Canton Historical Society



The Stoning of Etta Barstow

By Vickie Carr

This article originally appeared in
an early 1970's Canton Journal,
Vickie Carr was the editor at the time.

"On the morning of Friday, Oct. 8th, when about to take cars for Boston, I was informed that the boys in District No. 5 had killed their teacher."

So began School Superintendent Daniel T. V. Huntoon's account of one of the more grisly episodes in Canton's history-- the stoning of a young schoolteacher by four of her students in 1870.

The incident had actually begun three days earlier on Oct. 5. Miss Etta K. Barstow was new to the Canton school system. Members of the school committee had probably observed her frailty when she applied for the job. For most of her life, Miss Barstow had suffered from diabetes.

Miss Barstow impressed the committee with her eagerness to teach. She was assigned to the Pleasant Street School in District No. 5, a section of east Canton that had formerly been known as Ragged Row.

From the beginning, Miss Barstow had trouble establishing her authority in the classroom. But on the morning of Oct. 5, Miss Barstow must have resolved to settle the issue once and for all.

The day began uneventfully. At mid-morning the doors of the schoolhouse burst open as the youngsters raced out for recess. It must have been pleasant to escape the dry October heat that hung in the one room schoolhouse. All too soon the break was over, and Miss Barstow rang the bell to call the children indoors.

Most of the children shuffled reluctantly into the schoolhouse. But four boys: James Cogswell, 13; John Coffee, 11; Jeremiah Keliher, 11; and his brother Daniel, 9, remained outdoors. Whether they were engaged in a game of marbles, or simply wished to "test" their young schoolteacher will probably never be known.

What is certain is that they had picked the wrong day for a match of wills with Miss Barstow. Resolutely, she shut the door and turned the keys. For the rest of the morning, Miss Barstow patiently instructed her students while the four boys shouted and cursed outside. Just before noon, a rock flew into the entry. But it did not hit anything. Miss Barstow continued listening to her students lessons.

Throwing Stones

At noon, the school teacher unbolted the door. Once again, youngsters spilled outdoors, most of them heading home for lunch. The schoolteacher was the last to leave the classroom and she locked the door behind her. Turning around, she froze for a moment, as she noticed the four young ruffians lingering on the edge of the school grounds.

Nonetheless, she squared her shoulders and walked past them, headed towards the boarding house owned by Mrs. Bates. The young boys followed, trailing a short distance behind Miss Barstow, taunting her with various epithets and curses.

The schoolteacher ignored these taunts and continued walking. But the stress of the situation was beginning to take its toll; she felt very weak. She had not walked more than a few yards when a rock, allegedly the size of an inkstand, hit her on the back of the neck. She had barely recovered from this blow when another stone landed against her back and caused her to stagger.

By the time the schoolteacher reached Mrs. Bates' boarding house, she was exhausted and fell into a chair. "Those boys have stoned me." She cried to Mrs. Bates.

She took a brief nap, ate dinner, and then retired again, informing Mrs. Bates that she would not reopen the school that afternoon. Concerned, Mrs. Bates examined the young woman and found her very weak. She urged Etta to take a train to Boston and see her family doctor immediately.

Finally Etta agreed. A friend took her to the canton rail station. But Etta was so weak she could not board the train without assistance. Frightened, the friend rode the train into town with her, fighting to keep Etta awake during the ride. In Boston she saw that Etta arrived safely at the home of her aunt at 52 Waltham Street.

Here the older woman immediately sent for Dr. Buckingham. Unaware of the assault, the Doctor treated Etta for her known condition of diabetes. But despite his efforts, the young woman's condition grew worse. She died the next day.

Superintendent Huntoon had been ready to take a car into Boston, himself, when he learned of Miss Barstow's death. He immediately went to District No. 5 and, after persistent efforts, discovered the identities of the boys who had been involved in the incident.

Before the afternoon of October 8, 1870 was over, thirteen-year-old James Cogswell had run away for good. John Coffee, and the two Keliher brothers had been arrested on charges of disturbing a school house and assaulting a teacher.

A Boston Probate Judges sentenced the three boys to the State Reform School in Westboro--the maximum penalty he could impose on them for the assault charge. And so, Judge white set a bail of $300, and ordered the boys to appear in Superior Court in Dedham in December. John, Jeremiah and Daniel spent a night in jail before their parents could raise the bail money.

Coroner's Inquest

During the next few months, School Superintendent Huntoon continued investigating the incident. Dr. Chas. Buckingham was unable to account for his patient's death. The doctor told Huntoon "that in a practice of twenty five years, he had never seen a similar case; that she appeared to him like a person suffering under the affects of a narcotic poison. If she had received a blow upon the head, it would account for the peculiarities attending her death, which he was unable to account for from the effects of her disease."

At Huntoon's request, a coroner's jury made an inquest into the exact cause of Miss Barstow's death. The panel ruled that "the deceased came to her death primarily by diabetes, but that her death was accelerated by a severe shock to her nervous system caused by the insubordination of her pupils and the personal attack made on her by John Coffee and others…" The autopsy revealed no marks or bruises on Miss Barstow's neck, or the rest of her body.

This ruling was apparently used to the boys' advantage by defense attorney Edward Avery. By December he had managed to have the assault charge dropped. When the boys returned to the courtroom, they were appealing only a charge of "disturbing a school building." All evidence in regard to the assault was so carefully ruled inadmissible at the urging of the defendants, that jurors who tried the case and were familiar with the facts of the assault, did not recognize this as part of the same affair, Huntoon wrote in a later report on the matter.

After listening to the testimony from both sides, a probate judge found Coffee, Jeremiah and Daniel Keliher guilty of disturbing a school. Though he could have imposed a maximum sentence of a fine and imprisonment, the judge was easy on the boys in consideration of their youth. They were put on probation and fined for money to repair the damages they had done to the school.

It is difficult to trace the lives of these boys beyond this point. Neither James Cogswell, John Coffee nor Jeremiah or Daniel Keliher are listed in the Canton High School registers for the years in which they should have graduated. Similar names appear in later tax rolls for the town A Daniel Keliher is listed as having property worth the estimable sum of $1200 in the year 1891. But there were reportedly six different, and unrelated, Keliher families living in Canton in the late 1800's.

Though their youths will be forever linked with the demise of a frail, young schoolteacher, the story of who these boys became as men remains a mystery.

Discipline in the classroom

A newspaper of the time headlined the story "The Sensation of the Week." In later year, the incident acquired biblical overtones as exaggerated versions told of "the schoolteacher who was stoned to death by her students."

Although the truth is slightly tamer, the 1870 attack on Miss Etta Barstow by her students dramatically highlights an age-old problem: discipline in the classroom.

Philosophically, most would agree that order and the authority of the schoolteacher are prerequisites to a sound learning environment. But the struggle to balance learning and discipline has been a long one.

From the earliest times, the rod was considered a biblical symbol of instruction. "Spare the rod and spoil the child" was a favorite maxim of teachers until the mid-18th century. The whipping post was a common fixture in the schoolhouses of these times. Nearby, within easy reach of the schoolmaster, would be a large bundle of switches.

Students of these early masters were punished swiftly and severely for academic or behavioral infractions as slight as the mispronunciation of a Latin word.

In his book "A Brief History of Education, " C.E. Hubley writes of a German schoolmaster named Hauberle who delivered 911,527 blows with a cane; 124,010 blows with a rod; 20,989 blows with a ruler; and 136,715 blows with his hand over the course of his 51 years as a teacher.

Young boys in Hauberle's classroom were rapped on the mouth, head and had their ears boxed. The schoolmaster also punished his young charges by making them kneel on peas or upright triangular pieces of wood. Others were forced to wear a jackass cap, or hold a rod up in the air. Early societies believed that strong discipline and physical punishment were the best methods of instructing children, and did little to discourage such tyrants in the classroom.

Such thinking spilled naturally into the early American schoolhouses where strict Puritan ethics allowed the infamous hickory stick a long and colorful heyday. However, by the late 19th century change was in the air. The problem of discipline was still around, since many rural classrooms were populated by farm boys eager to show off their strength. But as the towns began forming local school boards, the thinking that corporal punishment should be used as a last resort became more prevalent.

By the early years of the 20th century, with some thanks to the efforts of American educational reformer John Dewy, the concept of corporal punishment was being re-examined in many classrooms and alternative methods of discipline began to evolve.

The creation of a new school administrative post--the school guidance counselor--best symbolizes the new 20th century resolve to approach classroom discipline and learning from a psychological standpoint. As the 1900's progressed, the code of conduct was invented. This allowed teachers to discipline youngsters by linking grades in conduct to participation in athletic or other extracurricular activities.

But these new ideas on classroom discipline did not win over every schoolmaster or district. Today, corporal punishment is still used to discipline youngsters in many classrooms, particularly those in the South. Massachusetts--always a leader in education--is one of seven states in the nation which prohibits corporal punishment in schools. A statewide ban goes into effect in New York on Sept. 1.

Modern student offenders in these states are in no danger of having their knuckles wrapped. But such students may find the idea of sacrificing free time in after-school detention halls almost as painful. Indeed, one of the severest forms of discipline in these schools--academic suspension--reflect how radically thinking has changed since the days when the old rod ruled supreme. In those days, punishment was considered a means of forcing a student to learn. Today, learning is considered a privilege that will be taken away from students who do not abide by the rules.


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