Crime and Scandal

Sarah Smith Emery Gets a New Teacher . . . and She Doesn’t Like Him

In the 1790s, the town of Newbury, Mass. needed a new teacher. A young man of 19, Joseph Adams, was hired for the post, Sarah Smith Emery recalled. He was a nephew of a lady in town and came well recommended for the job.

sarah smith emery

Colonial Schoolmaster

Teaching was a prestigious profession, but Adams was a bad apple.  Sarah Smith Emery, then the youngest girl in school, first knew something was wrong when he was instructing the children in reading. He would stand behind a child, hold a book in front of the pupil’s face and follow along as they read from a book, correcting errors of pronunciation as they read aloud. She would recall:

The dresses were at that time cut low in the neck, and I immediately saw that the young man’s gaze was not constantly fixed upon the book, and I determined that his arms should not go round me in that manner; I would either hold the book or not read. When my turn came I signified this decision. The master turned as red, and bristled up like a turkey cock; but my resolution could not be shaken, and a compromise was effected, he holding one side of the book and I the other. Father said that I had done right; I might do as I pleased respecting the reading; it was not a regular school exercise, and the master had no right to force me. Accordingly, the next afternoon, I declined to join the class.

The school teacher argued, but Sarah held her ground. She sensed, however, he would soon seek revenge. She was right. First he bullied Sarah’s brother, but he fought back. But when her tiny cousin Moses was caught misbehaving, the teacher game him such a beating that he passed out when he got home and a doctor was needed.

That was the end of Joseph Adams’ teaching days.

There was not time to call a regular school meeting that evening, but the gentlemen of the neighborhood (they all had come in to see Moses) agreed to meet at the school-house the next morning and forbid Master Adams entrance. Accordingly, when the young man opened the door, he found himself confronted by half a dozen of the influential men of the town, who informed him that his services were no longer required; that his presence in that house would not be permitted.

Moses’ father didn’t let the matter drop. He sued Adams, Sarah recalled, and won a judgment of $60.

Source: Sarah Anna Emery of Newburyport in 1879 published the memoirs of her mother, Sarah Smith Emery, in her Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian.

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