Josephine Louise Newcomb, 1816-1901

Continued from the introduction to her life


In this city, Josephine Louise Le Monnier had lived as a girl and had married. As she wrote in her 1886 letter of donation, she felt “a deep personal sympathy with the people of New Orleans and a strong desire to advance the cause of female education in Louisiana.” She was by no means revolutionary, but conformed to the societies in which she lived, regardless of place, and asked that the college be formed for white girls and women. Her one unusual request, differing from that of northeastern women’s college goals, was that the new college bearing her daughter’s name “look to the practical side of life as well as to literary excellence.” She added later that a memorial service for Sophie be held twice each year, and that other services at the College be Christian in nature. But from the beginning, the College had a large number of Jewish students who could excuse themselves from these services; indeed, any student could do so. The College achieved an early success with its students becoming well known especially as artists and pottery designers, scientists, and scholars. By the time of JLN’s death, she had given the University over 3.6 million dollars for the college in Sophie’s name, a sum larger than that given by Paul Tulane.

Over the next more than one hundred years, interest in the life of JLN has been strong and ongoing, yet few scholars have explored the letters existing in the collections noted in this website. Most stories of her life have focused on neurotic parenting, a propensity to think of herself always as “alone and unprotected,” and her intense grief on the death of her daughter. Other stories have been unkind, speaking of her large ears, an easily offended temperament, a paranoid fear of her sister’s family, her collection of materials on insanity. There has been a lot of misinformation about her life. One account says that her education was in France. Another says that her mother married her father after they had had three children. Another says that she wanted to be a nun. And of course, there are rumors about Sophie having drowned (and thus some link to a swimming requirement at Newcomb College) and of JLN’s ghost haunting the dormitory named in her honor.

In the 1980s, civil rights activist and philanthropist Rosa Freeman Keller wrote of Mrs. Newcomb, “There is quite a bit more of mystery than of history in her biography. If she kept diaries, none have come down to us. Her letters could illuminate Mrs. Newcomb for us, but these, too, are nowhere to be found.” We are happy now to be able to provide the letters that may indeed tell many people about her inner life­—her principles, intentions, personal struggles, and meaningful relationships. One key element of the letters is the community we can see around her. She wrote and lived among people who were interested in educational issues, notably schooling for the blind and deaf, and the advancement of opportunities for girls and women.

For historian Marsha Wedell’s account of JLN’s life, click here.

For journalist and architectural historian Harriet Swift’s account of some letters written by JLN in the 1870s, click here.