Was the Professor a Terrorist?
This web site assumes no responsibility for anything in it, and especially not for the following article, which may be based on rock-hard facts, or, on the other hand, be no more solid than smoke from the rich pipes of opium addicts. It claims that the first college math teacher and first husband of mathematician Anna Johson Pell Wheeler [05 May 1883 – 26 March 1966], not mentioned in the article, was, unknown to her presumably, nihilist Russian revolutionary, turned police informer, turned top-cop killer, turned fugitive, Sergey Degaev [1857-1921], who had assumed the false name Alexander Pell.

The Dakota Territory came into being on 02 March 1861. It extended over a vast region of 900'000 square kilometers — an area equal to that of France and Germany combined — but at the time of its formation it had barely 3000 White settlers, the majority of them concentrated in the southeastern corner, near the Mississippi River. The following year, the legislature voted to found in Vermillion, a small town in this enclave, the University of South Dakota, but it failed to appropriate any money for the pursuit. In the years that followed, however, the population of the territory exploded, as hundreds of thousands of new settlers moved in. Twenty-five years later, it had grown to half a million, and the need for higher education became acute. To that end, bonds were issued to secure money for university buildings and faculty salaries.

The university's beginnings were rocky. Its first president, the Rev. Ephraim M. Epstein he was identified in the university's yearbook as "born in Germany of an old Jewish family which claims to trace its descent to Moses" found the applicants quite unprepared to pursue higher education. After examining them, he decided to admit no one who had not completed elementary grades. At an annual salary of $700, contributed by the citizens of Vermillion, he taught most of the classes himself, combining educational duties with preaching at the local Baptist church. The duties apparently were not to his liking, for he resigned after one year to practice medicine.

After six years and three presidents the university had 300 students, of whom only 40 attended college; the others enrolled in the preparatory department, which offered a three-year course that provided the equivalent of a high-school education. The fourth president, the Norwegian-born Greek scholar Edward Olson, who came to South Dakota in 1887 from the University of Chicago, found the faculty so far below acceptable standards that he felt compelled to dismiss a good part of it. Still, the university grew, although the majority of its students continued to study in the preparatory department and never went on to college.

In 1897, the university's board of trustees decided that it required a professor of mathematics and turned to the professor Lorrain S. Hulburt of Johns Hopkins for nominees. He responded approximately as follows: "Yes, I have a mathematician for you. He would get a good position almost anywhere here in the East were it not for the Russian brogue with which he speaks. As a mathematician he is first class, and he would accept a position as head of your Department of Mathematics at once." Vermillion's answer was: "Send your Russian mathematician along, brogue and all."

The Russian candidate was a recent Johns Hopkins Ph.D. by the name of Alexander Pell. He arrived in Vermillion in the fall of 1897 with his wife, Emma, to assume duties as the sole professor of mathematics. Of his background, little was known. After he had made himself at home, Pell told his new colleagues that his original name had been Alexander Polevoi; he had adopted his new name on taking U.S. citizenship in 1891. He further informed them that in his youth he had been a "nihilist" and had, on 01 March 1881, personally witnessed the assassination of Alexander II. In time, however, he explained, he had turned his back on nihilism and emigrated.

On his subsequent experiences he was somewhat vague. Some sources quoted him as saying he had arrived in the United States "between 1881 and 1886." The 1903 edition of Coyote, the University of South Dakota yearbook, stated that he had completed his education in Russia: "After traveling in Europe, he came to America in 1886 and settled in St. Louis, Mo." Moving from place to place, taking on menial jobs while his wife worked as laundress and cook, he enrolled at Johns Hopkins in October 1895 with a major in mathematics and minors in astronomy and English literature. His 34-page dissertation, On the Focal Surfaces of the Congruences of Tangents to a Given Surface, published in Baltimore in 1897, earned him a doctorate.

In appearance the newcomer was quite unprepossessing: Short and stocky, he had reddish hair, a mustache, and trimmed beard. He always dressed impeccably. Although he could not rid himself of his Russian "brogue,'' he made a conscious effort to assimilate. At home, he spoke only English and is said to have voted the Republican ticket. During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, he hoped for a Japanese victory (which did occur). But he showed little interest in politics.

Pell quickly adapted to the new and unfamiliar environment. Assuming a heavy teaching load, he also took part in a variety of extracurricular activities, including chess and sports: Thus he introduced and directed a program of gymnastics for men and women, and faithfully attended the university's athletics contests.

He was highly popular. Accounts of him, whether from faculty members or students, are uniformly laudatory. The class of 1904 elected him "father" and dedicated its yearbook to him and his wife only the second time any faculty member was so honored. The 25 March 1901, issue of Volante, the school newspaper, reported on Dr. and Mrs. Pell's "entertaining the class of which he was class father. From the head of the table beamed the jolly countenance of 'Jolly Little Pell' cracking jokes faster than the freshmen could crack nuts." One alumnus recalled: "Dr. Pell occupied a unique position in the minds and hearts of his students. They respected him profoundly, yet they felt his personal friendship so true that they were at liberty to counsel with him with reference to their personal problems. He was one of the most human men I have ever known." The South Dakota Alumni Quarterly said of Pell that he "knew the students in closer good comradeship than any other member of the faculty."

One incident illustrates the reason for his popularity:

"At the close of a football game in Mitchell, a group of toughs seized the University colors from a young college woman and trampled them in the mud. The wrath of the boys was stirred to patriotic fervor, but a faculty member said to one of them, 'Remember to be a gentleman.' Alexander Pell, however, vowed that 'If a man wants to fight, let him fight.' The boys asked, 'Who will watch our baggage?' Pell said, 'I will,' and they went to it. It was bitter, and the college boys were getting the worst of it. All at once, they saw someone they had never seen before. When he struck a tough, the man went to the ground. The battle was soon over. With victory won, the boys all looked to their champion, his face bloody and his shirt torn to shreds. A youth exclaimed in surprise, 'It's Pell.'"
His loyalty to the school was equaled by his kindness. From his meager annual salary of $1650 he supported the studies of a young Russian woman, Olga Aleksandrovna Averkieff, who graduated in 1905. He also paid for the medical education at the University of Nebraska of a distant relative, Nina Polevoi.

Pell's true passion was mathematics, which preoccupied his every free moment. His close friend at the university wrote that "one could readily believe that in a social environment where research was the dominating interest Dr. Pell would have been completely satisfied." He published articles in American mathematical journals and attended national mathematical conferences. He was a member of the American Mathematical Society and the Physical-Mathematical Society of Kazan.

He seems eventually to have concluded that a small teaching university like South Dakota, the majority of whose students attended remedial high school, offered no prospect of advancing pure mathematical scholarship. For that reason, six years after his arrival he suggested the creation of an engineering department. After overcoming some resistance, in 1905 he secured the necessary funds to realize his wish. Two years later, the department of engineering became the College of Engineering, of which Pell was appointed the first dean.

What this article does not mention, but is found in a reliable article (linked-to above) is that
      in 1899 Anna Johnson entered the University of South Dakota where she showed great promise in mathematics. The professor of mathematics, Alexander Pell, recognized her talents and helped persuade Anna Johnson that she should follow a career in mathematics. She received an A.B. degree in 1903.
      After winning a scholarship to study for her master's degrees at the University of Iowa, she was awarded the degree for a thesis The extension of Galois theory to linear differential equations in 1904. A second master's degree from Radcliffe was awarded in 1905 and she remained there to study under Bôcher and Osgood.
      Anna Johnson was awarded the Alice Freeman Palmer Fellowship from Wellesley College to study for a year at Göttingen University. There she attended lectures by Hilbert, Klein, Minkowski, Herglotz and Schwarzschild. She worked for her doctorate at Göttingen. While she was there, Alexander Pell, her former mathematics professor came to Göttingen so that they could marry.
(this must have been in 1907. The article from which this interjected snippet comes, does not mention Alexander Pell's first wife, Anna, who may have died by then.)

Pell was well established proof that an ex-"nihilist" from cosmopolitan St. Petersburg could successfully assimilate to what was then the US frontier.

No one suspected that "Jolly Little Pell" the beloved teacher, the passionate mathematician, the ardent football fan was in reality Sergey Degaev, a onetime murderer and police informer.

Which was the true Degaev/Pell: the kindly professor who in America would have been perfectly happy "in a social environment where research was the dominating interest," or the revolutionary turncoat whose betrayals had sent scores of his comrades to prison in his native country and who had killed a man whose confidence he had gained? I can offer no conclusive answer to that question. Not only are the primary sources extremely scarce, but the complexity of human nature is such that when people behave in contradictory ways, it is most difficult to determine which is their true self. As Coleridge has observed, citing the 18th-century reformer and philanthropist Samuel Whitbread, no man does anything from a single motive.

Did Degaev/Pell suffer from a split personality? Was his dissimilar behavior on the two continents the natural result of maturation of a man who was in his early 20s when living in Russia, and in his 40s when in South Dakota? Or was he perhaps trying in middle age, with good deeds, to atone for the evils he had committed in his youth? Were the conditions of freedom that he encountered in America so different from the ones he had known in Russia as to transform him into a different human being? Or perhaps was Joseph Conrad right in saying that the Russian personality is so enigmatic that a Westerner cannot hope to penetrate it?

Sergey Degaev was born in Moscow in 1857, the son of an army physician. Destined for a military career, in 1880 he became involved in revolutionary activity that led to his dismissal from the service. At that time, he joined the People's Will, an organization committed to political terror as a means of liberating Russia from tsarist oppression. Temperamentally, he was not well suited to that kind of activity because, as he privately confided, he hated the sight of blood and, although he supported terrorism, could not personally assassinate anyone. The revolutionaries interpreted such statements as cowardice and refused him admittance to the executive committee of the People's Will, which directed terrorist activities. He was greatly troubled by the rejection.

In March 1881, the People's Will attained its immediate objective, which was to assassinate Tsar Alexander II, but the murder failed in its ultimate objective rousing the population to overthrow tsarism. In the repressions that followed, the authorities managed to arrest most of the terrorists. Degaev, too, was detained but, because he was not directly involved, he was soon released. In 1882, he gradually rose to a position of leadership in the decimated ranks of the People's Will but, in December of that year, as he was setting up an illegal printing press, he was caught and imprisoned.

Degaev now concluded that the entire terrorist enterprise was doomed, for it had been thoroughly penetrated by police spies. So from prison, he contacted Lt. Col. Georgii Sudeikin, the chief of the security services that had succeeded in breaking up the People's Will, to propose collaboration. Sudeikin had his own grudge against the government, for, although he had had remarkable success in protecting it, he had not been promoted to the rank of general and had failed to obtain a private audience with the murdered tsar's son and successor, Alexander III. Sudeikin arranged for Degaev's spurious escape from prison. The two men then struck a bargain: Degaev, in control of what was left of the People's Will, would thwart assaults on the new tsar but would arrange for the assassination of several persons close to him, which would so frighten the court that it would entrust Sudeikin with dictatorial powers. Soon afterward, on tips from Degaev, the security organs arrested hundreds of persons sympathetic to, or involved in, terrorist activities.

For some reason that is not clear, half a year later Degaev lost his nerve and traveled to Switzerland, where lived the titular head of the People's Will, Lev Tikhomirov, and confessed his treachery. Tikhomirov told him that his life would be spared on condition that he killed Sudeikin. Degaev agreed. He collaborated with Sudeikin, however, for half a year longer, and, finally, in December 1883, under dramatic circumstances, having lured Sudeikin to his apartment, assassinated him.

Following the murder, Degaev escaped to Paris. From there, he and his wife made their way to London and, eventually, to the United States. Here, after holding a variety of menial jobs, having changed his name to Pell and acquired U.S. citizenship, he enrolled at Johns Hopkins to study mathematics. He received his doctorate in 1897 and assumed the professorship at the University of South Dakota. He lived, until his death in 1921, in constant fear of being found out and murdered by Russian revolutionaries.

There are several aspects of this enigmatic person's life that are fascinating. One is the striking difference in his behavior in Russia and in the US. Had Degaev been born in the United States, would he have become a gentle professor rather than a supporter of terror and a turncoat. In other words, were his actions determined by the political environment, or by some other factor?
      Another question is: what made him confess his treachery? Was it his troubled conscience, or fear of being found out and killed? No less fascinating is Sudeikin, who combined a romantic love of detective work with a ruthless exploitation of human weaknesses.

History can be more fascinating than fiction. If a novelist had invented figures like Degaev and Sudeikin, he would have been accused of fantasizing. Reality can, indeed, be more implausible than the imagination. For, as Mark Twain once wrote, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn't.”

It is both frustrating and challenging that the documentation to answer questions about this affair has turned out to be so scarce. Neither Degaev nor Sudeikin, equally secretive individuals, committed their thoughts to paper. Most of the information on Degaev came from the recollections and other testimonies of people whom he had betrayed not the most objective sources. Sudeikin surrounded himself with a wall of secrecy so impenetrable that he left behind virtually no written records: Suffice it to say that his photographic likeness came to light only more than a century after his death.

This story, therefore, leaves much to the imagination of the reader. It presents the evidence, such as found in Russian archives and printed sources, offers various alternative interpretations, and then leaves it up to the reader to decide which is the correct one.