Laramie is often the temporary home of extraordinary people. One was a woman who worked at the Wyoming Penitentiary.
One such person was May Preston Slosson who made the most of having to relocate to Laramie in 1892 with her chemistry professor spouse. In 1880, she had been the first woman to earn a PhD at Cornell University in New York, with a dissertation on “Different Theories of Beauty.”
In 1880, she started teaching philosophy and Greek at Hastings College in Nebraska. She married chemist Edwin E. Slosson in 1891; he was finishing a master’s degree at the University of Kansas. In 1892 he accepted a position at UW, which had admitted its first students just five years earlier.
May gave birth to two sons in Laramie--Preston William in 1892, and Raymond Alfred in 1894. Although she is mentioned frequently in the social news of the Boomerang, she had intellectual ambitions. She approached the administrators of the Wyoming State Penitentiary about organizing a lecture series for the prisoners. They agreed, so UW professors, including her husband, started giving Sunday lectures there.
Eventually, a vacancy developed in the position of prison chaplain. The prisoners themselves requested that Dr. Slosson fill that role. There was some hesitation on the part of the administrators and the governor who appointed her chaplain around 1899, but she took on the challenge with gusto and soon became a quiet confidant and mentor to many prisoners. Sunday lectures became Sunday services, conducted by this non-ordained daughter of a Baptist minister.
She recounted to her granddaughters that she was often called upon at her Laramie home by men who had just been released from prison. Her wary neighbors knew the ex-cons were in the neighborhood when someone with obviously new shoes was spotted at her door—the prison gave all released prisoners a new pair of shoes.
The chaplain experience reinforced her convictions of the evils of alcohol--many of those incarcerated for violent crimes had been drunk and had no recollection of what they had done. She wrote in her unpublished autobiography that murderers were often better sorts of people than the habitual criminal, since they were not criminals by nature and not out for personal gain--it was the alcohol that fueled the passion that caused the crime to be committed.
Sadly, their youngest son, Raymond, died in Laramie in 1900, and was buried at Greenhill Cemetery. By 1903, Edwin Slosson had finished his PhD in Chemistry at the University of Chicago, but he took a different career path and moved his wife and remaining son to New York City, where he became involved in magazine publishing.
In New York, both Drs. Slosson were active in speaking for women’s suffrage, especially since May had been able to vote in Wyoming, a privilege not available to New York women at the time. In 1920, they moved to Washington DC where Edwin became director of Science Service, a scientific news agency. He died there in 1929. May moved to Ann Arbor, and lived with her son Preston and his family. Preston had become a history professor at the University of Michigan.
May made at least one nostalgic trip back to Laramie as a widow, she noted with pleasure the many changes that had taken place. She was pained that her young son was all alone in the cemetery here, and her family honored her request to be buried beside him when she died in 1943 at the age of 87. The Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historic Site is planning an exhibit about this extraordinary woman who was probably the first woman chaplain in the US, if not the world.
By Judy Knight
Caption: May Preston Slosson, at the time she lived in Laramie, taken sometime between 1892 and 1903. She was probably the first woman chaplain in the US, at the former Territorial Penitentiary in Laramie which became the State Penitentiary in 1890 when Wyoming was granted statehood. She was also the first woman to be granted a PhD from Cornell University in New York. Photo by Heyn of Laramie, courtesy of the Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historic Site.