Glenn Branch's picture

Searching for F. E. Dean, Part 4

Fort Sumner Leader masthead

Recall that in part 1, I began with Woodrow Wilson’s famous endorsement of evolution, which Winterton Curtis quoted in his unheard testimony in the Scopes trial. Curtis solicited Wilson’s opinion in 1922, because a former student of his, F. E. Dean, lost his job as the superintendent of schools in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, over evolution. In part 2, I related my search for further information about Dean, culminating when I received, from the William Bateson archive at Queen’s University, the front page of three issues of the Fort Sumner Leader (the local newspaper) sent by Curtis to Bateson, whom he also consulted about the Dean incident. In part 3, I quoted from the newspaper a long letter from Dean himself, in which he gave his side of the story: after protesting the Fort Sumner school board’s adoption of a policy prohibiting the teaching of evolution and soliciting the view of the attorney general of New Mexico, he was pressured to resign, and did so.

The front page of the next issue of the Fort Sumner Leader, published August 18, 1922—it was evidently a weekly—was almost entirely consumed with reactions to Dean’s resignation. Some reactions were on his side. The Fort Sumner Woman’s Club issued a resolution warning that “great injury will result to the schools of Fort Sumner unless this action is reversed,” protesting “Mr. Dean’s resignation having been demanded,” and favoring “the Board of Education refusing to accept Mr. Dean’s resignation upon a reconsideration of the matter.” The Alumni Association of the Fort Sumner High School expressed its “love and appreciation” for Dean, and reassured him, and the public, that “we HAVE NOT learned from your teachings that the ‘Mottled ape is our grand-father.’ [Emphasis in original. I don’t recognize the allusion seemingly indicated by the quotation marks.] Neither has it shattered our faith in the bible and made infidels of us.”

Some reactions were not on his side. Someone with the surname of Smith—the initials are unclear: possibly P. L. S.—wrote in reaction to a piece by Dean that I haven’t seen. (Are any of the Science League of America’s New Mexican readers interested in paying a visit to one of the libraries with holdings of the Fort Sumner Leader and digging around a bit?) The greater part of Smith’s column is devoted to the always popular pursuit of quote-mining, trying to extract a nugget of apparent skepticism or rejection of evolution from amid the dross of scientific discourse. (It is, to continue the metaphor, usually fool's gold.) Smith cites “Dr. Etheridge, Fossiologist [Fossiologist!] of the British Museum,” and “Prof. Beale, of King’s College, London,” and—of course—William Bateson. There’s a big circle around the passage and a big X in the margin, presumably from Curtis or Bateson himself. Smith added, “Woodrow Wilson does not believe that man came from the beast. So I suppose he is a back number.”

And, showing that the Dean affair was still in people’s minds, there was a column about a meeting of the Fort Sumner Parent-Teachers Association, which, in the words of the headline, got “all het up.” While the advisability of reinstating Dean was under discussion, there was a dispute among the members of the board, with a member of the board, J. P. Brooke, saying “that he was preparing to make public the whole situation.” Although challenged by the chair of the board and a minister named Lahman to do so then and there, Brooke would not be drawn, saying that he would do so in writing. There was a brief exchange of blows after the meeting: “This move brot [sic] forth the Parson’s right hand, which landed on Mr. Brooke’s left cheek. Ladies rushing between them prevented further hostilities.” Brooke had called the reverend gentleman a “chicken-eater” during the meeting. (I am not making this up.)

In the next issue of the Fort Sumner Leader (August 25, 1922), Brooke, true to his word, published a long, and frankly confusing, statement accusing two of his fellow members of the board, Wade and Withers, of sacrificing Dean for the sake of their political ambitions, and warning darkly that “[a]s time goes on there will be other things come to light.” Also in the same issue of the Fort Sumner Leader were two resolutions adopted by the Parent-Teachers Association at its meeting, one registering a protest against Dean’s treatment, and one favoring a reversal of the school board’s action and urging the school board to refuse to accept Dean’s resignation. And, perhaps not unconnected to Brooke’s allegations, there was a report of a petition asking for Wade and Withers to be removed from the school board on the “grounds that they were both holding another official position, thus making their present membership on the school [board] illegal.”

Of greater interest, though, is Dean’s further statement. (He mentions “two previous articles” of his, so obviously I’m missing one.) He blames a particular, unnamed, “pest who haunts the streets of Fort Sumner, peddling insinuations, innuendoes, lies, and slanders, the man who spoils everything he touches, whose very presence in a decent community is like the plague,” who “is himself a believer in evolution,” who, with his “able lieutenant,” whipped up the controversy merely in order to “further his own vile ends”: apparently Wade and Withers. “It took me three months of the very hardest kind of work,” he lamented, “to get my Seniors to know even the A B C of the immeasurably vast subject of evolution. What can I do for those who will not read and think?” And with that, as A. G. Cock wrote in his 1989 article in the Journal of Heredity, F. E. Dean “disappears from the record.” So what could lie ahead in part 5?