Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

An Account of the Rev. J. L. Ver Mehr Regarding His Brief Stint as an Instructor of French and Italian at Pelham Priory in 1843

I have written often about Robert Bolton and his family, Bolton Priory and the Pelham Priory School for Girls founded at the Priory. See, e.g.:

Friday, March 2, 2007: A Brief Account by American Author Margaret Deland of Her Education at Pelham Priory in the 19th Century.

Thursday, December 14, 2006: Items from Bolton Priory in the Collections of The Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, The New-York Historical Society.

July 28, 2006: Image of Bolton Priory in the Town of Pelham Published in an 1859 Treatise on Landscape Gardening

July 26, 2006: A Brief Account of Visits to Bolton Priory in the Early 1880s

July 5, 2006: Bricks Laid by Washington Irving and Ivy from Kenilworth Castle at the Bolton Priory in Pelham Manor

March 15, 2006: A Biography of Cornelius W. Bolton Published in 1899

March 1, 2006: 1909 Real Estate Advertisement Showing Bolton Priory

February 22, 2006: Doll Depicting Nanette Bolton in the Collection of The Office of The Historian of The Town of Pelham

December 7, 2005: The Sale and Subdivision of the Bolton Priory Estate in the 1950s

November 29, 2005: An Early, Interesting Photograph of Bolton Priory in the Village of Pelham Manor

September 21, 2005: The Nanette Bolton Memorial Chapel Building at Christ Church in Pelham Manor

Aug. 23, 2005: Society Scandal: The "Strange" Story of Mrs. Adele Livingston Stevens Who Acquired the Bolton Priory in Pelham Manor

Jul. 13, 2005: 11 Priory Lane: The Rose Cottage

Jun. 10, 2005: Pelham's Most Magnificent Wedding Gift: The Bolton Priory

May 3, 2005: Colonel Frederick Hobbes Allen, An Owner of Bolton Priory in Pelham Manor

April 7, 2005: Another Volume of William Jay Bolton's Sketches and Ruminations Located?

Apr. 4, 2005: Art and Poetry of William Jay Bolton of Bolton Priory in Pelham

Nov. 16, 2006: Robert Bolton, Jr.'s Inscription to His Father Inside Book He Authored That Was Published in 1855.

Dec. 14, 2006: Items From Bolton Priory in the Collections of The Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, The New-York Historical Society.

In 1877, Rev. J. L. Ver Mehr published an autobiography that included an account of a brief stint of service at Pelham Priory in 1843. He claims he was fired shortly after debating slavery with four students from Charleston, South Carolina and offending them greatly with his opinions. Below is the account, followed by a citation to its source.



First impressions are sometimes true, but oftener prove not so, because not always made on minds unruffled. When, on the following day, I sat with wife and child on the 'Staten Islander,' steaming with rapid strokes to the Metropolis of the West, I felt the chill of loneliness and lack of sympathy. Crowded was the deck with " ladies," though instinct told me that all were not so, and that I was in the atmosphere of 'moneyed aristocracy.' Languid and observing of self seemed those ladies, but none had a word of sympathy for the stranger who, with her babe on her lap, came thousands of miles.

Thus I remember having thought at that time, and having observed to my companion how different it would be if a stranger came to old Europe. I now must smile. Yet the feeling was true and natural, and to this day a 'stranger' has a right on me, just for being a stranger. But soon we came to the noisy hive of nations, and found our way to Mondon's 'Hotel Francais.' For with nervous instinct the stranger is apt to cling, as long as possible, to what he is accustomed to. And from there I set out on the following day to visit Dr. G. Burke, for whom I had a letter of in- [Page 283 / Page 284] troduction. His wife was a Geneva lady, whose parents, neighbors of the pastor of the Witness, I knew. In him I found an upright, warm-hearted friend, a Christian gentleman, who received me stately but kindly. And he introduced me to others, where I was well received. But there seemed to be a sameness in all. A certain outward appearance, making men and women, and houses and parlors all alike, without the individuality to which I was accustomed in Europe.

And this was the general impression I received, as far as I can remember, all over the metropolis. A great sameness, and perhaps, in consequence of it, a great want of excitement, transforming common things into a sort of romance. For romance is the natural atmosphere of the world, especially, of the more refined sex. Even the poor foreigner, seeking his bread by selling his knowledge of languages, for a while was transformed into a political refugee, a victim of tyranny! And I gave lessons in Italian to a young lady, the only heiress of a great fortune, homely, but romantic. And the mother kept strict watch until she knew I was the husband of a handsome wife. But even then the pupil would have me an Italian refugee, and hesitated accepting the gift of my copy of Silvio's 'Priggioni," because she knew so many recollections must be connected with the little volume.

Yet pleasant are to me the recollections of those first introductions into a world so new to me. And when at last we were settled in a 'boarding [Page 284 / Page 285] house,' that essentially American institution, so full of mischief, I remember the amazement wherewith we beheld the dispatch of meals, the political talk between whigs and democrats, the north and south so strongly marked, the religious discussions amongst Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Unitarians, Israelites, Infidels, all at the same table. It was new to us and perplexing.

From Merle d'Aubigne, the historian, I had received an introduction to his elder brother, established in New York, an active enterprising merchant. And he, with his wife and amiable children, received me as a brother of d'Aubigne should do. He brought me once to John B. Astor, then perhaps the richest man in the world, for whom I had a letter. I found him old and crippled, and very near taking leave of his worldly riches. Another time he took me to Flushing, where the Rev. S. presided over St. Ann's Hall, the first school for young ladies which I saw. It seemed to me like a dream. So much outward appearance; costly furniture; large parlors; greenhouses; covered walks; the ladies all in silk, sweeping by like queens; and the reverend principal himself dressed in latest style. It made a strange impression upon me. And I thought that if the internal answered to the external, those scholars must be very accomplished indeed.
After that I visited many others with a view to obtain employment. For my means drew to an [Page 285 / Page 286] end, and I often looked upon my wife and babe, just recovering from deadly struggle brought on by change of climate, with feelings of deep concern.

And one afternoon, in the beginning of September, I came home from my wanderings, and found my wife, with tearful eye, rejoiced. 'I sat,' said she, 'looking through the window, inwardly praying God to have pity upon us, when a lady rang the bell, and asked after you. I went to see her. She was the daughter of the Rev. Bolton, who wishes to engage you at his Institute at Pelham. Who sent her, I do not know; but she was so glad to find you; and I promised you would go to-morrow, to see her father.

And I remember having embraced my faithful companion with joy. And the source of joy I remember very well. Not so much, the prospect of needed help, as the token of 'prayer answered.' Thus we were, at that time; simple and confiding, and in our confidence, reckless perhaps in the eyes of others, yet happy, because continually 'trusting.' Full of expectation, I took the cars, and having left them at Winchester, walked the remaining miles, through the bewitching scenery of American landscape, and American country residences. Those fanciful dwellings and tasteful grounds! It took me by surprise, and walking up to Pelham Priory, I could not help exclaiming: 'I wish she were with me!'

Nothing indeed could surpass the scenery around the Priory. It was all new to me, and when at [Page 286 / Page 287] last I entered the dwelling, built in gothic style and furnished all through in perfect harmony, I forgot that I was in a 'school.' Yet so it was. And the Rev. Mr. Bolton, with his wife, a daughter, of the celebrated Jay, and his amiable family, made me feel in Europe, only with the freedom and pleasing, 'laissez aller' of American influence. And I felt at home in another sense. For they were truly God-fearing people, laboring with earnest desire to glorify their Redeemer. And when, at noon, I was placed in the large dining hall, next to the reverend Principal, and surveyed the bevy of thirty or forty scholars, from all parts of the Union, setting down as a large family, with evidence of good breeding and liberal instruction, my heart was warmed, and I thought Pelham Priory a paradise.

With these feelings I returned, having arranged with Mr. B. that I should come twice a week, to instruct in French and Italian. And with the Abbotts I made an arrangement in the beginning of September. They were, I believe, four brothers. John, the author of many works, took the lead. On Lafayette place they opened their Institute; and I was engaged for French, and other things, as they happened to be necessary; among others for drawing.

The Abbott plan was to make instruction as pleasant as possible. With this view, grammar and all rules were severely banished. And when, in aftertime, I composed a series of exercises, going [Page 287 / Page 288] more systematically through grammar, I lost my labor. For not only did I give offense, but even a promised increase of salary was withdrawn!

Thus I worked under the directions of others, often against my better convictions, and chafing under the yoke of necessity, seeing instruction made a tool for profit, and the increase of scholars the main object in view. I began to feel as if I made bricks and bricks, and had to furnish the straw besides. But necessity compelled me to many 'essays' and 'trials' of 'new' methods, until at last my own lack of experience deprived me of my most pleasing task, the instructions at the Priory.

It was an 'aristocratic' school, and many were the ladies from the sunny South, who there received their 'finishing touches.' Among them were four sisters from Charleston, sweet and interesting, and with them I once came in discussion concerning 'slavery.' A European, fresh from the old world, has no idea of the tenderness of this point. I honestly, but imprudently, confessed my astonishment that in a Republic, founded on 'Liberty,' such a thing as 'slavery' could exist. I was not aware of the deep offense I had given. Nor did the sweet sisters show any annoyance. But at the following lesson, the eldest sister handed me her composition signed with her name, with this addition : 'from Charleston, S. C., where liberty exists in all its forms.'
And this was a declaration of war. For since [Page 288 / Page 289] that time all went against me. And soon I perceived that good Mr. Bolton was perplexed, and had a word to say. At last he said it. At the end of the month my services would be dispensed with.

That evening I walked home over the beautiful hills, colored with autumnal leaves; but I was depressed and gloomy, and remember having had the tears in my eyes, when thinking of wife and child."

Source: Ver Mehr, J. L., Checkered Life: In the Old and New World, pp. 283-89 (San Francisco, CA: A.L. Bancroft and Company).

Please Visit the Historic Pelham Web Site
Located at
Please Click Here for Index to All Blog Postings.

Labels: , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home