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“By using a little brute force and awkwardness, any 16-year-old school boy can manage to make a fool of himself. But when he assumes the role of husband for his school teacher, old enough to be his mother, he can sit still and depend upon being made a monkey of by a thousand inhabitants of this community.”
Thus begins one newspaper’s account of one of the strangest and most colorful episodes of Canby’s history in which local schoolteacher Rosamund Lee Shaw Samuelson scandalized the town with her initially secret — but soon, very public — marriage to one of her 16-year-old students, Clifford LeRoy Samuelson, in 1924.
Rosamund was about 10 years older, which, I guess, makes her the original Canby cougar.
History does not record how or why the, um, “relationship” began, and that’s probably for the best, but we know how it became public. It was during a meeting of the school board in November 1924.
Rumors had circulated for some time, as they tend to do in small, rural towns. The two had been seen, according to one report, “in various places late at night, and … their conduct was not in keeping with that of instructor and pupil.”
Canby Schools Superintendent Gardner had been conducting a “careful and quiet investigation.” But when a record of the Nov. 10 marriage in Vancouver, Wash., was published in a Portland newspaper, the you-know-what hit the fan.
Or, as the Canby Herald put it, in the much more imaginative (and casually ecclesiastical) language of the day, “the list of peril that pestered the Apostle Paul would seem mild compared to the pitfalls which await the feet of Mrs. Rosamund Lee Shaw Samuelson since Superintendent Gardner of the Canby Schools opened the flood gates at a meeting of the board of directors here Friday night.”
Both Clifford and Rosamund had denied the union at first, “very emphatically, and seemed indignant that people should suspect such a thing.” But by the time the school board met to discuss the issue, they had changed their tune, and the teacher admitted everything.
The response was…not great, as you might imagine, though she did have one supporter, a Mr. Hedges, who appealed to the board to keep the woman on faculty, for reasons that were never explained.
For most folks, “public sentiment seems much opposed to retaining the teacher,” the Herald noted. “The affair has stirred up a ‘hornet’s nest’ in the community and Prof. Gardner is receiving expressions of commendation from all right-thinking people for the work he has done in trying to adjust matters.”
With the entire town in an uproar, school directors had no choice but to dismiss Samuelson, declaring that “her influence with the pupils was lost.” I mean, I don’t know about that. Seems like her influence over at least one pupil had just gotten a lot stronger.
But anyway. That’s only the beginning of the story. The following month, Mrs. Samuelson sued three Canby School Board members — J.R. Vinyard, F.E. Dodge and D.A. Dedman — for $25,000 (the equivalent of $374,000 today), alleging that they had committed libel in the Nov. 29 written order dismissing her from the school.
The former Canby teacher accused her former board of writing statements that were “defamatory and malicious,” and falsely accused her of “grossly immoral conduct and insubordination to her superiors.”
When the case was finally heard, in January 1926, the trial lasted three days and included testimony by both Rosamund and Clifford Samuelson, as well as some-20 other “minor witnesses.” According to The Oregonian’s reports, this testimony established, “step by step,” how the couple’s “romance” had begun.
That would certainly make for some interesting reading if those court transcripts somehow survived.
A successful libel charge requires two elements: The written statements must be damaging to the reputation of the person in question, and they must be false. It may indeed be damaging to the reputation of Charles Manson for me to describe him as a cult leader and a murderer, but since he was a cult leader and a murderer, there’s nothing he could do about it.
In this case, the school board had accused Mrs. Samuelson of “gross immorality,” and so they faced the challenge of proving that she was, in fact, guilty of this. Their defense centered on the fact that she had lied about her age in the marriage license obtained in Washington (she’d said she was 19). Clifford had also lied, claiming to be 21.
It was certainly an odd strategy. I mean, if a woman lying about her age represents “gross immorality,” we’re going to need to start building some more jails, am I right? Why the defense, represented by C.D., D.C. and Earle Latourette, didn’t bring up the immorality of a teacher, I don’t know, MARRYING ONE OF HER STUDENTS is anyone’s guess.
But the jury didn’t buy it. After five and a half hours, they returned a verdict in Mrs. Samuelson’s favor, not for the $25,000 she’d asked for, but for $1,000 — still a tidy sum in those days.
The Canby Herald also covered the trial, with their typical balance and restraint: “The verdict came as a great surprise to the entire community so vitally interested in the matter, and it came unexpected to the attorneys for the defendants and to the people generally who listened to the evidence presented by several witnesses during a part of Tuesday and all of Wednesday. Even the most biased spectator in the court room, after hearing the evidence, could acknowledge that the plaintiff’s claim had not been substantiated.”
The case was appealed all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court, who didn’t consider the matter until December 1926. By then, Clifford Samuelson would have been old enough to marry whoever he wanted anyway. That didn’t stop the high court from, in a stunning reversal, ruling against him and his bride.
The justices found that the Clackamas County circuit court judge had erred in ever letting the case get to the jury, because the plaintiff had failed to demonstrate malice on the part of the defendants.
Mrs. Samuelson not only lost her $1,000 judgment, she was also saddled with court costs and attorney fees — on both sides.
The townsfolk of Canby, who were — as you saw above — unapologetically in the school board’s camp, had passed the hat and collected enough to help defray some of the district’s legal fees in defending the suit. But there was a balance remaining, in the amount of $360.31, and this was filed as a bill against Rosamund Samuelson a few weeks after the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Not surprisingly, the Samuelsons soon left Canby. Rosamund served as matron of honor in the wedding of Clifford’s sister, Edith, which took place on Sept. 8, 1927, at the Sunnyside Congregational Church. Clifford himself gave her away.
Clifford, if you can believe it, became an Episcopal minister, serving as the reverend of the Grace Episcopal Church in Longview, Wash., for many years.
Newspaper archives list him as the officiant for a number of weddings that happened there throughout the 1930s. One can only wonder how carefully he scrutinized the birth certificates.
We have many more colorful stories to tell you — many of which don’t even include schoolteachers marrying students legally below the age of consent! — but it will have to wait till next time, on Canby Then.
Photo courtesy CourthouseHistory.com.
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