artwork depicting various campus pranks including a turkey and a green horse

19th century campus pranks

Remembering The Days Podcast – Episode 6

Painting the college president's horse green, removing wooden steps from the only building on campus, serenading professors with tin pans — those were just some of the pranks that students pulled at South Carolina College in the 19th century. Campus archivist Elizabeth West explains why those free-spirited students often rebelled against the puritanical rules imported from New England colleges. 

Show Notes
For more on campus life at the South Carolina College, the precursor of today’s University of South Carolina, check out Daniel Hollis’ South Carolina College, Vol. 1.



19th century campus pranks

When you were in college, did you ever steal a live turkey? Maybe stand outside a professor’s window at night and bang metal plates and cups? Or did you tie moth balls to a cow’s tail and — oh, never mind, of course you didn’t do any of those things because you were not in college in the early 19th century.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, where we amble across the Horseshoe and take a stroll down more than 200 years of memory lane at the University of South Carolina.

Today we’re talking about student pranks in the early 1800s at South Carolina College, the precursor of today’s university. Quick history in case you don’t already know — the college was chartered in 1801, classes started in 1805. And the students back then, well, they didn’t always see eye to eye with rules and regulations.

West: The students of the 19th century, particularly before the Civil War, were very enthusiastic about challenging the rules at the South Carolina College.

That’s Elizabeth West, the university archivist, who can pretty much tell you about everything that’s ever happened here on campus.

West: When the college opened, it adopted a more Puritanical set of regulations that banned a lot of the things that the students liked to do, and were used to doing as privileged young men of the antebellum society. And so they rebelled against that with things like stealing the wooden steps off of Rutledge College, they’re not wooden now, and when they did not want to go to chapel or class, they would sneak out in the middle of the night and steal the wooden steps and then claim they didn’t have to go to class and the faculty would then have to figure out a way to climb up into the building and force the students in.

Well, that’s one way of getting out of class — steal the steps to the classroom building. Good job, guys.

West: When they stole the steps from Rutledge it was a way of getting out of class or going to chapel which they were required to attend, and so they got great enjoyment out of watching the older faculty get up into Rutledge College — they would have to find a ladder to climb up on to make it into the building and then force the students to attend chapel or whatever lecture was planned for that day.

Elizabeth says the students back then also did something called tin-pan serenades. They would take metal plates and cups, then go out around midnight and bang them together under a professor’s window — faculty members lived on campus in those days — and generally make enough racket to wake everyone up.

But tin-pan serenading wasn’t all they did — not by a long shot.

West: President Thomas Cooper was president in the 1820s and for some reason the students decided it would be a great idea to paint his horse green. They also pulled out a lot of the hair from his tail, which was quite cruel — there was a different mindset toward treatment of animals than we have today — so I don’t know the origins of the green paint or why it was President Cooper’s horse, but it just seemed to be whatever popped into their heads to antagonize someone, they would do it.

So, I’ve been trying to get my head wrapped around this. On one hand, you could argue that students of a certain age at any time or place are occasionally going to be rowdy and maybe pull some pranks. But these students 200 years ago seemed out of control — I mean, painting the college president’s horse green? Well, at least it wasn’t orange! A little context is always helpful, so I asked Elizabeth to explain a little more about why the students acted like this.

West: In the early 19th century South Carolina did not have that really church-based emphasis in its society that it developed later on and so for those first couple of decades of South Carolina College, the students were really not used to having to attend chapel or services like that. So that was part of the set of regulations that the college imported from northern schools, which had a more Puritanical bent and required those types of activities, while banning their other more pleasurable activities, like gambling and drinking and cock fighting and horse racing and things like that, which they were used to doing in a rather hedonistic society that these privileged young men came from at that time.

OK, so they were used to doing whatever they wanted to do whenever they wanted to do it. Sounds like me when I was a sophomore. But, on my word of honor, I never stole a turkey from anyone.

West: One of the most popular pranks that the students would pull would be to sneak into Columbia, usually under the cover of night, and steal turkeys from the yards of Columbia residents and they would often have them cooked up somewhere to consume for a late-night dinner, and sometimes they would actually pluck them and return them alive but featherless to their owners.

It was one of the reasons that the trustees decided to finally build a sturdier wall around the campus, not to keep people off the campus but to try to keep the students on the campus. It didn’t quite work, but turkey stealing and some of these other activities and late nights in the taverns were big reasons for building the wall.

We’ll talk more about that brick wall around campus in another episode. For now, we’re going to wrap up our look at 19th century student pranks with a story that might very well be — a bunch of bull.

I read about this tale in an obscure book that says sometime between 1835 and 1857 — when a German-born professor named Francis Lieber was teaching here — students managed to coax a cow up the stairs to the top floor of Rutledge College and then they tied it to a bell. The bewildered bovine started bellowing and the bell was clanging. And Francis Lieber, the professor, climbed the stairs to investigate. He found the cow and quickly realized that he himself did not possess the skills of a cowboy — he couldn’t persuade Bessie to go back down the stairs. It’s said that in that moment of complete exasperation, he bellowed out into the night with his thick German accent for all to hear: “Mein Gott, All dis for two tousand dollahs!”

Elizabeth West says she’s never heard of that story — so, OK, it might be ‘udder’ nonsense — but she has found historic documentation of Lieber shouting out that line about having to put up mischievous students for a measly $2,000 a year. Might explain why he eventually ended up leaving the college.

We thought it would be fun to ask a few of today’s students what they thought of all that campus pranking two centuries ago. So we headed out to where it all began  — the Horseshoe.

Various student comments…

So the next time you hear about a campus prank somewhere, remember that long ago students at your alma mater were no slackers in that regard. And remember, too, that we now have the Carolinian Creed, which values integrity and civility and in so many words encourages students to not make a din with their tin, to keep their green paint in art class, and, of course, no plucking around.

See you next time on Remembering the Days, a production of the Office of Communications and Public Affairs at the University of South Carolina.


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