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“old Peabo” And The School

July 2024
18min read

In founding Groton, Endicott Peabody was sure that muscular Christianity would protect
boys from the perils of loaferism

One of the most illustrious of these benevolent despots was the Reverend Endicott Peabody, who founded Groton School in 1884 and served it with all his might and main for over half a century. By the time he finally turned over his task to younger hands in 1940, at the age of eighty-three, he had become an American version of the legendary Dr. Arnold of Rugby. And his zealously guarded little kingdom of several hundred sylvan acres, some forty miles northwest of Boston, had achieved national renown as a preserve of wealth and privilege.

Peabody’s personal fame was largely confined to his own small world, except for one disquieting spell in the 1930’s when one of his “old boys” went to the White House and another to Sing Sing. But within the realm of the fashionable boarding school, vibrations from his formidable presence can still be felt, and his fervently simplistic ideals, however anachronistic, continue to influence the education of sons of the rich and well connected, at Groton as well as at similar schools.

For all his influence, Peabody was not so much an original thinker as he was a determined practitioner of methods that dated back to the Italian Renaissance. He insisted upon Christian conduct, and he stressed vigorous exercise and spartan living. His major educational precept was that every minute of a boy’s waking hours must be filled with study, religious devotions, or strenuous exercise. Above all, the slightest opportunity for that insidious form of idleness known as loafing must be avoided like the plague. “The curse of American … school life is loafing,” he once said in a speech. “… The tone of loafers is always low. You can avoid that easily in a school, because you have the great advantage of athletics… to run a school on a high plane of morality without athletics would be a practical impossibility … the best thing for a boy is to work hard … to play hard … and then, when the end of the day has come, to be so tired that he wants to go to bed and go to sleep. That is the healthy and good way for a boy to live.”

The efficacy of what the Victorians called “muscular Christianity” as a curb on the explosive force of adolescent sexual impulses—which was of course what the rector was talking about—can no longer be accepted quite so optimistically as in that more naive day. Even then, it was a moot question as to whether the success of Groton in instilling its boys with “manly, Christian character” was due as much to the gospel of sheer exhaustion as to the more painful methods of the prefect-monitor system. The latter was an extremely effective arrangement in which swift and vigorous punishment was inflicted by older boys upon younger boys who strayed from the school’s approved moral code. But whatever the means, the same benign end was achieved: in the beehive of tiny cubicles in which the boys slept, under the watchful eyes of lordly prefects, the insidious influences of “loaferism” and sex were, presumably, nipped in the bud.

Boys summoned to appear before the rector would approach him warily in his study. “You are looking for trouble?” he would bark. “Well, here I am.” To such unfortunates it seemed inconceivable that the rector had ever been guilty of boyish misdemeanors himself. But in fact, one of his great assets as a headmaster was that he had never ceased to be a boy, one who had committed his proper share of boyish mischief.


Young “Cotty” Peabody started out to be an investment banker, a calling to which his affluent family background was more conducive than schoolmastering. The Peabodys of Salem, Massachusetts, were a numerous old New England tribe with Puritan forefathers dating back to 1635. In Salem, the saying went that you were either a “Peabody, or nobody.” His father, Samuel Endicott Peabody, was a partner in J. S. Morgan & Co., the American-owned London banking house from which the mighty J. P. Morgan & Co. in New York was descended. Cotty was educated at Cheltenham, a British public school, and at Cambridge University.

After five years at Cheltenham, Cotty was a strapping six-footer who excelled at games, and he had a glorious time at Cambridge, where he rowed and played cricket and made friendships that lasted a lifetime. He also studied hard and passed his law examinations with honors. But the great event of his life at Cambridge was a profound religious awakening. He was so impressed by the grandeur of the Church of England and so deeply moved by its emotional warmth that he deserted the sober, rational Unitarian faith of proper Bostonians, in which he had been raised, to become a devout Episcopalian. The shock of conversion was so powerful that, before leaving Cambridge, he even had wistful thoughts of entering the ministry.

But when he returned to his old Salem-Boston home grounds in 1880, at the age of twenty-three, his future seemed preordained. Handsome, stalwart young Mr. Endicott Peabody, who charmed the young ladies of Boston with his adorable English accent, went dutifully to work for Lee, Higginson & Co., the prestigious investment banking firm founded by his mother’s father, John Cabot Lee. The path ahead to an early partnership in his grandfather’s old firm was smooth and secure. Yet within a year he discovered “that it did not promise to bring into my life the … satisfaction I hoped would be there and the thought of entering the ministry … became more vivid.” After a period of intense soul-searching, he enrolled in the Episcopal Theological School at Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The mind of Endicott Peabody, like the minds of so many pious, middle-class Victorians, was dominated by an unshakable belief in the literal interpretation and absolute infallibility of the Bible. Once, when asked why he was so positive of immortality, he replied, “Why, the Bible states clearly that Christ assured us of life immortal.” It was as simple as that. Subtle theological problems did not interest him, and he became restless and dejected at theological school. To add to his misery, he was desperately in love with his first cousin, Fanny Peabody, and Miss Peabody showed little sign of returning his affection.

By May, 1883, he had nearly given up hope. “[Without a wife life is very piecemeal and lonely,” he wrote to a friend. “It seems as if mine might always be so.” He was already twenty-six years old, and as if unrequited love were not trouble enough, he was beginning to doubt his ability to be anything other than an ordinary, run-of-the-mill sort of preacher. But his aspirations for himself were far beyond the ordinary, and that same lugubrious letter closed on an almost optimistic note: “… if it seems right for me to do so, I hope to start a church school.” Founding a school would be an outlet both for his missionary zeal and for his urge to accomplish something concrete. His friend and mentor, Phillips Brooks, the great Episcopalian preacher, did suggest that he first try teaching for a year at St. Paul’s School, but he was not keen on the idea. Peabodys started at the top.

Once his mind was made up, Peabody quickly solved the initial problems of building what harried headmasters grimly refer to as the “Almighty Wall” — that is, the endowment. Friends donated ninety acres on “a large plateau overlooking a glorious valley with great hills and mountains beyond.” His father, perhaps with a sigh of relief, and a small group of Bostonians contributed forty thousand dollars, and the school was in business. Cotty’s brother Jack was an architect, and his firm, Peabody and Stearns, was commissioned to design a building containing dormitories, classrooms, and living quarters for the masters, all under one roof, for an estimated cost of thirty-seven thousand dollars. There was nothing pretentious about it, but it was exactly what Peabody wanted for a school to be run on the principle that boys and masters should live together as members of a closely knit family. To Endicott Peabody, the family was an institution as sacred as the Bible-and Groton, above all, was to be a family.


There were only twenty-seven boys at Groton its first year. The masters, besides Peabody, were Sherrard Billings, aged twenty-seven, teaching experience, one year; and Amory Gardner, aged twenty-one, teaching experience, none. The curriculum was slightly modified classical: large portions of Greek and Latin, seasoned generously with sacred studies, were sprinkled with history, math, and modern languages. Why any sensible parent would pay what was then the very substantial sum of five hundred dollars a year to have a boy educated by three young and almost totally inexperienced schoolmasters may now seem inexplicable. But Peabody was convinced that the time was right for his modest, family-style version of a British public—that is, private—school.

There was never any question that he was right. What worried him most from the very outset was not having too few students but too many. Later he would be ruthless about slamming the door in the faces of parents, regardless of their wealth or station, who had failed to register their unfortunate sons at birth. His measuring stick for the proper enrollment was the number of boys with whom, in a nightly ritual after prayers, he could exchange solemn handshakes as they marched off for bed in their cold and dismal little cubicles. The ceremony came to be known as the “go by.” Family-style schools were nothing new, but the successful ones tended to outgrow themselves and the others vanished. A highly restrictive admissions policy was essential, therefore, if the family concept was to be preserved. But the very difficulty of getting into Groton, combined with the Peabody charisma, quickly made it fashionable, and the enrollment figures kept climbing. By 1896, when young Franklin Roosevelt’s mother could finally bear to part with him (he was fourteen, two years older than the usual age for entering Groton), there were 110 boys at the school and the original band of brothers had become a company of rambunctious cousins. Until recently the student population was never allowed to exceed two hundred, the majority of them sons of former Grotties. A reputation for exclusiveness was thus inevitable and, much to the rector’s annoyance, along with it came a reputation for snobbishness.

For Peabody, the founding of his school was followed by an even more personal triumph. In October, 1884, the engagement of Miss Fanny Peabody to Endicott Peabody was formally announced. They were married during the summer vacation after the first year, and Mrs. Peabody became a wonderfully gracious and charming Groton institution. She also contributed one boy and five girls to the school family.

Mere fashion and exclusivity were by no means the only ingredients of Groton’s success. In the eighteen eighties and nineties, the education of the rich boy was considered to be a peculiarly grave problem. “Inherited wealth,” said Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard, “is an unmitigated curse when divorced from culture.” Conscientious parents, of old and new wealth alike, were eager to believe that large doses of “muscular Christianity,” sternly administered by Endicott Peabody at Groton, were the magic cure for juvenile indolence and indifference.

Groton also benefited from the spirit of rowdyism that often prevailed in the older and larger elite boarding schools. Many parents, mothers especially, were apprehensive about entrusting their sons at a tender age to schools where there was a lack of close supervision and where tales of brutal hazing abounded. By the 1880’s Exeter, for one, was regressing to the deplorable stage of Rugby before the coming of Dr. Arnold: when a new headmaster attempted to initiate reforms, the uproar was so violent that he had to have police protection and go about wearing brass knuckles.

Endicott Peabody never needed policemen or brass knuckles. He had the indispensable gift of the good headmaster of winning the respect and confidence of his boys. One of his outstanding achievements at Groton was to establish friendly relations between masters and boys, those natural enemies by ancient tradition. (If sufficiently provoked, however, his wrath could be terrifying. “You know he would be an awful bully,” young Averell Harriman once told his father, “if he weren’t such a terrible Christian.”) Moreover, no matter what wishful Anglophile parents may have thought, the British public school influence on Groton was greatly exaggerated. Peabody did import fives, an arcane and less plebian form of handball, but otherwise the influence of his own British experience on Groton was largely a matter of what not to do. There was to be no flogging, and, God forbid, no fagging. The exalted Dr. Arnold had paid little attention to fagging and was not averse to a little flogging if necessary to curb the innate rowdiness and depravity of young males in close confinement, but these ancient and dishonorable institutions were anathema to Endicott Peabody.

Corporal punishment at Groton was administered by the older boys under the direction of the prefects. Younger boys who were insolent to their elders or who violated the sensitive Grotonian canons of good form were subjected to an ordeal called “pumping” in which the culprit’s head was held face-up under a gushing water spigot. The time of submersion was carefully limited by stopwatch to ten seconds, but this was ample to produce the unpleasant sensation of drowning; and it would be repeated until the boy showed the proper humility. Little Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., a few weeks before his father was inaugurated as Vice-President, was pumped for being “fresh and swell-headed.” Half-drowned but still spouting defiance after two immersions, he escaped being put under for a third time: the boys admired his pluck. Malcolm Peabody, the rector’s own son, was pumped because the older boys didn’t like his “tone.”

The prefect system, which was used so extensively in the British public schools and which was often deplored for “giving ill-advised power to the already strong,” was used at Groton with prudent restraint. Before the opening of school each year, the rector would designate as prefects from the incoming sixth form the five or six boys whom he considered to have outstanding qualities of leadership. From this select group he would then choose a senior prefect. To be senior prefect at Groton was a high honor and a great esponsibility. Living in state, with a huge study and a private bedroom, this dignitary conferred daily with the rector and played an important role in the administration of the school. Later in each school year several more prefects were chosen, and the competition for this favor was so intense that the rector’s choices were not always gracefully accepted. When three additional prefects were selected in Franklin Roosevelt’s sixth-form year, and he was passed over, he bitterly assured his mother that he was glad of it. “Everyone is wild at the Rector for his favoritism,” he wrote, “but the honor is now no longer an honor & makes no difference to one’s standing.” Brave words, indeed. But a generation later, when the rector chose Franklin, Jr., as senior prefect, the President of the United States was enormously proud.

During much of his reign, the rector was haunted by the curse of maintaining and expanding the Almighty Wall. But he was fortunate in having the assistance of Bishop William Lawrence, long a dedicated member of the school’s board of trustees and one of the great money raisers of his time. Bishop Lawrence considered it a kindness to inform rich men and women of an opportunity to give generously to a worthy cause, and he was able to make them feel grateful for the privilege of doing so. The Rector and Sherrard Billings were pretty good at it themselves. On one daring sortie they not only soothed the indignation of a father whose son had been severely disciplined, but they also persuaded him to donate ninety thousand dollars anonymously to the school.

Two years after the school was started, a sorely needed gymnasium was built with funds extracted from Augustus Hemenway, a wealthy Boston merchant of usually restrained charitable impulses. Next came the fives courts, another sweaty antidote to loaferism, and then, in 1891, Hundred House was opened. Designed to accommodate one hundred boys, and also to include spacious living quarters for the headmaster and his family, Hundred House was a major undertaking, ingeniously financed by granting each donor of five thousand dollars or more the extraordinary privilege of nominating for admission a boy who had not been registered at birth. By 1904 nearly a million dollars had been gathered in and wisely spent on additional land, buildings, and playing fields. Groton could boast a physical plant surpassed by few schools and not many colleges of the time. The rector’s special pride, and the spiritual heart of his tidy domain, was a resplendent new chapel whose soaring Gothic tower dominated the countryside. It had been built with funds provided by Amory Gardner, one of the original masters.

Despite his generosity to the school, of which the chapel was only one manifestation, “Mr. G.” or “Billy Wag,” as the boys called Amory Gardner, was a source of much anxiety to the rector. For the rigorous life of a Groton schoolmaster Mr. G.’s background hardly could have been worse. A rich orphan, he had been raised in the lush ménage of his uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Jack Gardner. Mrs. Gardner, the famous “Mrs. Jack” of Fenway Court (see “Mrs. Jack and Her Back Bay Palazzo, ”A MERICAN H ERITAGE , October/November, 1978), who shocked proper Bostonians with her mildly Bohemian ways, adored him. He was a marvelous teacher for the few whose minds were genuinely receptive to knowledge but was bored by what he considered the rector’s tedious concern with discipline and decorum. Once, when the boys put his chair on his desk before he entered the classroom, he merely climbed up and sat down as though there were nothing in the least unusual about it. But later on, when the recitation did not go to please him, he danced a frenzied jig of pretended exasperation on his shaky perch, and roars of laughter from the class could be heard throughout the building. Such occasions would bring the rector, breathing fire and brimstone, on the run; the class would slink out, and in the ensuing clash Mr. G. would threaten to resign. No one, including Mr. G. himself, ever took his threat seriously.


Parents and contagious diseases were the constant banes of the rector’s existence, and, of the two, parents were the more incurable. Most of the disciplinary problems of the school, he thought, were due to their moral laxity, and he deplored the lavish surroundings and the atmosphere of self-indulgence in which many of the boys lived at home. There was Mrs. A., for example, who lived “in noble state, garbing her domestics in knee breeches, etc., with all that it implies,” and whose unfortunate son, while at Groton, “never really entered into its spirit.” Parents who sought special privileges for their sons exasperated the rector immensely. He even had a hot exchange with his old and dear friend, Theodore Roosevelt, who, while residing in the White House, demanded that one of his boys be allowed to leave school during the term—which was not permitted—to visit a dentist in Washington; the dentist came to Groton.

Prohibition and the Roaring Twenties gave the rector his worst time. While he disapproved of the Eighteenth Amendment, he disapproved far more of breaking the law, and of the promiscuous social drinking and loose conduct that soon became fashionable. It grieved him to think that by his lights most of his old boys were nothing better than criminals. His attitude was so inflexible and archaic that there were many among the alumni and in the Groton community who sadly concluded that their beloved “old Peabo” had outlived his usefulness. In the spring of 1927, when he reached the age of seventy, it was hoped by many that he would gracefully retire. But despite gentle hints from friends, the advisability of doing so apparently never entered his mind. And that fall, when word got back to him that some of his senior class had taken a drink or two while visiting in the rooms of graduates after the excitement of the Harvard-Yale game, he summarily expelled six of them. Parents and alumni were stunned. It seemed indeed cruel and excessive punishment to deprive a boy of his last year at Groton, and the protests were loud and strong. One old Grottie called him the Vicar of Bray and accused him of having “sold out his real convictions for a mess of pottage called ’law and order.’ ” But nothing could change his mind; the time had come for a devout Victorian to take up arms against the forces of evil in modern society.

One weapon in the rector’s arsenal of intolerance was his devotion to a puritanical censorship of art and literature. As a vice-president of Boston’s Watch and Ward Society, he had long been a militant crusader for the indiscriminate banning of modern classics of which he had little or no comprehension. Making an intellectual laughingstock of himself was a personal foible for which the rector perhaps could be forgiven. But when he tried to extend his fetish for pious purity to the school, the boys rebelled. His “Index Purgatorius” included the works of Voltaire, Fielding’s Tom Jones , and even Kipling’s Stalky & Co. , an innocuous assortment of stories about boys in a British public school. (The rector, it was said, disapproved not so much of the Kipling stories as of the school where they took place—it was decidedly second-rate.)

The remarkable thing about the rector was that, after the crisis of 1927 had passed, he was resilient enough to regain his balance and even to mellow a bit with age. In his last years, he wisely relied in such matters on the judgment of younger men.


There were always those who condemned the spartan Peabody regimen of cold showers, frigid dorms, and compulsory football as needlessly harsh. Others pointed out that Groton boys on vacation often behaved like sailors on shore leave. If this deplorable tendency was due to the excessive solicitude with which their lives were regulated at Groton, what on earth would become of them when they were confronted with the free-and-easy ways of life at Harvard? This was indeed a sore point with the rector, and he was highly critical of Harvard’s President Eliot for allowing undergraduates so much freedom. It was true that no matter how closely he pursued his boys with chiding letters, the shock of sudden independence could be disastrous for some old Grotties. In most cases, however, a keen sense of “good form” enabled them to skirt the perils of idleness, drink, and disreputable females in relative safety. They settled down in commodious “Gold Coast” dormitory suites, associated only with their peers from other elite boarding schools, and ultimately scended into the celestial spheres of Harvard’s Porcellian Club, having glided through their courses with gentlemen’s C’s.

Peabody frankly admitted that he did not like his boys to think too much, and he had little patience with coddling misfits. Conformity was inextricably mixed with grim memories of compulsory football in the mind of one old Grottie, who accused the rector of “training boys so that they are more afraid of popular clamor than they are of making a difficult tackle in a football game.” What this quixotic former student wanted to see was a boy “who will have the courage to say that he thinks football is nonsense.” The rector would have said that a misfit of such magnitude had no business at Groton.

The normal Groton boy thrived on the Peabody regimen. Franklin Roosevelt was typical: he conformed eagerly and competed anxiously for rank in the school hierarchy. The location of his study (“one of the five best …”), his place at table, the importance of his part in the school play, these were only a few of the delicate shadings of preferment that mattered so dearly. But the major criterion of popularity and status at Groton, just as at other schools, was a boy’s ability at football. Though young Franklin was never a gridiron hero, he struggled valiantly up the long ladder of teams, taking his bumps and bruises with pride. When he finally made the second eleven, in his sixth-form year, and thereby won the arduous duty of facing the varsity day after day in fierce scrimmages, he proudly wrote home to his parents, “Football, bruises, afternoon teas, lack of sleep, gossip & engagements come thick and fast… a glorious time. ”

The rector himself did not always conform and he too could be quixotic. One time he dropped a bombshell, causing confusion and resentment in the ranks of old Grotties, by rudely resigning from his honorary membership in Porcellian in protest against the caste distinctions engendered by Harvard’s club system. But to many old Grotties, tucked snugly away in banks, brokerage houses, or family fortunes, his most shocking heresy was his open support of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Those who knew him well had always been uneasily aware that his attitude toward the acquisition of wealth was not entirely reliable. In his youth, at Cambridge, he had been an ardent disciple of Charles Kingsley’s subversive gospel of “Christian Socialism.” Once, he had even dared to criticize Groton’s lordly trustee, J. Pierpont Morgan, for his profitably ambiguous role in the Gold Crisis of 1895.


Ellery Sedgwick, an early old Grottie who later distinguished himself as editor of The Atlantic Monthly , commented somewhat cynically upon the rector’s efforts to persuade his boys that a life devoted to public service was more befitting a Christian gentleman than one devoted to private gain. “In season and out,” Sedgwick recalled, “public service was held up to every boy as a shining goal. It is God’s mercy that all of us didn’t go into it!” But the one out of ten who did produced an array of public servants that no other school could match in numbers or distinction, and a Franklin Roosevelt more than made up for the other nine. Ironically, in the presidential election of 1932, the rector conscientiously voted for Herbert Hoover as the man best qualified for the job. He was soon won over to the New Deal, however, and he was saddened by the vituperative hatred for their fellow alumnus expressed by many old Grotties who felt their cherished privileges threatened by a traitor in their midst. In 1934, when Groton prepared to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, Peabody felt compelled to request the absence from the ceremonies of those who were unwilling to accord the proper respect to President and Mrs. Roosevelt. On another occasion, at a dinner given in his honor by alumni at the Union Club in New York, he closed his remarks by saying: “I believe Franklin Roosevelt to be a gallant and courageous gentleman. I am happy to count him as my friend.” For an embarrassing moment, the convivial gathering was shrouded in silence.

The rector was bombarded with outraged letters reciting the treacherous crimes of “that man in the White House.” He answered them faithfully and tried to calm the irrational fears of their authors. In one soothing reply to an overwrought old Grottie, he wrote: “There has been a good deal written about Franklin Roosevelt when he was a boy at Groton, more than I should have thought justified by the impression that he left at the school. He was a quiet, satisfactory boy of more than ordinary intelligence … but not brilliant. Athletically he was rather too slight for success. We all liked him… masters and boys alike.”

But the Rector’s beau ideal ran more to the type of a boy like Richard Whitney—star athlete, prefect, and rousing leader of the school. After Groton and Harvard, Whitney rose to fame as the Wall Street stockbroker who captained the Street’s last stand against New Deal legislation regulating the securities markets. In 1938, when Whitney was finally forced to confess that he had been embezzling trust funds for many years, the rector had the sad experience of visiting one of his favorite old boys in Sing Sing. Whitney took his medicine gracefully; he was as popular with his fellow inmates as he had been with the other boys at Groton in his days of glory. And the rector was loyal to the end.

When Endicott Peabody died in 1944, four years after his reluctant abdication, the age of the great headmasters already was doomed. Over the next three decades, the dogma of “muscular Christianity” would be eroded by treacherous currents of social change. What once would have been utterly unthinkable to Peabody and his compeers is now an accepted fact of life at most boys’ boarding schools: they have betrayed their monastic vows and gone coeducational. In September, 1975, forty-seven carefully selected girls joined the two hundred carefully selected boys at Groton.

For some of the older alumni, born too soon to enjoy the privileges of modern permissiveness, it seemed as though the clap of doom had sounded. But the unique world of Groton did not come to an end, and the school is still loyal to the spirit of Endicott Peabody. The nightly ritual of the “go by” is observed as faithfully as it was in 1884.

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