George Wilhelm Blaettermann was born on April 4, 1782, in the town of Langensalza, Saxony, the second of three sons and third of four children of Johann Wilhelm Blättermann and Barbara Elisabeth Bürkin Blättermann. As a young man he exhibited a remarkable aptitude for languages. During studies at the universities in Leipzig, Heidelberg, and Göttingen he mastered English, French, Italian, and Latin and acquired the ability to teach Anglo-Saxon, Danish, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish. Deeply impressed with the emerging German romantic tradition, he also became an admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte and served in the commissary corps during the French emperor’s unsuccessful invasion of Russia. Blättermann lived in France and Italy before moving to London, where he taught, anglicized the spelling of his surname to Blaettermann, and married Elizabeth Charlotte Dean, who was also a teacher. About 1820 they adopted two of her grandnephews.
While living in London during the 1810s Blaettermann met many Americans and through them learned about the creation of the University of Virginia. In April 1819 he offered to join the faculty as professor of modern languages. The university’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, was enthusiastic about Anglo-Saxon history, law, and language, and when thewere almost ready to receive students, he arranged for Blaettermann to be hired. Late in 1824 Blaettermann arrived in Charlottesville, where Jefferson described him as “rather a rough looking German, speaking English roughly, but of an excellent mind and high qualifications.”
Despite his skills as a linguist Blaettermann failed as a teacher. He alienated his fellow professors, insulted and bored his students, marked up the books in the library, and displayed crude, insensitive, and ungentlemanly behavior that swiftly made him the most unpopular member of the original faculty. Enrollment in his classes fell so far that in 1830 the university reduced his salary in order to hire a tutor to assist the students. As the years passed Blaettermann became ever more obnoxious as a colleague and ineffective as a teacher. During a period of student unruliness late in the 1830s he was mobbed in the classroom, and when he retreated to his residence at Pavilion IV, the irate students besieged him there. One of the few students to profit from Blaettermann’s pedagogy was Edgar Allan Poe, who attended the university in 1826.
The Blaettermanns had a stormy marriage that concluded on September 8, 1840, with an agreement for a legal separation. George Blaettermann gave up an improved lot of about three-and-a-half acres located between the town and the university for Elizabeth Blaettermann’s separate maintenance and relinquished his legal rights over her and her property, leaving her “as if she were unmarried.” The separation was far from amiable. Either just before or just after the conclusion of the legal arrangements, he publicly beat her twice in the street. Rumors of domestic violence had already aroused the suspicions of other faculty members, and the chairman of the faculty immediately notified the board of visitors. On September 14, 1840, the board examined the evidence, heard Blaettermann’s defense of his conduct, and then unanimously dismissed him from the faculty.
Blaettermann retired to his 700-acre farm in Albemarle County. In 1843 he considered opening an agricultural college in Charlottesville. Elizabeth Blaettermann lived in the town, where she operated a seminary for young ladies and survived her estranged husband by almost fifteen years. George Blaettermann died suddenly on January 1, 1850. The faculty consented to his burial in the University of Virginia Cemetery, but he was probably buried on his farm in an unmarked grave.