Fannie Shouse-James entered Vassar College in September of 1869 under its “preparation controversy” policy. She progressed in her education at Vassar College, leaving in April of 1873 due to the unexpected death of her father, Daniel Louis Shouse. He was a business partner of Thomas Martin “T. M.” James. The following October of 1873, Fannie married John Crawford James, a son of T.M. James. In 1874 Fannie gave birth to Vassie James, whom she named for her beloved alma mater. Vassie James attended Vassar, too, graduating in 1897, as did Fannie’s granddaughter and own namesake Fanny James-Egan who graduated in 1904.
Original Document – RECOLLECTIONS OF FANNIE (SHOUSE) JAMES, EX ‘74
The following recollection written by Fannie Shouse James was found in her desk drawer after she died. Fannie’s daughter Fanny James-Egan [Mrs. Louis H. Egan] who also graduated Vassar in 1904, submitted the document to the library of Vassar College, where Fannie’s memoir remains archived today.
It was in September 1869, just sixty years ago that four Kansas City girls started for Vassar College. My father having business in New York went with us to Poughkeepsie and left us at the Nelson House until College opened.
There were no sleeping cars coming into Kansas City and no pullmans so we made the trip to Chicago in a day coach in twenty-two hours. From Chicago we secured berths in a very primitive sleeping car, but in the middle of the night were were called to get up and go into the day coach on account of trouble in the car. We found the Nelson House filled with others like ourselves waiting for the College to open. These girls were studying for exams so we each bought a book of a different kind and put ourselves to work.
At that time examinations for college entrance were given at the college and it took several days to get through. We were not allowed to stay at the college until we had passed the exams. It was rather upsetting to meet girls in the hall crying because they had failed.
Mrs. Warren had been my teacher in Kansas City and felt sure I could pass for full freshman work, but dear kind Professor [Charles J.] Hinkle was German and so intent that I was frightened and failed to make the grade in Latin so I was put into the second preparatory class with some classes in freshman work, — math for one, and I had the privilege of studying in a small class in Trig under Miss [Priscilla H.] Braislin and astronomy with Miss [Maria] Mitchell which I count one of the blessings of my life. Helen Hiscock, who was the second Mrs. [Truman J.] Backus, was in that class and a very brilliant student.
While we were waiting in the Observatory Miss [Maria] Mitchell would entertain us with stories of her life, her trip to Europe where she was entertained by famous astronomers. The French Astronomer Royal gave a ball in her honor at which she stood – I imagine in a woolen dress, high neck, long sleeves – horrified at the dress or undress of the ladies and half-frozen. She said she was both deaf and dumb all the while she was in France.
Dr. [John H.] Raymond was President – a fine Shakespeare scholar and reader and often entertained us for an evening. He preached too, and the girls said his prayers were often twenty minutes long – I never timed him.
We had no thought of going away over the weekend. There was always something we enjoyed, and I often spent part of my Spring vacation in college and enjoyed that too.
In The Mathematikado of Professor Priscilla Braislin [left], comic characters Anna Lytics (analytics), Cora Leary (corollary), Polly Gon (polygon), and Aunty Cedent (antecedent) among others addressed their social problems in mathematical terms.
The Mathematikado evolved from a comic parody The Trial of Trigonometry, first written by Fannie’s classmate Helen Hiscock.
With additional references to their knowledge of Greek, Latin, natural history, English literature, logic, and economics, the Vassar woman affirmed they were not simply experiments in education. Their ability to deploy their knowledge and learning for use authentically made them “college students.”
All the famous men of the Country were interested in Vassar and wanted to visit it. I heard Samuel F.B. Morse, George Wm. Curtis, Wendell Phillips, Charlotte Cushman; Booth came to Poughkeepsie and we went to hear him. Geo. B. McDowell spent a week with us.
at Vassar College
The Anti-Slavery Society
In 1869, when students invited Wendell Phillips to return to Vassar after a successful visit two years earlier, Vassar trustees refused Phillips permission to speak, saying ” a man so identified with radical views ought not to come… as [Vassar students are] not to be exposed to radical doctrines of any sort.”
Students protested vehemently and formed an impressive uprising against the administration.
Even Maria Mitchell joined in on the commotion; she said Phillips had the “right to come and to say whatever he chose.” Eventually, the trustees relented and Phillips was permitted to lecture.
Miss [Hannah W.] Lyman was Lady Principal. She came from a school in Canada with very strict ideas. We had compulsory chapel and after prayers she gave us a talk on manners, dress, and deportment. I remember she said we should always wear gloves at every entertainment, even if only white cotton. She dressed beautifully herself and look quite regal in her lovely lace head-dress. She sat at the head of the Faculty table just inside the door of the dining room and one of the penalties of being late was that you had to bow to her and sometimes make your excuses. When we wanted to go to town shopping we had to show her our list and three girls would take a teacher as chaperon. When I wanted to spend Christmas with a friend of my fathers in Philadelphia and went to her with the telegram giving his consent I told her I must go to town and buy a new coat. She said, “Now My Dear, you go and brush your coat and wear it in for me to see.” When I did so, she thought I did not need a new coat, so I could not make the trip to town. The first thing I did when I reached Philadelphia was to buy a new coat.
We had every year a trip to Mohonk, once we spent the night, the college sending up provisions in barrels. At that time Mr. [Albert] Smiley allowed no dancing, but the girls started a little old melodeon, some got out their combs covered with tissue paper, and we had quite a hilarious time. The girls were divided into sections and took turns waiting on the table, each trying to outdo the other, with one taking the part of head waiter.
The Professors had their homes in the towers, two families in each tower. The fourth floor was the Infirmary, with Dr. [Alida Cornelia] Avery in charge. She was very severe until you were really ill, then she was kindness itself.
We had chapel every morning and evening. The evening chapel was conducted with a good deal of ceremony, quite like a church service, while in the morning Miss Lyman, after prayers, would give a talk on table manners, etiquette, appropriate dress, insisting that dress should be changed for dinner.
From this point, there were notes in pencil, evidently with the idea of writing more fully at some later date. – Fanny James Egan
A Professor [James] Orton had already made one trip to South America and was always thinking and talking about the next one. President Raymond and his family lived in the main building on the second floor. Miss Brislin, the mathematics teacher, surveyed the land around the lake. Miss Lord, our Latin teacher went to Smith College. Miss Mitchell carried a carpet bag to classes and to meetings of society women. She was dressed generally in gray. On Founders Day we had an address by Geo. Wm. Curtis.
Impact on Society & the James Family
The legacy of Fannie’s education at Vassar permeates the Jesse James family today with astonishing impacts and stunning success.
- Vassie James graduated Vassar in 1897.
- Fanny James-Egan, Fannie’s daughter & Vassie’s sister, graduated Vassar in 1904.
- Helen James-Dunlap, Fannie’s daughter & Vassie’s sister, graduated in 1913.
- Frances Ward-Olmsted, Vassie’s daughter, graduated in 1925.
- Irma Starkloff-Rombauer graduated in 1925.
- Marion Rombauer-Becker studied at Vassar in 1925.
- Genevieve Baldwin-Starkloff graduated Vassar, year unknown.
- Patricia Egan graduated in 1939 and taught art at Vassar.
Original Document from Vassar College
A copy of the original documents of the Vassar College memoir of Fannie Shouse-James was provided in 2009 to the author Eric F. James by the archives of Vassar College Library for use in his writing and publication of Jesse James Soul Liberty, Volume I. The author expresses his gratitude to Vassar College for the documents and for the multitude of archival images provided by Vassar College archives for this story.