Mount Holyoke After Bertha

I suspect though, that the history of Bertha Mellish was not immediately forgotten, that it passed instead into the realm of oral legend.

Not many traces of Bertha can be found at Mount Holyoke College, besides a slim file in the archives with a copy of her transcript, some newspaper clippings, and Florence’s letter from 1915. After she was gone, Bertha seems to have disappeared from the communal memory of Mount Holyoke College as swiftly and completely as she had from its campus. There is not a word about her in the edition of the Llamarada published in March 1898. Bertha’s name does not appear in the class roster of juniors, nor is she identified as a former member of that class. Neither is she listed as a member of the Mount Holyoke Debating Society, and the topic of a debate that was held on December 11, 1897 was not, as originally scheduled, “Resolved, that vivisection for scientific purposes is justifiable,” in which Bertha was to argue the affirmative, but rather “Resolved, that we should not feed the beggar at the door.” And in the light-hearted recording of memorable events of the past year, Bertha’s disappearance has no place; November 25th, for example, is remembered not as the Thanksgiving Day when the river was dragged, but as the day when, “in addition to the turkey, Safford Hall enjoy[ed] a play, and Dr. Lowell [gave] pointers on love-making.”

In the following year’s Llamarada,  Bertha  is not included among the graduating Class of 1899. Her name does not appear in “Ninety-Nine,” a doggerel verse that incorporated the surname of every other class member, and she is accorded no memorial.  There was a memorial to Edith Helen Bryant, a freshman who had been at the college for just one month before her death in October 1898, and a longer one to Eva Smith, like Bertha a member of the Class of ’99, who died of pneumonia at the college on February 5, 1899. “We have an unusually united class,” Grace McKinley observed in a separate essay,  “Together we have shared pleasures, trials, and real sorrow.” The sorrow she invokes, however, is not the loss of Bertha Mellish, but Eva Smith’s passing, a death that, Grace believed, “deepened our love to ’99.”

But, of course, Bertha was not officially dead. If she were, some pious sentiments would certainly have been offered in her honor and the disturbing matter laid to rest. But what could anyone properly say about that strange, reclusive student, silent and withdrawn, who had a family history of insanity and was likely touched by it herself, who thumbed her nose at the college and its rituals, who preferred a solitary walk to communal celebration, whose whereabouts and fate were unresolved, who probably killed herself but who, God knows, might have run away?  Bertha Mellish held herself aloof while she was at Mount Holyoke, and when she was gone, Mount Holyoke did not clasp her to its collective heart. Her shadow, it seems, was not allowed to darken the official record of pleasant college days. This silence is understandable, perhaps, but Bertha, I think, deserved better.

I suspect though, that the history of Bertha Mellish was not immediately forgotten, that it passed instead into the realm of oral legend. I imagine that, for years afterward, sophomores impressed freshman with it, as they did with tales of the Button Field, of “going through the turtle” in the museum in Williston Hall, and of the great fire of 1896, and that they pointed out to newcomers the room in Porter Hall where the strange girl had lived her lonely and mysterious life. And I would like to believe that, when they stood on the banks of the Connecticut River — “smooth and still,”  as a graduate of the class of 1903 remembered it, “ but deep and dreadfully swift below at Titan’s Pier, where the fierce beauty of the place has served as a background for tragedies”– the ghost of Bertha Mellish crossed their minds.