Scandal Sidetrack

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For the past week, I’ve been working on the section of the book about Emmett’s graduation ceremony from Stetson University, and searching for Emmett’s valedictory speech.

While the archive has a few things from 1904, such as Emmett’s commencement program, Emmett’s speech isn’t there — and unless his Elusive Scrapbooks turn up, I doubt I’ll find it.

Emmett's law school commencement program. Source: Stetson University Archives

Emmett’s law school commencement program. Source: Stetson University Archives

I had a feeling that there was some media coverage of this event, as Stetson’s law school was the first of its kind in Florida — and, Stetson was considered a big deal in Deland/Volusia County. So, I next examined the local papers for May 23-24,1904, for any coverage of the Stetson commencement, and bingo! Two lengthy articles about the commencement by two different newspapers!

The first article, from the DeLand Weekly News provided only a complimentary overview of the entire week’s commencement celebrations. There was only general praise for Emmett, but no particulars, no transcript about his speech.

The second article was something else entirely.

The commencement coverage from The Volusia County Record, May 28, 1904 -- but the lead is about an unnamed 'scandal'. Source: The Volusia County Record, May 28, 1904

The commencement coverage from The Volusia County Record, May 28, 1904 — but the lead is about an unnamed ‘scandal’. Source: The Volusia County Record, May 28, 1904

Stetson’s graduation — the subject — is buried several inches down in the next column. What scandal does the writer mean?

Of course, I had to track this one down, and temporarily sidetrack Emmett’s graduation, especially if it was big enough to push a different subject out of its own news article!

The President and the Kindergarten Teacher

If you were a student on the Stetson campus, and you observed the married president of Stetson University climbing out of the women’s dorm window well past calling hours, you’d think it suspicious too. Right?

So did students and faculty members who witnessed this event (and others like it) during the summer of 1901. It was unseemly. It was scandalous, and students and faculty were outraged.

The scandal mentioned in the clip, above, is the story of a summertime hookup between Stetson President John Forbes and normal school instructor Lena B. Mathes, who lived in Chaudoin Hall, along with other women students and faculty members. See page 15 in the Ryan essay, at the link here, for one version of what happened. The Rupert Longstreet essay, which includes more details (including reported evidence of a botched abortion or a miscarriage), is particularly interesting. See page 18 for that version. Also, there’s Olga Bowen’s oral history of Stetson University, which includes a section on the Forbes-Mathes scandal. The transcript can be found here, beginning on page 50.

Additionally, the Stetson University Archive has the a collection of the documents related to the scandal available online. (The transcripts from the hearing are in the collection, but not online.) As Longstreet stated in his essay, “…it was naturally assumed that where there was so much smoke, there must at least be a small bonfire” (p. 18). It was clear, from the numerous witnesses’ testimony (which was graphic and corroborated), that there was something illicit between Forbes and Mathes. What was amazing was that many of the trustees still didn’t think Forbes was guilty despite the large amount of testimony.

From The Minneapolis Journal, January 30, 1903

From The Minneapolis Journal, January 30, 1903. Source: GenealogyBank.com

A hearing was held to remove Forbes. Forbes submitted his resignation in September, 1903; the board accepted it at their annual meeting in February 1904.

The trustees decided to ‘exonerate’ both Forbes and Mathes, to silence the gossip and to put the issue to rest as best they could.

Exonerated, but the damage was done. Source: The DeLand Weekly News, 1904.

Exonerated, but the damage was done. Source: The DeLand Weekly News, 1904.

The reputation of Stetson was in trouble at the start of 1904; the new president, Lincoln Hulley, had to dig the university out of a major economic hole, and to rebuild a relationship with John B. Stetson.

According to Ryan, Forbes left for New York, and, with colleagues, purchased the Rochester Business Institute, and spent the rest of his life at that institution.

Mathes had already left the university to ‘recover from an illness.’ She wouldn’t return.

Convalescent from what? Source: Stetson University Archives, March 1902

Convalescent from what? Source: Stetson Weekly Collegiate, Stetson University Archives, March 1902

Out of curiosity, I looked into her background, briefly. She was married to George McCown Mathes, who lived in Turkey Creek, Florida. The U.S. Census for 1900 lists George Mathes as a farmer. Lena, on the other hand, appears to have lived separately from George for quite some time, as she’s listed as faculty member at Stetson as of 1900, according to the Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction for Florida, 1903 (the report includes faculty disbursements from 1900 up to 1903). In thinking about why she lived separately from her husband and family (it would be unusual in 1900), consider the fact that George was 62, and Lena was 38. The big age difference might have been a factor; that, plus she was considered a talented teacher who was active in her professional association. She probably liked teaching better than farm life, but I’m only guessing.

From The School Journal, January 26, 1901. Source: Google Books

From The School Journal, January 26, 1901. Lena was active in her professional societies. Source: Google Books

After the publicity in 1903, Lena didn’t return to Stetson; she went back to teach in Turkey Creek, but not without difficulty.

From the Tampa Tribune, September 29, 1905. Source: GenealogyBank.com

From the Tampa Tribune, September 29, 1905. Source: GenealogyBank.com

Life in Florida with this cloud of the scandal following her must have been difficult.

George Mathes died in 1906, in Turkey Creek, Florida.

Eventually, Lena moved to North Carolina, as she is listed in 1909 as the principal of Spencer High School in Spencer N.C.

The 1910 U.S. Census reports that she moved to Chicago and was listed as having her own income.

Lena Mathes died in 1951, in Baltimore, Maryland.


So, what did Emmett think about all of this as it unfolded?

Emmett signed the petition in support of Forbes and against John B. Stetson's attempts to denigrate Forbes. Source: Deland Weekly News 1903.

Emmett signed the petition in support of Forbes and against John B. Stetson’s attempts to denigrate Forbes. Forbes tendered his resignation in September, 1903, but left in February, 1904. Source: Deland Weekly News 1903.

Emmett sided with President Forbes against John B. Stetson and his attempts to denigrate Forbes. There’s mention of a pamphlet that John B. Stetson had published that outlined the details behind Forbes’ ousting; I wonder if Emmett read it, or, had a chance to read ALL of the testimony, or to hear ALL sides of the issue? He was a lawyer-in-training. Surely he and his fellow law students (and the law professors) were discussing this case.

Given what we know as we look at this case, 100 years later, it seems hard for me to believe that Emmett would have given Forbes a pass on what happened. It’s clear that Forbes acted dishonorably not only to his wife and family, but in his capacity as president.

But, Emmett and his colleagues who signed the petition may not have been privy to all of the testimony. I can see how, also, how Lena Mathes could have been made the fall person for this whole situation. We don’t know.


I should be back to posting more regularly — and back to writing Emmett’s chapters, now that summer is in full swing, and I’ve had a chance to step back from a few other projects that I was closing out at the start of June.

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