Last Thursday, Yale marked the centennial of America’s entrance into World War I. This is a deeply unsexy subject. There are very few events as seminal but as forgettable as the First World War. Millions of men marched to their graves because of now unrecognizable signatures on obscure agreements and, more immediately, because some Serbian student had hella good aim with a grenade. People want to know they died fighting against the bad guys, not against other poor confused men following the whims of their leaders. But perhaps I can entice you with a Yale story of the after effects of the war — when demobilized soldiers and townspeople declared war on Yale.
Would you believe me if I said that New Haven once mustered an army and laid siege to Yale in the early 20th century? The dean of Yale College, Frederick Jones, class of 1884, ordered a complete shutdown of the University, closing all the gates surrounding Old Campus. Farnam, Welch and Vanderbilt transformed from sleepy dormitories into castle walls — the last line of defense between 300 soldiers, 5,000 townies and the student body. The soldiers and citizens hurled rocks and stones, shattered windows and knocked out streetlights. Lucky were the students behind the walls! The mob was enraged; the people came for blood not bricks. They flocked to the streets, sniffing out bulldogs in the town. When they eyed a Yale student — easily spotted by his circular glasses or cream-colored sweater — they dragged him into the street — and beat him to an inch of his life. The riot only died down the next day when the University hastily summoned its own brigade of police officers, security guards, national troopers and firemen.
This was the great town-and-gown battle of May 1919. The Yale historian and former Yale Debate Association coach Rollin Osterweis ’30 described the siege as the “one of the most tragic events in New Haven history.” The city had not seen civil strife like this in over a century — when the British marched as victors into New Haven during the Revolutionary war. (Incidentally, Yale responded markedly different to the British. Instead of locking the gates, the octogenarian University president-emeritus, Naphtali Dagget, class of 1748, picked up a sniper and killed a few Redcoats before being stabbed into incapacity. Your move, President Salovey?) How on earth did the city descend into fraternal chaos? Fragile masculinity and nationalism are the closest answers.
The date is May 24, 1919. The great European conflagration had ended a few months before, and New Haven was preparing to welcome home its boys from the Front — the brave men of the 102nd Infantry Division. The parade was lively and joyous, with war-weary men rejoicing in the presence of their wives and families. Men grateful for dodging bullets, and a city grateful for their sacrifice. But the festivities broke down into shouts of anger and cries of indignation when the veterans walked past campus. To this day no one knows who started the altercation. What is known is that insults were being thrown around. Yalies called the veterans “tin-soldiers;” the soldiers called them “slackers.”
The time bomb started ticking. The next morning, townspeople again accused arrogant Yalies of disrespecting the soldiers — apparently, students had hissed the Regiment Band at a concert. Incensed, soldiers and citizens alike proclaimed a march on campus. So, the great siege of Yale — like wars between jealous, insecure monarchs — began because of the short temper of adolescent men on both sides.
New Haven and Yale, frustrated and exhausted, variously in love and out, have been dancing uneasily together for over three centuries, but only once has the relationship looked doomed. As much antagonism as there is today — from tax disputes, voluntary payments and employment opportunities — there is always a loving girdle around the two. Both care about the other, and acknowledge each one’s shortcomings.
As far as I know there is no plaque at Yale commemorating this event. And maybe for good measure. The battle was an aberration, even for the somewhat shaky city-university relations of the 20th century. “It lay rooted in the pent-up emotions of people who had just passed through the trying experience of a world war,” noted Osterweis. But what a story! If you ever felt college life was stressful, just think back to the freshman in May 1919 who woke up in Vandy, brushed his teeth — still drowsy from sleep — and then looked outside his window, his jaw-dropped and eyes blinking in disbelief, to see an army at the gates of his school. Perhaps the greatest dean’s excuse ever?
Adam Krok is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .