Getting Schooled with “The Sphinx,” An Ellis Villa College Newspaper, Los Angeles, 12 March 1885

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A couple of posts on this blog have detailed some of the history concerning the Crown Hill area of Los Angeles, developed in the hills west of downtown in the mid-1880s, including the brief existence of one of the first institutions of higher learning for women in the region, Ellis Villa College.

As the city slowly expanded in the four directions of the compass, including such developments as East Los Angeles (later renamed Lincoln Heights and formed in 1873), Boyle Heights (1875) and tracts to the northwest, south and west, these suburbs tended to be for the well-to-do comprising the growing middle class that marked the general growth of the American economy in the late 19th century.

With the burgeoning of these middle class neighborhoods often came certain amenities, whether these were a wider-reaching network of streetcar systems; larger and more architecturally striking places of worship; bigger parks with more recreational opportunities; and, in the case of Crown Hill, an institution of higher learning like Ellis Villa College.


That institution was established by the Revered John Wesley Ellis, who established a large Presbyterian church in downtown at Fort Street (rechristened Broadway) and Second Street and which was later moved to Figueroa and Twentieth streets.  Ellis founded his namesake college on land he purchased in Crown Hill, so this was both an educational and an entrepreneurial project.  Like many colleges of the era, some students were in the high school preparatory section.

As noted in one of the earlier posts, colleges were established by religious sects, including the Roman Catholic St. Vincent’s College, and the Methodist institutions of Wilson College in Wilmington and its (sort of) successor, the University of Southern California.  So, Ellis Villa was the inaugural college associated with the Presbyterians when it opened its doors for the fall term of 1884.

Not long after the school began operation, Ellis conceived of the idea of building a larger structure for the institution just a stone’s throw away from the original campus, which opened in 1886 as the Belmont Hotel.  Having a hotel and college provided Ellis what he thought would be a more desirable environment for the tract he subdivided and which, naturally, he hoped would prove to be more lucrative.


During the second semester of that first year of operation, Ellis Villa College launched a school newspaper, The Sphinx, produced by the A.T. Literary Society, and the Homestead is fortunate to have the first issue of that publication in its collection.  The document is in poor shape, having separated along a horizontal half-fold, but its content remains intact.

The officers of the society are listed in the document, including President Mamie Thomas, Vice-President Laura Coats, Secretary Anna Humphreys, and Treasurer Mary Macy, whose father Obed was the namesake of Macy Street, which was renamed Avenida César Chávez in 1994).  The editors were Coats and Daisy Clark.

The society was established, it was proferred, presumably tongue firmly planted in cheek, in the publication, because “several weeks ago, some trash books being found in the College, it was decided to form a literary society to promote a taste for the better class of literature.”  More realistically, The Sphinx was launched “to be a record of all that transpires of social interest to members of the club.”


The journal, which was priced at ten cents, featured a variety of contributions, including a poem, literary essays, descriptions of an outing to Santa Monica, humorous entries, and more.  An essay by Essie Junkin, who went on to teach at the college, reviewing the classic Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer exclaimed “how natural the plot, and how gracefully and with what telling hits he introduces the various characters.”  She concluded by stating that “through all we see the real man, Chaucer, with his kindly humor, his keen satire, his appreciation of the good and his hatred of the wrong.”

There is also a front-page prose contribution by an unknown authoress titled “Lola” and, elsewhere, Gertrude Finney, whose family lived on Pico Street near Figueroa near today’s Los Angeles Convention Center, sent in “A Mosaic” both of which utilized “an ingenious arrangement of the twenty words of a spelling lesson.”  A variation on the “Little Jack Horner” tale was penned by San Bernardino native Williebelle McDow.

Coats, meanwhile, offered “College Directory,” in which she sought to make clever use of the surnames of her classmates, as this introductory sample shows:

The Parson’s wife, And-er-son Thomas, on their way across the Macy desert, saw many strange sights.  But what puzzled them most was that the Campbells seemed to Breed no ill effect from the Thorns which they ate.  Thomas had been Read(ing) “A Tramp Abroad,” but laid it aside when the train stopped at Fort McDow, where several soldiers stood in a Roe.  While Thomas stood watching them, a man Collin “All aboard!” came out and rang a Bell.

Clark had the longest piece in the publication as she provided a summary of a society trip to Santa Monica, which was established a decade before.  The young ladies proceeded on the former line of the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, which had F.P.F. Temple as its first president and then treasurer as the line was completed from Los Angeles to the new resort town in late 1875 just prior to the failure of the Temple and Workman bank.  In the aftermath, the L.A. & I. was sold to the Southern Pacific, which owned the line as the society made its journey west.


Clark wrote of a picnic in the shade of some trees “after roaming about in the broiling sun,” after which one of the members read from the March issue of Harper’s Monthly Magazine.  When it came time to take the 3 p.m. train back to Los Angeles, however, it was thought five members of the society were missing, but they turned out to be on the train, though Clark waited for the chaperone who went looking for the quintet.

The pair stayed at a hotel, perhaps the famed Hotel Arcadia, with a room provided apparently free of charge by its proprietor.  They met some people at the hostelry who paid for their dinner and then spent some time with their newfound friends.  The evening ended “with reckless extravagance” as the duo “indulged in lemonade flavored with oranges, strawberries and straws.”

Clark and the unnamed chaperone were enjoying breakfast when they were sure they would miss the train to Los Angeles, so they cut their repast short and hurried to the depot, where they learned they needn’t have ended the meal so soon.  She stated that “when we arrived in town there was no way of getting to the College except by walking,” so the long trek to Crown Hill included “much inward grumbling hidden behind a smiling countenance.”



It turned out, however, that Clark mingled fact with fiction because she concluded her essay with a quote from poet John Greenleaf Whittier (who would be namesake of a nearby Quaker town founded a few years later): “Of all sad words of tongue or pen / The saddest are these, “It might have been.”

The poetic selection for this inaugural issue was from Mabel Ham and was a little ditty about a confrontation between a squirrel couple and a Boxer canine at the college.  The gist can be gleaned from this excerpt:

The College door is open wide

To see the young squirrel and his bride

Who are dressed in softest coats of grey,

And talking in a loving way.


They, arm in arm, go walking by

To see if they can catch a fly.

Young Boxer, with his ears alert,

Comes out to see the couple flirt.


One verse more will close the door,

Young Boxer did this bride adore;

So, standing on his two front paws,

He opens wide his wicked jaws,

And breaks the sixth law in this place,

And then sits down to wipe his face.

Finally, there is a column called “College Chatter’ featuring bits of news about society members.  For example, one noted that “it is rumored that Miss Breed is to favor us with another musical soon.”  This was Lillian Breed, whose father Levi recently brought his family to Los Angeles from northern California and the Breeds settled in Boyle Heights.  Later in 1885 he was elected to the city council and served as its president.  He was also a fire commissioner and treasurer of the chamber of commerce.  A plaque at Lincoln Park honors Breed as a founder of the park.


Another item noted that a new student registered at the school, Blanch Bonebrake, whose father, George, became a prominent banker in Los Angeles until his death in 1898.  Meanwhile, there was also mention of the death of the father of another student, Mary Banning, whose famous father, Phineas, founder of Wilmington and the “Port Admiral” with Los Angeles Harbor, died on 8 March in San Francisco at age 54.

Then there was a remarkable little item, which reads, “Mrs. Jackson, nee Helen Hunk [Hunt], who has been spending the winter in Los Angeles, leaves to-morrow.”  It was added that “we understand she has been suffering from a severe malarial attack.”  Helen Hunt Jackson, whose novel, Ramona, was published in 1884 and which became a sensation and a major tourist draw to the region, was thought by her doctor to have come down with malaria, but it turned out she had stomach cancer.  Born two months after Phineas Banning, Jackson died in August 1885, also age 54.

As for Ellis Villa College, it did not long survive.  Like its predecessor structure, the Belmont Hotel, which burned to the ground in mid-December 1887, the college building went up in flames after a kitchen fire roared out of control in July 1888.  Belmont High School was built on the site in the 1920s, preserving the name of the old school and hotel structure.  A Presbyterian college opened in Boyle Heights the previous year and Occidental College endured, though it became a secular institution in 1910 two years before it settled into its current Eagle Rock location after stints in downtown Los Angeles and Highland Park.


This issue of The Sphinx is a very rare example of an early college newspaper, particularly for a short-lived women’s college that is all but forgotten, and is a slice of female collegiate life just before the great Boom of the 1880s transformed greater Los Angeles in so many ways.

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