Looking Back 35 Years: The 'Possum Caused a Riot

Police Arrest 28 Students During Square Pogo Rally

The image that lingers on in everyone's mind is of Cambridge police clubbing Paul R. Rugo '55, a young, clean-cut freshman, while he lay defenseless on a street in Harvard Square.

Virtually every student in the College saw the photograph that captured that moment splashed across the front page of The Crimson the next morning. And if they didn't see the picture there, they likely saw it a few days later when it was printed as Life magazine's picture of the week.

Rugo was beaten on a hot and humid spring evening during spring reading period 35 years ago. That night, police arrested 28 Harvard students in what has become known as the Pogo Riot, fought in the name of the famous 'possum from Okeefenokee Swamp in Florida who was eliciting a groundswell of grassroots support--in Harvard Square, at least-for election to the presidency of the United States of America.

The Harvard campus first learned of Pogo's candidacy on May 8, 1952, when The Crimson announced the formation of a political movement to counter campus support for the impending presidential candidacies of General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson.

Why Pogo? "It had the faintest possible whiff of social criticism," says Daniel Ellsberg '52. "It was slightly spoofing the establishment." Then, just as the races for the Republican and Democratic nominations were reaching a peak, The Crimson distributed 3000 free "I Go Pogo" buttons to students, who devoured the newspaper's supply of buttons in less than 90 minutes.

Crimson editors decided to take advantage of the new craze. They set up shop in the Winthrop House suite of Jay R. Nussbaum '52.

"The principle editors of the Crime were living in the room next to me," says Nussbaum, who now works for the Agency for International Development in Washington, D.C. "Their policy was never to have a story about their own people. My proximity made my name available to them."

The campaign--with Nussbaum as its figurehead manager--quickly snowballed, and The Crimson invited Pogo's creator, Walt Kelly, to Harvard to deliver a chalk talk for his character.

Everyone got in on the game.

The Harvard Band prepared "to provide cacaphonic background for the melee," The Crimson reported, and students made appropriate signs to welcome Kelly and show their support for Pogo. The student newspaper promised a fresh supply of "I Go Pogo" buttons. Cambridge Police Chief Patrick J. Ready gave his approval for the political demonstration, but warned that patrolmen would be on hand in case the crowd got out of control.

Organizers planned for students to rally across from the Yard, in the spot where Holyoke Center now stands, and then march to the New Lecture Hall to hear Kelly's speech. But things did not come off as planned.

Kelly's arrival from Logan Airport was delayed, and the crowd on Mass. Ave. grew antsy. It also grew large. As the clock ticked on, the number of students milling about the Square waiting for Kelly multiplied from about 200 to 1600.

The density of the crowd increased and the traffic in the Square became terribly congested. The electric trolleys, still in use in 1952, could not make their way through the Square because of the students blocking the streets and the back-up of other traffic. A handful of students, perhaps for lack of anything better to do, began to disconnect the poles linking the trolleys to their source of energy on the wires overhead. Police rushed the crowd, beating and arresting students.

Rugo, now a Boston attorney, says he remembers the evening "like it was yesterday." Dressed in his ROTC uniform, Rugo says, he was walking down Mass. Ave. with his date, now his wife.

"I had nothing to do with the Pogo parade," Rugo says. "All of a sudden it just erupted." Outside of J. August and Co., policemen honed in on Rugo and told him he was under arrest. He received no response when he asked what the charges were against him. "The police swung furiously, and I swung back," he says, adding that his flying punches landed him in the paddy wagon on his way to jail.