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2013, vol. 67

Another Look: Joseph Kesselring, Bethel College, and the Origins of Arsenic and Old Lace

by Keith L. Sprunger

Keith Sprunger is emeritus professor of history at Bethel College. He taught at Bethel 1963—2001. His main publications are in the area of English Puritanism and Mennonite history. He is currently working on the history of printing and Puritan and Mennonite church architecture. The three Sprunger children are David, Mary, and Philip, all Bethel graduates, and all are now college teachers.

Arsenic and Old Lace, the highly successful Broadway play, and later Hollywood movie, has some Bethel College connections. The author, Joseph O. Kesselring (1902-67), taught at Bethel, in North Newton, Kansas, as a music professor from 1922 to 1924. At the college there is a long-standing tradition that some of the inspiration for the play came from his experiences in this community.

Kesselring’s play, a dark comedy, tells the story of Mortimer Brewster and his two sweet – but murderous and insane – elderly aunts, Martha and Abby Brewster; they live in a large rambling house in Brooklyn, New York. The two aunts kill off lonely old men with arsenicladen elderberry wine, doing this as an act of mercy to put the gentlemen out of their unhappy loneliness. They store the bodies temporarily in a large window seat, until Teddy, another of the Brewsters, equally insane, carries the bodies down to the cellar and buries them; he assumes they are victims of yellow fever. The movie version of Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), starring Cary Grant and directed by Frank Capra, carried the story to theaters all across America.

Goerz House

Local tradition suggests that the historic college house served Kesselring as a setting for the play. This house of 1893, a large, comfortable structure, was originally the home of David Goerz, one of the college founders. Elbert Dumont was the architect. While teaching at Bethel, Kesselring lived in the house, which functioned at the time as a men’s dormitory and residence for a few of the single male teachers; some others who lived in the house along with Kesselring were Bethel staff members Bennie Bargen and Jacob J. Siemens. Today this house serves as the home of the college president.

Several features of the house fit with Kesselring’s setting of the Brewster house of the play; one such feature is the large Goerz window seat. Kesselring made prominent use of a similar window seat in his play. The cellar at Goerz House, with some dirt-floored rooms, suitable for digging and burying, also fits well with the plot of Arsenic and Old Lace. Goerz House is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places; one of the criteria that qualified it for listing was the Kesselring literary association.

The Brewster Sisters

When Kesselring portrayed Martha and Abby Brewster as two eccentric, tottering sisters, he may have modeled them on some persons he met in his Kansas-Oklahoma sojourn – or so local oral tradition believes. This, of course, is conjecture, but various names have been suggested as the originals for the fictional Brewster sisters. According to Mrs. A (an observer from the Kesselring days) the originals for the Brewster sisters likely were two of Kesselring’s cousins, Elma and Elda Ringelman (more about these later). Another suggestion for Martha and Abby Brewster originals was Martha Goerz (Mrs. Rudolph Goerz) and Abby Ruth (Mrs. O. P. Ruth). If there is any parallelism, it would apply to general demeanor, not to a murderous character. Fortunately (for Bethel) there have been no intimations that Kesselring got his models for the evil Jonathan Brewster or the sinister Dr. Einstein from his experiences at the college.

Many local observers credit Bethel for providing the impetus for the play. Older alumni, who knew Kesselring, often talked about his indebtedness to Bethel. All of us who knew him thought that he did indeed use backgrounds and people in Newton for his play. Fascinating conjecture. Kesselring, however, never acknowledged any indebtedness of this kind.

Kesselring’s Early Career in New York and Oklahoma

We are on firmer historical ground when we examine other aspects of Kesselring’s life. Standard biographies of Kesselring (and his New York Times obituary, November 6,1967) tell very little about his early career. He was born in New York City on June 21, 1902, the son of Henry Kesselring and Frances Rudd Kesselring. A look into the Bethel archives of the 1920s adds considerable fresh information about the early years. The archive records show that he began singing at an early age as a choir boy and soloist at the Church of the Epiphany (Episcopal) in Manhattan. When he applied to teach at Bethel, he presented glowing letters of reference from the organist and choir director of the Church of the Epiphany and from the New York Singing Teachers’ Association. The secretary of the latter group recommended him as a person of enthusiasm, talent, and experience and recounted that Kesselring had made a considerable name in church music in New York, first as a boy soprano and then in mature voice as a tenor. In addition to church music, he also had a large repertoire of concert music.

The next step of Joseph Kesselring’s career was his move to Geary, Okla. to teach high school music; this occurred in about 1920 (at age 18 or 19). Geary is a rather out-of-the-way town in western Oklahoma (2010 population of 1,280). How did Kesselring find his way from the bright lights of New York City to the Oklahoma frontier? In this case, some family relationships came into play. The Ringelman family of Geary, without doubt, was Joseph’s avenue to Oklahoma.

John Thiesen and James Lynch of the Mennonite Library and Archives have recently done genealogical research into Kesselring’s family history. It turns out that the Kesselring and Ringelman families were related through marriage with two Müller sisters (Valentine Kesselring married Catherine M. Müller and George Ringelman married Louisa Müller, sister of Mrs. Valentine Kesselring).

The Ringelmans of Geary (the George Ringelman family) originally came from Plumsteadville, Pa., where they were Lutheran. There were six Ringelman children and all of them eventually joined the Deep Run Mennonite church. One by one, the Ringelman children began moving west to Halstead, Kan., and from there they moved on to Oklahoma for cheap or free land, until all had settled at Geary. George Ringelman died in 1910 and according to his obituary, he was survived by his wife and six children, all of whom are living and residents of Geary. The Ringelmans helped to establish the First Mennonite Church and provided a good share of the membership of the new congregation at Geary. A visitor to the town in 1912 reported that all six of the Ringelman siblings were living in their own homes in Geary, and also the Grandmohter Ringelman [Mrs. George]. One of the sons-in-law, Rev. J. S. Krehbiel was the pastor of their church in Geary, which had been founded by their family.

One of the George Ringelman sons, Fred Ringelman, married Susanna Ruth Krehbiel and was father of twin daughters, Elda and Edna. Joseph Kesselring and Elda and Edna Ringelman – possibly the original models for his two Brewster sisters in his play – were second cousins. At Geary, Kesselring was comfortably positioned among a troop of cousins. Kesselring described his teaching at Geary as follows: My time is entirely occupied here at Geary. I have a large class and a Glee Club and whatever leisure I have is devoted to more music. My class is constantly growing and as soon as school ends I expect to be busy from morning till night.

Elda and Edna attended Bethel College, a Mennonite institution, graduating in 1919. After a year or two of teaching, connections with the Ringelman families and the Mennonite church helped to point him in the direction of Bethel College, alma mater of the Ringelman sisters. Bethel was located at Newton (today North Newton), Kansas. In 1922 there was an opening for a choir director. Joseph applied for the position; he was ready to move onward and upward to the college level.

Kesselring at Bethel College, 1922-24

P. J. Wedel, in his history of Bethel published in 1954, observed that in the early '20s there was a frequent turnover of faculty. That an occasional misfit would be found among the faculty as a result of so many changes need not be surprising. Who was this misfit professor?

In 1922, the college hired Kesselring as teacher of music for a salary of $150 a month ($1,350 for the nine-month year). He directed the women’s glee club and gave private lessons. From the start, he made quite a splash on campus. The women students, in particular, saw him as handsome, suave, smooth – so different from the rest of the rather stodgy Mennonite faculty. He was well qualified in music, had lots of talent, and performed with a fine tenor voice. However, it did not go well for him at Bethel. It was not a good fit for him or for the college. He cut quite a swathe in Newton. I can tell you, but he really was a little out of place, said Mrs. A, one of the Bethel students (reflecting on Kesselring in later years).

He arrived with enthusiasm and energy. As required, he signed Bethel’s 12-point doctrinal statement of orthodoxy, without complaint, and this made a good beginning. However, after that the Bethel road was not smooth. In the judgment of Bethel officials, Kesselring did not measure up to college expectations in three areas.

1. Weak academic qualifications. As the college officials were finalizing arrangements for his contract, they discovered that Kesselring had no high school diploma, much less a college degree, and no specialized courses in public school music. Somehow, he overcame this obstacle, perhaps with last-minute summer school work. The records do not tell how this was resolved.

Kesselring was adamant that his qualifications rested on solid music experience in New York, not on some academic piece of paper.

2. He was too friendly with the ladies. Women students soon whispered around that he was very forward. He had a fine voice and was a good teacher, but I didn’t want to take my lesson with the door closed, said one student. In another interview, the same student recalled the private lessons: I was afraid to be alone with him in the same room. . . . . He was definitely a ladies’ man. On the pretext of feeling a girl’s diaphragm, he would try to take liberties.

3. Lifestyle problems. He was so un-Mennonite. In his second year of teaching, the board of directors got involved by calling him in for a frank discussion. They asked him to explain his position on the following three points. (1) The breaking of his promise concerning smoking. (2) His participation in public dances. (3) His attitude in the presence of students leaving the impression that he was merely working for his salary [not for higher ideals]. The directors put him on notice that as long as Mr. Kesselring is teacher at Bethel College he is under moral obligation to abide by the rules of the school.

This board action was at the meeting of Nov. 29, 1923. Two months later, the board minutes reported that the college would replace him with a more suitable man, Mr. Kesselring’s work, with some few exceptions being very much the same. His work as choir director and voice teacher was taken over, in part by fellow faculty member Walter Hohmann and also by employing a new person, John Thut.

At the same time the board also dropped another teacher, B. L. Redmond; the reason for his removal was because he does not seem to fill the place of the Social Science instructor as adequately as might be desired.

Although not greatly appreciated at the college, Kesselring made a better impression in the community at large. He was welcomed in some of the better homes of Newton, and some Newtonian women considered him a very eligible bachelor. He was a friend of the Rudolph Goerz and family, Goerz was a wheat-milling tycoon and member of the Bethel board. He was a jolly fellow. I like him, said one of Goerz children. Later, the family occasionally visited him in New York.

Kesselring’s Later Career

The stint at Bethel was Kesselring’s last teaching job in higher education. His next stop was Kansas City, where he did some acting under the stage name of Joseph King. His Who’s Who in America sketch summarized his post-Bethel career as follows: music instructor, director of amateur theatricals, actor, writer of short stories and poems, producer of vaudeville sketches, and playwright. He married Charlotte Elsheimer, who survived him. His religion was Episcopalian. He died Nov. 5,1967, at his summer home at Kingston, N.Y.

The writer of his New York Times obituary summarized his play-writing career. He wrote 12 plays, four of them making it to Broadway, but his reputation rested on Arsenic and Old Lace. The Times drama critic at the opening of the play in 1941 found it tremendously entertaining. For Joseph Kesselring has written one so funny that none of us will ever forget it. His masterpiece ran for 1444 performances on Broadway (and 1337 performances in London). It also played in Chile, Argentina, Sweden, and in 1958 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, where it drew more than 90,000 viewers.

After Kesselring left Bethel, there was little follow-up – from either side. The college drama department did not perform Arsenic and Old Lace on campus until 1982, when it received great acclaim (and then in 1995 and again in 2013). It took 80 or 90 years, but the college has come to celebrate the Bethel-Kesselring connection and takes some pride in (perhaps) having inspired Arsenic and Old Lace. Alumni firmly believe that he did indeed use backgrounds and people in Newton for his play. And in return, the least he could have done was leave some money to Bethel – which he did not do.