Friday, November 19, 2010

A Bird in the Belfry

Describing the various midnight antics of students climbing into the bell tower of Harvard Hall, Alice M. Jose wrote, “One Thanksgiving the students were anxious to present a turkey to the bell-ringer, and thoughtfully hung it to the tongue of the bell, whence it was finally taken by its delighted recipient.” My mental image is of a frozen turkey, perhaps still wrapped in plastic, but since Jose was writing in 1896, the bird was definitely not shrink-wrapped, and probably not frozen or even plucked, either. I hope the feathered offering was at least dead when it was tied to the bell. Jose probably would have mentioned it if the turkey were still gobbling.

Jose describes the incident in her essay, “A Guide to Harvard College,” which was published in the collection Cambridge Sketches by Cambridge Authors.[1] The book tells local history with a nostalgic bent, and includes essays about the first settlement of Cambridge, the houses of “Tory Row,” and one author’s childhood in Cambridge in the 1830’s. Because of Jose’s familiar style of retelling the story, the modern reader is missing quite a bit of information, for example, what year the event supposedly took place. Although the first one was lost in a fire, there has been a building called Harvard Hall since the school’s founding in 1636.

A more recent book of Cambridge memorabilia tells the story as having occurred in 1873 in Appleton Chapel.[2] This version states that the turkey weighed seventeen pounds. However, the student newspaper The Harvard Crimson, then in its first year of publication and titled The Magenta, did not report on any prank involving a turkey in 1873. It did report – approvingly – that some vandal had made “sundry inscriptions” in the entrance of the chapel.[3] It also printed a complaint about a freshman Greek exam scheduled for the Saturday after Thanksgiving,[4] but no bird swinging from the tongue of a bell.

I would love to verify the authenticity of the story. So far, however, these are all the clues I have. Since I wanted to share the tale before Thanksgiving, I present it to you as an unsolved mystery, instead of established fact. If anyone has a lead on more information, or has seen another mention of the rumor, please let me know!

[1] Jose, Alice M. “A Guide to Harvard College.” Merrill, Estelle, ed. Cambridge Sketches by Cambridge Authors. Cambridge Young Women’s Christian Association. (Boston: The Pinkham Press, 1896), 88.
[2] Martin, Mary L. and E. Ashley Rooney. Cambridge, Massachusetts Past and Present. (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2008), 84.
[3] “Brevities.” The Magenta. November 21, 1873.  
[4] “A Plea.” The Magenta. November 21, 1873.

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