Chapter 1 Cole Porter in Peru and Coming to Worcester Academy

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Daniel Webster Abercrombie
circa 1907

My dear Meylert: I thank you very much for your kind note which reached me this morning, with its enclosure of the item about Cole Porter.  What a genius he has for such work.  I haven’t laid eyes on Cole since he graduated from school.  I think I have not heard from him.  His alienation from the school is very sad to me, and without explanation.  I don’t understand it.  It is one of those little tragedies of my life for which I find no explanation and which always bring me real sorrow…. Very sincerely, DW Abercrombie.[1]

This note was written by Daniel Webster Abercrombie in 1916, near the close of his four decades as principal of Worcester Academy. Under Abercrombie, the Academy developed from a small, lifeless school into one of the finest in the country.  Like other prep schools, Worcester specialized in preparing boys to go onto the finest colleges in the land and similar to other boarding school heads, Abercrombie had built a culture, which created school spirit through activities such sports, arts, and recreation. A master in dealing with boys, Abercrombie’s believed that by faculty taking a personal interest and offering friendship to students, a boy’s confidence could be won and he could grow to become master of himself. [2] To accomplish this, the boys lived together with faculty in dormitories and ate with them in the dining hall.  That personal attention extended into activities such as debate, athletics, music, and theater.  Boarding schools openly copied the culture of colleges and, in effect, they were smaller versions of them, but the personal attention was their hallmark, and this was a system in which Cole Porter thrived. 

Abercrombie’s particular fondness for Cole Porter began upon his arrival as a freshman in 1905 and remained strong until his graduation four years later, but the friendship abruptly ended soon thereafter.  The break was especially sad because Porter acknowledged that Abercrombie had greatly influenced his music.  It was in Abercrombie’s Greek class that Cole learned that the sound and the sense of each word must be merged as one and he vowed to write both the music and lyrics to all of his songs.  One of the top composers during the Golden Era of Broadway, Porter penned roughly 1000 songs, more than 40 of which are standards in the Great American Songbook; for this reason, Porter is routinely referred to as an authentic American genius. 

This letter written seven years after Cole’s leaving Worcester Academy was the only time that Abercrombie acknowledged Porter’s musical brilliance.  Abercrombie had a different take on what sparked young men like Porter: “Genius began to express itself when man first was pinched and tortured by sharp physical needs.”  Porter was one of several alumni whose careers were marked by genius that had come under Abercrombie’s influence.  His teaching also impacted boys who went on to careers in the world of art, business, civil rights, and publishing.  But Porter’s fame was the greatest of these men, as he was a true celebrity, a way of life that Abercrombie did not understand.

Daniel Webster Abercrombie

Abercrombie’s youth was shaped by great causes and events.  At a young age, he had experienced both great wealth, and then a sharp decline into poverty.  A refugee of the antebellum South, the youth came north to a different world.  Excelling in school, especially the Classics, he was inspired to think of himself in terms of the mythical heroes of Ancient Greece.  To him, the Odyssey was the “spirit of everlasting youth, ever bubbles and moves.  It is a wonderful place of retreat for the tired mind and deadening sense of this worn and mercantile age… I prescribe regular doses to be increased rather than decreased as your strength grows”. [16]  The Odyssey saved him. He did not spend his life bitter about all that his had family lost; rather his personal Odyssey inspired him to educate young men. 

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D. W. Abercrombie
early in career

Early in his career, a brown beard covered Abercrombie’s finely formed face.  He was a small man, usually described as having dark features.  In later years, a mustache remained, but though his careworn face made him look ordinary, authority was clearly visible in the sternness of his eyes and posture.  In his many portraits, he was invariably dressed in a dark three-piece suit, which is not surprising as he was a Victorian gentleman in looks and in thought.  Due to extreme nearsightedness, he is often depicted wearing or holding a pince-nez. 

The Hollywood image of the New England headmaster is that of the man who was a bit behind the times, vaguely sentimental, overly sensitive, quiet, clever, slightly handsome, and slightly eccentric. Abercrombie did not fit that stereotype.  In fact, Dr. A, as he was called, was filled with an abundant energy driven by a strong intellect.  An alumnus recalled him “brimming with vitality, a spring in the step, a bright assurance in the voice.”[3]  A quarter century into his tenure, the school newspaper editorialized that he, “has energy and buoyant confidence…still has the vigor of usefulness… and may do another twenty-five years”. [4]   Unlike other headmasters, he was noisy to the point that he took it for granted that everyone knew where he was saying, “I cannot understand how two of my teachers could be so misinformed as to my whereabouts”.[5]  He felt that was important to be loud and advised young faculty it was a means to always be strait with the boys.  He put on his heaviest boots when entering the dormitories so that the boys knew he was coming.  He had a high sense of honor and expected the same of his pupils.

Abercrombie’s direct honesty often led to confrontation, “One characteristic of Dr. Abercrombie…was his remarkable ability for making enemies…Dr. Abercrombie despised sham, fraud, and dishonesty with all the feeling he was capable of.  With such a hate as a deep-rooted part of himself, Dr. Abercrombie was usually blunt and speedy in blasting such things wherever, in whomever, he found them.  Disdaining tact and diplomacy at such times, Dr. Abercrombie made many enemies.[6] Even friendly encounters could turn tense.  Once when his minister’s wife asked his opinion of her husband’s sermon, he gave a negative review.  She gave him a level look as her sister looked on, but he was not embarrassed.  It is “Nothing for me but to tell the truth or to lie and lying is not a habit of mine”. [7]

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Abercrombie
in 1899

The Oscar Wilde quote is a more apt description of Abercrombie, “He has not enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.”  Gregory Wolcott stated, “I have known the principal some 19 or 20 years and he is one of the frankest men I ever saw, a man who never flatters to gain something, who has convictions and lives by them.  I think that every lad in the school feels that when he speaks, that it is from his own standpoint”.[8] 

Faculty member Donald MacMillan was told a biographer that Abercrombie was very strict, but a good headmaster.  He added that Dr. A loved the boys and worked for their interest, but was very stern and a strict disciplinarian.  MacMillan summed up Abercrombie by saying “all in all a fine teacher.” [9] Because he was so involved in the day to day affairs of the school, Abercrombie himself complained that he had few friends and hardly knew anyone outside of the school community. 

Despite Abercrombie’s challenging personality, Cole Porter charmed him even before they met.  In May, 1905, thirteen year old Cole wrote inquiring about the availability of rooms 63 and 64 on the first floor of Dexter Hall, the better of the school’s two dormitories.  This showed Abercrombie that the young man was a bright, exceptional lad, for no incoming student had ever written to him about room availability.  The Principal must have been pleased because in general he felt, “It is pleasant to receive a boy who comes of his own accord”.[10]  However, Cole had the benefit of knowing about Dexter Hall through family friends back in Peru and wanted live in their sons’ rooms, as they must have told him that their rooms were the best on campus.

On May 10, 1905, Abercrombie responded to Cole as one gentleman to another:  “My dear Sir: Room 63 and 64 are both engaged for next year.  If either one is released between now and September, I will reserve it for you.  Room 97 directly over room 64 is a room of equal size and same situation with one large window to the south and two to the west.  I think it is preferable to room 64 because it has a more extensive outlook.  May I reserve it for you?  I will hold it in your name until I hear from you”.  It is likely that he selected the room for a special reason; in another instance, he reserved room 356 in Dexter for a new boy due to its nearness to the teacher “who is in charge of the floor, he is man of excellent influence on the boys.  I have put the boy there to be under that man’s influence”.[11]  It is possible that Cole did not have a roommate as Abercrombie in another instance had agreed to a mother’s request that her son room alone, but if he wanted a roommate that was fine also..  [12]

Cole Porter in Peru

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Cole Porter at his father’s store, near left Courtesy Miami Co. Library

Cole Porter hailed from Peru, Indiana and, on the surface, he had a happy upbringing in a stable Midwestern town.  His mother’s father was James Omar Cole, one of the wealthiest men in Indiana, with one estimate at putting him at $17 million, as the richest man in Miami County.  Peru had as much wealth as any of the smaller cities of state.  Eighty-five miles north of Indianapolis and the seat of Miami County, downtown Peru is a grid of numbered streets at the northern edge of the Wabash River, with the railroad tracks hugging the edge of the river and Main Street the fourth street from the river.  With a population of 1,200, the center of downtown was a wide thoroughfare appropriately named Broadway. Peru was considered a citadel of Puritanism where the mindset was that an unpleasant remedy was quicker care and the stiffer the punishment, the sturdier character.[13]

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Young J. O. Cole
(Courtesy of the Miami County Museum)

Known as J.O., he had the pioneer spirit, and early in his career had spent time roistering out west.  He returned back to Peru and owned a brewery and land syndicate.  In his dealings, he was a canny, crusty, and tough.  An autocrat, JO drove people and himself hard and had a terrible temper, which was easily provoked.  Known by the town as a dictatorial, his grandson, Cole Porter referred to him as a tyrant. His biographer Hubler quoted Cole that “J. O. was a hearty man with high temper who always considered me extravagant”.   J.O. could delight Cole with stories of his own youth as if he were a cowboy.  One anecdote was that J. O. drove Cole out to the poor house and told him that if he didn’t shape up, “That is where you will end up”.  His mother said “Don’t listen to a thing he says” for when J. O. was a gold miner he had a personal valet.  He gained $200,000 in gold in California by 1850.  In addition, he had timber and coal lands in West Virginia.  Yet his standards were too high, especially for a small boy like Cole who knew he could not live up to J. O.’s expectations.

While J.O. loathed wastefulness, he pampered the women in his life.  He adored his wife and was indulgent with his daughter Kate.  Kate had the nicest dresses, and singing lessons as well. Kate’s importance in his life grew when his alcoholic son, Louis Cole, died in 1903 due to ill effects of an operation.[14]  Kate was equally strong-willed.  She was a small woman with a dark, round face and her son Cole very much resembled her.  In her youth, she wanted to go to Vassar College, but her plans fell through and she went to a finishing school instead.  She was known as a tightly reined, self-controlled young lady.  Her father indulged her and allowed her to do what she wanted.  Though J. O. was rich, she was described as someone having middle class origins who identified with elegant society. Her son maintained that religion was not serious to her, and that though a Baptist, she visited churches of other denominations. However, a town resident maintained Kate faithfully attended the First Baptist Church.  [15]  The townspeople felt that Kate was spoiled and not very friendly. 

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Kate (Cole) Porter as a young woman
(Cole Porter Collection)

The socially ambitious Kate married a drug store owner named Sam Porter.  Because of her social climbing notions, the townspeople puzzled at her marriage to Sam Porter.  Some felt that she threw herself away on Sam, who had nothing that she was looking for in upward mobility: he was shy, had homespun looks, and limited means. One explanation was that Kate, who was not jolly, married him because she loved the way he played the guitar.  Sam operated three drug stores. He ran an aggressive advertising campaign, but no matter how hard he tried, he was never financially successful.  Yet he chose to live in Peru.  Family friends explained that Sam, while dreamy, could spin a tale and was a good companion.  There were anecdotes that Cole had one of the most wonderful fathers who gave family friends music lessons.   He was thoughtful and gave presents to children at Christmas.  Friends believed that Cole inherited his musical genius from his father, not from his mother’s family.  Sam Porter was not burdened by religion.  Some said that he had a rather dreamy temperament and was a lover of poetry.  The kinder critics called him a passive gentleman of old school who was quite cultivated. Friends felt that he was compassionate and that everyone’s sorrows were his sorrows.  Sam called Kate every day at noon, but she gave him less affection.  Before Cole’s birth there were two children who had died in infancy.  Sam was affectionate to the first and second children but not to Cole. Sam liked English Romantics and Browning was his favorite.  Early on Sam encouraged Cole to read books like “Alice in Wonderland”, “Swiss Family Robinson”, and “Treasure Island”.

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Cole Porter as infant Cole Porter collection

Sam avoided the debate between Kate and her father on how to raise young Cole.  Due to Sam’s lackluster personality, he never emerged as figure of power- even in his own household, and seemed to live in Cole family’s shadow.  A critic observed that J.O. liked having an obscure druggist dependent on his bounty rather than an equal. Sam made no effort to change the status quo and faded into background. Though he resented J.O., he became a weak, ineffectual father, which resulted in little interaction between father and son. 

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Sam Porter with one his young children
(Cole Porter Collection)

Sam’s tutoring exacerbated an already poor relationship.  Cole and his father would sit in the parlor and read Shelley, Keats, and Browning aloud.  Sam criticized Cole’s poetry and lost patience when Cole could not understand a long poem.  These scenes were repeated until Cole had the conviction that Sam did not appreciate him.  By age twelve the relationship was damaged beyond repair, even before J.O. supplanted Sam in bringing up Cole. 

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Cole Porter on right with his cousin Louis Cole, who also attended Worcester Academy. Courtesy Miami Co. Museum

Due to the loss of their two children, Kate was even more protective of Cole.  She soon noticed her son was quick-witted and ever amusing.  There was an uncanny rapport between them as he seemed to be a miniature reproduction of her.  Mother and son unconsciously conspired for an intimate relationship from which Sam was excluded.  Kate disciplined Cole; Sam did not.  Photos of that time show Cole’s small, serious face dominated by large expressive brown eyes and his somber mien hinted that his childhood was not carefree.  Cole saw his ineffectual father in the shadow of his omnipotent grandfather and that his mother protected him from his father’s ridicule. 

As Cole grew older, she lamented the lack of contact between Cole and Sam, yet she stepped in between them protecting Cole from her husband.  The withholding of information also lessened their relationship.  Sam lost his temper easily and Cole retaliated by being detached and screening out unpleasantness.  When confronted by his father’s anger, he retreated behind a blank, inexpressive mask.  Fun was not a major element of his childhood.  One biographer felt that Cole Porter had an unconscious need to repress his relationship and later stated that he remembered little about his father.  The Porter household irritations, slights, and anxieties were not discussed.  As a child, Cole read a lot to escape boredom, but in later years he seldom read fiction.

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Cole Porter in early music class Cole Porter collection

Kate dressed her only child in the finest clothes.  A June 30, 1898 photograph of Cole shows him in a white jacket, waistcoat, white shirt, wing collar, and black tie, which was not typical of the time.  He was not involved in roughhousing.  Kate forbade football and other sports, which she considered less than gentlemanly. Most photos depicted Cole as a dandy prompting one biographer to write, “His mother dressed him up as little Lord Fauntleroy and other children made fun of him.  “Other children didn’t mix with Cole”.  Cole was a very shy boy.

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Cole Porter with violin Cole Porter collections

His biographer George Eells wrote that Kate added the middle name Albert without consulting Sam.  She would go to extremes for social and material advantages for Cole and wanted complete control of her son.  She pushed piano and dance instruction, as the “best” people were accomplished in these areas in her opinion.  His French tutor thought he did well due to his perfect pitch.  Thus, he had a solid foundation in the social graces.  According to Cole, Kate hovered over him, but denied him nothing, as he was spoiled.  Besides his private tutor in French, he had a Shetland pony.  In her mind, riding was gentleman’s pursuit, so that was why he owned pony. 

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Cole Porter on pony Cole Porter collections

It was into her son’s artistic talents that Kate channeled all of her dreams for a career in music. She pushed her son to take both piano and violin lessons, beginning at age 6.  J.O. thought music training a waste of money.  While J. O. was contemptuous of music, Sam failed to react.  The piano practice was two hours per day.  Years later, Cole told the journalist Louis Lyons that practicing piano ruined his childhood, but he did not regret it. On the violin he divulged he was screechy.  He took the train to Marion thirty miles from Peru.  Cole discovered spicy books on these trips, which later on inspired some of his naughty lyrics. 

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Young Kate Porter
(Courtesy of the Miami County Museum)

Kate’s approval was what he liked.  At 10, he wrote a song called the “Bobolink Waltz” and Kate had one hundred copies printed.  To Cole, music was way to gain affection and acceptance.  Kate organized a concert with Cole performing a violin solo.  Once he played at movie-theater during a silent film.  Though uninvited, he was allowed to play.  However, he played happy music during the sad scenes, which ended his brief career as movie accompanist.  He loved the decorations of the town theater as it looked like Venice.  As a youth, he traveled to Chicago to see opera for the first time.

The Porters lived in a large frame, Victorian house at Third and Huntington streets in Peru.  Cole gave shows on the sun porch.  Peru was filled with tall trees, which were leafy in summer.  The oaks, walnut, and wild briar trees stood amid spacious lawns and colorful gardens. The First Baptist Church was a few blocks from their home, but Cole sang in the choir of St. John’s Lutheran church.  He had a clown suit and a toy theater at which he indulged in fantasy.  The circus was dazzling to him.  He visited their headquarters in Peru and once took the bearded lady on his horse cart.

Cole’s best friend in Peru was Tommy Hendricks and together they rode bicycles all over Peru.  Cole, a fast bike rider, once dashed between horse drawn carts, crashing into Bergman’s saloon, a forbidden place for the young boys.  Tommy’s father ran another drug store and politics often came up between the rivals as the Porters were Republicans and the Hendricks Democrats.  You could tell how an election would go by the numbers of partisans in each store before the election.  There was ice cream at drug store and once the boys stuffed cigars into the ice cream containers.

Cole Porter with Desdemona Bearss.  One or more of the other girls may be the Edwards sisters, who were related to Cole.

Cole Porter with Desdemona Bearss. One or more of the other girls may be the Edwards sisters, who were related to Cole. Cole Porter collections

Cole thought Desdemona Bearss the most beautiful girl in the world.  Her family owned the Bearss hotel in the center of Peru.  Like Cole, Des also practiced piano and went to the opera in Indianapolis. At school, Cole shared food with Des.  They did fun pranks such as going door-to-door peddling apples with exaggerated country accents.  Early in life, Cole always had a high achievement and aptitude for gals, but Des was the only one he cared about.  At school events, he sang for Des even when the other girls were applauding.  According to Tommy, “Only with Des was his relationship intimate.  Each knew instinctively what the other would do.”  “Cole liked her, even loved her, but he later said that he had never been in love with her.  Cole admitted, “We had great times together.  She was the first person I ever knew who was fun.”  With the exception of Des, Cole’s life was so unhappy he blanked it out the rest. 

Tommy, Cole and Des were a threesome. Originally, Des and Tommy were in grade school with Cole.  Early on, she held party and Tommy and Cole only went for the food, but as time went on they grew closer.  Tommy better swimmer and faster runner, but Cole always beat him spotlight for Des.  Once Des did aerialist stunt on woodpile pretending to do a leap of death and Cole and Tommy were enraptured.  Des appeared in a photograph with Cole, who was wearing wore a military outfit.  The triangular relationship with Cole and has caused writers to mention that this type of relationship was part of a lifetime pattern.

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Cole Porter in hat Cole Porter collection

The wealthy Peru families had summer homes at Lake Maxinkuckie, the second largest natural lake in Indiana, which is roughly 50 miles northwest of Peru next to the town of Culver.  In 1880 the Maxinkuckie Yacht Club was founded on the Culver side of the lake for social sailing.  But by 1901, sailing became more competitive as the recreational sailors met at Edwards boathouse at the lake’s eastern edge where the cottages were located and organized the Aubbeenaubee Yacht Club.  Elbert W. Shirk of Peru was among the first to win the races for sloops in 1901 White Lady.  In 1902, Milton Edwards, another cousin from Peru, won the first and second race in Le Vite

Cole Porter also went to Maxincuckie and used to watch the steamer come and go.  It was called the “Pearless”, and he would tarry at the piano in a wet bathing suit, which outraged the owner as it damaged the piano seat.  With that Cole dove into the water to escape the man’s wrath.  The steamer was loud and according to his friend, Tommy Hendricks, Cole developed his banging-on-the-keys playing style due to the noise of the steamer’s engine.  Cole also played at a wedding.

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Cole Porter in grade school, front row, third from right Cole Porter collections

Before Worcester Academy, Cole managed to blot out the angry currents that flowed among the adults at home until his mother announced that he was to go East to school.[17] Cole was smothered by two forceful personalities and one that was diffident and poetic.  Because J.O. paid many of the bills, he had dominant voice in decisions about Cole.  J. O. proposed Cole attend a military academy closer to home.  He felt that Cole was weak and needed development.  Years before, Kate had vowed Cole would receive an Eastern education and social connections.  Some writers erroneously reported J. O. sent Cole to Worcester Academy to discourage the boy’s interest in music.  Actually, J. O. fought hard to keep him in Indiana to learn farming, hunting, business and manly pursuits.  Katie gave no quarter.  Cole was triumphant, but troubled.  J. O. Cole’s vast empire could be his, but going to Worcester jeopardized his inclusion in J.O.’s will. In their mind, Worcester Academy was a simple, reserved, but cozy place where Cole would shine.  Kate herself was a Baptist, but her religion was hardly reason she chose the school.

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Cole Porter in school photograph. Top row on right with x mark written on shirt. Author’s collection

Cole’s coming to Worcester Academy spurred a family crisis, which had simmered below the surface all his life, but erupted into open hostility by his leaving for Worcester. Cole departed amidst family disagreement, which caused Kate and J. O. to stop speaking for next two years.  Cole found himself embroiled in the painful situation.  After he left Peru, he did not return for three years, nor did the family visit him due to the bitterness of the quarrel.  The outcome was that he was temporarily a boy without a family. Early biographies indicated that Cole did not return home until senior year, but this was not true.  His father did pick him up once during the summer between his freshman and sophomore years.

Was this family crisis because Cole Porter was gay?  Even though he was very young, they may have sensed that he was not a typical little boy.  The Victorian era was filled with the notion that boys were growing up soft, and the establishment of military schools was a response to this attitude.  Compounding the problem was that homosexuality was all but unknown and certainly not understood.  Certainly his grandfather thought Cole was too soft, which is why he wanted him to go to military school.  It is likely that Abercrombie knew about homosexuality from his readings of the Classics, but he never referred to it in his letters.  If there were any incidents of homosexuality at the school, he did not reference them.  There is no evidence that he knew that Cole Porter was gay either while Cole attended Worcester or even afterwards.  Though Cole did act up towards the end of his senior year, there is nothing about the young man’s sexuality that can be gleaned from Abercrombie’s letters.

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Cole Porter in kindergarten, seated on right Courtesy Miami Co. Museum

It is likely that Sam thought that Cole was soft, but in an even more abusive way.  The father-son relationship has been described as difficult, but from the body of evidence during this time, it was probably much worse.  His most recent biographer William McBrien posited that Sam suffered from mental illness.  What has not been discussed was that it is possible that he suffered from depression over the loss of two infant children, which was compounded by the fact that he was caught between two powerful personalities in Kate and J.O.  His only outlet may have been to be abusive of young Cole.  While not physically abusive the atmosphere at home was quite poor and getting worse as Sam’s health declined.  It was probably for this reason that even though he was a very good student Cole came to Worcester at a very early age.  During all four years, Sam did not communicate with Abercrombie.  There is no record that he visited the Academy and in the dozens of letters between Abercrombie and Kate there is only one oblique reference to Sam.  Though Cole had a strong academic career at Worcester, Sam did not attend his graduation in 1909 where he gave the valedictory address.  Four years later, upon graduation from college, Cole referred to his father as “retired”.  

In the biographies, Kate is portrayed as a stage mother, but the letters show a woman who is quite sensible.  It is possible that she wanted to get young Cole away from Sam and the only way to do that was to send him to a boarding school.  The fact that she promoted her son as a genius may have been part of her conspiracy to get him out of Peru and away from Sam.  



[1] Letter to Meylert B. Mullin, 21 Mountfort Street, Boston, Mass. February 22, 1916

[2] (13/815, July, 18, 1908)

 (16/773 Nov 8 1909)

[3] (Edward G. Curtis, Sept. 18, 1919).

[4] (p.2 Editorial on Abby’s 25th, Vigornia)

[5] (10/542, Oct 25 06).

[6] (Kneeland, p. 55- 56)

[7] (17/442)

[8] (Spy 6-17-1903)

[9] Eels notes, University of Arizona

[10] (16/60, May 26 09)

[11] (16/385, Aug 31 09)

[12] (14/423, Jan 13 09)

[13] (Schwartz)

[14] (McBrien) (Schwartz)

[15] Mrs. Gladys Fergusen, Decatur, Ill.   Sep 16, 1974 article says Kate Porter faithfully attended First Baptist church.  p.5

[16] (12/481, July 15 08)

[17] (LLL)