In 1939, the Wesleyan Alumni Council started collecting alumni memories, which included those of Wesleyan professors, pranks, the burning of North College in 1906, and the arrival of women in 1872. This collection, the Alumni Council Collection of Recollections, has been a pleasure to read. Because of the nature of these anecdotes, in this post I’m going to do a round of “WesBusters” (like the TV show MythBusters) and see how much of it I can validate as fact or myth.
There are exciting stories about competitions between the Freshmen and Sophomore class on Washington’s birthday to be the first to fire a cannon. In one instance in 1892, the competition went terribly wrong when a bomb (meant to be a decoy of the cannon fire) exploded in a Freshmen’s hands and blew up parts of North College.
CONFIRMED: several newspaper clippings confirm this event really occurred.
In the 1880s, the faithful Methodist Wesleyan men would set fire to a “scandalous” billboard owned by the Colgrove Opera House (which housed burlesque shows). The billboard was located on the corner of High and College Streets and faced the dormitory, which was then North College. It featured “drapeless contours” of feminine forms which were often offensive to prim Wesleyanites of that period. However, every time the students burnt down the billboard, Colgrove would replace it.
PLAUSIBLE: One other source also mentions these events.
Then there’s the story of the campus mummy. During the 1880s Professor Van Benschoten went on sabbatical in Athens. While he was away he purchased a mummy from an institution that was in need of cash. However, after the mummy was shipped to the port in Athens, the dock official mentioned that Van Benny was missing a permit (or a bribe). Van Benny went to the British Consulate (since there was no American consulate at the port) and asked for help. Upon hearing his story they suggested that he wait a couple days and something might happen to relieve the situation. He waited and on the morning of the third day, a British warship had arrived in the night to end any shenanigans over the shipment of the mummy.
The mummy used to be on display in the Wesleyan Museum, which was in Judd Hall. Later the mummy was stored in the attic of Olin Library, unsecured. In 1990, a student discovered the mummy and hid it in his unsuspecting friend’s bed. The mummy lost a finger during this adventure and now is under lock and key.
FACT: There are many articles in Special Collections & Archives that identify Van Benschoten as the original purchaser of the mummy and a couple of Argus articles about the mummy in the bed.
And finally a piece of economic landscaping advice from the 1870s written by A. Sear Pruden (class of 1914). “I cannot vouch for the authenticity of this story but as Joseph Jefferson once said when questioned as to the actual historical background of his anecdotes, ‘One might say the story is good enough to be true.'”
“It seems in the good old days that the Board of Trustees of the University was dominated by a few economical and hard-fisted Connecticut and New England Yankees. The quite sizable area of campus in front of College Row boasted a crop of grass that might have done credit to the pampas. There was a considerable debate at the Board of Trustees meeting as to how the grass could be kept from entirely overrunning the college grounds. Instead of employing manual grass cutters, it was decided to buy a flock of sheep and pasture them on the front lawn where they would, by grazing, keep the grass down to a respectable height. The flock of sheep duly arrived and were pastured on the campus. Shortly after, the college body was very much astounded, going to the Chapel one morning, to be greeted by scores and scores of pitiful bleatings which apparently were projected out of the ground. On close inspection it was found that some mischievous people had buried each one of these sheep up to the neck in the ground, allowing only their heads to protrude from the ground. The chapel and college exercises were suspended for the day to enable the entire college body to join in the excavating and exhuming of the sheep.” Or so the story goes!
BUSTED: There is no way students could have dug several scores of holes in one night and captured all the sheep without being noticed. It is plausible that the university did purchase sheep to take care of the landscaping, however.