Molly McClain tells the remarkable story of Ellen Browning Scripps (1836–1932), an American newspaperwoman, feminist, suffragist, abolitionist, and social reformer. She used her fortune to support women’s education, the labor movement, and public access to science, the arts, and education.
Born in London, Scripps grew up in rural poverty on the Illinois prairie. She went from rags to riches, living out that cherished American story in which people pull themselves up by their bootstraps with audacity, hard work, and luck. She and her brother, E. W. Scripps, built America’s largest chain of newspapers, linking midwestern industrial cities with booming towns in the West. Less well known today than the papers started by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, Scripps newspapers transformed their owners into millionaires almost overnight.
By the 1920s Scripps was worth an estimated $30 million, most of which she gave away. She established the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, and appeared on the cover of Time magazine after founding Scripps College in Claremont, California. She also provided major financial support to organizations worldwide that promised to advance democratic principles and public education.
In Ellen Browning Scripps, McClain brings to life an extraordinary woman who played a vital role in the history of women, California, and the American West.
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Ellen Browning Scripps
New Money and American Philanthropy
By Molly McClain
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
A Lapsed Victorian
"I wonder how you are picturing Miss Scripps," Katharine Scripps wrote to her niece in 1927. "She has broken loose from all conventional lines in thought. She calls herself a socialist — a Soviet, a Bolshevik. She decries churches and churchgoing, and observance. She flames up in defense of many things that seem wrong to most people, and yet to see her you would see a very thin-boned, frailest woman, self-effacing almost to shyness, and you would have to know her from others to get any idea of what she is thinking — what doing. A very interesting, wonderful character, and a contradictory character, too."
Ellen, or "Miss Scripps," was over ninety years old when her sister-in-law made these observations. She had never been a conventional woman, and, after suffering in silence for many years, she abandoned any such pretense. She shed the baggage of her Victorian upbringing, rejected her brothers' condescending and often patriarchal attitudes, and stepped free from the trappings of a bourgeois life. An old woman, she felt as rebellious as the child she had once been.
Ellen often recalled her youth while sitting in the sunroom of her La Jolla house, wrapped in blankets against the chill, and watching the swells off the Pacific coast. Sometimes she asked to hear old family letters written by her father and grandfather in the 1840s. Other times she talked about her childhood and early career in Detroit. She told a friend that her first memory was of "a little red rocking chair" that she had loved. She recalled being called "a little liar" when she was three or four years old for claiming that she knew the location of a ring that she had dropped on the floor. She talked about dressing and caring for her younger brothers — William, George, and John — and reminisced about "The Monthly Star," the newspaper that she and her older brother James had created as children. She described her early years of poverty and claimed that she could still live on fifty cents a day: "I have seen the day when 50c looked like a fortune to me."
She thought that things might have turned out differently if her family had not tried to force her into a straitjacket of piety and obedience. "As a child, I hated to be forced to anything," she said. "I hated the word 'must.' If my elders could have only understood me better, things might have been different." But she would not be coerced. She attributed her rejection of organized religion to the fact that she had been forced to accept, uncritically, the central tenets of the Anglican faith. As an adult, she experimented with a number of Christian denominations, but she never felt comfortable in any one of them. In the end, she allowed that faith in nature — God's creation — was as close to religion as she was likely to get.
There was a streak of nonconformity, both religious and political, in the history of the Scripps family. Ellen's great-grandfather William Scripps consorted with London radicals who sought parliamentary reform and universal male suffrage. Their efforts would lead to the development of Chartism, possibly the first mass working-class labor movement in the early nineteenth century. Fearing government persecution, William Scripps abandoned his shoe manufacturing business and immigrated to the United States in 1791. He converted to Methodism during the Second Great Awakening, joining a new generation of converts that stressed the equality of all believers, the power of personal revelation, and the importance of social activism. He also became an abolitionist.
Other members of the Scripps family fit comfortably into a Victorian frame. One can imagine them in starched collars and unflappable hoop skirts, hands folded, lips buttoned up, and children firmly under control. They followed "proper" codes of conduct, showed respect for the law, deferred to their social superiors, and worshipped at the altar of mammon. Over the course of the nineteenth century, they became entrenched members of the bourgeoisie. Ellen's grandfather William Armiger Scripps, Jr., was a sharp-witted businessman who edited the London Daily Sun and True Britain, newspapers published by the government to counter the prorevolutionary press. After making a small fortune in publishing and other entrepreneurial activities, he retired to a manor house on the Isle of Wight. He and his wife, Mary Dixie, raised seven children, among them James Mogg Scripps, the father of Ellen Scripps and her siblings.
Ellen's father was ill-suited to the fast-paced world of commercial London. A tall, lanky man with a shock of dark hair, James Mogg Scripps had inherited his father's intelligence but not his talent for making money. Instead, he made a modest living as a bookbinder. He and his family lived above the shop at No. 5 South Molton Street, a small slanting street of red brick and plaster buildings close to Oxford Circus. He could produce beautifully tooled calf and morocco bindings with decorative endpapers, but he could not compete with large workshops that had begun to use binding machines.
James Mogg did have a gift for producing children, however. His first wife, Elizabeth Sabey Scripps, gave birth to two children before dying in childbirth at the age of twenty-six. Only one, Elizabeth Mary Scripps (1831–1914), survived to adulthood. His second wife, Ellen Mary Saunders, bore six children between 1833 and 1840, five of whom survived: James Edmund Scripps (1835–1906), Ellen Browning Scripps (1836–1932), William Armiger "Will" Scripps (1838–1914), George Henry Scripps (1839–1900), and John Mogg Scripps (1840–63). Ellen Mary died at the age of thirty-eight from breast cancer, leaving behind a lengthy testimonial about her conversion to an evangelical form of Anglicanism. Ellen bore the legacy of this conversion in her middle name, "Browning," after Rev. J. H. Browning of Hope Chapel, Bristol.
Ellen was five years old when her mother died. She spent the next several years among well-mannered, church-going aunts who entreated her to repress her "naughty evil tempers" and to pray for the forgiveness of her sins. She learned to sublimate her true nature and play the part of a pious, submissive, and dutiful child. Had she remained in England, she might never have abandoned this script. Instead, fortune would bring her to the shores of America, where she could hope to lead a more adventurous life.
The Illinois Prairie
In 1844, having failed at business, James Mogg decided to leave London for the United States. He set out with six children who ranged in age from three to thirteen for Rushville, Illinois, where his uncles John and George Scripps lived with their families. After a forty-four-day journey across the Atlantic, he and the children secured passage across the Great Lakes to Chicago. A pair of covered wagons took the family and their belongings across the prairie toward Ottawa, just southwest of Chicago. From there, they traveled south along the Illinois River, arriving in Rushville on June 29, 1844.
It must have been startling for Ellen to find herself on the flat grasslands of the Illinois prairie after growing up in London, an urban metropolis with a population of nearly two million. Instead of great thoroughfares like Oxford Street and Regent Street, she encountered muddy lanes and slow-moving creeks that wound their way through marshy bottomland. The prairie looked like a vast ocean of grass that shimmered in the breeze. In June and July the roadsides were lined with colorful wildflowers: wild bergamot or bee balm, purple and white prairie clover, black-eyed Susan, and pale purple coneflower.
Rushville, a rough but thriving market town, was the seat of Schuyler County with over one thousand residents. Steamboats had just begun to ply the Illinois River, and it was thought that Rushville, located between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, was in a position to become the metropolis of the West. Pork packing was the most significant local industry due to the town's location in the middle of vast clover and bluegrass pasturages. In fact, one of the first things that visitors noticed was the abundance of pigs on the outskirts of town.
James Mogg expected to work with his uncles in their tannery, but he soon found that he had no aptitude for this kind of manual labor. He feared that he had made "a grand mistake" in coming to Illinois, but he would not think of returning to London, even though his father urged him to do so. He wrote, "It was on the children's account that I came, believing that I could do nothing for them in England. They, no doubt, may do well here."
Within a few months of his arrival, James Mogg married again. His third wife, Julia Osborn, was a schoolteacher who had moved from Ohio to Rushville four years earlier. Their family expanded quickly. Between 1847 and 1854, Julia gave birth to five children: Julia Anne "Annie" Scripps (1847–98), Thomas Osborn Scripps (1848–53), Frederick Tudor Scripps (1850–1936), Eliza Virginia "Virginia" or "Jenny" Scripps (1852–1921), and Edward Willis "E.W." Scripps (1854–1926).
In the end, James Mogg decided to settle on 160 acres of land that his father had purchased during a visit to Rushville in 1843. He built a small house and began to improve the land. Within a few years he was growing turnips, spring wheat, rye, corn, and cucumbers. Livestock consisted of twelve head of cattle, seventeen pigs, twenty-three geese and ducks, three or four dozen chickens, and four sheep. His cousin John Locke Scripps reportedly said, "You may go all over the States and find no prettier place than Cousin James's farm."
Farm activities engaged the whole family. The boys awoke at four or five o'clock in the morning to feed the horses and cattle before returning to the house for breakfast; they then cut wood and worked in the stables. After the cows were milked, young Ellen hauled the milk down to the cellar. In the winter she learned how to turn livestock into ham, sausage meat, and lard. She and her half-sister Elizabeth harvested apples and collected nuts, baked bread, and knit their own stockings. Elizabeth explained, "We were expected to be busy every minute."
Gifted with an inventive mind, James Mogg was not content with mere farming but turned his talents to a variety of get-rich-quick schemes. He tried coal mining, brick and tile making, tanning, ice quarrying, and lumber milling — with little success. Although he worked hard, he never seemed to be able to make ends meet. Ellen later described him as "a helpless bookish man" and something of a dreamer.
The Scripps family lived close to the edge of financial ruin. Ellen ate cornmeal puddings for breakfast, lunch, and dinner until she could do nothing but push her plate away. With no hired help, Ellen became the one who took care of her stepmother's babies, aided her partially deaf older sister, and helped wash, cook, and clean.
Good eyesight and a strong voice made Ellen the designated reader when the family gathered around the hearth after supper. This became her favorite time of day. Her father had a large collection of books, with the result that Ellen and her ten siblings got a better education than most children who were raised on the prairie. E.W. remembered "a rather long row of little leather-bound volumes of Peter Parley's works" that they read as children. There were also works of history, theology, and philosophy, including John Locke's Essay on Human Understanding (1690) and Thomas Paine's Age of Reason (1795), "a beautifully bound edition of Shakespeare, about a dozen volumes," and a collection of English poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.
Many of the books in the Scripps collection were the products of the romantic era, a period of revolt against social and political norms. Writers encouraged people to reflect on the great moral questions of the day, from abolitionism to women's rights, and emphasized the importance of heroic action. Ellen was particularly drawn to heroes, ordinary people who took extraordinary action in the interest of all humanity.
Blue and Gray, Black and White
The "great man" in Ellen's life was her second cousin, John Locke Scripps, who also lived in Rushville. Physically slight, he had a thick head of black hair that distinguished him from other family members. She described him as "a sort of composite Jupiter and Apollo and Shakespeare and John Wesley, and fully combined their attributes — power, beauty, wisdom, sweetness, and spirituality."
John Locke imparted his love of literature, as well as his support for the temperance and antislavery movements, to Ellen. A schoolmaster, he taught advanced subjects such as Latin, mathematics, and physics to students of both sexes and all ages. He was a frequent visitor to the Scripps family home. Ellen recalled that he "took upon himself to give lessons to the younger members of the family in deportment, courtesy, language, and to reprimand kindly though severely all tendency to slang — which was very mild in those days."
John Locke became involved in politics and journalism on the eve of the Civil War. He helped to establish the Democratic Free Press with William Boss and later became a partner in the Chicago Tribune with Joseph Medill. He used the papers to advance both his abolitionist agenda and Abraham Lincoln's career. In 1860 he wrote a biography of Lincoln that was subsequently used in the presidential campaign. Boss once said, "J. L. Scripps made Lincoln president."
Ellen's admiration for her cousin John Locke led her to establish a domestic newspaper with her fourteen-year-old brother, James. She was just twelve years old but already the family correspondent in place of her overworked father. In 1848 she and James put together a handwritten periodical called "The Monthly Star" for family and friends. They modeled their work after the Family Herald, a popular London newspaper, and produced three sheets of news each week.
James was a serious and hardworking, if somewhat timid, boy with a talent for mathematics and a strong interest in business. His letters to his grandfather gravitated toward the exact: he included seasonal temperatures, the price of pork, and the height of his siblings. Ellen, he wrote, was "13 years, 2 months old, 4 feet 10 1/8 inches high," while two-year-old Annie was "2 feet, 10 ½ inches high." Later in life he took to carrying a collapsible yardstick in his vest pocket in order to measure whatever came his way.
Ellen, meanwhile, was a quiet and imaginative girl with a mind of her own. When her stepmother did not need her assistance with infants and household chores, she read voraciously. E.W. recalled her as a neatly dressed young woman with a book in her hand. "She was either teaching me spelling, the primer, or reading to me stories, or talking to me, explaining things that were read about or things around me," her brother later wrote.
When Ellen was ten or eleven years old, she lost nearly all her teeth due to the ignorance of a Rushville physician. He treated a childhood illness — probably constipation — with calomel, or dimercury dichloride, which was supposed to purge her body of impurities but instead caused her teeth to fall out. Since there were no dentists in Rushville, Ellen waited six weeks to get fitted with a set of dentures. Unable to eat solid food, she subsisted on rice and milk. She wore false teeth for the rest of her life, one reason why she rarely smiled in photographs.
At age thirteen Ellen began attending the Rushville Seminary and High School with her brother James. Though they came from a farming family, they received exceptional educations intended to prepare them for college-level work. Their high school principal, Alonzo J. Sawyer, was a graduate of Knox College; he would go on to become professor of mathematics at the University of Chicago. James recalled classes in algebra, geometry, natural philosophy, moral philosophy, rhetoric, Latin, and Greek. His ambition at the time was to attend college, "but my father felt unable to incur the expense, and besides needed my services at home. So in the spring of 1851, I bade adieu to the seminary for good."
Ellen, however, was able to continue her education. In 1856 she matriculated at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, one of the few educational institutions to admit women, even if it did not yet grant college degrees. Her grandfather had left a legacy to finance three years of study, and her father decided that Ellen was the only one of his children who could be spared from the farm.
At college Ellen became a committed Republican, an abolitionist, and a supporter of the temperance movement. She joined the First Congregational Church of Galesburg and admired its minister, Rev. Edward Beecher. A close friend of martyred abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy, Beecher had helped organize the first antislavery society in Illinois before leaving for Boston in 1844. After his return to Galesburg in 1855, Beecher's home became a stop on the Underground Railroad, which led southern blacks from slavery to freedom.
Excerpted from Ellen Browning Scripps by Molly McClain. Copyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations Preface Acknowledgments Introduction Chronology 1. A Lapsed Victorian 2. The Evening News 3. The Realm of Queen Calafia 4. A Young Jewel 5. A Cold Shower of Gold 6. Down to the Sea 7. Old Age, New Age 8. A Feminist Speaks Out 9. Sweet Virginia 10. Educating Girls 11. The Playground and Community House 12. South Molton Villa 13. The Sinews of War 14. Still Roaring in the 1920s 15. Educating Women Conclusion Notes Bibliography Index