Sunday, October 4, 2015

Book Week #1: "I would sooner send my son to hell than send him to Yale."

Carry A. Nation at Yale

      I'm taking a break for the next week. And while my wife would respect me more, I believe, if I just left the blog blank—"'Every goddamn day' doesn't mean you have to post every goddamn day," as she so sensibly puts it—the truth is some tiny handful of people expect something new here every day, and by gum, I don't want to disappoint them. It's a disappointing enough world as it is without my adding to the general swamp of let-down. Besides, I hate to stop now. A foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, as Emerson said, but it's my hobgoblin, and I'm sticking with it. 
     So since I have eight days to fill, and have written eight books, I'm going to run an excerpt each day from each of my books, secure in the knowledge that it'll be new to most people. I thought of tying it in somehow with Banned Books which was last week. But none of my books were ever banned, unfortunately, as that's a boon to sales, something would be censors never get their heads around. I'll include a link where you can buy the book, but as most are out-of-print, it's a pure service, since the money won't go to me, and you can check them out of the library too, if you are interested.
     The first excerpt, from "If At All Possible, Involve a Cow: The Book of College Pranks," which came out in 1992, is perhaps my favorite episode in the book:

     Like most collegians, then and now, Yale students at the turn of the last century liked to drink and have a good time. In fact, students at Yale had a special reputation for living the high life. "I would sooner send my son to hell," a minister's wife said at the time, "than send him to Yale."
     In 1901, a group of eight party-happy friends got together, secured four rooms at Fayerweather Hall—three for study and sleeping and the fourth as a sort of clubhouse—and dubbed themselves the "Jolly Eight."
     A fellow student, a junior not in the Jolly Eight but feeling "a real or fanciful grievance" against one of its members, sat down on February 20, 1902 and typed out a letter to hatchet-wielding saloon-busting temperance crusader Carry A. Nation, describing the club as a "party of Yale men who have banded together to promote the cause of total abstinence," calling itself the Jolly Eight "to show that men may lead consistent and yet cheerful lives." He asked for words of counsel and encouragement from Nation.
     A short time later, the group received a letter and several autographed photographs of Nation, shown standing with an open Bible in one hand an upraised hatchet in the other. The author of the letter was found out and confronted. He confessed his guilt, the Jolly Eight let him off with stern threats. It was assumed the prank had run its course.
   They had seriously underestimated Nation, who was capitalizing on her career breaking apart saloons by lecturing on the carnival circuit and even in burlesque houses, taking donation and hawking her little souvenir hatchets. Her zeal had made her something of a national joke.
     On September 29, 1902, the letter-writing Yalie, whose name has been shielded from posterity, was walking on the campus when a fellow student ran up and informed him that Carry Nation was waiting to see him in the rooms of the Jolly Eight. He assumed the club was getting its revenge for the letter—"It was preposterous," explained an eyewitness narrative of the event, published in 1931 in the Yale Daily News. "Carry Nation had only occasionally been even read of, demolishing some saloon in distant states." But his smugness dissolved into terror when he discovered the somber Nation seated in the center of the Jolly Eight's Fayerweather suite.
      Nation, who was not known for her savvy, suspected nothing. She had spoken several times on campus, years before, and soon was lecturing a hasty gathering of the Jolly Eight and their guests on the vices of drinking and smoking, not to mention short skirts and foreign foods. Her audience was respectful, though many had to bite their lips to force back a smile. 
      "Occasionally a man would as decorously as possible bolt out of the room to explode in laughter in the entry and then return, composed," the Daily News said.
     Those in attendance reported that Nation's smiling face clouded into an angry frown when she noticed a well-filled pipe rack hanging over the fireplace. But some quick-thinking "Eight" explained that the pipes were trophies given up by smokers persuaded to abandon the vice by their organization.
     "It was a reply worthy of a degree in itself," noted the history, and Nation bought it.
     Nation then announced she would speak from the steps of Osborn Hall at 5 p.m. In the meantime, she went to visit friends in New Haven and to harangue a dean for serving champagne sauce in Yale commons.
     If it may seem odd that Nation was not informed by someone that her host on campus was a drinking club, remember that Nation was known for her attacks on saloons. The driving force behind keeping her deluded was a general desire to get her out of town before she could turn on Yale's beloved tap houses.
     "The deception must be continued for should Mrs. Nation learn the truth a hatchet crusade would be inevitable and would probably be directed upon Mory's where near-innocent tobies of ale attended upon surpassing rarebits and English mutton chops," reasoned the narrative. "The newspapers, always eager to distort with sensationalism any unfortunate mention of Yale men, would revel in the story of such an attack and, to the unknowing, make Yale appear to be an inebriate's asylum."
    At 5 p.m., Nation mounted the steps of Osborn Hall, a grandiose structure with soaring archways. she was robustly cheered and members of the glee club, scattered throughout the audience, led the crowd in singing "Good Mornin' Carry."
     It was a wild, stormy encounter, with Nation trying to deliver her temperance message amidst the constant interruptions of cheers and increasingly double-entendre songs from the crowd (such as "Down with King Alcohol," which pleased Nation until the part of the drinking melody where the singers make the down-the-hatch gesture). 
     Finally, after about an hour, during which Nation managed to have some respectful silence by brandishing her bible aloft, the songs grew more blatantly inebriate, the catcalls more unabashed, and she beat a hasty retreat.
     The prank would have just been an amusing episode had it ended there. But it didn't. Invigorated by the day's events, eight students—it is unclear whether these were the Jolly Eight or another group from the Yale Record—grabbed a camera and flash apparatus and headed for Nation's room at the New Haven House.
    Waiting until Nation had finished selling her little hatchets (with DEATH TO RUM emblazoned on the handles) to a crowd in the hall, the men interviewed Nation about her views on prohibition and requested she pose for a photograph. 
     In 1902, taking a photograph after nightfall was a complicated process. It involved extinguishing all the lights, exposing a photographic plate in darkness, igniting flash power, then covering the plate before turning the lights back on.
     Nation was handed a glass of water. It was explained to her that she would be photographed toasting to temperance with life's essential liquid. The eight students took the places around her. One held another glass of water, to toast with, but he others were empty-handed.
     Empty-handed, that is, until the lights went out. In the momentary darkness, the Yalie to Nation's right produced a large beer stein, and the others reached for concealed props and arranged themselves around the temperance leader in a tableau the Daily News compared to a "Bacchanalian orgy." 
     ...Later, [the photographer] doctored the second photograph to add a cigarette in Nation's hand and a foamy head on the beer stein. It looks as if Nation has just blown a trio of perfect smoke rings to the delight of her drinking buddies....
    To rub in the insult, the real Yale Record published the photo on October 1, 1902, adding the caption: 'I have always taken mine straight,' she said, laughing."
      One can't help but wonder if Nation ever caught on to how much she had been ridiculed during her day at Yale. It appears likely she did. In her 1908 autobiography, Nation displays herself as a woman quite aware that she was taken for a fool in New Haven. Her chapter on college life is titled "The Vices of Colleges, Especially Yale."


  1. Years ago The Chicago Reader had a story profiling the history of Cairo, Illinois. It included a vintage photo of a saloon from the turn of the last century. Proud of their diverse clientele, immigrants from many countries, there was a sign in the window proclaiming "All Nations Welcome - Except Carrie.”

  2. Very glad to have read the book; my appreciation of cows has since been greatly enhanced :)


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