West Chester’s Own Napoleon
One schoolmaster took his cues from the European conquerer.
If you’re going to teach boys for a living, you probably couldn’t have had a better mentor than the fellow who conquered most of Europe. Like Napoléon Bonaparte, Jean Claude Antoine Brunin de Bolmar—West Chester’s most prominent pre-Civil War teacher—was a practitioner of both bold assault and the skilled management of troops. He also suffered from a raging, micromanaging ego.
“[This] energetic principal was regarded as the Napoléon of teachers,” said the Pennsylvania superintendent of public instruction in an 1878 report. “His school was noted for its remarkably systematic and exact discipline; indeed, it was semi-military in its methodical strictness. No boy could ever boast that he had outwitted ‘Bollie,’ as he was familiarly called by his pupils.”
Bolmar was born in Bourbon-Lancy, France, a rural village on the Loire River in Burgundy. His own descriptions of his early life reveal nothing of his origins, though his parents were sufficiently affluent to send him, in 1810, to the Imperial Lyceum of Clermont-Ferrand, now Université Blaise Pascal.
Several accounts of Bolmar’s life depict him as a Napoleonic soldier. One of them described him as having been part of the French force that invaded, and later retreated from, Russia in 1812, with the loss of half of its 680,000 men. Bolmar was 15 at the time. Another account put him with Napoléon at Waterloo in 1815. But he was just 18 then.
More likely is an 1893 biographical sketch that describes Bolmar as a student during that period. Just as the Greatest Generation grew up with Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House, Bolmar grew up in a world being reshaped by Napoléon Bonaparte.
In 1797, the year of Bolmar’s birth, Napoléon faced down an Austrian invasion. Two years later, he made himself dictator. In 1808, when Bolmar was 11, Napoléon invaded Spain and put his brother on its throne. His resounding defeat at Waterloo came when Bolmar was 18. It had all been quite a show, ranging across the boy’s formative years.
Later, reports show Bolmar sitting on his porch, shaded by a tree brought from France as a sapling, “and telling his children of the tragedy that sent Napoléon into exile, but not into disgrace.”
In 1816, Bolmar left the university for Lyon, where he apprenticed with Cordier & Co., a prominent silk weaver. Lyon had been a center of silk production since the 15th century.
Two years later, in 1818, at the age of 21, Bolmar became eligible for military conscription. His options were to enlist and choose his unit or be drafted and have no choice. Either way, he would serve six years. He enlisted and chose the 6th Hussars, a cavalry regiment.
If he saw military action, it was likely in Spain, which France invaded in 1823 to restore absolute royal rule. The French won, but the effort was disliked by many who recalled the liberal ideas of the French Revolution. In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo called it “a debasing war ... in which the Bank of France could be read in the folds of the flag.”
Was Bolmar disillusioned? After his discharge in 1824, he traveled to Switzerland, England and Scotland. Finally, in 1826, at Liverpool, he boarded the ship Minerva for Philadelphia, perhaps following the thinking of Napoléon, who had planned to escape to the United States before being imprisoned on St. Helena.
In Philadelphia, Bolmar became a French teacher and author of textbooks. In 1830, he published A Collection of Colloquial Phrases; in 1832, Key to the First Eight Books of the Adventures of Telemachus, the Son of Ulysses; and, in 1834, Theoretical and Practical Grammar of the French Language. The city was home to many French émigrés, some of whom—Stephen Girard, for instance—rose to prominence. But such a life makes one wonder if Bolmar wasn’t receiving family money.
Jean Claude Antoine Brunin de Bolmar came to Chester County in 1832. Asiatic cholera had arrived in Philadelphia on immigrant ships that summer, and distance was the most popular strategy. “Bolmar retired to the borough of West Chester to continue his work on his school books,” related local historian Samuel T. Wiley, “and was so pleased with the place that he remained a resident ever afterward.”
After two years in the borough, Bolmar was “prevailed upon” to take over management of the West Chester Academy, the institution that eventually became West Chester University.
The school was then treated as a business opportunity: Bolmar paid $200 a year to run the school, and students’ tuition provided his income. The legislature also supplied a $500 annual subsidy. “During Mr. Bolmar’s occupation of the academy, he was very successful,” wrote WCU historian Joseph J. Lewis. “The numbers of his pupils sometimes amounted to nearly 200, and his profits were considerable. His management was entirely satisfactory to the trustees, and they regretted to lose the benefit of his success.”
According to Wiley, the academy “sprung at once into wide popularity” due to Bolmar’s management. In 1840, when he learned that the former home of a defunct girls’ school would be auctioned at a sheriff’s sale, Bolmar calculated that he could do better on his own. He bought the building and advertised “Bolmar’s School for Young Gentlemen.”
Something about “gentlemen” didn’t appeal to local parents. Perhaps it sounded expensive, or like the sort of place that would make boys into useless dandies. “Finding the circular advertisement didn’t attract profitable attention, he destroyed the printed material and made the same announcement under the title of Bolmar’s School for Boys,” Wiley wrote. “The change in the publicity filled his school.”
Public education had been officially introduced to Pennsylvania in the 1830s, but it was still not available everywhere and was of inconsistent quality. Many families depended on private schools—and Bolmar offered a broad curriculum: reading, writing, grammar, geography, arithmetic, bookkeeping, history, elocution, composition, mathematics, biology, ethics and “the evidence of Christianity,” plus languages and the classics. “Instruction will be such as to enable the pupil to enter advantageously upon a mercantile or mechanical profession, or to be admitted into any college,” stated Bolmar.
The cost was $170 per year, plus $10 for bedding and another $10 for those studying French, Spanish or German. Bolmar used the title “principal” and employed about a half-dozen additional teachers.
Students were required to attend church. Drinking and fighting were forbidden, and spending money was impounded. “This was held in guardianship by the school and doled out to the boys on Saturday, when they were permitted to go into the town and spend their 10 cents or, on special occasions, 25 cents,” recalled the Daily Local. “The most of the princely allowances found their way into the till of Lydia Ann Pyle, who sold candies and ice cream in her store on Gay Street.”
Discipline was inescapable. Dan Burton, a former student, told the Local how Bolmar broke up a fight between two students by taking the larger one by the collar, pulling him aside and sending him to his room: “The youth was indignant at his teacher and warned him not to lay hands on him again, assuring him that he could command him to go to his room and that he would obey, but he would permit no man to lay hands on him.”
The whole school expected the boy to be expelled. Instead, at that evening’s assembly, Bolmar apologized. “You were right,” Bolmar said. “I had no business putting my hands on you, and I did hastily on the spur of the moment, and I want to compliment you for standing for your right.” Courage, he added, should be respected.
Bolmar then grounded the student. There would be no trips to town or Miss Lydia’s “for a long time, making the penalty severe enough for the offending pupil to understand that fighting did not go on in Bollie’s school,” according to the Local.
Napoléon took a similar tack with his men, always insisting on obedience but praising their courage. When he witnessed bravery on the battlefield, he promoted such men on the spot. Napoléon once took the Legion of Honour off his own coat and put it on the uniform of one of his soldiers.
According to Burton, Bolmar seemed to have an uncanny ability to know where his students were at all times. “This apparently gained additional directness and clarity if any of the young men had been in the company of any people of the town whom the teacher thought would exert an evil influence,” Burton said.
Bolmar took out an ad in the Local, advising “certain dealers who sell intoxicating drinks by stealth” that if this didn’t cease, “he [would] cause the youths of his school to whom the drinks have been sold to testify upon oath” against those who had sold liquor to minors. “Fine and imprisonment” await, he concluded.
In addition to a large contingent of Southerners, there was a score or more of Cubans who, recalled Burton, lived in luxury at home and spent money “like water.” Their exotic Spanish air made the Cubans popular with West Chester girls, which led to other problems. In one case, “a Spaniard who had abused the confidence of the family of one of the young women was shipped home by the very next boat, for Bollie never retained a student who was unfit scholastically or morally,” said Burton.
Bolmar had his defeats. In 1848, in a dispute over his bill, he impounded the student in question until his mother paid up. When a lawyer came to the door to collect the boy, Bolmar refused to release him until ordered to do so by a local judge. “The important points settled by this controversy are that you cannot imprison a boy for debts contracted by his parent, and that no one can enter a lien against a boy except the master workmen and those who furnish the materials,” the Local observed at the time.
That seems like something Napoléon might have tried, as well.