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. 

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