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Sunday, November 05, 2006

Mysterious disaster befalls Benicia seminary

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

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Letter says invader divulged school’s secrets to the world

This is the final part of the story about The Wreath, a school paper published by teachers at the Benicia Young Ladies Seminary in 1855. Apparently, it was published as a regular paper, with selected extracts printed in the Solano Republican. - Editor

The first extract appeared in the Solano Republican on Nov. 24, 1855. Written as a letter in February 1855, the column introduced each student in the school with a quick character study. For today’s reader, these sketches had racial and discriminatory overtones. One wonders how readers at the time received them, or whether parents were thrilled to see their child’s name linked to a murderous historic figure.

While the Solano Republican promised that extracts of the newsletter would continue on a weekly basis, “The Wreath” column appeared only sporadically after the initial date. Columns were generally signed “Molly Mudge,” “Wild Rose” or “Lilly Bell.” Records indicate that the school paper was published by teachers Miss E. Woodbridge and Miss E. A. Walsh.

The second installment of the Wreath appeared on Dec. 1, 1855, again quoting a letter purportedly written on Nov. 20.

Before talking about the school’s events, Molly Mudge alluded to some mysterious disaster.

“But before I speak of our school, I must mention a frightful accident that has befallen us,” she wrote. “An invader, more to be feared than all of the armies in the world, has entered our school, and obtained some of our secrets; such little pleasantries as we have for our own amusement, and divulged them to the world (our little town) and not content with telling them merely, it has carefully picked out every letter of every word to the secret, blackened them over (true defamatory style), and stamped them on thousands of sheets, to be read by everybody. But what makes matters still more vexatious is that we should stupidly hand them over to this invader, just as though we desired them to be divulged.”

A couple paragraphs later, Molly listed the number of schoolchildren, 20 little girls, plus “twenty-six young California ladies! - for all above twelve are young ladies here.”

But instead of telling readers about each child’s character, as she did the last time, she now cautioned: “There are many things I would love to tell you, for each has a history of her own, dear to herself and precious to her friends. I wish I might introduce you to some that are regular sunbeams in our family, or such as gentlemen term angels, or tell you of the fine students, or whisper in your ear some of the love tales, but I dare not. I remember the past!”

Did a parent object to the first newsletter’s printing that was later excerpted in the Solano Republican? Did that parent have a pamphlet printed that in turn ridiculed some of the teachers? We do not have definite answers preserved, just these hints of an unusual occurrence.

In the same column, Molly Mudge also informed readers that all the boys, who had physically helped to install the new school, now had left. From here on, the Young Ladies’ Seminary lived up to its name.

The number of teachers had also increased. Two were labeled as “truly chivalric ones, who compassionate our ignorance, and aid with their superior wisdom in surmounting some of the most difficult steeps of the hill of science.”

One teacher taught voice and piano, a second one taught French and Spanish. Another teacher was responsible for reading, arithmetic and geography “in a real motherly way.” Finally, Molly listed the “Terror to Idlers,” maybe a house matron, who “Daily becomes more and more strict; it would be dangerous to say ‘cross.’ What a pity married ladies are never cross, so as to cover some of the defects of the sisterhood!”

Two weeks later, on Dec. 15, 1855, “The Wreath” offered the “School Girl’s Song” to its readers, signed by “Wild Rose.”

“I covet not the kingly crown,

“Though set with diadems,

“I would not sway his scepter,

“Nor seek his glittering gems.

“For care and sorrow e’en to him,

“Their galling fetters bind;

“But dearer far to a school girl’s heart

“Are the treasures of the mind.”

The other verses disparage the search for fame, heroics and beauty, praising knowledge and “wisdom’s bowers” instead.

The Solano Republican continued “The Wreath” sporadically, letting readers know about students’ graduation or wishing happy holidays.

On one occasion, published on Feb. 22, 1856, the column announced the death of one of the students. As an aside, we also learn how the school paper’s information was developed for publication.

“Often, for the sake of making our little paper as much like a regular newspaper as possible, we have inserted the deaths of fictitious personages, never deeming it possible that we should have to chronicle the decease of one of our own number,” the column said.

“But how different our mission today. During the past week, we have been called to mourn - mourn deeply. One who has contributed to our paper, studied with us, recited with us, gladdened us with her presence in school hours, out of school, has passed away .”

Below the column is a poem dedicated to Ruth Vaughn “The Loved One Who Has Flown.” Ruth seems to have been a student, although this is not explicitly stated.

While “The Wreath” continued for some time, it appeared less frequently in the Republican and eventually stopped altogether. Despite its chatty tone and bad poetry, its columns give us a rare insider view of the early years of Benicia and the Young Ladies Seminary.