The Famous Freshman Melee

Cross and Crescent
September 1, 1938

This article, excerpted from the September 1938 Cross & Crescent details the harrowing experience that bound four members of the Class of 1908 together so tightly they refused to join the omnipresent Cornell fraternity system—later to start an enduring society of their own.

… Because this department of our magazine did not begin until 1936, events for the quarter century preceding January of that year have usually not been referred to. The installation of Omicron, however, presents an excellent opportunity for the first recording in print of the famous student melee which bound firmly together the four freshmen who were later to start the ISWZA society. These four were Brandt, Pearce, Brockway, and Neil Preston.

Exhibition of the unfortunate frosh in gaudy costumes was sophomore privilege by established custom

It was a tradition at Cornell that, from the Thursday preceding the annual sophomore banquet until the night of the event itself, which was always on Saturday, the second year men might bodily capture and hold any unwary freshmen who were seen about. At the banquet those made captive were required to provide the entertainment. Exhibition of the unfortunate frosh in gaudy costumes, and horse play of every variety at their expense was sophomore privilege by established custom, and so it is not surprising that four freshmen, later to become founders of ISWZA, and two other friends decided, in the fall of 1904, to hide out in the attic of the rooming house where five of the group lived on College Ave. The boys hoped to come out of hiding early Saturday to join in the usual class scrap with others of their comrades who had likewise successfully eluded the sophomore bloodhounds, and then, on the night of the banquet, to combine with them in freeing any of their number who might have been captured by the sophs, thus spoiling plans for entertainment at the banquet, and if possible, completely breaking up this event.

An agreement was made with the landlady that she should notify them by Morse code when danger was at hand

The hiding place of the six wary freshmen was unique because of the structure of the house. Having been built onto twice, the place had three separate attics, for there had never been need to put passageways through the original roof to connect the two new attics. Access was gained to the original attic by means of a circular window on the front side of the house, the only entrance to this section. Skylights and trap doors in separate halls provided entrances to the other two attics, and one could be reached in addition by means of a dormer window, but there was no passageway connecting the attics. It was in the attic with the dormer that the freshmen hid, for it not only provided the comfort of light and ventilation, but it was floored, and hence superior in several respects for a two or three day vigil. Blankets were placed over the skylight and the dormer window to keep in the rays of the one electric lamp in the place. Food and bedding were brought in. A telegraph instrument was installed, and an agreement was made with the landlady, who had been a professional telegraph operator, that she should notify them by Morse code from below when danger was at hand or when the coast was clear and the boys could come out to reconnoitre. But it was taking the well meaning landlady into their confidence wrecked their plans. And here we have a the angle of romance. Two sophomores were in love. The younger brother of the girl in the case overheard the landlady telling a neighbor about the hideout. The boy told his sister, the sister told her sweetheart, and the sweetheart turned the sophomore bloodhounds loose.

The sweetheart turned the sophomore bloodhounds loose

Shortly after the 7:30 p.m. hour on Thursday night which marked the beginning of the open season on freshmen, as stated in rules and regulations drawn up by the senior and junior classes, the sophomores came to the house in a fairly large body; they came in large numbers because so many freshmen were supposed to be hidden there, for the news had been expanded with each telling. The sophs went through the house looking for the freshmen, but as the hallways were quite dark and the skylights blanketed above, these were not noticed and the freshmen remained undiscovered. The story concerning the hiding of the freshmen spread and against the sophomores went to the house for a fruitless search.

On a third visit, one sophomore happened to look up while in a narrow, ill-lighted hallway, and noticed the skylight. He thought that this might be the hiding place, or, at least, it was one place in the house that they had not investigated. He went away, but returned shortly with a stepladder. One sophomore started up the ladder. Meanwhile, up in the attic, the gang had gathered to repel the attackers; and as the skylight went up, one freshman, armed with an old curtain pole, hit the sophomore on his hands clinging to the edge, and the man tumbled down the stepladder and a few panes of glass in the skylight were broken. Another sophomore went up the stepladder, but it was quite easy for the freshmen to hold the entrance, for but one sophomore could get up through the small opening of the trapdoor at a time. With sticks, poles, baseball bats, etc., the trick was easily managed, but there were also several two hundred pound bags of old musty flour which the freshmen threw down on the sophomores, blinding them with the dust. They told the sophs that it was quicklime and that it would burn through their clothes and also burn them. The sophs gave up the attack at this point.

With sticks, poles, baseball bats, etc., the trick was easily managed

Next, the sophomores went outside, placed a ladder against the roof, and climbed up to the dormer window. They broke the glass in the windows and attempted to get into the house. However, the freshmen used the curtain poles, bats, and bedslats to poke them away from the window. The freshmen also had the advantage of being slightly more in the dark than were the sophs, and for that reason a couple of men could hold the former window secure against invasion.

By this time quite a crowd had gathered around the house that would do justice to a good sized fire, and so the police got on the job. A police officer who was trying to protect the property from damage was promptly surrounded by a group of sophomores, so that he was vastly outnumbered and was taken to the rear of the house and tossed over the back fence.

A crowd had gathered around the house that would do justice to a good sized fire

The next event was a concerted attack by the sophomores, one group at the dormer window, and another group at the hatchway or trapdoor. This attack was repulsed because two men were enough at each place to hold the fort, probably because it was located in a hallway, entirely separate from the hallway where the discovered skylight was situated. Following this, some sophomore noticed the circular window in the front of the house. A ladder was raised there, and the sophomores, breaking the circular window, entered the first garret, the attic that was not floored over, and had only the bare stringers on which to walk.

Getting into this attic did not seem to help as much as it was not connected with the second garret where the freshmen were trapped. the next step of the sophomores was to hoist a discarded, sawed off, telephone pole up into the first attic to use as a battering ram and to knock a hole in the partition separating the two attics. The attackers made a hole, but were successfully repulsed by the freshmen again with curtain poles, baseball bats, and bedslats. One of the sophs was knocked off the stringers, and found very little support on the laths and plastering of the ceiling of the room below.

The next step of the sophomores was to hoist a discarded, sawed off, telephone pole up into the first attic

While this was going on upstairs another group of sophomores gathered in the hallway below in front of a locked door. This door led into the room of a young lady who was on the side of the freshmen. She had locked the door and refused to give up the key to the sophomores, but also assured them that there was no one concealed in her room, and if there were, she would not let them in. Almost at the same moment, there was heard a crash apparently coming from her room. She knew that no one was hidden in her room and the thought that the sophomores had forced their way through the windows. She rushed to her door, unlocked and opened it, only to see a sophomore sprawled on the floor, a big hole in the ceiling, lots of dust, and plastering scattered all over the floor. This was the sophomore who had been knocked off the stringers.

The freshmen held out very well until the sophs put organization into their attack. One crew was sent to charge the dormer window; another besieged the hole between the attics; another manned the ladders at the skylight. Legend has it that a fourth crew began chopping a hole in the roof outside, but this has not been positively confirmed.

She rushed to her door to see a sophomore sprawled on the floor — a big hole in the ceiling

This joint attack was furiously opposed by the freshmen, but they could not spread over all three places to advantage, and entrance was forced. When the sophomores gained entrance they poured in so rapidly that the attic was filled with milling, fighting men. In the confusion, two of the six freshmen got away by raising the hatchway that had been discovered by the sophomores and dropping into the now vacant hallway just before the sophs got completely into the attic. One of the freshmen hid in the house and remained in hiding until all had left. The other ran through the crowd of spectators and outdistanced his pursuers.

The four captured freshmen were placed in a horse-drawn conveyance— but now drawn by plenty of sophomores— and, accompanied by a large bodyguard, conducted downtown, tied to chairs in the Armory, and kept in activity until Saturday morning. Their release by their fellow classmates seemed hopeless, so they gave their word of honor to appear in time for the banquet and fun. They were placed on parole and released.

The scrap lasted from about 8 to 11 o'clock. The damage to the property was large [Brockway estimated it at about $3000], and the sophomore class had to stand good for the cost. The damage of course was greatest on the house itself, but other damage included such items as trampled lawns and shrubbery, fences crowded down and ripped apart for weapons, doors forced, windows smashed, partitions and ceilings broken, and the rough usage of the furniture, rugs, floors, etc. …