Mary Preston Slosson isn’t one of the more well known women of the Old West, but to the prisoners in the Wyoming Territitorial Prison in Laramie, Mary was a rock star–and not for the reasons you might assume. She wasn’t the cook or a nurse. She didn’t help anyone escape–at least not in a physical sense. Mary was a chaplain–the first female chaplain in Wyoming and possibly in the United States.
Her story is unique for the day. Born in 1858, Mary grew up with her minister father and her mother on a farm in New York state. Her upbringing instilled in her a strong work ethic, religious values and hunger for knowledge that led her to pursue higher education. With her parents’ encouragement, she attended Hillsdale College in Michigan where she earned two degrees. Later she attended Cornell where she was the first women to earn a Ph.D. from that university. Her areas of expertise were philosophy and Greek, and her thesis was titled, “Different Theories of Beauty.”
Mary met Edwin Slosson in Kansas where she was serving as an assistant principal at a high school and he was finishing his MS degree. This is where the writer in me starts spinning tales. How exactly did they meet? Were there immediate sparks? Who spoke the first words? That information is lost to history, but they were married August 12, 1891 and had a son in 1893.
What happened next is what gives Mary her unique place in history. Edwin’s career took them to the University of Wyoming in Laramie where he taught chemistry. Mary, who also went by May, saw a teaching opportunity of her own. A firm believer that an idle mind was debilitating, she asked Pennitentiary officials for permission to conduct a lecture series for the prisoners. The officials agreed, and the May Preston Slosson Historical Lecture Series was born–a tradition that continues to this day.
The prisoners loved Mary. One can only imagine the relief she brought from the hours of boredom, the encouragement from her faith, the interest she showed in individuals when they met in the prison dining hall to hear her speak. When the regular prison chaplain resigned, the prisoners petitioned to have Mary appointed in his place. In 1899, she became the first female prison chaplain in the United States.
She spent at least four years in Laramie before moving to New York with Edwin, who added writing and editing to his list of career achievements. In Wyoming, women had the right the vote and were political equals. Wanting to share what she had experienced in Wyoming, Mary became active in the women’s suffrage movement and was a popular speaker. She died in 1943, but she certainly left her mark on the world.
Mary is the kind of historical figure that fires up my imagination. Can’t you see her as a heroine in a novel? I sure can. I admire Edwin too. He once filled in for an ailing Mary at a speaking engagement. When he was introduced as Mr. May Slosson, he smiled proudly and spoke eloquently of women’s rights, a tribute to his wife and her place in history.