Document 13A: Mary Jane Churchill to Brother and Sister, 27 January 1850, File of Emily P. Burke, in Records of the Office of the Treasurer, Record Group 7, and in Robert Fletcher Papers, Record Group 30, Oberlin College Archives; (Typescript by Robert S. Fletcher, or student designate, original in possession of Mrs. Azariel Smith in Whittier, CA.)
Emily Pillsbury Burke was hired in 1849 as Principal of the Female Department, but lasted less than one year in Oberlin. A young widow, she had taught in Georgia, an experience that strengthened her commitment to radical racial equality, and spoke well for her suitability for Oberlin. But once at the College, she caused controversy both for her teaching practices and her conduct. The best account of the Burke controversy is found in the first letter reproduced below, written by Mary Jane Churchill, first wife of the physics professor C. H. Churchill, to her brother and sister relating the details of Emily Burke's dismissal. The devastating effect of the dismissal on her reputation and prospects for future employment doubtless prompted Burke to write the second letter, (see Document 13B) an appeal to the Board of Trustees.
Oberlin, Jan. 27th 1850-
My dear brother and sister
Mother wrote you a letter a few days since which I suppose you have received by this time which informs you of our health and welfare--She says she told you I would write soon and tell you what a muss Oberlin is in again--surely a hard task is imposed upon me, for I know not where to begin--and if I pretend to tell you all the circumstances it will take me several hours at least--you will not feel as interested as we do--for you have no acquaintance with one of the parties--yet you are interested in Oberlin "musses"--so to my story--I believe when you were at O. last summer L--we had no permenant principal for the young ladies department--soon after you left Dr. Aiken[A] of Cleveland recommended to the Faculty--a widow lady who was then at C--but who had recently been at the south teaching--her name is Mrs. E. P. Burke--her husband was a minister--graduated from Dartmouth College. The Faculty received her on three months trial--when she first came here she was very feeble--as she had had the Cholera while in Cleveland--but notwithstanding her poor health she went right to work to have the Boarding House improved; its cellar, yards, and drains cleared away (I mean the filth cleared away that was in them) then she had all the pillow ticks emptied and washed thoroughly, every bed stead in the hall taken down and thoroughly scalded and then frozen[B]--the rooms scalded and frozen too--before this. Before this I should have said that she gave up the winter school after she had been there three months--that she might see the repairing of the boarding hall--then she had the hall vacated for the winter no one remaining but herself and one young lady for a room mate--so you see she had a nice time to freeze out the bed bugs--then she got the faculty together and petitioned them to get paper to paper all the rooms which they granted, then after consulting the ladies board she called a meeting of the ladies of the colony to present before them some of her wants. She said they needed rag carpets for the halls and a strip, if no more to lay before the bed in each room--then she said each room needed a plain cheap bureau--she told how many things poor young ladies had to buy, and further more how other Institutions were furnished--but to be brief she won the hearts of all the ladies who came home greatly pleased and instructed--I said all, there were one or two exceptions such as Mrs. Stoele who cared not to trouble herself to contribute any rags or money--I have told you of these things to show you her energy of character now I will tell you what she was (not is) for a principal--when she first came here some of the young ladies feared they should not like her, she is very plain looking--but after meeting her a few times it was whispered around--"the young ladies almost idolize Mrs. Burke." She is very familiar and social--She said to the young ladies now I want you to look to me as a friend--not as a something so cold and stiff you dare not approach me--come to me with all your little troubles and secrets--and remember I have a heart too--if you are glad to see me kiss me as you would your dear mother--the consequence of such a course was--every rule was strictly obeyed yet every one was governed by love through the young ladies the colonists began to prize her until every one felt we had never had such a principal--in all her lectures common sense presided. She would tell them if a gentleman overtook them in the street not to act as if it was such a dreadful thing to speak to a gentleman but be self possessed--almost the opposite from Miss Adams[C] wise sayings. She understands the Bible as no lady here have ever understood it--but alas! the Ladies Board have taken a miff and sent her adrift--So it has turned us into the greatest excitement--the young ladies cry and gentlemen too pretty near- and the old ones scold and wonder. She has not gone away from the place. She is at Mrs. Peltons[D] as you see her friends can avail themselves of the privilege of visiting her. I can assure you her friends are not a few--the young ladies go to see her and they cry together--the course the Ladies Board has taken with her has almost crushed her she is not able to leave the house, her health is such--but I must tell you all about it--when she went to the hall she had an arrangement made that she should have one room for a common reception room for both ladies and gentlemen not the sitting room below for that was such a thoroughfare--but the sitting room over Mrs. Wright's parlor--The faculty all have met in that room several times--well there was a young man in the hall by the name of Arnold a fine young man who used occasionally to step up to her sitting room and tell her of things that were transpiring--such as projected parties &c &c &c--so that when the things came to her through the parties themselves she was prepared to meet them--she found by this that it would be an excellent plan to have some one on whom she could rely and in whom she might trust--but as Mr. Arnold was going to leave she felt that perhaps the Lord as she says would show her some one if he wished her to have such help--she talked with Mrs. Wright about it who thought it would be a fine plan--well as it happened Mr. Cooper[E] came to the table where she sat with her room mate Miss Bell--the next meal Miss Bell left the table--Mr C was in great trouble and asked Mrs. Burke why she left. Mrs. B tried to excuse it off but Mr. C said he would leave the hall as he did not wish to drive a young lady away--but as Mr. Wright was absent and had appointed Mr. C to lead the worship Mrs. Burke told Mr. C to come to her sitting room and she would have Miss Bell there and would try to effect a reconciliation between them--before this she had no acquaintance with C--at all--he came and they made up good friends--well C was so well pleased with Mrs. B for this, he took the opportunity to call on her and beg her to be his friend and a sister to him said the ladies cared nothing about him--and he wished her to use her influence with a Miss Julia Clark[F] in his behalf--about the dozenth young lady he has made love to here[G]--she told him he had better not be in haste about it &c &c &c. So things went on--he called occasionally as a committee for something I do not know what--but as Mrs. B became acquainted with him she thought him a very devoted Christian from what she had heard of his prayers--and thought he would be just the one to assist her. So she told him what a friend he must be to her if she was going to assist him--but told him he must keep it a profound secret for if others knew that he was running to her with every thing he would not stand in very high repute among them and more she did not wish them to think she had favorites--but the great goat was so puffed up with something I don't know what--he really thought she had fallen in love with him--when she spoke of such a friendship, existing between them she told him she would be a friend to him two years as he would probably remain here but that length of time--so it does not seem as though she meant to offer heart hand and all for an eternal friendship--so in everything she said to him after that he looked at in that light--so of course they appeared very differently--for instance at one time in speaking of Julia C--she said to him she should be as happy to see him marry her as any one--meaning she thought her as worthy as any one--but he thought she meant if he must marry any one beside herself why she should be as happy to have him marry Julia as any one else. When he came to leave for the winter he called on her to bid her good bye--the girls had almost all left the Hall and she said to him my birds have all flown and the cage is desolate--he thought she felt so desolate because he was going to leave--when he rose to leave she shook hands with him and k-i-s-s-e-d him--perhaps that was injudicious in her as a principal--but I believe she did it in the perfect purity and innocency of her heart she says--she never thought of it again until she was arraigned before the ladies board--as she had always been so accustomed to it--cooper the wretch was so horrified he went directly to the ladies board and told his story with his own coloring--so all her explain afterward would do no good--"such a principal will not do for our daughters" for a long time they would not tell a soul for what they had turned her away as it would injure the Institution so much--so of course we surmised every awful thing against Mrs. Burke--as we thought it must be awful or they would not send her away after she had done so much good--I wish I could tell you all the circumstances as we see them
She is such a perfect lady and it came upon her so suddenly that she could hardly endure. Why did they not go to her kindly and tell her how such things are regarded in this good virtuous and holy place--she seemed so childlike so willing to do what was right so anxious to explain every circumstance--Mr. Wright and wife and Dea Turner and wife met with the faculty to hear her trial. Mrs. Wright cried all day--she was knowing to all the circumstances and thought it perfect folly for the faculty to try to make out she loved Cooper as they did--but you might as well turn the wind as the faculty--you would be amused to see how interested Pa is in Mrs. Burke--he has been at work in hall for a good many weeks and has seen her every day--every soul of the faculty thought just as much of her until this come out--Mrs. Dascomb[H] previous to this said one day in her family she must look out for the Dr. for she believed he had fallen in love with Mrs. Burke--Mrs. Burke says she never saw such a place as Oberlin for tearing ones character to pieces--well may she say so when they attack such a character as hers--but I will not write any more it makes me feel too bad--Who is safe here--How much I want to see that little new comer--you must get its daugerreatype and send it on--we are very anxious to hear how you get along--you had so much trouble before. Mary Platt has got a very pretty child--looks very much like his father--but has got Marys black eyes. We are all well. Ma wrote you all the common news and I have written all the uncommon. So good bye, write soon to your aff--sister M Jane
(Written down side of the first page) We are having a very interesting revival here. Several of our schollars have been converted two Miss Wells from Litchfield are among the number--many more are very serious. Lydia Drake has got another son. Mrs. Fitch has a little daughter.
From Mary Jane Turner Churchill-
1st wife of Prof C.H. Churchill
A. Reverend Samuel Aikin was a minister at the First Presbyterian Church of Cleveland.
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B. The operation of scalding or freezing something was used to sanitize rooms and furniture.
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C. Miss Mary Ann Adams was Principal of the Oberlin Female Department before Mrs. Burke arrived.
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D. Mrs. Thirza Pelton was the wife of Brewster Pelton, a merchant.
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E. Samuel Freeman Cooper (1826-1908) entered the Oberlin Preparatory Department in 1845, and graduated with an AB in 1851.
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F. Julia M. Clark was a student in the Preparatory Department and later married E. B. Higley.
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G. "To make love to" meant to woo at this time.
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H. Marianne Parker Dascomb (1810-79), Principal of the Oberlin's Female Department, 1835-36 and 1852-70, served on the Women's Board of Managers, 1836-79, and was married to James Dascomb, a practicing physician who also taught science at Oberlin.
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