Voltairine de Cleyre, “In a Marble Tomb” (1888)

A bequest to the poor children of Philadelphia. That, they tell me, is the royal gift of Stephen Girard; and, by the way, friends, did it ever occur to you that while God is occupying himself in multiplying the families of the poor to the end that his mighty name be praised and glorified, he generally makes just some Quixotic choice of an Infidel of the Girard stamp for the purpose of doing what in all conscience he himself ought to hav done—or, as the Rev. Mr. Field would probably regard it, for the purpose of setting his own plan of “developing character” by poverty at naught?

These profound “thinks” absorbed my thinker as I gazed with a deep “reverential calm” at the high stone wall which, as per order of the late lamented Stephen, entirely closes from sight the beautiful acres of Girard College. Armed with the necessary document—I believe they call it a permit—we presented ourselvs to the “sentinel on the watch-tower,” “guard of the round-house,” or whatever that august personage may be called who inspects you with his eagle eye (it occurred to me he might be looking to see if our clothes were clean), majestically waves you to the visitor’s register, and after you hav executed a hair-line flourish with a pen which refuses to make anything less than an eighth-of-an-inch mark, allows you to enter the grounds with an air of paternal indulgence that makes you feel “very young.” Like Jemima Jenkins,” we did so;” and oh, what a jewel of beauty lay encircled in the gray stone setting!

The warmth of the June light ran like an overflowed river and tipped every tint with its molten glory—every tree, every blossom, every blade of grass shone in the amber air, quivering with life as if it love to liv. Along the broad white aisles that intersect these living floors of velvet softness, ranged artistic flower-beds. Strange figures grow up from the dark, unthinking earth, and at the left, clear as if carved by a sculptor upon marble, red foliage plants spell upon a surge of green the letters: “Girard College.”

The main building of those beautiful marble edifices is a solid white structure girt all about by magnificent columns, so that it closely resembles the old church of La Madeleine at Paris, only in its extreme plainness. As we entered the broad doorway, we were greeted by—a statue! Standing upon the tomb where sleeps the dust that was once Stephen Girard, there is a man of marble—and its features are those of the sleeper. And oh, if ever a solemn voice spoke out of the silence of stone, if ever the approach of death shone from the blind eyeballs of a sculpture, if ever the deep anger of the helplessly outraged lay quivering in the paralysis of a statue, that voice, that look, that anger are locked in that still figure with its chill white face, its powerless white hands. For there, across the broad white graveled aisle, in a stone’s throw from the spot where Girard’s bones lie rotting, upon that ground which he bequeathed “to the poor of Philadelphia,” with the money which should hav fed the children of the poor, is erected the most magnificent marble church to the honor of that rich God who needs it not, of whom the dead man knew nothing. There—there, so close that could the statue turn but three steps from its pedestal it must behold this huge monument of injustice, Superstition has reared her temple, and the black finder of infamy points to the sky.

And I, a Freethinker, had to stand so near the dead dust of Stephen Girard, powerless as the corpse, powerless as the statue, and see it all. Had to crush down the indignation I felt rise up within me, boiling like a flood, and say the helpless words of John Wilkes Booth, “Useless, useless!” They tell me that there is a law in this country—and certainly Philadelphia is trouble with the law disease about as bad as any place I hav ever seen; but I hav learned that law is not at all times justice; that law, like the Bible, can hav any tune played upon it to suit the whims of the ruling authorities; that law, to borrow a friend’s expression, “Law is queer!” “Lex, Rex, Fex,” wrote Victor Hugo in “The Man Who Laughs.” The law is made to suit the king, and the king of this country appears to be Christ. Not the Christ of Judah either, but—the other fellow.

In this solemn hall of marble a footstep is man times repeated, a whisper echoes far up the silence; the mellow light from the upper air falls very quietly from the sky-lit dome along the wall; one draws one’s breath and treads softly. Upon the second floor we see doors, but the doors say, “No entrance”—I suppose that means no entrance for visitors. We were speculating upon the probably translation of the laconic negativ, when a voice from above called, “Coming up?” We signified our intention of so doing, and shortly after we were ushered by the “come-upping” individual into a large room containing bugs and birds and beasts and snakes enough to hav set an ark up in business or started a young bonery. To a naturalist, an ornithologist, a minerologist, or an anatomist, these dead things with the flashing of far-off seas in their shadowy eyeholes, seas that broke on the shores of a fathomless past, these birds of strange and magnificent plumage, these curious rocks from Bible-confounding strata, these skeletons with the fleshless fingers and toothless jaws, might hav been an interesting population, but to me, as I settled my unscientific gaze on shark’s jaws and dugong skeletons and sword-fish and saw-fish and fish that I didn’t know the names of, and dead birds sitting on dead limbs, with an astonishing amount of “reverential calm” upon their Glastonian countenances, and glittering pieces of ore like petrified spray from a metal sea that rolled nobody knew where; and finally took the clammy wire-worked fingers of some “poor Yorick” in my own, I murmured to myself, “Golgotha!” and thought of the time when I heard my old friend M. Babcock exclaim, “Oh, what a set of bones!” This, our guide informed us, was a study-room; a long course of lessons in natural history. I couldn’t help wondering if the boys used to dream about it nights.

We were next allowed to gaze upon the immortal Stephen’s immortal straight-backed chairs and his old buggy and his strong-boxes, some of which were chalk-marked, “The Rousseau,” with a date on them; the rest had some other such reverential name. I don’t remember seeing any chalked, “The Paul,” or, “The God.” Stephen’s taste in pictures was not particularly good, his housekeeper’s portrait being the only one I recall distinctly. One thing, however, attracted my attention, as it bore witness to Girard’s astronomical studies: an orrery, which in those days must hav been a rare and expensiv thing; and as I looked upon the dusty sun and planets with their dusty satellites, I almost fancied I could trace the touch of the dusty fingers in the quiet tomb downstairs upon these ancient spheres.

“That’s all,” said the guide, as he turned the key, and went bounding down the winding hillway of steps, leaving us to follow at our leisure. Outside once more, we entered one after another of the many adjoining edifices, finding order, cleanness, and silence everywhere. We climbed many stairs, and saw some people, but no one spoke; it was like a veritable tomb. At last, I waylaid a youngster coming from the playground, and sought information, but very little was forthcoming. The boy said he had been there six years, and liked it; if he told the truth (and I presume he did), he ought to hav known by that time. We directed our steps toward the ball-grounds, where the children were running with bats and balls like ants with eggs when you pour kerosene on the hill. Unlike most collegiates, these little ants (possibly I should say uncles) wear no uniforms, it being the will of Girard that the children’s dress be in no way distinguished from that of outsiders. The only thing which is uniform is the small blue cap with forepiece, worn by all; but there is no particular mark upon it. As we stood “considering the ways” of the ants, in accordance with the advice of H. W. (holy writ, not Henry Ward), a teacher began to gather together a certain elect, whose names he called from a written list. To Mr. Elliott’s inquiry concerning this proceeding, a lad hesitatingly replied, “Going down-town.” I think several more question were on the wing, when they suddenly lit. Their flight was cut short by the teacher, who brusquely remarked, “Against our rules, sir, visitors talk to pupils” I hav not yet learned that this part of the program is in Girard’s will. It seems to me that when an institution puts such a gag as that upon the lips of its pupils, there is “something rotten in Denmark.”

But providence favored us at last. “Verily patience hath its reward.” In the parlor of one of these marble sepulchers we caught a glimpse of a sweet face. I decided to interview. Happy thought! In a few minutes I learned that there were thirteen hundred pupils and some thirty-five teachers; that morning attendance at church was compulsory; that Jews and Catholics were in no way exempt from the daily sermon of a lay preacher, “which,” said the teacher, “is in accordance wit the will of Mr. Girard, when he prescribed moral training, but not religious training.” The preacher takes his text from that book of morals, the Bible—“our Bible,” the teacher said. It was news to me that Girard College had a patent-right on any species of theology.

Later the lady, who was a pronounced Protestant, graciously entertained us in her own class-room, throwing open her class library for our inspection. To top shelf was all Bibles—“our Bibles.” Each child is obliged to hav one, so we were informed. We then reviewed the hymn-books, which tell us about the “lamb of God” and the—calf of Christ, I suppose. This also was a part of the “moral training” prescribed by Mr. Girard. At least our gracious informant appeared to think so, and felt quite indignant at the assertion of “that man,” as she spitefully termed R. B. Westbrook, who should hav insinuated that there was anything of a sectarian nature in the book. It was the regular service of the Episcopal church. This, it appears, had superseded the Moody and Sankey effusions, “because they”—they had no definit antecedent—“made such a fuss about it.”

By this time it was evident which way the land lay, and perceiving that it was the only method of gaining information, I resolved to follow the example of the preacher who “preached to the Jews because they weren’t there,” and strike all the heavy blows at Catholic encroachment, reserving my heresy toward Protestantism till the interview was concluded. In the course of the very pleasant conversation, which lasted more than an hour, I should judge, we learned that the one Catholic member of the board of trustees (they are all religionists) exerted more influence than all the rest—that of late the Sisters of Charity hav been permitted to enter the grounds; which was contrary to the intention of Mr. Girard, though he had not specified it in his will. You see, he did not think about the nuns, but it was this very thing he was providing against when he commanded “moral but not religious training.” I trust truth seekers will notice the fine discrimination and profound regard for the intention of Mr. Girard’s will, that these sisters are ostensibly on begging errands among the hired help, who are all Catholics.

At this point our informant grew very animated in her expressions of fear concerning the possible outcome of these insidious maneuvers. “Step by step,” said she, “they are gaining control of the college. I can look over and see point after point they hav already accomplished, and they will stop nothing short of their purpose. Under the former matron’s régime the sisters were not allowed. Now they come freely, and I can see by the conduct of the help that they are being secretly influenced by Catholic authority.” Of course we expressed regret, inwardly consoling ourselves with the hope that “when rogues fall out honest men will get their dues.”

This lady was not entirely orthodox. She had not much use for “Paulianity,” and in reply to my quotation concerning the propriety of learning in silence from one’s husband, exclaimed: “Yes, a young man preached from that odious text a few morning ago, and I felt like getting up and leaving the church. We’re not obliged to believe that, anyhow—it isn’t inspired. What did Paul know about women? He was an old bachelor.” “So was Christ,” retorted Mr. Elliott, in his smooth, cool voice. In spite of herself, a heretical smile broke like a ripple of runaway sunshine over the expressiv lips, but she gravely “feared we were not very good.” I fear she was right.

A visit to the dormitories and the immense dining-room, where the children sat on rows of uncomfortable little backless stools, that simply made one’s spine ache to look at, completed our survey of the institution. We went away sadder and wise, having learned some curious things regarding “Mr. Girard’s intentions.” We learn that when Girard said “moral” he meant “Protestant;” that when he forbade the entrance of priests and ministers he meant only priests, nuns, and union label preachers; that moral instructors were scab preachers, so to speak; that the Bible, “our Bible,” was Girard’s idea of a rule of moral guidance; that the Episcopalian service was non-sectarian; that Moody and Sankey was non-sectarian, and was exchanged for the service only on account of the bothersome “they,” with no antecedent; that all this, in Stephen Girard’s idea, was morality and not religion. We learned that the control of the college is no longer a question between Freethought and religious usurpation—it has passed beyond that, and has become a bone of contention between Protestant assumption and Catholic cunning. Between these two there can be no question of the final result: Rome always triumphs. Across the tomb and its sleeping dust, across the statue with its wide eyeballs of stone, its helpless hand, its powerless limbs, across the soft light and the amber air, across the wide, green stretch of earth bequeathed to the children of the poor, across the broad walks and high up over the guarding wall, a shadow is falling—a shadow stolen from over the sea; creeping, creeping to the dead man’s feet, slowly as the tide creeps up and over the rocks. Girard’s bones lie covered by the pall of the Vatican. And the statue hears the laughter of his thirteen hundred children, while the shadow grows, and in the darkness the holy conclave weaves its foothold of mystery. The pope has set his foot upon a grave, and when the vicar of Christ moves forward on a staircase of tombs, beware! He never steps back.

What are you Freethinkers doing? Where is your spirit, your honor? Will you see a dead man robbed—nay, will you yourselvs be robbed and make no protest? Long ago, I am sure, the energetic secretary of our National Union would hav brought this outrage to a crucial test, had he but received the necessary support. Wake up! Above the tomb of Girard the church will plant her foot upon another—the tomb of liberty. What are you going to do?

Voltairine de Cleyre.


Voltairine de Cleyre, “In a Marble Tomb,” The Truth Seeker 15 no. 31 (August 4, 1888): 486.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2216 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.