By Carter Mulroe ’20
The freshman vs. sophomore rivalry is one of Princeton’s oldest customs, dating at least as far back to 1760 when a code of unofficial laws stated that “every freshman sent on an errand shall go and do it quickly and faithfully and return.” This was what Princeton once called “horsing,” now known as hazing. Horsing may have begun at Harvard in 1734 when freshmen were not allowed “to laugh in a senior’s face, or to intrude into his company or speak saucily to him or to ask him an impertinent question.” Typically, horsing at Princeton included making the freshmen run to class, sing songs, and other mild sophomore demands. One of the horsing games at Princeton that lives on today in a modified form is the cane spree. The cane spree once consisted of a full-on battle between the freshmen and sophomores in which the sophomores attempted to wrestle and take the canes away from the freshmen. However, it got too dangerous, so in 1876, the Princetonian later explained, “three pairs of ‘spreers’ were selected—light, middle, and heavyweight—and the contest was held on the present arena between Witherspoon and Alexander.” The background behind the cane spree was that there was an unofficial rule enforced by the upperclassmen that didn’t allow freshman to carry canes on campus. The moment the freshmen stepped on Princeton’s campus, they were expected to show respect to their sophomore elders and embrace the hazing that came along with it. However, the rivalry between the freshmen and sophomores often started before the freshman class was even enrolled at Princeton. This was especially true between the Classes of 1880 and 1881.
At the time, candidates for admission to Princeton took an entrance exam on campus towards the end of the academic year prior to their matriculation. James Noteman Anderson (Class of 1880) collected newspaper clippings in his scrapbook that say that it was a common practice for the outgoing freshmen to sit outside the examination hall and heckle the incoming freshmen hopefuls before their examination. The rising sophomores usually all yelled out chants such “Left, Right, Left, Right” in unison as the incoming freshmen approached the examination hall. However, in 1877, when a number of the members of the Class of 1880 engaged in “disorderly and ungentlemanly conduct toward the Candidates for admission to College” near the home of the president, James McCosh, disrupting the exams “for several hours,” the faculty voted to suspend 32 of them for the rest of the semester.
In response to the suspension of the 32 students, the rest of the members of the Class of 1880 congregated for a grand demonstration and heckled every passerby on campus. Furious at the actions of the students, the Board of Trustees decided to suspend the entire Class of 1880 for the rest of the semester. As far as we know, this is the first and last time in Princeton’s history where an entire class was suspended. The next day, the outgoing freshmen met on the northwest corner of campus and carried a large violin case, draped with a black sheet to make it look like a coffin. This was a tradition that was usually performed by the sophomore class, which makes it odd for the Class of 1880 to do this while they were still freshmen. The black sheet was labeled with “1880” in large white numbers. The outgoing freshmen chanted and sang songs as they marched through campus, without much worry about their suspension.
This image from a page in James Noteman Anderson’s scrapbook shows his class (the Class of 1880) marching through campus with a fake coffin. Scrapbook Collection (AC026), Box 77.