The young man's earnest struggles for an education and the display of his indomitable energy, attracted the attention of a wealthy gentleman, Hon. Goo. W. Walthour, who lived in the same town. He offered to pay the expenses of a collegiate course and Mr. Mell readily accepted the kind assistance. This was in 1833. Amherst College, in Massachusetts, was selected by P. H. Mell because the expenses there were less than at any other college of equal grade. He was anxious to incur as little outlay as possible because he had the hope that he would be able to return the money so kindly loaned him by Mr. Walthour. At the opening of this Institution, in the fall of 1833, P. H. Mell entered the freshman class when he was nineteen years of age. In order to reduce the draft made on his friend as much as possible, he would teach during the vacation and six weeks into the term and would keep up with his class by studying the topics pursued and then stand an examination on his return to college. He was a very spirited young man, with a keen sense of independence, and was unwilling to receive any more money from his benefactor in Georgia than was absolutely necessary for his immediate wants. The determination was early formed that the sums thus generously advanced to him should be returned as soon after leaving college as he could make the money.
The following incidents occurred while Mr. Mell was a student at Amherst. They are given in this connection to show the keen sense of his own rights and the high spirit and independence that were so characteristic of the man during his whole lifetime.
Not long after entering he was walking on the streets of the town with some of the boys, when they noticed a large negro approaching them with a swaggering, self-important gait. This negro was the bully of the town; most of the students seemed to be afraid of him and he fully recognized his supremacy. He was accustomed to see the boys give him the sidewalk whenever they met. Young Mell was not cognizant of this state of affairs; and living at the South, he was raised to believe that the negro was of an inferior race, and must always show the white man the respect due him on account of his superior station. So that when this burly fellow approached them on the streets of Amherst Mr. Mell expected nothing else but that the sidewalk would be yielded to the white boys. The young Southerner was all the more amazed and indignant when the impudent negro, not only refused to give the right of way, but brushed against him and spun him around. This indignity so roused his anger that he impetuously- sprang on the negro and gave him a violent blow between the eyes before he had time to, collect himself. Blow after blow followed upon head and eyes until the man was brought to his knees. Young Mell then placing his hand in his pocket as though he would draw a pistol, said: "Now, you black rascal, hereafter whenever you pass me if you do not give me the right of way you will rue it. Now leave or I will do you bodily harm." The negro, ever after was polite and humble whenever he met Mr. Mell. As soon as the encounter occurred the other boys took to their heels and left Mell to fight it out by himself.
Prof. Fiske was the Professor of Physics in the college and he was entrusted with the money that Mr. Walthour gave Mr. Mell for his expenses. This gentleman was also a minister, and while preaching one Sunday to the students, he took occasion to say some things concerning slavery that were very obnoxious to the Southern young men who were in his audience. Mr. Mell turned to one of his companions and said he would not remain any longer to be insulted, and immediately rose and walked out of the room. The next day the young man was sent for by the Professor and was asked why he left during the services; the reply came promptly: "Whenever any indignity was cast upon Southern institutions the Professor must not expect Southern young men to stand by quietly and give their endorsement thereto." This offended the Professor very much and he reproved Mr. Mell for what he was pleased to call his disorderly conduct. A lecturer from South Carolina came to Amherst and advertised that he would lecture on some theme of popular interest. Some of the Southern youths, among them Mr. Mell, called on him and took him under their special care and entertained him while he remained in the town. The first night the house was well filled and the lecture was greatly enjoyed by all. On the second evening, however, the lecturer took occasion to allude to some subject that was specially obnoxious to the audience; this infuriated the people and the speaker was silenced by hisses and rotten eggs. Mr. Melt, with some of his Southern friends, occupied seats on the, stage. The offensive utterances of the speaker, they very much regretted and condemned, but they thought it would be unmanly to desert him now and leave him to the rough treatment of some of the ill disposed in his audience, The people left the hall in confusion. A mob gathered at the door to take the man in hand when he should leave the house. Although the students were very much ashamed of their prot4gd yet they felt honor required them to stand by the lecturer through the trouble and as far as possible relieve the embarrassment. After a hurried consultation the popular (?) lecturer was rushed out the back part of the building, and the students, with Mell at their head, placed themselves at the front door and at a given signal, threw themselves suddenly into the midst of the crowd, yelling and brandishing sticks and producing the utmost confusion. The boys were thus enabled to escape in the darkness from the struggling mass of people. The Faculty learning of the disturbance wrote to the parents and guardians of the boys and advised them of the unruly conduct of their wards. Col. Walthour, in a strong letter to young Mell, reprimanded him severely and threatened to withdraw his support if he did -not reform. This gentleman would not listen to an explanation and thus roused the just indignation of the young man, who was the perfect soul of honor, and he re- solved to decline all proffers of future assistance.
Several days after the above occurrence, Mr. Mell was walking down the college campus, and just as he passed a room in which the Freshman Class was holding a meeting, a young man of the Sophomore Class threw open the door and cast a handful of pebbles on the heads of the inmates, doing some damage to the property. This boy then ran away leaving Mell very near the open door. The Freshmen rushed out and surrounded him and asked him if he did the deed. "Oh no," he replied. "Who did it then?" they asked. But he refused to tell, and the boys proposed to mob him and force him to tell who committed the outrage. But Mell quietly told them he was not responsible for the damage done and the first man who laid hands on him would suffer. He would not submit to any indignity from them without a desperate struggle. His determined air, and the reputation he had already made in the college as a cool-headed, dangerous man when aroused, made the boys hesitate. Some of the Southern boys of the Freshman Class cheered the intrepid young man and immediately stepped to his side with the statement that he was right in his position and they would stand by him. This manifestation put a quietus on the crowd and they permitted Mell to pass on his way unmolested. The Faculty soon learned of the trouble also and sent word to Mr. Mell to appear before them to answer to certain charges made against him for insubordination and disorderly conduct. When he came in their presence the President asked him if he had committed the outrage on the young men.
"I did not," replied Mell.
"Do you know who was responsible for it."
"I do," replied the young man.
"Then who was it?" asked the President.
"I have too high a regard for honor to betray one of my fellow-students," replied Mr. Mell. "I am sorry, however, that the damage was done, and I think the boy should be punished; but the gentlemen of the Faculty must excuse me from giving them information that will involve one of my comrades. I am perfectly innocent of this disturbance."
The President then responded: "You must tell us."
"Must is a strong word, Sir, but I do not see how you will enforce it."
"Well, young man, if you do not give the information sought for, you will be dismissed."
"You have that power, Sir, but the threat has not the slightest effect upon my determination," replied Mr. Mell, and he left the room.
He retired to his quarters and made his preparations to leave at any time because he supposed the Faculty would certainly dismiss him. But so far as he was concerned the matter was dropped. Professor Fiske wrote to Col. Walthour and complained that Mr. Mell was not only unruly but was spending too much money. In the account he gave was one item of $11.00 for travelling; while it was a fact that this money was used to defray the necessary expenses incurred in reaching his summer schools and thus aided him in paying his own way and reducing the draft on Col. Walthour. His patron wrote him again protesting against such extravagance, in spite of the statement given by the young man concerning the use made of the money. Mell then instantly broke off all communication with him, and going to Professor Fiske he said. "I suppose now, Sir, you are satisfied." Professor Fiske grew angry and threatened him. The young man at once left college without leave, with only $5.00 in his pocket which he had obtained from the sale of his effects. His means being so limited he walked to Springfield, Mass., twenty miles distant, enquired for a school and found one in West Springfield, which was indicated to him by the hotel proprietor of the town. He went to the President of the Board of Trustees and asked for a position in the school, and stated that he was from the South; that be was a student in Amherst College, and had left without permission. He refused, however, to give the reasons except to say, that he had not committed any deed that the most honorable man would be ashamed of. He desired to make a living and would try to give satisfaction if they would assign him a position in the school. The gentleman was so favorably impressed by him, open, manly bearing and earnest determination to make his way in the world that he told him there was a vacancy in the school and he should have it. This occurred in 1835.
Mr. Mell spent one year in this Institution; then yielding to solicitations he became Associate Principal of the High School at East Hartford, Connecticut, in 1836. There he continued also one year. While in this town he met Col. McAllister, a wealthy gentleman of Savannah, Georgia, who was accustomed to spend a part of each year with his family in Hartford where he owned a dwelling. This gentleman was a most intimate friend of Major Benjamin Mell. Learning that the son of his friend was in the town teaching, he sent for him and soon learned all about his troubles and struggles against almost insurmountable obstacles. He became very much interested in the young man and offered to send him to Yale College and pay all his expenses. But the recent experience at Amherst had convinced Mr. Mell that it was not wise to be under any more obligations in a pecuniary way and he declined the kind offer. Mr. McAllister insisted, but it was of no avail. He, however, befriended the young man in so many ways, and exhibited such a deep, personal interest in his welfare, that an indelible impression was made on the youth's mind, and the kindness was gratefully remembered through all the many years Dr. Mell lived. Declining an offer from the leading public school in Hartford, Conn., he returned to his home in Georgia in the latter part of 1837.
Dr. B. M. Palmer, of New Orleans, the eminent Presbyterian Divine, was in college with Mr. Mell at Amherst. He also left college before graduating and for several years taught a school in Charleston, S. C. While in that city he wrote to Mr. Mell a letter from which the following extracts have been taken. The letter was dated December 11th, 1885, and was written while Mr. Mell was in West Springfield.
There was a tinge of melancholy pervading your letter and enveloping your naturally lovely strain in its sombre hues. Why, cheer up, man! 'Tis true your case looks dark and uninviting, but not so gloomy as W induce despair. I regret, Mell, I truly regret, your altercation with Fiske . . . . The public have invested the Faculty of every college with supreme authority, and any attempt to resist that authority is but kicking against the pricks . . . . And I do not wonder that you feel badly when this thought, this reflection forces itself upon you. But give me leave, my dear friend, without the Imputation of flattery, which I detest, to express admiration at the course of conduct you have pursued. Believe me, Mell, as I read of your troubles and your conduct in them, I felt you were possessed of that true, ingenuous, disinterested spirit which Southerners boastingly claim. Does not the thought, let me ask, that you are free and unshackled, that you are dependent upon the bounty of no one, amply repay you for the toil, the care, the anxiety which necessarily devolve upon you in your hard situation? .Though the current may sometimes sweep strong against you, nay more, may sometimes apparently overwhelm you, still the thought that you can and do stem it, and that too unaided by others, will amply repay your toil."
The Reformed Reader Home Page
Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved