Thursday, November 6, 2014

Two Esperantist Ladies in Mexico

Head of Zamna, from an
article by von Schenck
I’m not saying that just because two women spend fifty years of their lives together they must be lesbians. I am saying that for lesbians at the turn of the century this was a common pattern. The Countess von Schenck and Miss Nohl may have simply been two spinsters, both born in Germany, who went for a simpler life in Mexico and devoted themselves to teaching Esperanto to the blind.

Certainly, they spent the bulk of their lives together. In 1915, when they came to the attention of the Omaha Daily Bee, they were both in their 70s. I haven’t managed to find birthdates for one of them, but Natalia von Schenck was born about 1840 and her companion, Alicia L. Nohl, in about 1845. The general lack of records on the two is probably due to their quiet lives among the blind in Mexico for forty years. So, they were in their twenties when they met.

The two women came to the attention of the Daily Bee courtesy of von Shenck’s nephew, Gus Trager. Trager had lived in Nebraska but since about 1897 had been living and working in Mexico. In November 1915, Mr. Trager paid a visit to Nebraska, bringing along his aunt and her companion. I’m going to abridge the November 6, 1915 article, “Peace in Mexico Depends on U.S.,” including only those parts which involve the two women.
Gus Trager, formerly of Omaha and Chadron, and for eighteen years connected in an official capacity with the Los Arcos Smelting company, near Mexico City, is visiting Omaha friends. With him is an aunt, Miss Natalia von Schenck, and the latter’s companion, Miss Alicia L. Nohl.

Miss Schenck has lived in Mexico forty years and has devoted much of her life to ameliorating the condition of the blind. She interested Diaz in the establishment of an institution of the blind in Mexico City and has been active in popularizing Esperanto as a universal language for the blind. Eight languages have been mastered by this woman, who is past 70 years of age. Miss Nohl is interested in Miss Schenck’ work.

Last week in Boston these woman spent an hour with Hellen Keller and arranged for a visit in San Francisco next week.
The rest of the article is based on comments made by one W. M. Holland, a Texan, on the conditions in Mexico at the time. I’m not really interested in him.

A page (in Spanish) on Almoloya, Mexico gives von Shenck’s birthdate as July 26, 1840, and states that she lived in the United States before moving to Mexico in 1905. Nohl is described as “her inseparable friend.” The two women met about 1866, as the 1916 obituary for Miss Nohl notes that they lived together for fifty years. An 1880 report from the Department of the Interior on education lists the two as the heads of the German American Ladies’ College of Austin, Texas from 1874 onward. Wikipedia notes that this school ended in 1879.[1] In addition to her work with the blind, von Shenck published twice in the journal Records of the Past, once on “The Pyramids of Zamna and Kabul” and on “The ‘Cenotes’ of Yucatan,” both articles appearing in 1906, not long after her arrival in Mexico. For Nohl’s own intellectual contributions, a translation from German to Esperanto appears in the November 1912 Amerika Esperantisto.[2]

As I noted before, Miss Nohl died in 1916, only about a year after her visit to Nebraska (I doubt the two were related). She was about 71 years old. A year later, Amerika Esperantisto is noting that greetings have been sent by the Countess von Schenck. Miss von Schenck continued on, writing a page in the April 1920 Evergreen Review. In it she talks of a “we” without ever specifying who the other person is, though we know that it was Alicia Nohl.
We first lived in beautiful Parrae Coah, the vineyard of Mexico.
and later
In later years we made our home in Los Arcos, a most beautiful spot in the southern part of the State of Mexico; snow-capped mountains, beautiful green valleys and rumbling water-falls surrounded our home, an ideal place for my love-work for the unfortunate sightless, as there we were far away from civilization, I had all the time I desired for my favorite work.
She reported that “our pretty home” was sacked by the Zapatistas, all without ever mentioning who constituted “we.” She predicted that death would come soon to her, though I have found no record of it.

Yes, they may have been spinsters, but I want to think that, even though they couldn’t admit it in 1915, they were in love. Unless they turn up in some list of nineteenth-century lesbians, there is no proof, just the hint in the words that Natalie von Schenck was “ŝia fidela kaj amanta amikino,” her faithful and loving friend.

  1. See Wahrenberger House.  ↩
  2. “La Ĵonglisto,” (The Juggler) a translation of a work by Emile Mario Vacano.  ↩

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