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Hannibal educator had a way with kids, as well as a passion for spelling words

R.B.D. Simonson, Hannibal school superintendent 1892-1907 (Photo from Mirror of Hannibal)


Published April 4, 2015, in the Hannibal Courier-Post

If you “mist” too many words on your last spelling test, you might have “wisht” the government had “stept” in sometime during the past and took action to simplify the spelling of some common words in the English language.

Well fear not; that is exactly what happened.

But it didn’t work.

Back in the spring of 1906, a movement swept the United States, intended to simplify the spelling of some 300 English words. In September 1906, Robert B.D. Simonson, superintendent of the Hannibal school district, lent his support to the initiative, making him one of the three first educational leaders in Missouri to commit his district to the new spelling method.

Andrew Carnegie was the financial backer of this plan, committing $15,000 per year for five years to fund the Simplified Spelling Board. There were 30 members of the board, including Hannibal’s own Mark Twain, who, on Sept. 19, 1906, attended the annual meeting of the Associated Press in New York, to discuss, “Reform Spelling.”

Newspapers across the country editorialized on the subject, including the New York Times, which came out in support of the plan. Others mocked the motive and its intent.

Wikipedia named a few of the initial list of 300 words, which were published on April 1, 1906:

Much of the list included words ending with -ed changed to end –t:

• missed to mist

• possessed to possest

• wished to wisht

Other proposed changes included removal of silent letters:

• catalogue to catalog

Changing –re endings to –er

• caliber and sabre to caliber and saber

Changing ough to o to represent the long vowel sound in the new words:

• altho

• tho

• thoro

Changes to represent the "z" sound with that letter, where "s" had been used:

• brasen and surprise becoming brazen" and surprize.

The initiative, which would become a mandate issued by President Theodore Roosevelt, ultimately failed to be accepted by the American public, and President Roosevelt ultimately withdrew his support of the doomed spelling change.

A year after Robert B.D. Simonson lent his support to the spelling changes, he left Hannibal, accepting the superintendent job at Jefferson City.

Who was

R.B.D Simonson?

Marsha Walton and her family, who are operating “Magnolia Hill” bed and breakfast at 1200 Hill Street, are history buffs who not only want to know the background of the town they call home, but also of the house where they live.

The original owner of their house was Robert B.D. Simonson.

During his education tenure at Hannibal, which began in 1892, the number of school teachers in the Hannibal district increased from 47 to 72. When he first went to work as head of the schools, there were 97 pupils in the high school, only 17 of them boys. By 1907, the total population of the high school was 356, with 120 of those students boys.

Robert Simonson was born in March 1849 in New Jersey, the son of Garret and Martha Mariah Simonson. Robert and his wife, Emma E. Simonson, were married in 1874, and he worked as a school teacher in New Jersey before moving to Missouri.

Prior to his arrival in Hannibal in 1892, Simonson was high school principal at Louisiana, Mo.

House suited

to entertaining

Marsha Walton believes that the home was originally built to accommodate social gatherings as would typically be required of a superintendent. The first floor of the home she now owns is particularly detailed with style in mind.

For example, the fireplace in the living room has imported tiles and hand-carved columns. “Most working class people wouldn’t have been able to afford this,” she said during an interview in 2014.

The house also features a servants’ entrance on the west side, leading upstairs via a narrow, winding staircase. On the third floor there were sleeping quarters in the house accessible from this entrance for a butler, maid/cook and nanny.

The 1900 Census reports the family – including son Clarence – living on Center Street. Clarence, age 25, was employed as an undertaker.

In the years following the beginning of the 20th century – under Simonson’s tenure - the new Hannibal High School building was constructed on the northeast corner of Eleventh and Broadway, as well as the house he would occupy with his family at 1200 Hill Street until 1907.

Mark Twain information obtained from the Rock Island Argus, Sept. 20, 1906.


The Topeka State Journal, dated Sept. 15, 1906, illustrated Charles A. Stillings, the head of the government printing office, and the problems associated with President Theodore Roosevelt’s order that the all White House documents be printed using the simplified spelling words. Spelling changes were kist for kissed; and thoro for thorough. In 1906, when the presidential order was given, the annual payroll for the printing office was $3,000,000, and more than 750 tons of type were set in a year. A total of 300 presses were needed for the work, in order to run off an average of 1,000,000 impressions per day. Ultimately, President Roosevelt rescinded his order.


R.B.D. Simonson, Hannibal school superintendent 1892-1907 (Photo from Mirror of Hannibal)

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