From A Whiff of Murder: A Mystery with a Twist of History
There is some distance between the intentions of Yale’s founders – religious men, mostly graduates of Harvard College – who hoped to train ministers grounded in the principles of the Puritan faith, from which more liberal thinkers in Massachusetts had strayed, and the free drinking members of the Class of 1863 who stumbled into (and out of) Moriarty’s Saloon. This ale house attracted a rowdy band of students who quickly established “Mory’s” as Yale’s favorite watering hole. Over the next century, Mory’s became so closely identified with the college and so much a part of the tradition of a cappella singing at Yale that the tavern and the institution became one.
Established as The Collegiate School of Connecticut in 1701, Yale became Yale with the donation of nine bales of goods from its first benefactor, Elihu Yale of the East India Company. Thus, was Yale established and thus was born the commonly applied nickname – “the sons of Eli”. Moved to New Haven from Saybrook in 1728, Yale College was the first and only college in Connecticut until the founding of Trinity College in Hartford in 1823.
By the end of the 18th Century, Yale’s students were required to take Hebrew, Greek, and Latin in order to more effectively study the Bible. As the influence of German universities crept into American education in the 19th Century, the curriculum broadened. And, as an agrarian nation became industrialized, the composition and mission of the college changed as well. From preparing the sons of the landed gentry in Connecticut in its first years, Yale increasingly called the sons of industrial and commercial wealth from across the nation. After the Civil War, a new baronial class sprang from steel, railroads, lumber, oil; the newly established private banking houses made finance itself an industry. The sons of these barons and magnates, raised in sprawling estates above or beside the gritty factory towns, were sent to the newly minted boarding schools (Saint Paul’s, Saint George’s, Saint Mark’s, Middlesex, Groton, Hotchkiss, Choate) and to the older academies (Phillips Andover, Phillips Exeter, Deerfield, and Lawrenceville) before they entered a world of splendid ease in the colleges waiting to welcome them.
By the late 1800s, Yale was established as one of the nation’s premier institutions of higher education. Unlike Harvard and Princeton, both of which were somewhat regional in their population – Harvard drawing predominantly from Massachusetts and New England; Princeton from the Middle Atlantic states and the South – by the second half of the 19th Century, Yale enrolled as many students from New York as from New England and as many from the South and Midwest as from New York.
By 1900, approximately 20% of an entering class were sons of Yale graduates, and almost 70% matriculated from private schools. Public school graduates came from well-established high schools in Greenwich, Shady Side, Merion, Lake Forest, Shaker Heights, Grosse Pointe, Edina, Lexington, or San Francisco. Yale was almost entirely white and overwhelmingly Protestant. The proportion of Jewish students was limited to fewer than 10% of any class, and the number of Italian Catholics even smaller. No black students were admitted to the undergraduate college at the turn of that century, although Yale was the first of the Ivy League universities to grant a medical degree to an African American doctor.
The experience of the undergraduate in the first decades of the Twentieth Century was celebrated in popular literature of the day, and the experience of the Yale undergraduate was peculiarly well imagined. An article in the June 1961 edition of American Heritage Magazine reflects upon the extraordinary career of Gilbert Patten who, under the pseudonym of Bert L. Standish, produced a novel each week for twenty years, more than nine hundred stories in all, describing the career of Yale’s most prodigious fictional hero – Frank Merriwell.
It took a dozen early novels, set at the “first-rate” and fictional boarding school, Farday Academy, to prepare Frank for the extraordinary career he was to enjoy over the next twenty years at Yale. The series took on real momentum with the publication of Frank Merriwell at Yale, introducing readers to a hero of consistently high moral standards, unthinkable athletic prowess, and impossible good looks.
Upon his first meeting with the company of gentleman scholars and athletes in New Haven, Merriwell made an immediate and vivid impression:
“He never drinks. That’s how he keeps himself in such fine condition all the time. He will not smoke, either, and he takes his exercise regularly. He is really a remarkable freshie.”
The author of the American Heritage piece, Stewart Holbrook, described the legacy of the series on generations of sports writers:
“Sports writers, when faced with reporting a last-minute home run in the ninth inning, or a long run down the field in the fourth quarter, often referred to this providential stroke as a “Frank Merriwell finish.” This was in an era when the only football, of course, was college football. And if you don’t happen to know where Frank went to college, it was Yale. One of Merriwell’s unforgettable lines went into history:
“You are a cheap cad,” Frank told the overdressed Harvard bully.
Many of the more than nine hundred Merriwell stories, it must be recorded sadly, libeled the illustrious university in Cambridge, Massachusetts.”
Which of the crimes was the greater, one wonders – bullying or being overdressed in Cambridge?
Sports writers may have adopted some of the overblown rhetoric of Standish’s gridiron dramas, but the far greater impact was on millions of boys who grew to manhood idolizing the clean-cut fair play of handsome Frank Merriwell.
A recent edition of The Yale Alumni Magazine took some pleasure in celebrating, “The Ten Greatest Yalies Who Never Were,” including Merriwell, Dink Stover, Tom Buchanan (Gatsby’s rival), Michael Doonesbury, Sherman McCoy (Bonfire of the Vanities), Niles Crane (Frazier’s brother), and C. Montgomery Burns ‘14 (Sometime employer of Homer Simpson).
In describing Merriwell, The YAM proposed this curious tribute:
“In the days when the phrase “Yale man” conjured up an image of a solid, athletic fellow who played fair and came from a good family, Frank Merriwell was an ideal for many American boys—an unequivocal paragon of virtue who had, as one reviewer put it, “a body like Tarzan’s and a head like Einstein’s.
Frank Merriwell did not confine his heroics to the novel. He appeared in a comic strip, on radio, and in a film series produced by Universal Studios in the 1930s.
Before Frank Merriwell had finished his illustrious career at the fictional Fardale Academy, however, an earlier hero, John Humperdink (“Dink”) Stover, the hero of Owen Johnson’s “Lawrenceville Stories” and Dink Stover at Yale, left Lawrenceville School for New Haven.
Across the quiet reaches of the Common he went slowly, incredibly, toward these strange shapes in brick and stone. The evening mist had settled. They were things undefined and mysterious, things as real as the things of his dreams. He passed on through the portals of Phelps Hall, hearing above his head for the first time the echoes of his own footsteps against the resounding vault.
Behind him remained the city, suddenly hushed. He was on the campus, the Brick Row at his left; in the distance the crowded line of the fence, the fence where he later should sit in joyful conclave. Somewhere there in the great protecting embrace of these walls were the friends that should be his, that should pass with him through those wonderful years of happiness and good fellowship that were coming.
“And this is it — this is Yale,” he said reverently, with a little tightening of the breath.
They had begun at last — the happy, care-free years that every one proclaimed. Four glorious years, good times, good fellows, and a free and open fight to be among the leaders and leave a name on the roll of fame. Only four years, and then the world with its perplexities and grinding trials.
“Four years,” he said softly. “The best, the happiest I’ll ever know! Nothing will ever be like them — nothing!”
However idealized, Dink Stover’s Yale was more realistically presented, perhaps because Johnson had actually attended the college (as he had actually attended Lawrenceville). From the outset, Stover’s career is filled with richer complexity than the Tip Top Weekly could sustain.
There are some snakes in this Eden, as Dink Stover finds upon boarding the train for New Haven. A couple of over-bred and clearly entitled socialites (Andover and Hotchkiss) have begun sizing up the entering class and considering the prospects for the Bulldog football team:
“There’s a couple of fellows from Lawrenceville coming up,” said a voice from a seat behind him. “McCarthy and Stover, they say, are quite wonders.
”I’ve heard of Stover; end, wasn’t he?”
“Yes, and the team’s going to need ends badly.”
Charismatic and athletic, Stover is also intelligent, sensitive, and democratic. His early friendship at Yale is not with the Andover and Hotchkiss boys but with Tom Regan, a plainspoken man of twenty-two who had fought his way to Yale from a working class background in Iowa. Like many who arrived at Yale from schools other than the “feeder” boarding schools, Regan has taken an entrance examination in order to win a place at Yale. It took him six tries to pass, but pass he has.
Moved by Regan’s obvious pride in having earned a chance to enter Yale, Stover offers his untutored opinion.
“It’s a pretty fine college,” said Stover, with a new thrill. “It’s the one place where money makes no difference…where you stand for what you are.”
Regan turned to him.
“I’ve fought to get here, and I’ll have a fight to stay. It means something to me.”
In short order, Stover finds himself contending with a social system which excludes people such as Tom Regan. From the start, the well-connected freshmen are consumed with plotting the strategies by which they might win a place in one of the exclusive senior societies. A place on the football eleven or as an oarsman ensures consideration for one of the better sophomore societies as does “heeling” the literary magazine or newspaper.
What do you know about the society system here?” said Le Baron abruptly.
Why, I know — there are three senior societies: Skull and Bones, Keys, Wolf’s-Head — but I guess that’s all I do know.”
You’ll hear a good deal of talk inside the college, and out of it, too, about the system. It has its faults. But it’s the best system there is, and it makes Yale what it is to-day. It makes fellows get out and work; it gives them ambitions, stops loafing and going to seed, and keeps a pretty good, clean, temperate atmosphere about the place.”
“I know nothing at all about it,” said Stover, perplexed.
“The seniors have fifteen in each; they give out their elections end of junior year, end of May. That’s what we’re all working for.”
“Already?” said Stover involuntarily.
“There are fellows in your class,” said Le Baron, “who’ve been working all summer, so as to get ahead in the competition for the Lit or the Record or to make leader of the glee club — fellows, of course, who know”
“But that’s three years off.”
” Yes, it’s three years off,” said Le Baron quietly, “Then there are the junior fraternities; but they’re large, and at present don’t count much, except you have to make them. Then there are what are called sophomore societies.” He hesitated a moment. “They are very important.”
Do you belong? ” asked Stover innocently.
“Yes,” said Le Baron, after another hesitation. “Of course, we don’t discuss our societies here. Others will tell you about them. But here’s where your first test will come in.”
There are other voices in the class, levelers who feel the secret societies undermine all that Yale might offer. Gimbel, a “troublemaker” even at Andover suggests that the membership in the sophomore societies threatens the entire college:
“Stover, it’s a bigger thing than just the peace of mind of our class.”
“But what is your objection to us?” said Stover.
“My objection is that just that class feeling and harmony you spoke of your societies have already destroyed.”
“In what way?”
“Because you break in and take little groups out of the body of the class and herd together.”
“Oh, no, I don’t; and you’ll see it more next, year. You’ve formed your crowd, and you’ll stick together and you’ll all do everything you can to help each other along. That’s natural. But don’t come and say to me that we fellows are dividing the class.”
“Rats, Gimbel! Just because I’m in a soph isn’t going to make any difference with the men I see.”
“You think so?” said Gimbel, looking at him with real curiosity.
“You bet it won’t.”
“Wait and see.”
In the end, Dink stands against the secret societies, championing friends like Gimbel who read and think. It is without irony that Johnson suggests that Stover’s virtue is rewarded, of course, when he is tapped as the last man by Skull and Bones.
The Yale of Skull and Bones, sophomore societies, pitched battles between classes , competitions in oration, and championship football is the Yale that gave birth to the Whiffenpoofs.
By the end of 1909, a select group of voices had tumbled from the ranks of the Glee Club and into Mory’s Saloon. Their numbers would swell and would include some of Yale’s most illustrious graduates. By the 1930s, a tapped class at Skull and Bones was incomplete without at least one Whiffenpoof.