Legend of Vera

The pinnacle of Cottey legend is the story of Vera Neitzert's untimely death in 1920. Vera is the second most talked about Cottey figure, right after V.A.C. Stockard. Vera has captured the imaginations of students for 90 years, and they in turn have passed down her story, year after year. As in a game of telephone, details may have been lost or misconstrued along the way, but the basic elements of the story remain true.

On the night of May 15th, 1920, Virginia Alice Cottey Stockard was at home helping her granddaughter, Virginia Milam, with her Latin.1 Suddenly they heard screams coming from Main Hall. Alice rushed across the street, where girls ushered her to the second floor room where Vera lay.

Chafing dish party in rosemary, c. 1914
A chafing dish party in Rosemary Hall, c. 1914.2 The U.S. flags are in honor of the first World War.
Main Hall, c. 1912
Main Hall (c. 1912), where Vera's room was.
Vera's gravestone, c. 2010.
Vera's gravestone, c. 2010.

Vera Neitzert, a Cottey student from Miller, Missouri, had been cooking in a chafing dish over an open flame when her nightclothes caught fire. She was alone in her room, the Nevada Daily Mail reports, "so it is impossible to ascertain whether it was the result of an explosion or whether a breeze fanned the flame out, setting fire to the light kimona the girl was wearing."3 Students and teachers rushed to her aid and quickly smothered the flames, but most of Vera's body was by then burned.

Vera did not die at Cottey as has so often been repeated, nor did she die in "American Sanitarium," as is written in the 2010 Student Handbook. Miss Neitzert was taken immediately to Amerman Sanitarium, the hospital of Dr. I.W. Amerman that was located a few blocks from the school.3 (One can see how "Amerman" was misread or miscopied as "American" somewhere along the way.) V.A.C. Stockard sent a telegraph to Vera's parents and stayed with her until the family arrived the following morning.1

Vera's burns covered seven-eighths of her body and made recovery impossible.4 Miss Neitzert died on Monday, May 17 at 6:40 p.m. Her funeral was held the next morning in Main Hall parlors. A handful of her classmates served as pallbearers before the body was taken to Miller for interment.

Vera was a senior in the high school department and lived in a suite in Main Hall. She was 21 years old. The Daily Mail reports, "She is a bright, ambitious girl, popular alike with teachers and students and the tragedy has cast a dark shadow over the entire school and Mrs. Stockard, president of the college, and teachers connected with the institution are almost prostrated over it."3

It is worthy of noting that chafing dishes and cooking utensils were not allowed in Cottey dorm rooms, due to risk of fire.6

Documents

Student at Cottey College Seriously Burned, 1920
Nevada Daily Mail article from 17 May, 1920.3 Click to read.
Miss Neitzert Died Monday Evening, 1920
Nevada Daily Mail article about Vera's death and funeral, 1920.4 Click to read.
Vera's death certificate
Vera's death certificate, 1920.5
Cottey Regulations, 1908
Cottey regulations from 1908 include a ban on chafing dishes in the building.6
Vera newspaper article, 1920
"Girl Burned to Death in Chafing Dish Fire."7
Vera newspaper article, 1920
"Home Brew? Girl Is Burnt."8

Works Cited:

  1. Troesch, Helen DeRusha. The Life of Virginia Alice Cottey Stockard. Wayside Press, Inc., 1955. Print.
  2. McVean, Ruby. "Miss Cottey's School: The First 25 Years." The P.E.O. Record. Nov./Dec. 1986: 2-5. Print.
  3. "Student at Cottey College." The Nevada Daily Mail [Nevada, MO] 17 May 1920: 1. Google news. Web.
  4. "Miss Neitzert Died Monday Evening." The Nevada Daily Mail [Nevada, MO] 18 May 1920: 4. Google news. Web.
  5. "Missouri Death Certificates, 1910-1957." Missouri Digital Heritage. Web.
  6. "Regulations." Cottey Catalogue. Cottey College: Nevada, MO. 1908. Print.
  7. "Girl Burned to Death in Chafing Dish Fire." The Daily Constitution. Chillicothe, MO. 20 May 1920. Ancestry.com Web.
  8. "Home Brew? Girl is Burnt." The Billings Gazette. Billings, MT, 13 June 1920. Ancestry.com Web.
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