Katharine Merrill Graydon was the eldest of six children, born to William M. and Mary Merrill Graydon soon after their marriage in 1857. Her mother's family had ancestors prominent in the American War of Independence. Katharine Graydon's maternal grandfather was Samuel Merrill (1792-1855), an early public figure in Indiana, who served as state treasurer 1822-1834, and subsequently as a bank president, railroad executive, founding director of a school, and owner of a bookstore and publishing house that later became the Bobbs-Merrill Company. A decisive figure in Katharine Graydon's early development was one of her maternal aunts, Catherine Merrill (1824-1900)—third daughter of Samuel Merrill—who served as an intrepid nurse during the Civil War. From 1869-1883 Catherine Merrill was the first incumbent in the Demia Butler Chair of English Literature at North Western Christian University in Indianapolis, after 1877 known as Butler College (now University)—the first American college or university chair specifically endowed to be held by a woman. Through this aunt Katharine Graydon also was introduced as a young girl to the naturalist John Muir (1838-1914, co-founder in 1892 of the Sierra Club), who had come to Indianapolis in 1866 to work in a carriage materials factory. When Muir incurred a severe eye injury, Graydon visited him assiduously during his convalescence. Though in September 1867 Muir departed from the city resolved to commit his life to nature study, the two maintained a lifelong friendship and extensive correspondence.
On 5 February 1880 Muir wrote to Graydon, a recent (1878) graduate of the Classical course at Butler College and now an instructor at an Indianapolis school, "some time ago I learned that you were teaching Greek, and of all the strange things in this changeful world, this seemed the strangest, and the most difficult to get packed quietly down into my awkward mind." Perhaps not so strange. Already at Butler, during her final undergraduate year, Graydon was considered such a talented student that she was chosen to replace her Greek professor John O. Hopkins when he unexpectedly died in November 1877. In 1882 Graydon matriculated at Indiana University in Bloomington for graduate study in Classics, and in 1883, upon receiving a MA degree, was appointed to the faculty as assistant professor of Latin and Greek.
Graydon's teaching career at Indiana was short and calamitous. She soon attracted the attention of Lemuel Moss (1829-1904), a prominent Baptist minister who since 1875 had served as president of the university. On campus, rumors quickly spread that President Moss (married since 1851, and father of three children) was romantically involved with Graydon, and that the two were furtively meeting in her third-floor Greek seminar room. In the fall of 1884, six university students, aided by a janitor, decided to enter the attic above the classroom and to drill peep-holes to spy through the floor. There they kept a vigil for a week. In testimony (November 1884) to the Indiana trustees the students attested that on three occasions, during the day but outside of class-hours, they observed the two embracing and kissing. The story found its way into major newspapers as far away as Boston and Toronto, with sensational accretions ("when [the students] witnessed the meetings...the relations of the two were shockingly disgraceful, and grossly immoral", reported The Elyria Republican of 13 November 1884.) The trustees demanded resignations from both president and professor. Moss did not contest the charges, and immediately fled Bloomington, leaving his family to sell their home and follow him when they could. Graydon resigned under protest, stating that Moss had threatened her with dismissal if she refused his advances. The spying students and the janitor, for their part, publicly styled themselves as the "Septem Muscicidae" ("Seven Moss-killers") and even posed for a triumphant photograph with the hand-drills they had used to perforate the Greek Seminar ceiling.
By the end of November 1884, one finds a new wave of press reports of the scandal that hesitatingly exculpate the Greek professor—clearly after continued pushback by Graydon, her powerful family, and its many friends. "It is just possible", reported the Rochester NY Democrat and Chronicle (27 Nov. 1884), that Graydon "may have been the victim of coercion. She may have been afraid that if she did not submit to [Moss'] senile embrace and osculation that he would have secured her dismissal...[i]f this theory is true, the friends of Miss G[r]aydon are perhaps justified in demanding that she be reinstated in her position." But that reinstatement never came.
It took more than two decades for Graydon to regain fully her academic momentum. She entered "The Harvard Annex" (soon to be firmly established as Radcliffe College) for graduate work in 1885-1886, but returned to Indianapolis gravely ill after just a year, and did not work or study for the next two years. In 1888 Graydon joined the faculty of Hastings College, a new (founded 1882) Presbyterian institution in Nebraska, and remained there until 1892. At Hastings in her first year she delivered a public lecture, "Thoughts on the service of Homer to humanity", which was published as a pamphlet. It would be her main classical publication. In 1892 Graydon left her college teaching post in Nebraska for California, where she spent the next six years, first briefly as a tutor for John Muir's children, and then as a teacher at Oakland High School while simultaneously pursuing a graduate degree in Classics at Berkeley, which in the end she did not obtain. Then (1898-1899) came a move to University of Chicago, with a year of study in Classics that also did not result in a degree.
Graydon's next step, in 1899, comes as a bit of a surprise—a position as Greek and English teacher at Honolulu's Oahu College, founded in 1841 and since 1934 known as the Punahou School (in recent years most famous as the alma mater of Barack Obama). An address she delivered to Oahu's Chinese Students' Alliance survives, with evocations of Sir Phillip Sidney and George Eliot; it suggests that English literature was now becoming her paramount academic interest. Graydon spent seven years in Honolulu until 1907, when she was called back to Butler College, to hold an endowed chair in English named in honor of her now-deceased aunt, Catherine Merrill.
Once back in Indianapolis in the Merrill chair, Graydon thrived. She animated campus intellectual life, reorganized alumni/ae affairs at Butler College, and took over editorship of the Butler Alumnal Quarterly, which served as a platform for her own short essays on education and educators. The college charged Graydon with detailing the service and sacrifice of Butler students in the Great War, which resulted in a magnum opus published in 1922 that encompassed also Butler in the Civil and Spanish-American Wars; later, Butler named its chief alumni/ae service award after Graydon. Her final work was an edition of the collected papers of her aunt, Catherine Merrill, published in 1934 soon after Graydon's death.
One certainly wonders what career trajectory Katharine Graydon may have enjoyed had the incident with Lemuel Moss not so quickly terminated her Greek professorship at Indiana University. She certainly made her mark as an English professor at Butler, to the extent that her former students formed a Katharine Merrill Graydon Club that met off-campus both in her lifetime and for decades after her death to discuss her views on learning and literature. The Butler administration esteemed her too. In the Butler Alumnal Quarterly for 1920, Scot Butler (1844-1931, Butler College president 1891-1904, 1906-1907) penned a remarkable verse tribute to Graydon—while she was still very much teaching at the college—that ends with the lines:
To be known of many friendly souls and loved and honored by them all— / That were something— / That is she.