Letters from “An American Mother”

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