Feature - April 21, 1999
Strange Tales of Black Squirrels, Chapel Bulldogs, and Such (Some of Them True)
By Wes Tooke '98
Myths: stories whose authors and origins are lost in poetic-sounding clichés that look better in italics, such as "the mists of time." Princeton has myths, many myths. Some seem the natural by-product of storytelling at a place where the institutional memory is limited by the four years it takes most students to graduate. Some are just bald-faced lies that are cheerfully repeated because the myths seem more interesting than the truth. But since Princeton is far too sober a place to be interesting, paw has decided to spoil everyone's fun. The following is a sampling of Princeton myths -- debunked.
Princeton's Ugly Duckling
Myth: For his thesis in the architecture department, a senior designed a concert hall. His adviser hated the design so much that the project received an F. Years later, after the senior had made piles of money in the architecture business, he agreed to give Princeton money for a new auditorium -- on the condition that it build his failed thesis. Construction soon started on Alexander Hall.
Fact: Alexander Hall was given by Harriet Crocker Alexander in 1892 to honor her husband's family, who had been alumni and trustees of Princeton for three generations. The building was designed by William Potter, who also designed East Pyne and the Chancellor Green Library -- now part of the Student Center -- and was (thankfully) not a Princeton graduate. Alexander Hall was the last Romanesque building constructed on campus before the trustees adopted the Tudor Gothic style. In 1959, undergraduates voted the hall the building they would "most like to see burn down." On a visit to campus, Frank Lloyd Wright is reported to have said that Alexander was the only building at Princeton with "personality." And in what this writer can only describe as a sick joke, the Postal Service chose Alexander for its postcard commemorating Princeton's 250th anniversary. Some people, including paw's editor, actually claim to like Alexander Hall. Pagans.
What's in a Name?
Myth: In the mid-1920s, James Buchanan Duke offered Princeton a fortune if it would change its name to Duke. When Princeton refused, he instead gave the money to Trinity College in North Carolina, which soon changed its name to Duke University.
Fact: There is no evidence to support the claim that Duke ever offered any money to Princeton. The origin of the myth may be that Duke did have an estate in nearby Somerville, New Jersey, and admired Princeton's architecture enough to insist that the new buildings at Trinity be built in the collegiate Gothic style.
Another possibility is that the myth-makers confused the story of Duke with another story. Paul Tulane was a Princeton native who moved to New Orleans, where he made a fortune selling dry goods. He returned to Princeton in 1860 and bought Lowrie House (now the official residence of the university president). A popular -- and published -- story claims that in 1882, Tulane offered his alma mater, then known as the College of New Jersey but already considering a name change, a large sum of money with the condition that it become Tulane University. When the trustees refused, he instead gave the money to the former Medical College of Louisiana in New Orleans.
There are two holes in this story. First, Tulane never went to college -- he dropped out of school at 15 -- and, second, Princeton didn't officially change its name until 1896. Still, there's no definitive evidence that Tulane didn't offer his money to Princeton. The tour guides at Tulane claim that he did make the offer, never forgave Princeton, and requested that he be buried with his back facing the university. Perhaps their myth is true, for while most of the gravestones in Princeton Cemetery face east, the statue of Tulane marking his grave faces north -- with its back to Nassau Hall.
Bike Racks = Barbed Wire?
Myth: A certain "Mrs. Butler" gave money to Prince-ton to build a quad with the condition that it be built as a memorial to the Holocaust. The "bike racks" on the roofs of the lower dormitories in Butler College -- 1922, 1940, 1941, 1942, and Lourie-Love halls -- are supposed to represent barbed wire.
Fact: Butler may be uglier than a strip mall, but neither Mrs. Butler nor the Holocaust is to blame. The money to create Butler College was actually given by Lee D. Butler '22, a former trustee of the university, in 1980. The dormitories in question had been on campus since 1964, and until Butler College's completion they were known as the "New New Quad." Why the architect put "bike racks" on the roofs remains an open question. Perhaps they were meant to serve as a modern homage to the ornamentation of the collegiate Gothic style. Or maybe they were meant to make their residents feel just a little worse about not living in Holder.
Back in Black
Myth: Several years ago, deep in the bowels of one of Princeton's biology buildings, an inhumane and unnatural science experiment produced a breed of black squirrels. Some of the squirrels either escaped or were liberated by a zealous animal-rights group, and now these new über-squirrels are slowly taking over the campus.
Fact: Black squirrels may be ubiquitous at Princeton, but they are also perfectly natural. Black and gray squirrels are merely different color morphs of the same species, the eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). Populations of black squirrels appear naturally in other places in the Northeast, particularly in isolated populations such as those in city parks, and they have been around for a long time -- in 1655, David De Vries included squirrels "black as pitch and gray" in his list of the wild mammals of New Amsterdam. Princeton, however, may have its own special kind of squirrel. Henry Horn, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology -- and far too serious a man to pull paw's leg -- reports having seen in the area around McCosh Infirmary a hybrid form of the eastern gray squirrel with a black body and an orange tail.
In fact, squirrels have been a bizarre obsession at Princeton for decades. In 1926, a student writer in paw noted that "a depletion has been noticed in the supply of squirrels on our greens." Over the next 15 years, letter writers discussed various ways of boosting the population. One suggestion, apparently never carried out, called for the university to keep a stock of captive squirrels and periodically release them.
Myth: The architect of the Chapel was a graduate of Yale, and as his "signature" he left a carving of the Yale bulldog on the building.
Fact: Midway down a copper drainpipe on the east façade of the Chapel is the unmistakable face of a bull-dog. But who put it there -- or whether it's even representative of Yale -- is unclear. The Chapel's architect was Ralph Adams Cram, the university's supervising architect between 1907 and 1929, and Cram didn't go to college. Furthermore, his primary assistant, Alexander Hoyle, was a Harvard graduate. It seems likely, therefore, that the bulldog was planted by one of the other assistant architects. In 1991, a 96-year-old man named Clifford MacKinnon revealed that he had sculpted his own head and placed it on the Chapel's portal along with a small sculpture of Cram -- proving that it was possible for an assistant architect to insert his own touches on the Chapel while it was under construction.
Another, albeit unlikely, possibility is that the bulldog is a British bulldog. The sculpture is around the corner from the Bright Pulpit, which is dedicated to John Bright, "the great British commoner." While the Orange Key guides on the campus tour do point out the "Yale" bulldog, they also like to note that Yale belongs in the gutter anyway.
Myth: After Brooke Shields '87 applied to Princeton -- and before the admissions decisions were made -- The Princeton Tiger, against the advice of its graduate board, published an issue called the "Brooke Book" that contained a series of articles spoofing the famous actress. Brooke's mother, Teri Shields, saw a copy of the book and threatened to sue both the Tiger and Princeton. The university burned all the copies of the "Brooke Book," and two Tiger editors were asked to spend a year away from Princeton thinking about why the future Mrs. André Agassi was not a source of amusement. (The issue wouldn't have been in doubt if they'd seen her sitcom, Suddenly Susan ...) After Princeton's dean of admission visited the Shields household with two admissions letters -- and left without the one that said yes -- nobody ever heard about the lawsuit again.
Fact: For their December issue in 1982, the student editors of the Tiger planned on running a "Brooke Book," an issue they described as "the most distasteful, risqué, and malicious" in the magazine's history. After editor-in-chief Rich Herschlag '84 got the final proofs back from the printer, however, he showed a copy to Tiger trustee Henry Martin '48, who advised Herschlag to show the issue to a lawyer. On the lawyer's advice, the Tiger's board canceled the issue. Three months later, the Tiger published another issue that had Brooke on the cover with a "censored" label obscuring her face. The issue also contained a staff editorial that was unkind to Brooke and her mother, and an article with crass suggestions on how to date a famous actress named "Brook Shell" entitled "The Princeton Man's Guide to Impressing and Sleeping with Brook If and When She Gets Here."
What happened next is still unclear. Although Herschlag says that the Tiger's board had approved 98 percent of the issue, he and publisher Wendell Long '85 were immediately removed from the editorial staff. "It seems like the graduate board was under some kind of pressure," Herschlag says. Then the Press Club's UPI stringer wrote an article about both the magazine and the firings that was picked up by newspapers across the country. Long was interviewed by Diane Sawyer, and Herschlag appeared on NBC. "The story had everything," Herschlag says, "Brooke Shields, Princeton, and the smell of censorship." The National Lampoon even tried to buy some of the unused material from the "Brooke Book."
Long and Herschlag heard rumors that the university might suspend them, but nothing ever happened. Still, Herschlag says, "We were pretty bitter. We felt like we'd been hung out to dry." During graduation in 1985, the pair rented a plane (Long was a licensed pilot) and dropped 4,000 leaflets over the ceremony in front of Nassau Hall. The leaflets said: "Princeton sucks -- have a nice day." Herschlag says, "We wanted to see if we could top Animal House. We were just angry. To this day I wish I knew why I was kicked off the Tiger for a typical sophomoric, college-humor article." Sixteen years after the incident, Herschlag is a published author and part-time engineer who lives with his wife and two kids in Pennsylvania. The last Herschlag heard, Long, who never graduated from Princeton, was a pit boss at a casino in Atlantic City.
As for Brooke, the decision to admit her was made by James W. Wickenden '61, the dean of admission at the time, once she had assured him that she was committed to completing four years at Princeton and participating fully in campus life. Wickenden says that he had no doubts that she had the academic, extracurricular, and personal credentials for admission. To prevent leaks to the media, he kept his staffers in the dark about the decision and told them to print three letters to her -- admit, deny, waitlist. He left with the three letters for a brief vacation in Florida, and there, the day after all the other admission letters had been mailed from Prince-ton, he slipped Brooke's fat envelope into a mailbox.
Einstein at Princeton
Myth: Albert Einstein was a member of the faculty.
Fact: Although Einstein was a resident of Princeton from 1933 (he lived at 112 Mercer Street) until his death in 1955, his institutional affiliation was solely with the Institute for Advanced Study, which has no formal connection with Princeton University. Until the completion of the Institute's main building in 1939, he and the other four original members of its faculty -- all former members of Princeton's mathematics department -- had offices in Fine (now Jones) Hall, with Einstein occupying Room 109. The dean of the faculty now uses his old desk.
Myths: There are probably hundreds.
Facts: Some of the more interesting true stories: Princeton did play Rutgers in the first intercollegiate football game in 1869 on the current site of the Rutgers gymnasium (Rutgers won 6-4), and there is still a stone memorial on Harrison Street in Princeton where the teams met for a second game a month later. Six of Edgar Allen Poe's grandnephews were once football players at Princeton -- three of them stars -- and Neilson Poe 1897 returned to be an assistant coach from 1919 to 1942. And President Teddy Roosevelt did call the coaches of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to Washington in 1905 to warn them that if they couldn't clean up the dangerous game of football, he'd be forced to ban it.
Finally, Princeton did drop Harvard from its athletic schedule for five years -- eight years in football -- beginning in 1926. Although there had been bad blood swirling around the Princeton-Harvard football game for some time, the final break came over an issue of the Harvard Lampoon. In an editorial that captured the tone of the entire issue, the Lampoon wrote: "Lampy looks forward to no chivalrous exhibition of sportsmanship; it will be a glorious free-for-all masquerading under the name of football. Once more the old eye-gouging, bottle-heaving days will return." Shortly after the game, Harvard added insult to the injury by stating in its new policy governing athletics that "Yale shall be the sole fixture on the Harvard football schedule." On November 10, 1926, at a meeting in New York, the Princeton trustees voted unanimously to sever athletic relations with Harvard. And despite a series of apologies from Harvard's president, the chairman of the Lampoon, and the president of the Harvard Crimson, the two teams would not play again until 1934 (Princeton won that game, 19-0).
Orange? Black? Plaid?
Myth: The orange in the school's colors comes from Nassau Hall, dedicated to Prince William of Orange, of the House of Nassau. The black came from a crew race before the turn of the century. The team was about to be disqualified because they weren't wearing numbers, so they dipped their fingers in mud and painted black numerals on the backs of their orange jerseys.
Fact: The orange indeed came from Prince William, via Nassau Hall. As for the black, the Princeton crews at the Saratoga Regatta in 1874 did wear orange and black -- and that regatta is generally considered the beginning of orange and black as Princeton's "official" colors. But while it's perfectly possible that the crew team smeared mud on their jerseys, black had been used since 1868, when the Class of 1869 wanted to print its class number on orange badges to wear in a baseball game with Yale -- and black was the only available ink.
There are several sources credited for the Tiger nickname. In 1880, a sportswriter, after watching Prince-ton play in its uniforms with horizontal orange and black stripes, wrote that the team "fought like Tigers." Another possible source, the "Tiger Cheer," seems to have been picked up from the New York Seventh Regiment, which passed through town during the Civil War.
Also surprising is that various Princeton classes began to use outrageous orange-and-black plaid in their Reunions garb long before the popularization of hallucinogenic drugs.
Princeton Alumni Weekly
Myth: PAW's copy editing is done by a staff of poorly trained monkeys.
Fact: There is only one monkey, his name is Lorenzo, and he'd like to be treated with a little more respect -- after all, he did done go to Harvard.
Blame all factual mistakes on Wes Tooke '98, PAW's assistant editor, who probably made everything up anyway.
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