Sarah Andrews Thornton: Teacher and Lecturer

By Margaret Riddle

Sarah Andrews Thornton’s name was well-known in Everett social circles in the early years of the 1900s. An educator, lecturer, writer and volunteer committee woman, Sarah’s name appeared weekly in the local newspapers who covered her many speaking engagements. Sarah taught speech training and physical education, and as one senior citizen who knew her recalled, “Everybody who was somebody took elocution lessons from Mrs. Thornton.”

Sarah graduated in 1893 from Emerson College of Oratory in Boston and then taught as Director of the School of Oratory and Physical Culture for three years at Cornell College in Iowa. Though odd-sounding today, physical education and speech training were paired in the early women’s curriculum, marking the formal beginnings of women’s physical education. Gesture, physical control and public speaking were considered important social training for young women.

But males enrolled in her classes too, and it was during this time that she met and fell in love with one of her students, Snohomish County’s first professional baseball player, pitcher Walter Thornton who played for Chicago’s National League team.
Sarah and Walter were married in July of 1896, and Sarah continued her studies, completing post-graduate work at Emerson University. She then opened a studio of oratory and public speaking in Chicago. Walter had roots in Snohomish County, Washington, and in 1899, the couple moved to the town of Snohomish and later to Everett. Sarah immediately set up a studio in her home, the Thornton School of Expression, for which she listed herself as Principal and she continued teaching elocution and physical culture. In a few years, she was able to rent studio space on Colby Avenue in Everett, just across the street from the Everett Theater. For a time she taught classes out of the Everett Public Library’s Carnegie building. From 1909 to 1910, Sarah was on the faculty of Bethania College Conservatory of Music in Everett.
Sarah had wide experience as a stage reader and was nationally known as a club speaker from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast. Her copyrighted outline charts on the subject of Physical Culture and the Evolution of Expression were used extensively by teachers in all parts of the United States. Sarah was active in volunteer charities, serving as third vice president of the Ladies Board of Governors, the women who established the first Everett Hospital. Sarah also helped to start the Snohomish County Orphanage (located in Everett) and was the orphanage board secretary in its early years.
There are many unanswered questions about the last years of Sarah’s life. She was born May 29th, 1866 in Leeds, Androscoggin, Maine, but her death date and place are a mystery. From city directory listings, it appears that Sarah and Walter separated around 1915, for they are listed as residing at different addresses. According to a newspaper story as well as a later interview with Walter Thornton, Sarah moved from Snohomish County to Seattle and died young. There is something very contemporary about Sarah and Walter’s story. Intriguing as a couple and individually, they seem much like neighbors and friends we know and meet today.

Resources : Much of this information was shared by baseball historian David Larson who gained his information from extensive Everett Herald research in the time period, the Polk’s City Directories for Everett, Washington, census searches and contact made with Cornell College in Iowa.
© 2006 Margaret Riddle, All Rights Reserved