On this day: \"Escapes Convent and Weds\"

by Gerelyn Hollingsworth

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On this day, a century ago, Dr. Beecher Baldwin of Elkhorn, Nebraska, and Miss Roma Romine of Arrow Rock, Missouri, were married.

"Escapes Convent and Weds," said the headline on the New York Times article. "Young French Girl Marries Dr. Baldwin Who Had Attended Her," said the subheading.

Why did the New York Times run this odd story? Was the newspaper anti-Catholic a hundred years ago, as some insist it is today? Apparently not, since in the same month that the tale of Beecher Baldwin and Roma Romine appeared, the New York Times ran articles about Pope Pius X every few days, reporting on his poor health, e.g., and on the dishes his sisters prepared for him, including "polenta cogliose, which consists of a layer of polenta, or maize flour, the food of Italian peasants, with tomato sauce, alternating with a layer of small birds."

I think the New York Times ran the tale of Roma Romine's escape from the convent without checking the facts because the thirst for such material had not been slaked. The books by Maria Monk and Rebecca Reed were best sellers in the 19th century, and stories of climbing over convent walls still appealed to the salacious.

For some analyses of the interest so many Protestants had in the books by women claiming to be escaped nuns, see The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History, by David H. Bennett, Vintage, 1995; and "Two 'Escaped Nuns', Rebecca Reed and Maria Monk," in Roads to Rome: The Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism, by Jenny Franchot, University of California Press, 1994.

There are many problems with the New York Times story. Willie Roma Romine did not come from France, for one thing. She's in the 1900 census, age 6, living at home with her parents, in Arrow Rock, Saline County, Missouri, ten miles from Marshall. In the 1910 census, she's 16, living with her father and brother in Clay, Saline County, fifteen miles from Marshall. Her ancestors, the Romines and the Thorntons, came from England, some by way of Holland, to America. They settled in Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee and migrated from there to Missouri, where they were the earliest settlers of Arrow Rock. They were Protestants.

Maybe Abraham Romine decided to put Willie Roma, his 16-year-old daughter with the Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion at the convent boarding school they conducted in Marshall because he thought she would be safe there.

(Anyone who knows Kansas City is familiar with the French Institute of Notre Dame de Sion. Those nuns moved from Marshall to Kansas City in 1925.)

The nuns and boarders at Notre Dame Academy are listed in the 1910 census, taken in the spring. Roma is not among them. Maybe she started school there in the fall of 1910. It was not at all unusual for Protestant girls to attend Catholic boarding schools. Nuns advertised for students and emphasized that non-Catholic girls were welcome and would not be required to study religion.

Even if Roma became a Catholic during the 1910/1911 school year and decided to enter the convent, she was not about to take the "veil for life" in Marshall, because the order's novitiate was in France, not in Missouri. She did not climb over the "high wall of the convent," because there was no wall, just a picket fence.

And what about Beecher? Also a Protestant, judging by his name, but his maternal grandfather came from Ireland, and he attended Creighton's medical school, so maybe there was a touch of Catholic about him. His mother was from Missouri, so maybe he was visiting Catholic relatives in Marshall when the nuns called him to treat Roma.

What kind of a doctor would run away with a boarding school girl? Beecher Benjamin Baldwin was born in September, 1884, according to the 1900 census, so when Roma was 17, going on 18, he was 26, going on 27.

He was an allopath, according to the Directory of Deceased American Physicians. He moved his medical practice seven times between his marriage to Roma Romine in 1911 and his murder in 1924. They moved from Omaha to three different towns in Iowa, then back to Nebraska, then to Los Angeles, then back to Nebraska. He registered for the draft twice in 1918, once in Nebraska where he said he was born in 1887 and once in Iowa, where he said he was born in 1885.

Beecher and Roma are listed in the 1920 census in South Platte, Nebraska. No children. She claimed to be 24, although she was 26. He claimed to be 33, although he was 35. They must have moved back to Los Angeles in 1924, the year Beecher Baldwin was shot to death by a patient.

In 1960, Robert V. Kenny, a former Attorney General for the State of California, reminisced for an oral history project for UCLA. Here he's talking about his days as a newspaper reporter and two of his fellow reporters:

"We were all covering the murder trial of Margaret Willis, who had murdered her personal physician, Dr. Benjamin Beecher Baldwin, then stolen his automobile to transport his body in a trunk which she threw into a canyon. One evening when Sara and I were living at 1515-1/2 South Wilton, Williams and Pat O'Hara appeared accompanied by Dr. Baldwin's young widow. They seemed to be in funds and brought some fine liquor along. It turned out they had pawned the doctor's surgical instruments for this purpose. I asked them how they had come to our apartment, since I knew they were without transportation. They took me to the window and said, 'Look!' There was Exhibit 'A,' the 'death car,' out in front."

I don't know what happened to Roma Romine after that. I don't know if she ever made the papers again.

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