Catharine Merrill, by T. C. Steele, 1890–photo of a younger CM is available at the Indiana Historical Society
A few weeks ago, one of my girlfriends was tweeting stats from a documentary she was watching: “By age 17, 78% of girls are unhappy with their bodies;” “Women spend more in their lifetime on beauty products than their education.” Yikes. These and other jarring reminders–with statistics and interviews from an array of inspiring women–were part of the tweet stream, and I started retweeting. Ever the walker versus the talker, said friend, Erin Albert, took what started as a flippant suggestion to get together a screening, and seemingly within minutes, pulled together a full-fledged event. Seeing HistoricIndianapolis.com listed alongside Butler University, Yuspie, Girls Inc. of Greater Indianapolis, Girls Rock! and Planned Parenthood of Indiana felt fabulous–and meeting and hearing from the many ladies and few gentlemen in the room was even better. The documentary “Miss Representation,” explores how the media’s misrepresentation of women has led to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence.
Among many thoughts conjured by this film: that for the most part, we are a nation of lemmings, allowing ourselves to create our realities and tastes around what the media is incessantly pumping out of its salacious sausage factory. I’ve often referred to that old saying: “You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.” And while the message is still fresh in my head, today, I endeavor to be part of the solution. Today, that means focusing on a “woman who dared,” who made a mark in early Indianapolis. We need to know and share the stories of remarkable local women, because “you can’t be what you can’t see.” So see if this lady inspires you at all.
Walking into a Butler campus building on my way to the public introduction of Local Stake , I was halted in my tracks. I noticed a lovely old portrait– a T. C. Steele, no less–painted in 1890, when he was still living in only home on the 1600 block between Talbott and Pennsylvania, (now home to award winning Herron High School). The portrays a distinguished Catharine Merrill, age 66. And who, pray tell, was Catharine Merrill? She was one of the city’s earliest and favorite educators. A public school would be named for her, which stood on the northwest corner of New Jersey and Merrill Streets, on ground where the family home once stood. If you’ve ever visited the downtown post office mecca or Lucas Oil Stadium, chances are good you’ve at least seen the ‘Merrill Street’ sign. Incidentally, the street was named for her father, Samuel Merrill, Indiana’s state treasurer who was (literally) saddled with the task of moving the treasury of the Hoosier state, as well as other state documents and a printing press from Corydon to the newly christened “Indianapolis”–a trip that took a mere 11 days. His later endeavor in publishing would eventually evolve into the well known Bobbs-Merrill Company. That trek across Indiana to the capitol was in 1824–the same year Catharine was born.
Catharine had been taught by her father at a school (behind the treasury, where her father worked, on Maryland Street) and cultivated a love of literature. Her mother also encouraged her to write, and Catharine kept a diary, which became the basis for Catharine Merrill: Life and Letters, edited by her niece, Katharine Merrill Graydon, and published in 1934. She took her love of literature and writing and– beginning with a private school she operated from the family home– Miss Merrill became a life-long educator. Names such as Cathcart, Fletcher, Morris and Vance appeared among her lengthy list of students. She would eventually compile and write a two volume tome (urged to do so by no less than Governor Oliver P. Morton) called The Indiana Soldier in the War for the Union–sadly, and undoubtedly because she was female, this was published anonymously, but still noteworthy, in that it is likely to have been the first general title published by what would become the Bobbs-Merrill Company. In 1869, Northwestern Christian University (now Butler) introduced the Demia Butler Chair, with an $11,000 endowment by Ovid Butler (named for his daughter, the first female graduate of the institution) honoring Catharine Merrill with being the first to fill this position–the first endowment in the country designated for a woman. The university became the first in the state to establish a professorship in English literature and the first department of English in the state. Miss Merrill became the second woman in the United States to be a professor in an American University.
During the Civil War, she served as a nurse in Kentucky. And when John Muir had his devastating eye injury whilst in Indianapolis, it was Catharine Merrill who visited him, read to him and helped nurse him back to health. They remained life-long friends. Correspondence from Muir to Miss Merrill is represented in a collection at the Indiana Historical Society. Based on his description of her and anecdotal information, it is not overestimating her role to say that were it not for Catharine Merrill, the Sierra Club, nor Yosemite might ever have heard of John Muir. Sometimes the difference we make in the world is spurring someone else on to their own contributions to the world. Elsewhere in the local community, she served as the second female president of the Contemporary Club, (the first being another infinitely inspiring Indianapolis lady- May Wright Sewall. A popular literary club was started in her name: “The Catharine Merrill Club” before her death in 1900. She is also noted for her efforts on behalf of women prisoners, and the “Home for Friendless Women.” May we all find worthy endeavors and inspire others to be their best. There may not be as many examples of women in this arena, but with dedication and tenacity, we can build on the foundation of some of these early local heroine.
Miss Merrill was the first friend I found in Indiana, and one of the kindest, wisest, and most helpful of my life. I first met her about thirty-five years ago through a letter of introduction from Professor J.d. butler, when I was studying plants and rocks around Indianapolis. Knowing how shy I was, and fearing I might not deliver his letter he took pains to tell how rare and good she was in heart and mind, and to assure me that at first sight all bashful misery would vanish, for none better than she knew that “a man’s a man for a’that.” And so it proved. She became interested in my studies, loaned me books, and I soon learned to admire her scholarship, ken, sane, kindly criticism, the wonderful range of her sympathies, her kindness in always calling attention to the best in the character of any one under discussion living or dead, and her weariless, unostentatious, practical benevolence in smoothing as she was able the pathways of others and helping them up into wider, brighter, purer living. But it was in a time of trouble, then drawing nigh, that I learned to know her well. While at work in a mill my right eye was pierced by a file, and then came the darkest time of my life. I was blind for months and the blindness threatened to be lasting and complete.She came to my darkened room like an angel of light, with hope and cheer and sympathy purely divine, procured the services of the best oculist and the children she knew I loved. And when at last after long months of kindness and skill she saw me out in Heaven’s sunshine again, fairly adrift in the glorious bloom of the spring, her joy was as great as my own.
And in her beautiful life how many others has she lifted up, – – cheered and charmed out of darkness into light! Few have left the world so widely beloved, and it is not easy for those who knew her to speak of her without apparent excess.
She was tall, rather frail looking, with broad brow and wonderful eyes, a countenance glowing with kindness and as free from guile as a child’s. She was an admirable scholar, with perfect mental independence, and her heart was one of the kindest and least selfish I ever found. those who knew her best loved her best, and almost worshiped her. Everywhere she was welcomed like light – in social gatherings, clubs and camps, homes and schools, asylums, hospitals, churches and jails; for she was a natural teacher and helper, a bearer of others’ burdens, brightener of others’ joys. none could be near her without being made better. One was lifted and strengthened simply by seeing her. the weary and troubled went to her as the thirsty to a well. Her home was a center of heart sunshine. Like a stream with deep fountains she was a friend on whom we could depend, always the same, steady as a star. And like streams and stars in their flowing and shining she seemed wholly unconscious of the good she was going. However important the work in hand she never appeared to be in a hurry or laboring beyond her strength. In the midst of striving crowds she seemed calm, gaining her ends with apparent ease. she followed the well-beaten roads of humanity with the enthusiasm and freshness of perception of the explorer in new fields. Before her all embracing sympathy obstacles melted. Humble, devout, reverent in presence of life’s mysteries, her faith in the final outcome of good never varied, while humor and common sense preserved her from extravagance of opinion and language.
She had a profound knowledge of human nature, and her judgment and sagacity in practical affairs enabled her not only to give good advice, but to get things done; love and sympathy giving wonderful insight. Her eye took in all humanity, studying characteristics of states and nations as well as individuals in every walk of life, tracing springs of action through all concealments as an explorer traces the fountain heads of rivers, searching out ways of being good and doing good, never discouraged, leaving results to be as God pleased; bowing in storms like a slender plant and springing up again; rejoicing in all truth, especially happy when she discovered something to praise in what seemed only evil, some good motive where only bad ones had been known.
Though always busy, valuing each day as it came out of eternity, she always had time for others, as if she had no pleasures or pains of her own, no temptations to fight against, no perturbing passions. She made her way through the scrambling, fighting, loving, hating, suffering, rejoicing world with no more apparent perplexity or effort than the world itself displays in making its way through the heavens.
She had a rare gift of teaching, and most of her life was devoted to it. an enthusiastic student and lover of literature, she kept inspiringly close to the minds of her scholars and easily led them to do their best, while her downright, steadfast, glowing goodness gained their hearts. Above all she was a builder of character, teaching the great art of right-living, holding up by word and example the loftiest ideals of conduct, fidelity to conscience and duty, and plain unchanging foundational righteousness as the law of life under whatever circumstances. And these noble lessons went home to the hearts of her pupils.
Conservative, believing in hard work, following Heaven’s ever old, ever new, love-lighted ways, placing no dependence on plans for getting something for nothing – comfortable inventions for abolishing ignorance and sin – machinery for hoisting humanity to spiritual heights, salvation by ballots, etc., she nevertheless welcomed new ideas with hospitality, eager to discover something useful in new plans however little they promised, humbly hoping and groping through life’s sad cloudy places as best she could, holding fast the good as she was able to see it, under whatever garb, steadied by a rare sanity and robust commonsense applicable to every situation. And this breadth and steadiness of mind, combined with immeasurable sympathy, bound her scholars to her through life. No wonder they never forgot her. “To know her was a liberal education.”
Nothing in all her noble love-laden life was more characteristic than its serenity. Of the showy reformer crying aloud in the confidence of comfortable ignorance there was never a trace. Going about humbly among all sorts of people she did what she could of the good that was nearest, preaching without sermons, informal as sunshine, her whole life a lesson of faith, hope and charity.
though I saw but little of her after the first year or two in Indiana, her gracious influence, not easily put into words, never lost its charm. Go where I would in my long, lonely wanderings “the idea of her life would sweetly glide into my study of imagination,” and so, I doubt not, it was with her friends near and far.
She never grew old. To her last day her mind was clear, and her warm heart glowed with the beauty and enthusiasm of youth. In loving hearts she still lives, and loving hearts are her monument.