Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Bird in the Belfry Revisited

     Thanksgiving Day marks the one-year anniversary of Cambridge Considered!

     Readers who have been with Cambridge Considered since the beginning, or who have explored the modest archives, will know that in my first post, I attempted to verify the rumor that a group of Harvard students hung a turkey in a bell-tower as a Thanksgiving prank sometime in the nineteenth century.  I first found mention of the event in an 1896 essay, and it was also mentioned, with some differing details, in a twentieth-century source. Since the later source claims the event happened in 1873 and that was the year that the Harvard Magenta (now called the Crimson) began publication, I had hoped to find mention of the prank in the student paper. However, the paper did not report on anything to do with turkeys between 1873 and 1896.

     I continued researching, and while I still have not found a primary source, I did find an earlier description of the event. In his short book “An Historical Sketch of Harvard University, from its foundation to May, 1890,” American author and Harvard graduate William Roscoe Thayer described a turkey prank that he said took place “in the middle decades of the [nineteenth] century.”[1]

     Thayer described Harvard student life in the University’s early years as being filled with pranks, bonfires, and small explosions.[2] He described a culture where student protests, over serious or trivial concerns, were not uncommon, and larger “rebellions” took place every few decades. The larger events often resulted in expulsions, but in the mid-nineteenth century, the school began punishing smaller offenses in the hope of maintaining order.[3]

     Thayer included the turkey prank in a list of examples of the freedoms students allowed themselves in defiance of the college rules. “Once a huge turkey was found hanging on the College bell when the janitor came to ring for morning prayers; once a pair of monstrous boots dangled from the Chapel spire, and once there was a life-and-death struggle in the Chapel between the watchman and a desperate student.” He noted that such events “called for severe measures from the Faculty.” Any one of these incidents would probably be a good story if Thayer had elaborated, but instead he went on to say that impressive pranks, particularly large and destructive ones, had declined and practically come to an end by about 1870.[4] This may have been the result of college president Charles William Eliot’s strategic loosening of discipline; for example, he told proctors to ignore the bonfires students set in the yard, and such acts of mischief became less common.[5]

      A different type of student rule-breaking also put turkeys Harvard’s lore. In the school’’s early years, students were required to take their meals in the dining hall, but the food did not always live up to students’ standards. In 1672, the records of the college court noted that students had stolen turkeys from a Cambridge resident’s yard, and eaten them at the home of a Mr. Gibson.[6] Apparently, Samuel Gibson and possibly a few of his friends made a business out of serving hearty dinners made out of whatever fowl students captured -- and that often meant stolen geese and turkeys.[7]  A decade later, illicit turkey dinners were mentioned in the court records again; these dinners took place in students’ dorm rooms.  The tradition appears to have continued for years. An 1886 biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. quotes a man named H.K. Oliver in a section on the student culture that Holmes was a part of. Oliver remembered “the raiding-for, the roasting (tied to a string, and twirled before an open fire)... and the festal surfeit over the  Meleagris Gallopavo -- Gobbler!”  All the supplies and condiments “were ensconced in a trap-door-covered box beneath the floor” in Hollis Hall.[8] Based on surrounding anecdotes, the author seems to place the event in the late 1820s or early 1830s.

      If no students ever did hang a turkey from the College bell, then perhaps the dinners of stolen birds, with supplies hidden in college buildings, were the origin of the rumor. Live turkeys, whether wild or raised for food, were certainly a more common sight in Cambridge in the years when the city was not yet industrialized. In my opinion, it is just as plausible that students would capture and kill a turkey to hang it up in an unlikely place as it is that they stole birds for lavish dinners.  The three sources I have found describing the event were each written years after the time they claim it happened, and only one of them said that it took place at Thanksgiving. Still, keeping in mind that it may be apocryphal, a turkey swinging from the college bell is a Thanksgiving tale worth telling this year as well as last.

1. Thayer, William Roscoe. An Historical Sketch of Harvard University, from its foundation to May, 1890. (Cambridge, MA: 1890) Reprinted from The History of Middlesex County, Massachusetts. D. Hamilton Hurd, Ed. (Philadelphia: J.W. Lewis & Co., 1890). 52
2. Thayer, 51
3. Thayer, 52
4. Thayer, 53 
5. Townsend, Kim. Manhood a Harvard: William James and Others. NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1996. page 126.  
6. Cited in Batchelder, Samuel. Bits of Harvard History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1924. page 102. 
7. Batchelder 208. 
8. Kennedy, William Sloane. Oliver Wendell Holmes: poet, littérateur, scientist. Boston: S.E. Cassino and Co., 1883. 87-88. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Muslim Community in Cambridge

      While Cambridge has a storied religious history and has been home to many groups of immigrants, neither Muslims from the United States nor those from other parts of the world were a significant presence in the city until the mid-twentieth century. Muslims are absent from a number of books about the history of the city. This is probably in part because their numbers are smaller than many other religious groups in Cambridge. In the 1950's, there was a small Muslim population at Harvard. A few graduate students who were here from other countries and studying Islamic history founded the Harvard Islamic Society in 1958.1 In 1958, three Harvard students formed the Harvard Islamic Society, It was the first Muslim organization in Cambridge and one of the first student Muslim organizations in the United States.2 According to the Harvard Islamic Society’s web site, American-born Muslim students first came to Harvard in the 1970’s.3

      Since its inception, the HIS has had a musalla or prayer space, although the location has moved several times and the group has outgrown their allot space on more than one occasion. In the 1970s the organization ran an Islamic weekend school for children in the Boston community out of the Phillips Brooks House, a student-led umbrella organization for nonprofits on campus at Harvard. The Harvard Islamic Society has also hosted speakers to spread knowledge and awareness of Islam. The group organizes social activities, religious study, prayer and other religious activities, halal dinners, and events to help non-Muslims understand Islam.4

     Over the next few decades, the student Muslim populations grew, and more student organizations formed. In 1981, students from Harvard University, Boston University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, Wentworth Institute, Suffolk University, and Tufts University formed the Islamic Society of Boston to serve as an umbrella organization for all of them, and to meet the religious and community needs of Muslims throughout Cambridge.5 It originally met at MIT, and hosted five daily prayers, Friday prayers, and weekly seminars.6

     In 1993, the Islamic Society of Boston opened the Islamic Center and Mosque on Prospect Street, the first and only mosque in Cambridge.7 Today, they offer classes for new Muslims and traditional religious education classes such as Qu'aran memoriazation and classes on Tajweed, the rules for how the Qu'aran should be read. They offer Halaqa, seminars on Islamic theology, in Arabic and in English. The Muslim American Society, which was formed in 1993, opened a Boston chapter in 1999. They manage the Islamic Society of Boston's cultural center in Roxbury, which offers a number of programs and houses the Malik Academy, an Islamic elementary school.8 There are also mosques in Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Brighton, and Revere.

      In December 2009, the Cambridge School Committee decided unanimously that Cambridge public schools would close in observance of one Muslim holiday each school year, either Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha. In October 2010, school officials announced that the change would take place in the 2011-2012 school year. Because these holidays are in the lunar Islamic calendar, their dates in the civil calendar shift, but many years, including 2011, only one of the holidays falls on a day that would normally be a school day.9

     Many Cambridge residents, including a student group at Cambridge Ringe and Latin School that campaigns for awareness of Muslim student concerns and longtime Cambridge residents who have seen the Muslim population in the area grow in the past few decades, applauded the decision.10 Others expressed the belief that the schools should not be closed any more often than they already are. Some felt that days off for Muslim holidays will either make students whose faiths are not represented in the school calendar more uncomfortable, or pave the way for more days off to include even more groups. One widely-reprinted newspaper opinion piece took the stance that students should get federal holidays off and three additional days off to be used for holidays of the family's choice.11 If any Cantabrigians opposed the decision out of prejudice against Muslims, they did not express this to local media, but one national website posted a religiously-fueled disagreement with the decision.12 November 7, 2011, Eid al-Adha, is the first Muslim holiday on which Cambridge public schools will close. What do you think? Is Cambridge making history by being one of the first United States cities to close public schools on a Muslim holiday?

I would welcome any recommendations for more resources on the Muslim community in Cambridge.
1“About ISB.” Islamic Society of Boston website. Accessed 11-2-2011
2Seaburg, Alan. Cambridge on the Charles. (Cambridge: Anne Miniver Press, 2001).208.
3“About ISB.” Islamic Society of Boston website. Accessed 11-2-2011
4“About ISB.” Islamic Society of Boston website. Accessed 11-2-2011
5 The pluralism project at Harvard University. Center Profile: Islamic Society of Boston (Cambridge)
6“About ISB.” Islamic Society of Boston website. Accessed 11-2-2011
7Seaburg 207.
8“Programs.” Islamic Society of Boston website. Accessed 11-2-2011
9“Schools to close for Muslim holiday.” Cambridge Chronicle October 14, 2010
10“Applauding Cambridge School Committee.” Cambridge Chronicle (MA)-October 21, 2010
11Julia Spitz, “No More Days Off From School.” The Villager, October 15, 2010
12“Cambridge Schools Celebrate Muslim Holidays” The New American, Bruce Walker, 14 October 2010