TODAY in HISTORY: Yes, Virginia, there is…..

Above, Virginia O’Hanlon. – www.wnyc.org

 

by William “Doc” Halliday

We have all heard this phrase with one ending or another.  It has become an idiomatic expression to assert that something is factual.  Perhaps you have voiced the phrase yourself.

Francis Pharcellus Church was a war correspondent during the Civil War.  He witnessed quite a bit of suffering during that conflict.  Mr. Church also observed an equivalent lack of faith and hope not just among the soldiers but also civilians.  He co-founded The Army and Navy Journal along with his brother in 1863.  He also established the Galaxy magazine in 1866.  It merged with the Atlantic Monthly about a decade later.  In later years he was the lead editorial writer for his brother’s newspaper, the New York Sun.

Dr. Philip O’Hanlon, was a police surgeon and a coroner’s assistant in an affluent, primarily residential area of Manhattan.  In the autumn of 1897, Dr. O’Hanlon’s daughter returned to school after the summer recess.  It was at this time that, Virginia, his eight-year old daughter was confronted by other children who stated that Santa Claus did not exist.

The responding editorial was entitled “Is There a Santa Claus?”and included the statement “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.”  The editorial became world famous.  It is the most reprinted editorial in the English language.

I don’t remember how old I was when I first doubted the existence of Santa Claus; perhaps you do.  What do you say to your eight-year old daughter when she returns from school with this question?  Dr. O’Hanlon believed in the printed word and the New York Sun in particular.  He suggested that she write to the editor of that newspaper to ascertain the truth.  One-hundred and nineteen years ago today, on September 21, 1897, her letter and the answering editorial appeared in the seventh editorial position in the New York Sun. 

Her letter read:  “Dear Editor, I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?”  Some people have said that Virginia’s father had a hand in writing the letter because of the “my little friends” phrase.

The responding editorial was entitled “Is There a Santa Claus?”and included the statement “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.”  The editorial became world famous.  It is the most reprinted editorial in the English language.

Virginia was married briefly to Edward Douglas in the second decade of the twentieth century.  He is reported to have abandoned her prior to the birth of their daughter, Laura.  Virginia received a Bachelor’s Degree, as well as her Masters and Doctorate degrees.  She became an educator and school administrator.  Dr. Virginia O’Hanlon was the assistant principal of PS 31 and PS 401, a Brooklyn school with classes held in ten hospitals and other institutions for chronically ill children.  She continuously received correspondence about the letter she had written in 1897.  Virginia always responded, and included a copy of the editorial.  Laura Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas died at the age of 81 in May of 1971.  Virginia always said that the letter was not noteworthy; it was the editorial that was so significant.

Mr. Church was married shortly after the editorial was printed.  He died in April of 1906 leaving no children.  Because the New York Sun had a policy of keeping their editorials anonymous, Mr. Church was not credited as the author of that particular editorial until after his death.

Virginia’s childhood home at 115 West 95th Street in New York City became The Studio School. Virginia O’Hanlon, a lifelong educator, would surely have approved of the new use for her old home. In 2009, the school honored Virginia’s memory by establishing a scholarship in her name.  In 2006 the original letter was appraised at a value of $20,000 to $30,000.  Virginia’s great-granddaughter brought the letter to the Antiques Roadshow to have it appraised.

William “Doc” Halliday can be reached at doc@dochalliday.us

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