Descent Into Madness

Dear Students: I have received notes from many of you about the grading policy and the message that Dean Cole asked that I share earlier this evening. Based on those notes, it is clear to me that right now, the most helpful thing will be a discussion about ANYTHING OTHER THAN GRADES. Let’s have another story time.

Today’s story is about Matthew Colovin, the first professor of law at the University of Notre Dame. The University published a book celebrating the first 100 years of legal studies at Notre Dame including the following entry: “The first head, or principal, as he was called, of the law department was Professor M. P. Colovin. He disappears at the end of one year, and nothing is known of him [except his family relationships].”

Well, I know something of him. It is a long, bizarre tale, involving members of a family that held great promise and who had many advantages and opportunities, and who squandered them all. The story involves murder, insanity, and scandal. And it is entirely true.

For starters, his name was “Matthew F. Colovin” – the book got his middle initial wrong, as did the commencement bulletin from the only year when he was at Notre Dame (which indicated “M.T. Colovin”).

Photo from Ivey Family London Room, London Public Library, Ontario, Canada

Charles operated a dry goods store at No. 9 Dundas Street. He and Rose had four more children after arriving in Canada. One (Rebecca) died as a child; the others were named Patrick, Charles, and Elizabeth.

Matthew was educated at the Collège Sainte-Marie de Montréal (now part of the Université du Québec à Montréal), where he excelled in his studies. He earned a law degree and was admitted to the bar for Upper Canada in June 1861. He maintained a solo practice in London, Ontario for the next several years.

In September 1868, Matthew Colovin arrived at the University of Notre Dame and began teaching … French. It was not for another few weeks that the Board of Trustees approved the establishment of a law department. Once it had done so, however, Colovin set about establishing the law curriculum, and in February 1869 the University began offering courses in law. Matthew Colovin was the sole Professor of Law.

Why did a Canadian trained in law arrive on campus as a French instructor? After all, the University did not have any shortage of faculty who might have taught French, the native language of Father Sorin and many other members of the Congregation of Holy Cross. It seems likely that Father Sorin recruited Matthew Colovin to design a law curriculum, and that French was a “placeholder” position while the law department got approved. Sorin was probably aware of Matthew through his brother,  Patrick Colovin. Read to the end to learn more about that strange relationship.

H.P. Chapman & J.F. Battalie, Picturesque Vicksburg (Vicksburg Printing and Publishing Co.) (1895) at 21.

Why was he teaching again? Because Matthew Colovin was not yet a citizen of the United States and was therefore unable to practice law. He began the naturalization process in 1872 and was admitted to the bar that same year. Shortly afterward, his brother Charles joined him in Vicksburg, working in the newspaper business.

Matthew Colovin’s law practice flourished in Vicksburg and the surrounding area. In 1878 he represented W. L. Lowry and other taxpayers of Sunflower County on an important matter of state constitutional law. To give you a flavor of Mississippi in the late nineteenth century, Lowry was later killed in a scene straight out of a movie:

  • Lowry was a prominent businessman. He boarded a steamboat (of course) to transact business
  • On board the steamboat was a man named Holman, who was upset with Lowry over a prior business deal
  • When Holman saw Lowry on board, he shot him (of course)
  • Lowry turned to his friend, John Arnold, and said “kill him John, he has shot me”
  • Arnold got out of his chair (he was being shaved – of course) and started after Holman
  • As Arnold chased after Holman, Lowry also fired at Holman.
  • Lowry’s shot missed Holman, but struck and killed Holman’s friend, Walker
  • Lowry died moments after he killed Walker
  • Meanwhile, Arnold had caught Holman and struggled with him on the deck of the steamboat
  • During that struggle, Holman shot and killed Arnold

Holman was arrested and charged with murder. Following a sensational trial, and despite overwhelming evidence, Holman was acquitted. As the Jackson (Mississippi) Comet reported, “The affair is deeply to be regretted, as all the parties engaged are very highly respected.” So that’s the environment to keep in mind.

Back to Matthew Colovin. In 1880 we find him in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he is tending to business and delivering speeches on the evils of alcohol. This is not a promising sign of things to come, as it suggests some level of expertise by Colovin in the field.

In 1885, Colovin’s drinking problem led to real tragedy. On October 2, he shot and killed a man named Dan Steel in Indianola, Mississippi. Newspaper accounts stated that “testimony in the preliminary trial of Mr. Colovin … revealed unmistakably that Colovin did the killing, without provocation. The testimony goes to prove that it was a case of downright murder. Both [Steel] and Colovin were dissipated characters, and it is presumed that both were drinking.” Steel was an African-American man; Colovin was a prominent leader of the local bar; and despite the “almost universal opinion of all who closely followed the evidence in the case [and] regarded a conviction as beyond question,” a Sunflower County jury did not take long to acquit Colovin of the charges. He promptly returned to practicing law.

He also returned to drinking. In 1888 he was charged with violating local revenue laws in Vicksburg; that was a euphemism for purchasing alcohol illegally. The State agreed not to prosecute, and shortly thereafter, Colovin relocated to Louisville, Kentucky.

In 1892 Colovin was admitted to the bar of the Jefferson County Circuit Court. He also appears to have worked as a teacher at Gethsemani College (affiliated with the Trappist abbey that was later the home of the influential writer Thomas Merton, author of “The Seven Storey Mountain” and many other works).

Unfortunately, things did not improve for Colovin in Kentucky. On May 21, 1900 he was adjudged insane by the Jefferson County Circuit Court and was involuntarily committed to the Central Kentucky Asylum for the Insane (known locally as “Lakeland.”). He died there on June 17; he and hundreds of others are buried in unmarked graves on the grounds of the facility. The cause of death is noted as “chronic alcoholism.”

Very sad, right? It gets worse.

I noted that Matthew’s brother, Charles, joined him at Vicksburg in the early 1870s. Charles married a woman named Julia Burns, and in 1878 Charles died during a yellow fever epidemic that swept through Vicksburg. Julia remarried, but she attempted to keep in touch with Matthew as much as possible.When Matthew moved from Vicksburg to Louisville, Julia lost track of him. A boy from Vicksburg who had studied at Gethsemani College told Julia that Matthew was at the school, and she promptly wrote to him. “Many years have passed since last you received a message from us, and we had begun to think of you as dead … I could not make you believe how happy it made us feel to know you were alive and living such a holy life.” Matthew Colovin never received the letter. It was written four weeks after he died.

Well, what about his sister, Elizabeth?

Minneapolis Journal, June 7, 1902, p. 1

Okay, but what about his other brother, Patrick?

Patrick Colovin joined the Congregation of Holy Cross at Saint-Laurent and was ordained on St. Patrick’s Day, 1867. He was brilliant and gregarious. He soon came to the attention of Father Sorin, who insisted that Patrick be appointed superior of the congregation in Montreal only a few years after he was ordained.

Along with his brilliance, Patrick did not tolerate guidance from his own superiors very well. He and Sorin clashed frequently. Nevertheless, when the University of Notre Dame needed to fill the office of president in 1874 due to the untimely death of Auguste Lemmonier, Father Sorin asked Patrick Colovin to fill the role.

Patrick was also a frequent speaker on the evils of alcohol; you know by now where this is going. He was wildly popular with the students, who saw him as a champion of the Irish. Father Sorin requested that students not celebrate St. Patrick’s Day as heartily as they would like; Father Colovin disagreed, and large celebrations followed. After three years, Father Sorin had had enough, and Patrick Colovin was sent to a parish and small college in Wisconsin.

Deadwood, South Dakota, 1876. Photo from National Archives and Records Administration.

It’s hard to be a parent. One son of Charles and Rose Colovin founded the law department at the University of Notre Dame; another became the fifth president of the University. They made some extraordinarily bad choices, and their early successes in life were overshadowed by their actions later.

I didn’t say it would be a happy story, but I hope I delivered on my promise: a strange but true tale involving the early personalities at Notre Dame.
Sleep tight.


Special thanks to Beth Klein of the Kresge Law Library at Notre Dame for her assistance in obtaining files from the Kentucky State Archives for the Central State Hospital (formerlh the Asylum for the Insane).

For sources and additional reading see p. 2

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