College pranks have been part of the college experience since at least the 13th century, when Oxford students sent a prostitute to the cardinal in residence. The tradition of college pranks came to North America with the Puritans.
In the early 1800s, Harvard students thought it amusing to ring the bell in Memorial Hall during the wee hours of the morning. But at Brown, students preferred to muffle the college bell.
Over the years, college pranks have involved putting farm animals in inappropriate places. Pranksters often victimized prominent statues as well. Dartmouth students painted the statue of Harvard’s John Harvard green, Yale students painted him blue and others put him in women’s underwear.
Here we bring you six historic college pranks performed at New England institutions of higher learning. If you know of any other college pranks, please include them in the comments section.
There’s nothing like a sports rivalry to inspire college pranks, and the University of Connecticut and the University of Rhode Island, not 60 miles apart, are no exception.
In 1933, Connecticut State Agricultural College changed its name to Connecticut State College, and renamed its football team the Statesman rather than the Aggies.
It didn’t help the team. In 1934, the Connecticut Statesmen lost six out of their first seven games, while their opponents shut them out five times. Their final home game against the Rhode Island State Rams was likely to end badly for Connecticut.
Then Connecticut students learned that Rhode Island students planned to taunt them by bringing Ulysses, their ram mascot, to the game.
The Connecticut students stole Ulysses. During the 1934 game, Connecticut fans paraded Ulysses on the field accompanied by the marching band. As expected, Connecticut lost 18-0, Rhody fans tore down the goal posts and a fight broke out.
The next month, Connecticut chose as its mascot the Husky, a less kidnappable animal than the ram. For years afterward, Connecticut students ramnapped Ulysses and his successors. And for years afterward, the winner of the UConn-Rhode Island football game took home Ramnapping Trophy. When Rhode Island quit using live rams as mascots in 1974, the trophy was moved to the J. Robert Donnelly Husky Heritage Sports Museum on the UConn campus.
Streaking in Winter
College pranks took the form of streaking on college campuses starting in the early 1970s. Defined as running naked through a public place, streaking started out with solitary males running across campus or at sporting events. Women soon joined in the fun and streakers began running around en masse.
Some historians peg the beginning of the craze after newspapers began reported streakers at Florida State in January 1974. Despite the New England winter, University of Maine students quickly took up the sport at Orono.
The student government in March called a meeting at Memorial Hall to discuss how to handle the streaking epidemic. One streaker couldn’t resist temptation, and he streaked the meeting.
The state of Maine ended up enacting a law against streaking, but it proved ineffective. On Nov. 2, 2002, a police officer arrested two University of Maine undergraduate women for jogging naked through downtown Orono. A prosecutor charged them with indecent conduct. One of the women asked the police officer if he saw her genitals. He said no. The judge ruled a woman naked in the street is not an indecent act under Maine law because a woman’s genitals are primarily internal.
The Best of All College Pranks
The geeks at MIT have so perfected college pranks over the centuries that the MIT Museum once featured a Hall of Hacks.
The college pranks at MIT often display technical aptitude, something you’d expect at a university that teaches technology. MIT students once put a campus police car on top of the Great Dome, its lights flashing and its dummy inhabitant enjoying coffee and donuts.
Later, they put a subway car on the Great Dome and got it moving.
In the 1930s, Ken Wadleigh and four other MIT students welded a streetcar to its rails. They distracted the motorman and then set off thermite bombs to weld the wheels. Wadleigh became a dean at MIT.
In 1958, MIT students used undergraduate Oliver R. Smoot to measure the length of the Harvard Bridge. They marked the bridge at every Smoot, and measured it as 364.4 Smoots, plus or minus an ear. When the bridge was renovated in 1964, the markings were restored, and they remain today.
Not all pranks involve technology. MIT students dressed the John Harvard statue as the Unabomber after the arrest of that Harvard alumni.
Get a Cow
University of New Hampshire students have long taken to heart the admonition, “If at all possible, involve a cow.”
Students at UNH, a land-grant college, have access to farm animals for their college pranks. Over the years, students put pigs and sheep in places where pigs and sheep don’t belong.
In the 1930s, Alpha Gamma Rho brothers managed to haul a cow into the Thompson Hall tower. Somehow they got the cow down as well.
In 1951, students replicated the college prank by stashing a cow in the second floor of Ballard Hall. A poem written by the night watchman, Pop Marshall, recounts the episode:
“Now I’m willing to guard your property / And watch your buildings fine, / But teaching music to a cow / Is a little out of my line.”
Years later, UNH would be victimized by a more serious college prank of sorts when popular physics professor Kevin Yates turned out to be a college dropout named Marvin Hewitt. Read Hewitt’s extraordinary story here.
Messing With Messer
In the annals of Brown University, perhaps no administrator was so victimized by college pranks as Asa Messer. He became president in 1804, just when Nicholas Brown gave $5,000 to the College of Rhode Island and renamed it Brown. Under Messer’s tenure, the student body grew, but Brown’s bequest wasn’t quite enough to run the college to the student’s liking.
Beloved tutors left Brown for other colleges, but Messer couldn’t afford to hire enough to keep class size down.
Then the students’ pranks turned dangerous. They built a hut of kindling and set it on fire next to University Hall, endangering the building’s roof and Messer’s barn. Students damaged dormitories in University Hall and broke windows and doors of Hope College’s new chapel.
Messer didn’t believe in sparing the rod and spoiling the undergraduate. He punished pranksters by rusticating them – sending them off to work on a farm. They called him a tyrant.
Messer believed the students aimed their vandalism at him personally, and he resigned.
After he founded the Perkins School for the Blind, Howe went to visit Dr. Messer. He apologized for his wayward youthful behavior. Messer replied, “Howe, I am afraid of you now. I am afraid there will be a torpedo under my chair before I know it.”
In the 1840s, thousands of young Vermont men left their family farms to attend college. New England’s economy was shifting from agricultural to industrial, and prospects had dimmed for making a livelihood from farming. A wave of rowdy and rebellious freshmen entered the University of Vermont during that period.
Professor George Wyllys Benedict taught chemistry at the University of Vermont for 20 years and, as interim president, tried mightily to bring order to Vermont’s Temple of Knowledge.
President Wheeler praised Benedict in 1847, the 50th anniversary of the University of Vermont. Benedict, he said,
…had stood by the smoldering ashes of the first college building, He had been the most active and energetic man in complete the new. He was teacher, he was agent, he … brought light out of darkness and order out of confusion. He planned in a comprehensive manner for the University and he spent time and money and strength, without stint, for its interests.
But Professor Benedict was not immune from college pranks. One night, high-spirited young scholars raided his backyard vineyard and stole the august professor’s grapes.
Images: Smoot, By Denimadept – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6792703; Streaker, By Alex Kehr – originally posted to Flickr as #367, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3953923Thompson Hall at UNH By AcrossTheAtlantic – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63031225University of Vermont By Michelle Maria, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56114776
This story about college pranks was updated in 2019.