Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Hail to thee, our alma mater!

As a Northwestern University alum, I can assure you that they don't tell you about this during orientation:
They called it "class rush." At sunset, the freshmen rallied in one place, the sophomores in another. It happened every September before classes began. Everyone carried ropes, wrapped around their waists, so they could tie their prisoners. Once it was dark, so dark no one could see who did what to whom, they attacked each other; packs of freshmen, gangs of sophomores, a mob of five hundred boys. The girls stayed inside, crowded around the windows of their dorms. The boys chased each other back and forth across the campus, through the streets of Evanston, down to Fountain Square, then back to the lake. Respectable people stayed inside. Local drunks and toughs joined in.

Whoever captured the other would force them to strip, then tie them up and march them off. If they captured their prisoners by the lake, they'd force them to jump in, or they'd row them out, a few at a time, to a raft or a jetty and leave them there--to untie themselves, swim ashore, find clothes before they were caught again. Worse than being dunked or marooned was to be kidnapped--stripped, tied, taken in a car to the forest outside of town, then left there.
Like me, do you hear echoes of the hijinks to be found in Tom Brown's Schooldays? To be fair, contemporary Northwestern officials probably don't mention "class rush" because it doesn't really happen like that these days, the most violent and combative impulses of the undergraduate population having been directed into the more contained arenas of fraternity hazing, binge drinking, and sports.

The account above, which describes the activities of students in 1921, comes from Michael Lesy's wonderfully strange Murder City: The Bloody History of Chicago in the Twenties (2007), which always rewards me when I pull it down from the shelf and flip through it. The story's presence in a book with such a title might lead you to suspect that things turned out poorly for at least one of the rampaging students that night, and you'd be right: a freshman from Evanston named Leighton Mount went missing, and in Lesy's hands, the story--which he draws from lurid newspaper accounts, supplemented, in his usual style, by evocative, even creepy photos--is sad and creepy and awkward and satisfyingly unresolvable.

Northwestern alums should check it out: it'll give you a grisly topic of conversation the next time you run into a fellow grad--say, one of hyper-careerists with whom you had little in common as an undergrad, and less now. They mention Mark Witte and their fraternity, you bring up poor Leighton Mount's corpse rotting under the Lake Street pier, and the next thing you know you'll be free to escape to the bar for another drink.


  1. Man, Northwestern wasn’t like that when I was there. Imagine the English department squaring off against electrical engineering!

  2. Steve7:22 AM

    I'll bet that bringing up Illumina-Hinman, zbtscuttling, and serenading the wellness dorm would have a similar effect to mentioning rotting cadavers.