|Chapter 25 Jesse Truesdell Peck 1848-1852. |
A Misfit, and Resultant Disorder
PRESIDENT EMORY died in Baltimore on May 18, 1848, and at the next meeting of the Board, Dr. Durbin, their one-time President and now a trustee, was unanimously elected to succeed Emory. The election was on the nomination of Bishop Waugh, and occurred on the morning of July 13. Durbin's declination was presented at the afternoon meeting "owing entirely to private conditions," because of which he had resigned four years before. Jesse T. Peck was then chosen president. He was born in 1811, educated at Cazenovia Seminary, preached in various churches 1832-1837, and had served as head of two seminaries 1837-1848, when he came to Dickinson College. He resigned in 1852 and returned to the pastorate. Twenty years later, in 1872, he was elected Bishop, an office he filled till his death in 1883.
Peck took up the duties of his office in September following his election. Though he had had some educational experience, he was not a college man, wherefore his administration seems to have had the seminary coloring, rather lacking the college spirit. Some of his students thought that he treated them as boys, though they doubtless thought themselves men. It would be difficult to believe some of the traditional stories about him, were it not for evidences in his own annual reports to his Board. One report records his high commendation of one of his associates as "a police officer of great diligence"! Let it be hoped that in this he did his associate injustice, for the man so characterized afterward gave a good account of himself both in the College and elsewhere.
Peck came to the College at a difficult time, for it had just lost two of its strongest men, Caldwell and McClintock, and the other two, Allen and Baird, left two years later.
He had, therefore, a hard task, perhaps all the harder because he was so different from Emory, his predecessor, whom the students had greatly admired. The student impression of him, probably a little exaggerated, is well given in Moncure D. Conway's "Autobiography":
Unfortunately the College also was demoralized that autumn. The institution, bereaved of President Emory, had gone on smoothly enough while the presidential functions were entrusted to our beloved McClintock, [Allen it was] but on an evil day Rev. Dr. Jesse T. Peck was elected. Our immature minds could not appreciate his good qualities, while his large paunch, fat face, baby-like baldness, and pompous air impressed the whole college as a caricature. He had been a school-teacher, and called us "boys," and we thought him inclined to discipline us like boys....
Several incidents occurred, one involving my chum, Henry Smith, another myself, which stirred my dislike of Peck into wrath; and I tried a practical joke on him, which brought me remorse, and is mentioned here only because it has become a college tradition.
Several erroneous versions of this incident have appeared, and others besides myself have been connected with it. I am, however, the only culprit. A Methodist Conference was to gather at Staunton, Va., and President Peck was to read there a report on the College. Staunton was famous for its lunatic asylum, whose physician was Dr. Stribling. Under an assumed name, I wrote to Dr. Stribling that a harmless lunatic had gone off to Staunton who imagined himself President of Dickinson College, and fancied he had a report to make to the Conference. Dr. Peck's appearance was described minutely, and Dr. Stribling was requested to detain him in comfort until his friends could attend. As Dr. Peck was travelling with other Methodist ministers, I could not suppose that the missive would have any result beyond raising a laugh on him; but Dr. Peck was met by Dr. Stribling in his carriage, and supposed that such was the arrangement of the Conference for his entertainment. Of course, the deception was soon discovered at the asylum. I perceived that Dr. Peck was convinced that I was the guilty one, and it must have been through him that my name became connected with the affair.
Another occurrence of like character is vouched for by Thomas G. Chattle, M.D., who graduated in 1852, when Peck left the College. Chattle was for twenty-two years a trustee of the College, holding that position when he wrote the story of an "Oyster Hunt in Cumberland Valley." It appears in "The Dickinsonian" of April, 1877, and had to do
with cars on the siding in front of the campus. These car occasionally contained eatables, and students, unfortunately, would break in and steal. In December, 1849, in stage whispers in the hall outside the President's office, the faithful were called on to get some oysters from one of these cars. The boys hurried off to the car, opened the door, and got under the car, making noises as though from within. The President appeared, as they had expected, and called on them to come out. Silence followed. After repeated calls he climbed in himself, then the door was closed, and he was a prisoner. The rest of the story seems too rich to be true. Chattle says the car was pushed over a little grade at West Street, so that it ran by gravity to the bridge over the Letort. The prisoner was not released for some hours. He further says that a green officer was sent up to the College to arrest the guilty party, and was directed to Peck's office, where he was told he would find the guilty man, and could see the shells of the oysters in the next room (where the boys had put them). The arrest of Peck followed. But this seems highly improbable.
Another traditional story, current in the College as late as 1875, had to do with the embargo on firearms or deadly weapons of any kind in the College. This may have been a survival from the days when two duels had occurred at the College, in one of which a student was killed. Tradition said that President Peck announced in chapel that at the next chapel service the students were to bring in and surrender all firearms in their possession. They obeyed the letter of the law with all their coal-scuttles, shovels, and pokers. This suggests that there was yet in force some of the archaic regulations of the olden time, as that of 1822 under Mason: "No student shall keep for his use or pleasure any riding beast; nor a dog or gun, firearms or ammunition; nor sword, dirk, sword-cane or any deadly weapon whatsoever."
This may not seem a very happy introduction to Peck's administration. His stay was only an episode in the college life, and he left hardly a ripple on its surface. During his
four years there was plenty of discipline of a kind, usually without decisive penalties for serious offences but with many little penalties for petty ones, and even these often recalled on petition. During the third year, however, there was a clear conspiracy of two classes, all the members of which absented themselves from recitation to attend a funeral in town, though permission had been refused. They had all signed an agreement: "Resolved, That the fate of one member who signs this be the fate of all." Peck made them a really fine statement of the necessary bearing of their action, and asked them to answer two questions: First, whether they had done wrong in the matter; and, second, whether they withdrew their names from the paper of conspiracy they had signed. They almost unanimously answered both questions in the negative, and were suspended till they had changed their positions. After two days they sent a committee to the Faculty, conceding: (1) That organized resistance to the college government should be rebuked; (2) that the Faculty have the right to rule; (3) that by their act they had not intended to assume the excusing power; and (4) that they did wrong in taking the liberty refused by the President. The students were readmitted to the College on this basis, and the matter was closed. A somewhat similar case arose nineteen years later, generally called "The Rebellion" by the few living graduates of the time. Both occurred under the presidency of men not especially wise in discipline, and both might possibly have been avoided by proper handling.
The student attitude, probably, the college reputation, certainly, was shown by the lessening student body. From 213 in College and Grammar School the year before Peck came, attendance fell the first year to 191, the second to 152, the third to 176, and in his fourth to 156, a decrease of 57 50 in the College and 7 in the Grammar School. Thus the number of college students had decreased nearly one-third, from 158 the year before he came to 149, 116, 111, 107 during his four years.
Two men came into the Faculty with him, Otis H. Tiffany
of the Class of 1844, and James W. Marshall of the Class of 1848. The former, after nine years of teaching at the College, had a brilliant career as a preacher; and the latter, after fourteen years as Professor of Languages in the College, was our Consul at Leeds, England, then Assistant Postmaster General and Postmaster General, 1869-1874. The degree of LL. D. was conferred on him by the College in 1888. Two other men came to the Faculty in 1850. Erastus Wentworth came from the presidency of McKendree College, and four years later went to the China mission field. Herman Johnson remained at Dickinson till his death in 1868, the last eight years serving as President. Another Professor of the time, Thomas Emory Sudler, was born in 1800 , graduated from the Military Academy at West Point in 1820, but resigned from the Army in 1821. He was a member of the Maryland Legislature, and served as Professor of Mathematics at St. John's College, 1836-1840. Early in Durbin's administration he was elected to the same professorship in Dickinson College, but declined the call. He was again elected, and in 1840 accepted the appointment and served for eleven years. By all accounts he was a fine Christian gentleman but a poor teacher, and in 1850 he was notified that his connection with the College would close in 1851. At that time he had not been able to locate for the following year, but presented his resignation with the statement that personal and family afflictions had militated against his securing a place. The Board accepted his resignation, but, poor as the College was, they voted him a bonus of $750 in four quarterly payments. He afterward taught in the Female College in Wilmington Delaware, where he died in 1860.
Dr. Peck probably had not had an altogether happy time with the trustees. On one occasion the Finance Committee unanimously disallowed small bills he had directed the Treasurer to pay. He evidently asked for "yeas and nays" in the committee, and got them; he alone "yea," the others "nay." Some time after he left the College, bills were presented for telegraph service rendered him, and the same
committee refused to pay them. In 1851 he announced to the Board: "I have been for some time convinced that my happiness and usefulness and perhaps my health and life would require me to change my field and kind of labor at as early a period as possible.... I have determined to follow strictly the indication of Providence and seek rest from cares and labors to which I feel myself poorly adapted." He then tendered his resignation to take effect at the close of the next college year, in July, 1852.
Durbin, Roszell, and McClintock were on the committee appointed to consider this resignation, all at one time or another on the Faculty. This committee reported one year later, through Durbin, its chairman, accepting the resignation; and while saying no word as to the success of Dr. Peck's work, the report was generous in its recognition of the zeal and fidelity of his service, also of his character as a man.
Peck left two troublesome legacies to his successor college scholarships and secret fraternities. During the closing months of Peck's administration, but apparently on the inspiration of Professor Johnson, a far-reaching scholarship sale movement was planned, by which it was hoped to render the College independent of tuition fees through the sale of a large number of tuition scholarships. Peck had had little to do with it, beyond its adoption; the development of the movement and the change to the new policy fell to the care of Collins, his successor. It doubtless brought Collins many unhappy hours, for it was poorly planned, as will be described under his administration. The fraternity questions rising during Peck's administration and assuming prominence in that of Collins' will be discussed in the chapter on Fraternities.