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Matilda Greathouse Alexander. Luke, Stephanie Maureen.
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Matilda Greathouse Alexander

By Stephanie Luke

The author of Going West, the formidably energetic journalist and writer Matilda Greathouse Alexander, was born in Posey County, Indiana, on June 14, 1842 to George W. Greathouse and Martha Greathouse (née Hausman). She was the youngest of four children and the third daughter born to the Alexanders. Less then a year after Matilda's birth, George Greathouse died. Martha Greathouse remarried an Absalom Rodenberger, bearing him two more daughters, Matilda's half-sisters.

Described by neighbors as a "man of an exacting and domineering disposition," Rodenberger opposed educating the children at the district school. Thus, Matilda and her siblings were taught by their mother on the family farm. Alexander attended the Catholic Academy of St. Vincent, in Kentucky, for one year. Returning to Indiana, she established a country school and taught local children for half a year, until the beginning of the Civil War brought her back to the farm to help during the absence of her brother Frank, who had enlisted in the First Cavalry Indiana Volunteers.

In 1863, Matilda married Andrew Lynne Alexander. The couple's only child, Rosemonde, was born a year later. In 1866, after only three years of marriage, Andrew died at the age of thirty two. Mrs. Alexander was a widow at twenty four, alone with a young child on the farm her husband had left her. She managed it for six more years. In 1872, she moved to the town of Mt. Vernon, Indiana, where she believed Rosemonde could receive a better education—the education Alexander herself had not been allowed. Rosemonde attended Female College in Jacksonville, Illinois (now MacMurray College), and Mrs. Reid's Private School in New York City.

Meanwhile, her mother entered determinedly on a modestly remarkable literary career. Newspapers from 1878 to 1893, found among Alexander's belongings after her death and recently transferred to microfilm by the Indiana State library, chronicle Alexander's journalistic contributions across several Indiana newspapers, printed in Mt. Vernon, New Harmony, New Albany, and Indianapolis. She was a special correspondent for the Indianapolis Times and, importantly, served as the newspaper's reporter for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

Matilda Alexander's earliest publications, however, were poetry. Her poems appeared in Indiana papers for twenty years, though they were never collected and published. She was also a prolific novelist. Today, only two of her novels apparently survive in print or microfilm: Going West, or, Homes for the Homeless, published in 1881, and Worth Wins, published in 1882. The title-pages of these novels list her other works: Here and Hereafter, The Widow's Life, The Outcast Reclaimed, and Christianity and Infidelity. The History and Directory of Posey County, published in 1882, gives a brief biographical sketch of Alexander's written work, including a five-act play about the life and assassination of Lincoln, entitled From the Hovel to the Hall. There is no record of whether this play was ever published.

If Going West, and the self-written poetic epigraphs to its chapters are a fair sample, Alexander was never destined for literary fame: the novel is addicted to melodramatic plot twists and rhetorical cliché, and makes shameless use of historical accident, especially the terrible tornado that hit Kansas in 1879, killing more than sixty people. But what survives of Alexander's written work is nevertheless a testament to the can-do spirit of Western women and an important record of Indiana history. Alexander left behind an enduring legacy of philanthropy initiated by personal tragedy. In 1892, while her daughter was visiting New York City with her husband Dr. George R. Peckinpaugh, Rosemonde committed suicide. Her body was recovered from the Hudson River three weeks after she was reported missing. After bringing the remains back to Mt. Vernon, Alexander created a trust in her daughter's memory. The one-hundred-and-ten acre farm that passed in ownership from Andrew Alexander to Rosemonde was to be managed by the Posey County Circuit Court, and the proceeds from the land were to be known as the Alexander Fund. Alexander envisioned that the money would support orphans in Posey County, a provision strongly reminiscent of her concerns in Going West. In addition to this generous donation, Alexander made significant contributions to the city of Mt. Vernon. Upon her death, she bequeathed it two furnished houses and a second, forty-acre farm.

Above all, Alexander contributed to the improvement of Mt. Vernon through her organization of the first city library, forming "The Alexander Literary Society" in 1892 to raise funds towards establishment. Soon after, the Mt. Vernon City Council allowed the Society the use of a room above the fire station. In 1895, Alexander donated her personal library to the Literary Society. However, it was not until 1903 that plans fully matured, when a committee of interested citizens succeeded in convincing the city to donate a half-acre lot. The committee also contacted Andrew Carnegie and secured a grant from the steel magnate. Carnegie donated nearly $14,000 for the erection of the library building. The project was finished in October 1905, and named in honor of Alexander, "The Alexandrian Free Public Library." Unfortunately, she did not see the dedication. She died on September 28, 1904, at the age of 62.


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