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Rutersville: Methodist Colleges and Sex Scandals

This sign is a phenomenal example of why we were motivated to create Mile Marker 77 - often, these historical markers seem incredibly straightforward; Important History Person A was born over there, and they founded Important History Thing X, and then they died over here. However, the reality behind these stories is so much more than could ever fit on a sign. Life is complex, funny, sad, and way messier than the history books often lead us to believe. Every time we look deeper into the history represented by a marker, we find something fascinating, something otherwise obscured by the text on the sign. This time, hiding behind a very straightforward historical marker, the thing we found was a Methodist College and a sex scandal.

Now that we have your attention, tempting you with a sneak peek of the grand finale of this story, let's start by diving into higher education in Texas in the 19th century. All of the earliest colleges chartered in Texas were run by, supported by, and funded by Chrisitan religious denominations. Baylor University, for example, started out in Independence, Texas when the Union Baptist Association voted to establish a Baptist university. The Methodists were also working to establish schools of higher education, and Rutersville was chosen as the location of the first of these schools.

Location of Rutersville, northeast of La Grange

Now, for those of you thinking that this was a peaceful time where great minds from all denominations came together to help academically elevate the white masses of Texas, I am going to dash that positivity right now. The conflict between the denominations was more than just theological, and in fact, was often violent. For example, in San Augustine County, the Presbyterians and Methodists established their own separate colleges (the University of San Augustine and Wesleyan College respectively), and the tension between the two denominations turned into open and armed conflict culminating in a duel between Rev. James Russell, president of Wesylan College, and Henry Kendal in the streets of San Augustine. The Presbyterians and Methodists in the area each had their own rival newspapers and when Rev. Russell published "a remark in The Red Lander about Kendal's sister, implying that she was a loose woman, Kendal decided to settle the affair in Western style" (Jones 2006, 28). No one was killed in the duel, but the next day, Kendal sought out Rev. Russell and finished the job. After he shot and killed Russell, Kendal fled to Mexico where he remained for the rest of his life. This event effectively ended both institutions of higher learning in San Augustine. Rutersville College, the subject of this post, did not end in a duel and a murder, but still definitely ended with a figurative bang.

If you are ever near La Grange, in Fayette County, on TX 159 you will find a series of historical markers in the unincorporated town of Rutersville. For this post, I just want to focus on town and college itself.

Rutersville Historic Marker

The marker itself is innocuous, giving a brief little summation of the town and Rutersville College. However, what lies beneath the surface of this sign is a tumultuous beginning, middle, and end. William B. Jones has written an extensive history of the Methodist colleges in Texas, which include a lengthy section about Rutersville, a college that was only around for 16 years. I am only going to focus on the more controversial aspects of the college, but for more information please see Southwestern University 1840-2000, pages 9-22, and I have included a link to the pdf at the end of the post.

Rutersville College had a controversial start. As the sign mentions, Dr. Martin Ruter had a vision for a Methodist college in Texas but died before that vision was actualized. His academic aspirations were immediately taken up by the Proprietors, a group of ten methodist men who were instrumental for founding the town and establishing the college, which they named after Ruter himself. They raised funds, secured land grants from the Republic of Texas, elected a president, and obtained a charter for the school. The controversial part of this founding is in the charter: to get it, these founders needed congressional approval and Congress was not keen on granting a charter to a school that only catered to one Christian denomination. Eventually, with some vigorous campaigning, they were able to secure a charter but only by removing the word "Methodist" and separating it from the Methodist Church. This eventually became a point of contention with the local Methodists and any other Methodist looking to attend Rutersville College. Jones notes that "Methodists became increasingly loath to support an institution not officially connected with the Church that might at any given moment take actions inimical to Church interests or be taken away by a headstrong group of independent trustees" (Jones 2006, 11). In the words of J. E. Ferguson, a minister in the area in 1850, the "egg was laid wrong and [was never] hatched properly".

The Main Building of Rutersville College (Wikipedia)

So, with land, a president, and a charter, Rutersville College opened its doors on February 1, 1840, to 63 male and female students. And, to set a scene of foreshadowing, that winter day on the first day of classes was terrible; a northern wind had blown through the area taking the temperature from the mid-70s to below freezing and the buildings were not ready for occupancy so the students all huddled together in one small building trying to learn and stay warm.

Despite this frigid start, the Rutersville College student body continued to grow, peaking in 1843 with 59 male and 41 female students. However, I have to wonder how much actual studying was happening, as the school reported frequent raids by the local Native American tribes, and the students were often involved in the school's retaliation. For example, after two young boys were attacked while hunting horses, most of the male students (all between the ages of 14-16) joined a three-week-long hunting party. One student stated that he did "little more than hunt Indians" while at Rutersville. It was difficult to find much information about this part of Rutersville's history, and what information is available seems very influenced by the biases of the 19th century. Ultimately, what is clear is that there was a great deal of friction between the encroaching white settlers and the local Native groups, similar to the situation throughout the rest of Texas at the time.

Rutersville, aside from conflict with the indigenous population, also had problems attracting prospective students. Between 1846 and 1848, many male students went off to fight in the Mexican-American War rather than attend college. At the same time, Baylor University opened its doors in 1846, and then the Chappell Hill Male and Female Institute, another Methodist institution, was founded in 1850. Both the war and these competing schools decreased enrollment at Rutersville. The declining student body, coupled with mismanagement (from Richardson leaving to college to take on bigger and better positions in 1845 to President John Rabb deeding land to a trust for the Texas Methodist Conference which caused Fayette County to withdraw its support for the college) and land depreciation leading to an accumulation of debt meant that Rutersville College was declining almost as soon as it began.

However, the final nail in the coffin was the sex scandal in the early 1850s. You read that right - t'was a sex scandal that finished off the Methodist college. Most of what we know about the events of the Applewhite Scandal (as it was called at the time) are vague and still shrouded in mystery as "none of the Church records of the trial exist today, and knowledge about the affair must be pieced together from other sources" (Jones 2006, 20). What we do know is that it involved Isaac Applewhite, a local Methodist preacher connected to Rutersville College, and Ann S. Richardson, daughter of former President Chauncey Richardson, who was attending classes at Rutersville at the time. The scandal broke in 1850 when it was discovered that Applewhite, the 38-year-old preacher who also had a wife and 8 children, had some type of relationship with Ann, who was 16 at the time. Yikes. Now, none of the details surrounding the exact nature of the relationship are known aside from the fact that it involved sexual relations. Was it consensual? Did Applewhite pursue Ann? How long did it go on? How did people find out? What we do know is that two years later, in 1852, Applewhite was brought to trial by the Church and convicted "on the charges of unlawful and criminal intercourse" (which seems, in Methodist terms at the time, to have simply meant sexual relations outside of a sanctified marriage) and was expelled from the Methodist order. Jones notes that "Ann appears to have been considered the aggrieved party in the affair and was exonerated in the public mind, or at least in the minds of those conducting the college" (Jones 2006, 20).

The negative effect of the scandal had taken hold in the community long before the trial. Our good pal Ferguson, in the same letter comparing Rutersville College to an egg, wrote of the trial, "You wish to know something about the Applewhite case. To give you a history would require a weeks writing, but my private opinion is, that it is worse than we want it...But this it has done, it has given the death blow to the Rutersville College...The Rutersville school is well ny [sic] dead. There is not a student from Travis or Bastrop Counties that has returned and to name the matter to any parent is to insult them, and the reasons for all this I will not put on paper" (excerpts from letters on May 18th, 1850 and July 24th, 1850). I really wish he would have put it on paper, even if it did require a week's writing.

The Applewhite Scandal in all of its sordid glory, the exact details of which we will apparently never know because it was too unseemly to even write about, was really the death knell for Rutersville College. In 1856 the campus was leased to the Texas Monumental and Military Institute of Galveston, an incredibly ironic move considering that the college was founded to "enshrine the pacific vision of Martin Ruter for a Church-related institution of higher education [and] the new institution was completely secular and military in nature" (Jones 2006, 21-22). All that was left after this transfer was an empty charter and some property that was returned to the Methodist Conference. The Texas Monumental and Military Institute was disbanded at the start of the Civil War so that its members could join the Confederate Army.

And thus ends the tale of a college seemingly doomed from that start. As the town of Rutersville was born with the college so it died with the college. Around 1930, the only post office closed and by 1960 it had 3 businesses and a population of 72 people.

Please stay tuned for next week's post where we dig into some of the more famous members of Rutersville College student body, some of whom were associated with the doomed Miers Expedition and the Black Bean Episode.

For more reading please see:

Jones, W. 2006. To Survive and Excel: The Story of Southwestern University 1840-2000. Georgetown: Southwestern University.

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