…I didn’t think it deserved such a cheerful title as basement; dungeon would have been better. It was a huge, cavernous place, floored with dank concrete and hard-packed earth…The whole basement, for my money, looked the way those midnight broadcasts sound. I mean the ones where werewolves howl and Frankenstein slides down the aerial (Prominent, p. 25).
Another building to play an important part in the plot was the college library. Grinnell's Carnegie Library, situated just north of Herrick Chapel in the 1200 block of Park Street, was erected in 1905 with monies supplied by Andrew Carnegie. What had begun as a spacious destination for the college's 29,000 books over the years became a cramped and cluttered facility; by the time Burling Library opened in 1959, the library collection totaled more than 120,000 volumes used by 875 students and some 90 faculty members (see Waldo Walker on "Carnegie Hall" in Digital Grinnell).

Construction presently underway on campus has razed part of Carnegie Hall, but when originally constructed the library building formed a"T," with a west wing that ran north-south parallel to Park Street, and a perpendicular east wing (now razed) intended mainly for book shelves. Beneath the east wing architects had created basement space for the archives as well as storage space for oversize books and old issues of periodicals.
Carnegie Library, ca. 1925, looking northwest (a detail from this image:
Susan Eyerly, the mystery's narrator, made several trips to the library basement in search of clues to the murders. Her description brings dust to the reader's throat:
I entered the building and descended the stairs to the basement. It was crowded with stacks that contained musty, out-of-date volumes...The huge volumes containing the Everton News [the concocted substitute title for the Des Moines Register] were arranged with the name of the paper and the inclusive dates stamped along their spines...The smell of dust and yellowed newsprint floated up from the bound papers like the moldy stench of charnel shrouds. I stared at the shadowy library stacks, and those dim galleries seemed as intricate and thickly-coated with the years as a catacomb (Prominent, pp. 89, 169, 173).
A 1957 photograph of the Carnegie basement demonstrates that the novel's description was not far off the mark (even if the photo does not reveal the dust).

Carnegie Library Basement (ca. 1957)
Immediately across the street from the library still today stands a house at 1205 Park Street. It was at this address—fictionalized as Lowell Street—that Prominent has the newly-arrived college publicity director take a room.
As we lurched away [from the train station], I glanced at the New Marshall [Monroe] hotel...We crawled north along a wide avenue, elm-shaded. Big old houses stood well back from the sidewalk, triumphs of gingerbread and widow's walks...We paused for an east-and-west highway [US 6]...crossed the highway and passed the campus: mellow old buildings, great shade trees...The cab halted at a large frame house on the west side of the street. It was white-painted, with green shutters; and a vine-sheltered porch rambled around the east and south sides...There was an old stable behind... (Prominent, pp. 5-6).
What the college now calls Macy House still stands at 1205 Park, although it, too, has seen renovation and alteration over the years, including the demolition of the old stable out back and erection of a sizable addition to the west in 2008. Nevertheless, the structure is still recognizable from its description in Prominent
1205 Park Street; the large addition on the west was added in 2008 
According to the novel, it was Professor and Mrs. Boy Crandall who lived in this house and from whom the newly-arrived Susan Eyerly rented a room. However, when the Duncans arrived in Grinnell in 1942, 1205 Park Street was actually home to Professor Charles Payne (1879-1947) and his wife, Ina Chatterton Payne (1896-1976). Like Charles Payne, Boy Crandall was a distinguished scholar, long-time chair of the department of history, and disabled, which meant that he did much of his teaching at home. 
Professor Charles Payne (1936 Cyclone)
Like her fictional alter-ego, Carrie Crandall, Ina Payne was considerably younger than her husband, and, like Carrie, had indeed once been her husband's student, having graduated from Grinnell in 1918. She later took an MA from Radcliffe College, and from 1923 to 1925 was a member of the Grinnell College History faculty. In the summer of 1925, she married Charles Payne, and for the next twenty-two years devoted much of her life to caring for her invalid husband.
Ina Chatterton, Instructor in History, 1925 Cyclone
Immediately south of 1205 is 1131 Park Street, presently known as Harry Hopkins House, but in the early 1940s it was the home of English professor Stuart Gerry Brown (1912-91), whose avatar in Prominent was Scott Gerard Ball, depicted as a sociologist. The novel spares no efforts to criticize Ball, whom the prose regularly likened to a terrier:
[Ball was a] slightly-built man of thirty. He had dark hair and a fox-terrier face; and outsize shell-rim glasses weighed down his small, sharp nose. His voice reminded me of a terrier’s, too: it yapped…Ball has charm when he chooses, which is when he thinks it will do him good…His charm is treacherous. He’ll give you a magnetic smile and you won’t catch on till you notice the knife handle sticking out of your back...Scott Gerard Ball had been straining like a leashed terrier. When the president paused, Ball reared up, yapping furiously…Scott’s canine face twisted in a sneer” (Prominent, pp. 16, 21-22, 20, 30-31).    
1946 Cyclone
Like Scott Ball, Stuart Brown was divorced and had remarried. His stepson, Robert Walstead, lived with the Browns, but in July 1942 died in the garage that formerly stood behind the house at 1131 Park. 
1932 Sanborn Insurance Map for 1131 Park Street, showing garage at rear of property
According to newspaper reports, 11-year-old Robert Walstead died by accident. Absent from his step-father and friends only for minutes, the boy somehow fell from the roof of Brown's car in the garage, and died immediately.
Grinnell Herald-Register July 6, 1942
In the most vicious part of the book, Prominent rewrote this story so as to savage Scott Gerard Ball (and, by implication, Stuart Brown), suggesting that the fictional step-father had driven the boy to his death:
Scott’s stepson, Charles, had died a year ago last August 15 on his twelfth birthday….It seemed that Scott had burned with jealousy at Elsie’s affection for the boy…Charles lived with his father—Elsie’s first husband—in Chicago, but he always spent summer vacations in Larkinville…Charles had been vacationing a year ago when he fell from a high rafter in the old barn behind Ball’s house. A broken neck…It was thought strange that so sturdy and well-coordinated a lad should have lost his head and fallen. But both Scott and Elsie had been so devastated that nobody supposed it wasn’t an accident. …did Scott Ball kill his stepson?...What if the lad had been driven to suicide by Scott’s acid tongue? (Prominent, p. 127). 
Throughout the novel Carolyn Thomas mocked the ambition she witnessed in Stuart Gerry Brown, but it seems that Brown's ambition was not misplaced. A member of the English Department at Grinnell, Brown left the college in 1947 to become Professor of Citizenship and American Culture at the Maxwell Graduate School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University where he taught for twenty years. In the mid-1960s he moved to Honolulu, becoming graduate professor of American Studies at the East-West Center of the University of Hawaii. Along the way he authored a dozen books and became a policy adviser to two presidential candidates—Adlai Stevenson and Robert Kennedy. His extensive archive, which includes substantial correspondence with former colleagues at Grinnell, is housed at Syracuse University and attests to the broad contacts Brown had in both academia and politics.
Tanager Magazine Staff, 1944 Cyclone (Theobald in center of back row)
If Prominent Among the Mourners vilifies Stuart Brown, the book goes to great lengths to praise John Theobald (1903-1989), fictionalized in Prominent as Philip Hadley. 
[Hadley was]...a fair slender his middle thirties. He had a sensitive face with a firm mouth...He had a natural reticence that made talking about himself difficult...[he] rushed over everything that reflected credit on himself, such as the honors with which he'd been graduated from Oxford and his volumes of published verse. He had been born of British parents in the Malay States where his father was a civil servant. He had been sent back to England to a public school and Oxford, and after graduation he taught in Canada... (Prominent, pp. 7, 23).
Thomas made small alterations in the biography of the fictional Hadley, but the portrait is unmistakably copied from Theobald.  Born in the Indian sub-continent (rather than the Malay States) to missionary parents (rather than civil servants), John Theobald was indeed educated at Oxford, and had immigrated to the United States and Canada, having held teaching positions in both countries before arriving at Grinnell in 1941. According to a 1982 biographical essay, Theobald did not take well to the Grinnell campus, finding it "as stimulating as tundra." Philip Hadley had a similar impression of Grinnell. When the novel's narrator asks Hadley how long he had been at Larkin, he replies:
Two years. And that’s a year and eleven months too long. I knew before I’d seen my first October here that it wasn’t the spot for me…I’m angling for a job at a university on the west coast (Prominent, p. 20). 
His fictional alter-ego was said to have had a disastrous romantic engagement with a student, but John Theobald in fact became attached to a Grinnell student with whom he developed a lasting romantic attachment. Mary Lee Nugent, daughter of an Algona, Iowa dentist, came to Grinnell in 1939 and majored in English. Like Theobald, she loved poetry, and managed to win several campus poetry prizes, including the 1942 Selden Whitcomb Poetry competition. She and Theobald married (John had been previously married and divorced) in December, 1943, a few months after Mary Lee's graduation from Grinnell. 
1943 Cyclone
Like Stuart Brown, Theobald soon left Grinnell, departing for San Diego in 1945. He worked briefly in industry, but soon accepted a position at San Diego State University where he taught until he retired in 1969. An accomplished poet, Theobald authored several books of poetry, and published English translations of French poetry. Acquainted with many well-known poets, he enjoyed conversations with Robert Frost and his 1950s correspondence with Ezra Pound was published. In Southern California he was perhaps best known for a series of radio programs he generated, including a 14-part series on poetry and another series entitled "The Nine Ultimate Questions." He died in California in December 1989.
John Theobald, ca. 1982 (
One oddity is that, although in the novel Carolyn Thomas has Philip Hadley living in the Crandall house at 1205 Park (that is, in the Payne house), in 1942 John Theobald in fact was renting space in Stuart Gerry Brown's home at 1131 Park, just across Seventh Avenue. The following year Theobald resettled at 919 Seventh (now demolished), a house situated behind 1205 Park and adjacent to the alley; perhaps Theobald found Brown every bit as grating as Philip Hadley found Scott Ball, and moved to escape immediate contact. However, although he moved closer to the Paynes, he was not rooming with the Paynes as Prominent had him doing.
Fine Arts Department, 1946 Cyclone (John Ryan, far right)
Another faculty member whom Prominent gored was long-time professor of Speech John Ryan (1877-1951), whose alter-ego in the novel is Brian Kilpatrick. Described as a "handsome old gentleman" with "heavy white hair and a bushy white mustache," Kilpatrick suffers the novelist's ridicule for his pomposity and sense of self-importance. Although Ryan himself had no speech defect, Brian Kilpatrick invariably uttered "a fizzing noise that sounded like carbonated water." Prominent has Kilpatrick live in a house at "the southwest corner of Ninth and Emerson, a tall old dwelling with bay windows and gingerbread trim," where yet another homicide occurs. John and Elsie Ryan, however, lived at 1233 Broad, on the southwest corner of 8th and Broad, a house that much better corresponds to the novel's description than does the cottage on the southwest corner of 9th and Broad.
There are other college personalities who appear in Prominent under fictitious names, and Carolyn Thomas labored hard to replicate their characters and mannerisms: the college president, named Herron in the novel, but undoubtedly modeled on former president John Nollen rather than Samuel Stevens who was president when the Duncans reached Grinnell; Persis Maxey, a stand-in for Adeline Pruyn, administrative assistant to President Stevens; Leo Shadwell, an interfering alumnus and college trustee from Everton (Des Moines) who was said to have given the college $150,000 for a music building—perhaps a caricature of Fred Darby, class of 1895, who in the early 1940s gave the college $125,000 for a gymnasium (although Darby did not live in Des Moines); and so on. Lining up these characters with their real-life equivalents is fun, and Maggie Kiesel's key can be a big help.

But here I turn attention to how the novel describes the town of Grinnell under its pseudonym of Larkinville, founded by "J. B. Larkin." The physical description of Larkinville—even allowing for exaggeration—comes very close to 1940s Grinnell. Early in the book the author has Susan Eyerly walk through the downtown business district "...with its old facades in red brick and sandstone, its John Deere implement dealer, its J. C. Penney store [914 Main]" (Prominent, p. 8). To file news of the murders Eyerly is obliged to visit the downtown telephone exchange to make long-distance calls, just as 1940s Grinnellians had to do. "It's that old brick building on the corner of Fourth and Emerson," Prominent reports (p. 57). There was no telephone building at Fourth and Broad (Emerson Street in Prominent), but there certainly was a telephone exchange in the 1912 brick building of the former Interior Telephone Company on Fifth Avenue.
Interior Telephone Company building, 815 Fourth Avenue (
Elsewhere the novel has one of the characters laud the fact that Larkinville is "a good place to raise children" because "crime is non-existent...Nobody locks doors or bothers with car keys" (Prominent, p. 37), comments often heard in Grinnell, at least until relatively recently. 

In general, however, the novel casts a disparaging glance over the town, often disdained for its small-town attitudes. For example, at one point Susan Eyerly takes a nighttime stroll
through the deserted business section...They didn't actually take up the sidewalks in Larkinville [at night], but they might as well have. A few dim street lights guided my steps, but the store windows were shrouded in darkness. Not even a night light burned in the back of the hardware and grocery stores (Prominent, p. 58).
The novel's local newspaper, titled Larkinville Gazette (presumably a stand-in for the twice-weekly Grinnell Herald-Register), comes in for some heavy criticism, too. Eyerly calls it
a horrible example of what journalism should not be. In any given issue—it was published Tuesday and Friday—I could discover so many instances of literary ineptitude that I was thinking of compiling a list of prize specimens to send to my newspaper friends (Prominent, p. 79).
Advertisement for the Pup above the Raven (Scarlet and Black, October 5, 1945)
Other local businesses also come in for some unfriendly commentary. Several times in the novel Eyerly eats at the Old Crow Restaurant, evidently a pseudonym for the Raven, a well-known establishment at 924 Main Street in 1940s Grinnell. The Raven advertised often in the student newspaper, and was a popular spot to visit with bowling downstairs and pool tables upstairs.
Advertisement from the Scarlet and Black, November 12, 1943
Having heard someone remark that "Eating's a problem in Larkinville," Eyerly and a friend visit the Old Crow:
It was a place of chromium and white leather, with Bing Crosby crooning from a juke-box, and students milling about...Our food came. My milkshake was too thin, my sandwich soggy. Bing Crosby yielded to the Andrews' Sisters... (Prominent, pp. 8-9).
Eyerly also dines at Candy Kitchen, evidently referencing Candyland on 4th Avenue where the daily special yielded "underdone chop and overdone vegetables" (Prominent, p. 202). The novel also has her eat at a "greasy spoon down on the highway [US 6] which was heavily patronized by students...I studied the grease-stained menu. 'What's good?'...'Nothing's good, but the egg sandwiches are edible'" (Prominent, p. 98), the novel reports. The book gives no name to the "greasy spoon," but it seems likely that Thomas was referring here either to the White Spot (910 Sixth) or to the Dixie Inn, both of which were located at the intersection of 6th Avenue and Broad Street—White Spot on the southeast corner, the Dixie on the southwest. Dave Adkins reports in his memories that the White Spot "had great hamburgers and tenderloins and was a place where students worked and hung out and everyone stopped after a game or a movie for a snack" ( The Dixie stood just across Broad Street on the lot once occupied by Pizza Hut.
Scarlet and Black, September 23, 1941
As the earliest Grinnell reports of Prominent noted, the author displayed considerable animus toward both the  town and the college—especially toward what the author called "the malicious temper of an ingrown college" (Prominent, p. 19). Adding unnecessarily that at faculty functions one encountered "an unusually high rate of halitosis" (p. 39), Thomas discerned among the college faculty "the smell of antagonism. Old hatreds; smoldering feuds; personality antipathies coiled for action" (p. 29). In those around her she saw "egotists like Kilpatrick who croak louder in a little puddle. Or tadpoles like Scott Ball who think they stand a better chance of growing into frogs where there aren't any big fish to gobble them" (p. 37). In her view, the college faculty had had to endure stunted dreams, and let the bile of disappointment flow freely in their behavior:
Once they had been men with brilliant futures. They had been going to head departments at Chicago and Harvard and Stanford...but unaccountably things had not worked out that way. In their forties and fifties and sixties they found themselves stuck in a small college in a small town. That was a very bitter faculty at Larkin... (Prominent, p. 124). 
The town of Larkin hardly fares much better in the mystery's description. Thomas reports a deep distrust between townsfolk and the college whose large claim on land goes untaxed. Locals were said to be deeply biased against foreigners, especially those hired to teach at the college. She finds repugnant the extent to which Larkinville lays claim to a New England heritage: "For a hundred years this retrogressive town had fed on rich Midwestern soil, but it still thought beans and cod would taste better" (Prominent, p. 73).
Actea Carolyn Young (later Duncan), 1931 Roosevelt High School Yearbook
In this context it is ironic to learn that when still a  high schooler, the future Carolyn Duncan (Actea Young) imagined that she might attend Grinnell College. However, in a 1947 interview with the Des Moines Register Thomas claimed that she "didn't have Grinnell in mind at all" when writing Prominent, pointing out that some of her friends thought the mystery was situated at Drake where she had once been a student. In fact, she asserted that she had had no specific campus in mind, rather a "composite campus" (Des Moines Register, August 28, 1947, p. 1).
Des Moines Register, August 28, 1947
The evidence reported above rebuts this claim, although one can understand why, on the heels of publication, the author might wish to sidestep some of the vitriol that the book generated. There can be no doubt, however, that the Duncans did not enjoy their time in Grinnell, and that they made haste to depart, leaving town in 1944 for Colorado, then California, and finally New Mexico. In later interviews Thomas Duncan alleged that it was the climate that obliged them to leave town, and that, in any case, he was eager to devote more time to his novel Gus the Great, a book he did finish and publish to considerable success in 1947. But in Grinnell, the Duncans will always be remembered for the serial-murder mystery, Prominent Among the Mourners.