Office of University Communications
From Martha Mitchell’s Encyclopedia Brunoniana:
Junior Burials of textbooks began in the 1850s, the earliest known program being for the year 1853. On these occasions there was a procession through the city streets with a brass band, banners and burning torches, as the rhetoric textbooks of Richard Whately, George Campbell, and William Spalding were conveyed in a coffin to Ferry Wharf. There the students embarked in boats to an offshore spot where the funeral ceremonies were conducted, complete with orations on the textbook authors, a poem and an ode, and the books were thrown overboard. Such a burial is nicely described in the diary of William Dearth 1855:
“Procession formed in Hope St. Gave us Seniors the lead & I had the honor of bearing the new banner, fresh from Mark’s hands, “The Supreme Canon of the New Analytic.” – The Hearse, a buggy with the top off, supporting a genuine coffin (Ch. Alden fecit), with a huge black pall (ornamented with a trio of skulls, each with its attendant couple of cross-bones) was drawn by four white horses, appropriately caparisoned ... Have reason to think we made a good appearance. At all events our torches shed their glare upon a crowd of spectators, including many ladies. ... Then a pleasant row down the bay, I not having to touch the oars, more trouble in drawing up around the channel post, where the services began. Back again to the landing. Rather chilly – Marched up to the colleges again, breaking the solemn stillness of the midnight. Broke up with appropriate shouts.”The odes on these occasions were particularly touching. In 1855 the ode by Charles Turner 1855 to the tune of “Nelly was a Lady” began:
Down on the Narragansett floatingThe next year George W. Carr 1857 wrote to the tune of “Benny Havens, Oh!”:
From classic halls Brunonian,The forerunner of the burials was an earlier custom of burning compositions with appropriate ritual. Williams Latham 1827 wrote in his diary on May 5, 1827, “we burnt our compositions which afforded much light and heat to warm and enliven this garden of science. Parker was the high priest, Putnam the marshal and Thurber the Poet.” The granddaughter of steward Joseph Cady reminisced about a similar occasion:
“The first thing I remember about college affairs was the burning of the essays by the students when I was about seven years old. It was probably at the end of the spring term of 1831. ... One morning I noticed two tall poles standing on the east side of Hope College with bundles of white paper tied on them. Soon I heard music, and running up the garden promptly climbed the fence to investigate. A procession of students, dressed in fantastic costumes, came around University Hall ... and the music (probably Washington’s March, as that was always played on great occasions) was very inspiriting. They went by the old well up the back campus and halted; probably there were speeches. Then the papers were lighted, and made a very pretty bonfire. I was told afterwards that the bundles contained the essays that the students had written during the year.”The burials at sea went out with the Civil War. They were later revived as a “cremation,” and the textbook authors singled out Elias Loomis on analytical geometry and Thomas B. Shaw’s Manual of English. The later processions did not head for the boats, but paraded across Red Bridge (and, once across, opened the draw bridge with the approval of the appropriate authorities) and burned the offending books. The cremation held in 1875 was described in rhyme in a local newspaper under the heading, “Brown Boys ‘On the Rampage’”:
“Thursday, by early candle light, appeared a strange and grotesque sight, upon the College Campus green, a sight as queer as e’er was seen. It was the Brown boys, out in force, to celebrate in usual course, their Class Day eve, with mock display, and mimic funeral pageantry. The Juniors, in outlandish guise, bedecked themselves to strike surprise to all who saw them thus arrayed, on their accustomed street parade. Some wrapped in winding sheets were ‘most too noisy for a sober ghost, and some wore horns, in travesty of his Satanic majesty. The latter seemed, upon the whole, familiar with the title role, and many, as the train went by, inclined to Darwin’s theory. From street to street the cavalcade, with blatant hand, its progress made; red robes, a skull and cross-bones bare, looked hideous in the torches’ glare. Beyond the Seekonk’s further shore, the strange procession marched, and bore an English text-book, with Greek fire, burned on a mock funeral pyre. This frolic o’er, each Junior sped at midnight to his little bed, ending in peace this revel queer, which comes, thank God, but once a year.”Before the cremations ended in the 1880s, the students had turned their condemnation to their teachers as well as to the textbook authors. The faculty naturally were not pleased with this attention, although, according to Professor William Whitman Bailey, Professor Packard amiably offered a whole set of his works for cremation, “thus defeating the desire to burn them.” On the other hand, when the junior class announced early in 1872 its plan to cremate Chemistry as a change from the usual victims, the professor of chemistry, John Howard Appleton, was upset by this choice, because he feared injury to the reputation of the department and his text-book. The class, out of respect for his feelings, changed its plan and buried all the studies of junior year without favoritism. In 1883 the juniors chose to bury the marking system, a decision for which they were commended by the Brunonian for continuing the tradition of the burial without the “former offensive features” which disturbed the faculty. In 1885 the Junior Burial was replaced by a pow-wow at Messer Field, at which the main event was the mock wedding of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas.
The above entry appears in Encyclopedia Brunoniana by Martha Mitchell, copyright ©1993 by the Brown University Library. It is used here by permission of the author and the University and may not be copied or further distributed without permission.