Friday, February 2, 2024

A Donkey in the Chapel and a Pig on the Train

Newspapers illustration of donkey on stage with a studentNo one knew how the donkey had gotten into the chapel. But there it was, standing near the center of the platform, tied securely.

This storied incident took place one afternoon in the spring of 1888. In those days, the Dartmouth chapel was reserved on Wednesdays for a mandatory, school-wide meeting to hear the seniors perform their original oratories. This particular Wednesday, a live donkey had joined in on the presentations.

 Students could tell something was afoot even before they reached the chapel: as W. A. Charles, class of 1890, recounted, “cheers and loud laughter,” emanated from the hall. By the time W. A. Charles entered, the speakers and the English professor were seated on the platform, next to the animal. The only one missing was President Bartlett, who usually arrived at the last chime of the bell.

Newspaper article by W. A. Charles about Donkey on stageWord spread that the president was approaching the building, and the cheers died down. Bartlett entered, and the students stood, watching him ascend toward the podium. Then he caught sight of the donkey. There was a pause; a moment of hesitation. William A. Bartlett, class of 1882 (no obvious relation to the Dartmouth president), wrote, “The president and the animal regarded each other amicably.” Then, reports W. A. Charles, “the students broke into tumultuous yells and cheers.”

What happened next has been blurred by history. One version claims that the president said calmly, “Gentlemen, excuse me for disturbing your class meeting,” and then departed. As William Bartlett chronicles it, the president took the list of speakers in his hand and remarked, “As I call the names you may come up and stand beside your brother and declaim.” W. A. Charles’ remembers an entirely different version: in his account, the president held his hand for silence and then told the crowd, “I perceive one of the classes has lost a brother.” This, of course, provoked a “burst of applause” from the students.

Charles claimed that the speeches went on as usual, the seniors standing right next to the donkey: “whenever a hand was extended as a gesture, the donkey would stretch forth his head, apparently thinking he was to receive some food from the outstretched hand. The student would quickly withdraw his hand and sidestep a little, not knowing what the donkey would do, and of course at every opportunity the student body burst into wild laughter.” The speaker struggled through his oration, the donkey occasionally swished his tail or moved his head, the English professor sat quiet and sour, the audience eagerly awaited an occasion to erupt into giggles, and President Bartlett, by all accounts, never stopped smiling.

Over the next several decades, other animals would be roped into student pranks. According to The Dartmouth, a flock of turkeys was led into the chapel; horses, donkeys, and cows were left in Dartmouth hall; one skunk was hidden in an instructor’s desk; and another skunk–dubbed “Stinky”–was paraded around town, the pet of a student in the class of 1942.

The cleverest of animal “pranks” came in October of 1915. A group of Dartmouth students had been trying to find a cheap way to attend the upcoming away football game between Dartmouth and Amherst. According to the Washington Evening Star, the Interstate Commerce Commission “refused to allow students to ship themselves as livestock on freight trains,” which would have been cheaper than travel by passenger train.

But there was an exception for people caring for livestock. The students devised a plan to ship a small pig on a “special car” to Amherst, with “as many students as possible as caretakers.” If there was enough interest, wrote the Washington Evening Star, another pig would be bought and shipped in a second car.

"Rooters to Ride as Caretakers for Pig," Washington Evening Star, October 27, 1915

No word on what happened to the pig when it reached Amherst, but I’d like to imagine it enjoyed the football game and was not part of the celebratory post-game feast: Dartmouth won, 26-0.

To read more, ask for the “Student Episodes, Pranks, and Diversions” vertical file.

Posted for Kira Parrish-Penny '24