SD Magazine remembers USD’s anarchist professor

SD Magazine remembers USD's anarchist professor To his students, Alexander Pell was a mild-mannered professor at the fledgling University of South Dakota in Vermillion. But in Russia he was remembered as Sergei Degaev, a name that stirred contempt and fear. Dana C. Jennings tells the story of the many lives of Alexander Pell in the May/June issue of South Dakota Magazine.

Pell earned a doctorate at John Hopkins University in Baltimore in 1897, and that fall, he arrived in Vermillion to teach math. His Vermillion friends knew that he was born in Russia, that he had fled the czarist rule of his homeland, first to Canada and then to the United States. They knew in a general way the Pell had opposed the czar. But they knew few details about his life before he arrived in America. Pell talked little about his past.

Pell quickly gravitated to the center of social life in Vermillion, playing in chess tournaments, ice skating, entertaining the football team in his home, leading pep rallies as well as academic debates, and taking his turn directing chapel exercises. Alexander and Emma Pell even took needy students into their home.

To his colleagues he was an outstanding scholar. To students he was a friend and counselor. What none of them knew was that a "wanted" poster issued by the czar's imperial police two decades earlier had offered 10,000 rubles for his capture, that Pell had betrayed his comrades, and that he had shot a secret police officer in cold blood.

South Dakota Magazine is a statewide magazine, published bimonthly in Yankton. It is available on newsstands throughout the state and by subscription at (800) 456-5117 or at

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