The Story of Thomas McFadden

Collections Search

I started my search online at the Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections website. I started with a very general search and entered “class of 1845” into the search bar. However, this mainly just brought up the Dickinson Encyclopedia entries for some of the more notable students of the class. In addition to these entries, the search did find two documents; a letter from Thomas McFadden to his friend Robert Black from December 1843 and the program for the 1845 Commencement ceremony. As it turns out the McFadden Letter was the document given to me by Jim and Melinda so I had already read and studied it.

Since this broad search for the class of 1845 was not turning up anything too specific, I decided to use the search guide online to try to find any other documents relating to the class. I entered the time period I was looking for (1840-1859), chose “Letters” for the format, and hit search. Scrolling through the letters listed the only name I could find from the class of 1845 was Thomas McFadden. Therefore, I decided to broaden my search and selected “Any Format” to see if I could anything else from the class of 1845 besides McFadden’s letter. However, after scrolling through the results and still not finding anything I decided to go to the archives to see if the archivist there could help me find anything.

They told me that since I was unable to find anything of note online I should try the card catalog instead. The card catalog was fairly easy to use, although more often than not I was unable to find anything about the student I was searching for, I did manage to find two documents: a letter Charles Henderson Stinson wrote to his father in 1841; and a letter Isaac Urner wrote to the treasurer in 1845. Using the information on the back of the card the archivist located the Stinson letter fairly easily. The Urner letter, though, did not have any information listed so the archivist showed me where I could find the finding guide for the Treasurer from that period. I looked through the finding guide but was unable to find the letter, so the archivist went to see if Jim had any idea where it would be. After some searching they came back with a folder that contained not only the Urner letter but also letters from Robert Maclay, William Biddle Gordon, and some of the other students. In addition to these two folders, the archivist also brought me the drop file on Thomas McFadden which contained a letter written by his son in 1948 explaining what happened to his father after Dickinson. I was also shown the Dickinson College Catalogs from the years the class of 1845 was at Dickinson.

While most of my searching was done within the Archives I also went onto Google Books to see if I could find Robert Maclay’s 1861 Life Among the Chinese which I mentioned in my last journal. I was able to find the book without much difficulty by simply searching the title.

Document Identification

Out of all the documents I found in the Archives and on Google Books, I thought that the two letters pertaining to Thomas McFadden were the most interesting. In McFadden’s letter to his friend Robert Black from 1843 he describes what college life at Dickinson was like. He relates what made him choose Dickinson; what the girls in Carlisle are like (he refers to them as “Angels” with “Sylph-like forms”); and his relationship with his roommate, among other things. I found the latter to be particularly interesting so I chose to transcribe that section. It reads as follows:

Closeup of transcribed section. Courtesy of Author.
Closeup of transcribed section. Courtesy of the author.

“My ‘Chum’ demands my attention next. I don’t like him much, and don’t think I shall stay with him longer than Christmas vacation. He is very profane and immoral, and scarcely utters a sentence without an oath. That I cannot and will not abide, he will either reform or we will part. And he is rather slovenly in his general habits and though he dresses neatly, yet his room, if I did not take pains in fixing it, would look like a hog pen. He is not at all studious in his habits, but to the contrary, and as that is something ‘catching’, I shan’t stay in the neighborhood.”

Reading through this section (and the letter as a whole) I was struck by how relatable much of what McFadden was saying is. Practically everyone has at one point or another had some problem with their roommate, and ,while they may not be issuing an ultimatum like McFadden, they can empathize with his situation. Many of the other stories he relates to Black are also relatable. McFadden mentions that earlier on in the semester he came down with an illness and was so alarmed that he wrote home to his parents. Being sick for the first time without your mother there to take of you can be a trying experience and again something that many people can emphasize with and relate to. McFadden’s description of the females in Carlisle is also something I’m sure many of the boys on campus today can relate to. I find it amazing that, despite all the transformations our society has experienced in the nearly 173 years since this letter was written, many of the experiences McFadden had during his time at Dickinson are still being had today.

In addition to these more general stories about college life, McFadden also includes details that are specific to Dickinson. One of these stories deals with the Union Philosophical and Belles Lettres literary societies, the two extracurricular clubs on campus during this period. McFadden provides Black with some details about the societies and their history, but the most interesting part of this section is when he explains why he chose Union Philosophical over Belles Lettres. McFadden says he chose UP because everyone in UP had nothing but good things to say about the society while he heard members of Belles Lettres express dissatisfaction with their society. While it’s hard to determine from this letter alone how accurate this statement truly is, it could still be useful for anyone researching the history of the two societies.

T. Gilbert McFadden Letter. Courtesy of Author.
T. Gilbert McFadden Letter. Courtesy of the author.


The letter written by McFadden’s son to the Alumni Secretary in 1948 is also quite interesting because it provides closure to McFadden’s story. After 1843 McFadden disappears from the college catalog and the 1905 has no information listed for him. Since there was no information listed for him I assumed that he did not do anything that interesting or noteworthy after Dickinson and thus did not look into his story in my last journal. However, after reading his son’s letter I realized that my assumption was wrong. The letter is transcribed below in its entirety:

T.Gilbert Mc Fadden

53 W. College Avenue

Westerville, Ohio

March 10, 1948

Alumni Secretary,

Dickinson College,

Carlisle, PA.

RE. Thomas McFadden, member

Of class of 1845 (?)

Dear Sir:

A number of years ago I visited your campus noting the old building in which, probably, my father roomed as a student in the 1842 (?) to 1845 period.

I understand that he did not receive his diploma, because on his return home by stagecoach at Christmas vacation he was severely exposed to weather, particularly water, while coach was crossing a stream. A prolonged siege of illness caused by this, prevented his return in time to graduate. His home was in Rushville, Ohio.

I do not know whether the college has any record of him. Hence I am sending this memo:-

Thomas McFadden, after his unfortunate experience on return home for winter vacation, decided to study medicine. He graduated from University of Maryland in Baltimore with his medical degree in 1848, and began practice in Rushville, Ohio.

In 1855 he moved to Westerville, Ohio, where the college, Otterbein, had been organized a few years before. He was immediately called to important responsibilities on executive committee and was made Otterbein treasurer.

In 1858 he devoted his entire time to college interests, becoming the first “Professor of Natural Science”.

In 1861 he resigned to become the head surgeon of 46th Regiment of Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He lost his health in the Battle of Shiloh.

The main science building of Otterbein College has been named “McFadden Hall” to honor the memory of the one who established and built up the science work. He died in active service at the college in 1883.

In going over some of the papers of my father’s I noted the enclosed connected with Dickinson College. Rather than destroy them I am sending them to you. They may be of no value, yet I have learned that anything “antique” concerning a college is not to be destroyed.

Very truly yours,

G. McFadden

As shown by this letter Thomas McFadden led a quite distinguished life after Dickinson. Civil War medicine is a fascinating subject, and now that I know that Thomas McFadden was the head surgeon of a regiment during the conflict it may very well be what I choose as the topic of my final project.

In addition to this, the letter also showed me that making assumptions in history can be more of a hindrance than a boon. Just because there may not be any information listed in a reference source doesn’t mean that you won’t find out anything worthwhile after some digging. This is an important lesson, and one I won’t soon forget.



McFadden, Thomas, Letter to Robert Black concerning life at Dickinson, Carlisle, 3 December 1843, I-Friends-1978-4, Friends of the Library, Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.

McFadden, T. Gilbert, Letter to Alumni Secretary concerning father Thomas McFadden, Westerville, 10 March 1948, McFadden Tom class of 1845, DF-Student, Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.

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