‘Whatever else may not agree in this disagreeing world, a verb must agree with its noun.’ Ephraim smacked his fist into his palm and then laughed. His new patron, President Pendleton of Bethany College, had the grace and perception to laugh with the just-arrived professor of Hebrew, Greek and Biblical exegesis.
From dry, spare prairie to cradling green hills, the jolt in setting was as if the Epsteins had been picked up and put down in the panhandle of West Virginia by a tornado. After the bitterness in Dakota Territory Ephraim was buoyed with vindication. From being founding president of a university there the house, pay and privileges here are a diminishment from his previous glory, but now he has utter academic freedom. A new book project, a new geography, and, aged 56, yet again a new life awaits — with the loyal Helena and their four daughters to support.
Once again Ephraim lands on his feet, with a post at Bethany College: ideal for him as it was founded by free-thinking Disciples of Christ who believed in no sects, no denominations. His literate and independent style of Christianity surely won’t get him in trouble here. But why not support his family by doctoring? In Chapter 34, Resurrection, in the seventh year of mourning for his little son he still feels unable to return to practice. Bethany College, click here , flourishes to this day. The home of its second President, William K Pendleton, had been a station in the underground railroad for escaping slaves some 25 years before Ephraim’s time at Bethany.
Ousted! He was Founding President of the University of Dakota, but the second academic year was bittersweet for Ephraim. He could not regret that the institution was flourishing and his imprint was on every aspect of its success. But the Board of Regents of the university wanted a different president.
He campaigned for it, was invited to set it up and run it in 1882 until (in his own words) ‘sectarian and political chicanery ousted me.’
From the now University of South Dakota archives: [he] ‘held controversial religious views. Eventually Epstein was removed as president due to political motives by certain members of the Regents of Education when the territory assumed control of the university in 1883. There was also speculation that Dr Epstein had amassed a significant debt for contracting a house in Vermillion.’
A Baptist historical report says: ‘Many friends of the institution deeply regretted the discourtesy and ingratitude exhibited towards its founder.’
Pictured here, from usd.edu archives, the University of Dakota President’s House, North Yale Street, Vermillion. Was this the cause of ‘significant debt’? Normally in this blog-of-his-life I give passages from my biographical fiction, but this true event may yet be contentious today! So I have quoted here from the sources I found, and had a wonderful time imagining our way into Ephraim’s devastating experience (and the birth of another daughter, my grandmother Naomi Epstein) in Chapter 33, The Stone Rejected by the Builders. Will he recover from this? Oh yes — but how, where?
Father of a university. Ephraim was fired with purpose — he accepted the offer: Founding President of Dakota University. He swore that no inquiring mind would be silenced in his university, he would ensure this would be written into the bylaws. Its motto would be Veritas.
Students! Books! Learning! The passionate campaigning of Ephraim and his fellow educationalists around the Territory had resulted in an enrolment of sixty-nine students. With University Hall not yet ready, on a clear day in early October 1882 the University of Dakota’s classes opened in Clay County Court House in Vermillion’s Main Street. The crowning joy of this first academic year came in June 1883 with the opening ceremony for University Hall. Six-year-old Frieda Epstein, in a new white dress, led a cortege of twenty children strewing daisies and pink roses to carpet the path to the hall.
At last Ephraim has faith and trust in a cause, and the cause has faith and trust in him. Since he abjured medicine on the tragic death of his son four years earlier this is the first position that fully utilizes his mental powers, experience, qualifications and knowledge. In Chapter 32, Veritas: President and Founder, he is flying high. But will it last?
University seal courtesy of usd.edu For link click Here
Ephraim was hooked. Education, fine minds, the good of all — this work had to be done. He offered to join the campaign to start the University of Dakota, for his Baptist circuits provided an ideal opportunity to build support. Mr Kettering gladly welcomed the respected, highly-educated Dr Epstein. The founding trustees were tough, intelligent men and Ephraim savoured working with them as equals conferring over petitions, deadlines and charter requirements. With a cause to fight for Ephraim became fully his old self. His dispirited determination ceased, his withdrawals to his desk were now charged with energy. Helena rejoiced in his zeal; at last her husband was the confident, enthusiastic man she had fallen in love with.
Finally, two years after the awful death of his little son, Ephraim regains purpose in life, though he still feels unable to practice medicine. In Chapter 31, Orion Rising, his engagement in the new cause of a university for the raw Dakota Territory is interrupted by the devastating Great Flood of 1881. By mid-April 400 miles of the Missouri River had been inundated and the worst destruction is in the 25 miles between Yankton, where Ephraim lives, and Vermillion — the town designated as home to the university. The whole settlement of Vermillion has been washed away. Lesser men would be fazed, but Ephraim?
Only one offer comes of Ephraim’s application to teach or preach: from Yankton, capital of Dakota Territory. Back to the wild West that was so wrong for him in Kansas, and with new worries. Only three years earlier Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse slaughtered General Custer and his troops at Little Bighorn. Though the Sioux Lakota tribes have now been driven back there are the realities of the territory’s distances and its climate: droughts, bitter winters, searing summers, tornadoes, locusts, prairie fires.
Unable to practice medicine because he still blames himself for his child’s death, Ephraim accepts with grim determination. Yankton is the base for a new frontier, a port for steamboats on the Missouri river. In 1879 Ephraim, the pregnant Helena and two-year-old Frieda arrive by train. Homesteaders live in sod huts, immigrants and prospectors flood in. However, life in the town is far from makeshift. Yankton has schools, brickworks, goods stores, breweries, hotels, banks, a court house, a daily newspaper and ten churches. Ephraim’s post: pastor of the Baptist church, the longest established Protestant congregation in the capital.
In A Voice Crying in the Wilderness (Chapter 30) fifty-year-old Ephraim buckles down to the compromises of maturity. His long rides over the prairie on horseback impose solitude and time to solve a Hebrew puzzle that challenges Bible scholarship. Embers stir and burst into firey zeal in the next chapter.
‘What are you trying to prove, Ephraim?’ Jacob took another bite of his fishcake.
‘That Truth is the Way.’
‘That will carry you through,’ the old uncle airily dismissed the subject. ‘How is little Frieda? And the pretty Mrs Epstein.’
Ephraim told him about the baby due in autumn, and then plunged into his turmoil. ‘I can’t be a physician. But I cannot stay on as a silenced teacher.’
‘The Jews don’t like you because of your Jesus. And the Christians don’t like you because of your truth.’ Jacob laughed gently. ‘Do you ever think of keeping quiet?’
But we know by now that Ephraim cannot keep from acting on his truths. In Chapter 29, Professor Epstein, medical practice is impossible for the still-grieving physician. He has lasted one successful year as a teacher of Hebrew and scripture at Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio. Because of his outspokenness he now must invent himself once again… but as what, where?
‘How can I trust myself? How can I know who may die at these hands.’
‘Ephraim,’ Helena murmured, trying to banish his thought with soothing.
‘I am cursed, cursed. God has punished me. I cannot heal, I kill.’
‘It was not you! It was Mr Maxwell’s mistake.’
‘But my hand wrote the scrip!’ Ephraim roared as stood up, making the chair fall over, and he left the room.
In Chapter 28, God Forsaken, Ephraim shakily emerges from grief over the death of his four-year-old son. Instead of quinine, the chemist had accidentally used morphine in medicine for the ill child. Ephraim blames himself. He descends into black depression. Of course I had to recreate his mental breakdown using my imagination. In his own words Ephraim Epstein says, ‘It [his son’s death] came near to breaking my heart and ending my life. I could not practise medicine any more.’ This abstinence was to last nine years. Meanwhile he has to find a way to support his wife and remaining child, baby Frieda.
Ephraim bent and kissed his son on the cheek, in tenderness, and to check his temperature. The quinine would soon provoke the sweat. ‘I will sit by him,’ Ephraim said to Helena. ‘You go and sleep. Everything will be all right now.’
Early birdsong woke Ephraim. Good, the child had slept through. But the sweat should have begun. He reached for the boy — and died. At that moment his heart and soul evaporated. His beautiful son, his William, lay with his eyes staring wide open, his face fixed in death.
In Chapter 27, The Darkness, Ephraim and Helena’s first child dies aged four. Investigation reveals that the death was caused by the misfilling of Ephraim’s own prescription. Instead of quinine, widely used at the time to reduce fever, the chemist had used morphine. Ephraim blames himself and withdraws into grief, hardly mourning the death of their second child, of convulsions, in the same year.
When fact is perfect for fiction… this highly romantic episode was no more than family lore when I began writing the novel of Dr Epstein’s life. Then California cousin CB sent me wonderful evidence of truth.
‘As to the wooing there is a bit of romance. In an album at the house of some relatives in St. Petersburg, the young merchant saw a photograph of Miss Sarah. In a twinkling of an eye he fell in love, and expressed an ardent with to see the fair original. Correspondence followed… with the result above stated.’ The New York Times December 24, 1874.
In Chapter 26, Perjured, determined daughter Sadie defeats her father. Ephraim overrides his resistance to her marriage — but at what cost?
Feisty writing women have a date with Ephraim… I’ll be reading from The Extraordinary Dr Epstein, a chapter included in the anthology Notes on a Page launched Saturday 3 December, 2 – 4 pm at Richmond Library in west London. He’s alongside short stories, memoir, lyrics, poetry… tea & cake too!
Notes on a Page is published collaboratively by Palewell Press and Dark Mourne Press http://www.palewellpress.co.uk/Palewell-Publications.html http://www.darkmournepress.com/