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Letters from “An American Mother”
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
Except in their lovelorn columns, newspapers today discourage the use of pen names by their letter writers. Gone are “Civitas,” “Veritas,” and “Pro Bono Publico” of an earlier time. Less and less frequent are opinions signed “Angry,” “Disappointed,” or “Irate Taxpayer.” But even rarer than the pen name is the put-on letter by the tongue-in-cheek writer. Like “An American Mother” …
An American Mother first appeared in the early 1920’s in the Forum column of the Baltimore Evening Sun . Mark Twain would have liked her if he had been around. Her letters were pure spoof, but they were so well done that each one provoked a dozen or more replies, expressing agreement or outrage, sympathy or disapproval.
“Mother” was an unyielding moralist, a militant Prohibitionist, a staunch defender of the Sunday blue laws, and a devoted churchgoer opposed to the theory of evolution, to Italian opera, and to nude statues. She had the knack for taking something that nearly everyone regarded as fairly innocent (an opera, for instance) and discovering that it was immoral (she objected to Tristan and Isolde because it “condoned free love”). Frequently she offended someone or some group, always perfectly naturally but in a way that demanded response. Almost invariably she committed some blunder in stating her argument, an error of fact or logic that called for correction. In 1925, during the Scopes trial over the legality of teaching evolution, one of her letters began: “Sir: I think that trial of religious liberty down in Dayton is the most wonderful thing since Martin Luther stood up before the Cardinals and said, ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’ …”
On the positive side, she proposed a Get-Baptized Week, prayer meetings on streetcars for young people on their way to work, and enforcement of the Ten Commandments by the police. “Why,” she demanded, “does not Baltimore get a man like Admiral Smedley Butler at the head of our police force?”
An American Mother’s letters continued to appear in the Sun for nearly twenty years. During that time she convinced thousands of her readers that she was real. There were some who recognized and savored the gag, looked forward to each new letter—and were sure An American Mother was really Baltimore’s sage and satirist, H. L. Mencken. “Mother” was not Mencken, and except for the editor of the Sun and a handful of others (Mencken among them) no one knew who she was until she died.
An American Mother died of a heart attack in April, 1941—and then, in a news story, the Sun revealed that she was neither an American (originally), a mother, nor even a woman. “She” was Holger A. Koppel, the familiar white-haired representative of Denmark in Baltimore and dean of the city’s consular corps.
Koppel was born in Copenhagen in 1871. He came to the United States when lie was twenty, settled first in Iowa, and then moved to Baltimore. This man, whose letters were so uniquely American, spoke five languages and had a reading knowledge of almost as many more. Occasionally he wrote a serious letter to the editor over his own name. But it was his letters from “Mother”—and the response they attracted—that enabled a generation of readers to see the truth about themselves.
To the Editor of the Evening Sun: Sir—It is extremely painful to me to have to write about such a matter, but I have to do what duty dictates. …
Some married people were caught by the police in a raid on a disreputable house and they were let go while the unmarried people were locked up. The excuse of the police was that they did not want to break up several homes. May I ask, Can the police set aside the divine law? Certainly the married people should be punished even more severely than the unmarried ones, and what more reasonable punishment could be meted out to them than to have their homes broken up? These men and women had transgressed both the divine and the everyday law and should be punished as severely as the law allows, if not more. …
AN AMERICAN MOTHER
To the Editor of the Evening Sun: Sir—Some time ago I wrote you to reccommend the holding of prayer meetings on streetcars while our young folk were coming and going to work morning and evening. I felt that so much good could be accomplished through these prayer meetings and that it would help our young folk to start their workday and to finish it in a beautiful frame of mind. Unfortunately nothing came out of my loving recommendation at the time, but I see now that masses are going to be done on the trains that are carrying people to the Eucharistic meeting in Chicago, Ill. Now, I do not hold with Popishness, but aside from that I think this a most beautiful idea, and if these people can have masses done on the trains, why cannot we here in Baltimore, a Protestant city, have prayer meetings or sermons on the streetcars for the good of our working boys and girls? …
AN AMERICAN MOTHER
To the Editor of the Evening Sun: Sir—I have hesitated and prayed a Iong while before I write this letter, but I feel it my bounden duty to do it.
The other day my school-teacher daughter brought home a prospectus given out by a so-called art school in our old city. This prospectus was illustrated with some of the most horrible pictures I have ever glanced at. I only glanced at them and then threw the vile thing in the fire.
In this unspeakable paper there were actually pictures of both men and women in a state of nakedness. Can it be that such things are allowed to go through the mails of our country? …
Why should so-called artists try to debauch our young ones by sending out such pictures? It can only poison their minds to look at such things. I would have talked the matter over with my pastor to consult with him as to what steps could be taken to punish the perpetrators of this outrage, but really I was too ashamed to show it to him. Needless to say that my daughter had not looked through the prospectus before she brought it home or she would never have carried it home. You can picture her blushes and her consternation when we opened the paper. She was so mortified that she got a sick headache and had to stay in bed the next day. Oh, Mr. Editor, won’t you do something to stop the spreading among our dear little ones of this terrible thing? You will have the support of all right-thinking people among the Christian people in town and maybe of some others as well.
AN AMERICAN MOTHER
To the Editor of the Evening Sun: Sir—I consider it nothing short of blasphemous to allow symphony concerts on the Sabbath by the City Band.
On my way to church Sunday evening with my school-teacher daughter and several others of my little brood we had to pass the Lyric Music Hall, and there we saw a mass of people going in to spend their evening listening to worldly music instead of going to their respective churches. It makes it so hard on a mother trying to raise her loved ones properly to have them see that the city itself is a party to this desecration of the Sabbath. …
My school-teacher daughter, who is well up on music and sings in the choir, later saw the program, and she tells me that there was not one piece of the music played that was written by an American. I confess that it gave me some relict to see that our good Americans will not allow their names on a program of that sort, yet it is not right that foreigners should be allowed to make money by desecrating the Sabbath and thereby keep their families in affluence. If any of those foreigners who wrote those pieces live in Baltimore, they ought to be arrested under our Sunday laws.
AN AMERICAN MOTHER
To the Editor of the Evening Sun: Sir— … I have never had military ideas, but for the life of me I cannot see why right-thinking people should object to our army and navy enforcing the laws of our country. Surely a man who drinks liquor when it is forbidden cannot complain if right-thinking people put him to death. …
No man or woman who will drink liquor can be trusted, and I for one am for a law to take the children away from anyone caught doing it, for they are not worthy of raising the Lord’s most precious gift to mankind, namely, little children. …
AN AMERICAN MOTHER
To the Editor of the Evening Sun: Sir—All honor to the great State of Tennessee. In that great State they have the good sense to jail people who believe in evolution. I do not know very much about evolution, but I hear that it means that our ancestors were apes. Was ever such a wicked story invented by the evil one in the history of the world? …
What kind of people do really believe in this evolution nonsense? Am I to believe that I have come down from monkeys? As far as I and my family are concerned, we are satisfied to trace down to Adam and Eve, even though, of course, Eve was wicked enough to eat the apple the serpent offered her, luit she, poor woman, was new to the ways of this wicked world. I say, put the people who believe in such silly nonsense out in the cages with the other monkeys in Druid Park and they would soon learn sense and believe in what the Bible tells us. …
AN AMERICAN MOTHER