In 1897, Alexander Pell became the University of South Dakota’s first professor of mathematics. Speaking with a heavy Russian brogue, Pell made a conscious effort to assimilate to his new surroundings. He taught a large amount of classes, took part in extracurricular activities, and headed up a gymnastics program for students. He quickly became popular with both students and faculty alike. In 1904, Pell was elected “Class Father,” and he was often described as “jolly little Pell.” In addition, Pell was also noted for his kindness. For example, several students felt comfortable asking for Pell’s advice on personal matters. Also, Pell helped financially support the educations of both his niece and one of his former students. After a few years at USD, Pell became aware of the fact that the university offered no opportunity for students to advance in mathematics beyond the remedial high school level. Pell suggested that the university establish a Department of Engineering. In 1905, Pell received the funds necessary to bring his idea into reality, and after two years, the Department of Engineering grew into the College of Engineering, with Pell acting as its first dean. A well-respected Professor, devoted husband, and dedicated mathematician, Pell appeared to be an exemplary member of society. However, not even the most imaginative of his students could have concocted the dark tale that was Pell’s early life in Russia. Although many at the university knew that Pell had once been a nihilist with revolutionary sympathies, nobody would have suspected that “jolly little Pell” was actually Sergei Degaev, a past police informer who had once been at the center of one of the most brutal and high-profile assassinations in Tsarist Russia.
As a young man in Russia, Degaev became involved in the People’s Will, an extremist group committed to the end of monarchism. Despite Degaev’s supposed fervor for revolution, he remained a periphery member of the group due to his “moral squeamishness” and unwillingness to directly take another human life. In 1881, Degaev helped dig a tunnel under St. Petersburg intended for a mine that was supposed to explode when the tsar’s carriage passed over. Degaev also alleged that he witnessed Alexander II’s death a few months later. After the death of the tsar, Degaev existed in relative obscurity until the police arrested him for possession of an illegal printing press. Faced with the possibility of prolonged imprisonment, Degaev struck a deal with Lieutenant Colonel Georgii Sudeikin, the officer in charge of apprehending members of the People’s Will. Sudeikin would release Degaev and allow him to take control of the People’s Will as long as Degaev became a police informant and ensured that the People’s Will would use non-violent tactics in the future. Sudeikin arranged for Degaev’s escape from prison. Over the next few years, Degaev informed on many of his fellow revolutionaries. Meanwhile, Sudeikin rose in the ranks of the Russian police force, but became increasingly disgruntled with the royal family due to their failure to recognize his importance to the empire. During this time, Sudeikin and Degaev seemed to become close friends. They even hatched a plot to assassinate several top officials in the government. However, guilt and fear had gotten the best of Degaev. He confessed to top members of the People’s Will that Sudeikin had tricked him into becoming a police informant. The revolutionaries claimed that there was only one way to remedy the situation: Degaev must warn everybody he had put in danger and kill Sudeikin. While Degaev was hesitant to do this he was eager to avoid the punishments that the People’s Will usually carried out against police informants. After two botched attempts, Degaev, with the help of two members of the People’s Will, finally succeeded in killing Sudeikin in December of 1883.
Degaev fled to Paris after the murder. His crime completely flabbergasted Russian authorities, for it had been a year since any violent revolutionary activity had taken place. They took the unprecedented step of appealing to Russian citizens for help in apprehending Degaev. Wanted posters were distributed nationwide. Degaev hid out in London for a while and eventually immigrated to the United States, changing his name to Pell. He lived in fear of retribution for the rest of his life, for he had betrayed both sides of the Russian revolution.
To read more about Alexander Pell/Sergei Degaev please refer to Richard Pipes’ The Degaev Affair located in the University Libraries and Archives.
–Information gathered from the Collection: The Degaev Affair by Richard Pipes, University Archives. Photograph: USD Photograph Collection, Series 3