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"I Declined to Join the Class" - How Newbury Dealt With That Really Creepy Teacher

Sarah Smith Emery was born in Newbury, Massachusetts in 1787. During the War of 1812 Emery and her husband dominated the Newburyport smuggling trade (we’ll talk about that probably next week). In 1879 her daughter published Sarah’s memoirs, entitled Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian. A large segment of the writings describe her exploits of smuggling Irish linen literally under the noses of local custom officers. However, Sarah’s writings also recount her daily experiences as a child in Federalist Massachusetts. One such story describes a creepy encounter she and other female students had with a young school teacher.

In the late 1790s Sarah attended a small single class school in Newbury. Her teacher was a nineteen year old man named Joseph Adams. He was related to a prominent Newbury family and came highly recommended for the position by his aunt. After being interviewed by the Newbury selectmen, he was hired.

Sarah was less than twelve years old and the youngest female student in the class. Most of the other students were teenage girls. According to Emery, Adams often engaged in inappropriate behavior with his female students. Specifically, during reading exercises he would have various girls stand up. He would then stand directly behind them, reach around and hold a book directly in front of their faces. According to Emery “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.”

After school Sarah immediately told her parents about the incident. “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.”

Sarah’s father complained to her teacher about the inappropriate behavior. In response, Adams lashed out against Sarah's relatives. At first he picked on Sarah’s brother, but he stood up for himself. Afterwards, the teacher focused on Sarah’s cousin, Moses Smith. When Adams caught him disrupting a class lesson, he beat the child so badly that he needed medical attention.

Word spread quickly about the incident. Soon several students disclosed to their parents the inappropriate behavior of Adams. Horrified, the men of Newbury immediately acted. “The gentlemen of the neighborhood . . . 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.”

Adams was fired and subsequently warned out of town. Afterwards, Moses’ father sued Adams for assault. A jury ruled in favor of the father and awarded $60 in damages.

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