"He was a Rare Scholar himself, and he made many more such; but their Education truly was In the School of Tyrannus."
-Cotton Mather, Class of 1678
If you haven’t heard of Nathaniel Eaton, Harvard’s first head of school, it’s not because he’s one of the University’s buried treasures. Described by one student as “fitter to have been an officer in the inquisition, or master of an house of correction, than an instructer (sic) of Christian Youth,” Eaton’s disastrous year-and-a-half-long tenure, from 1638 to 1639, ended in a court case in which he was ordered to step down and pay a fine. The school closed down for the subsequent academic year. The affair was such a scandal that in 1940, some students argued that 1640 should be seen as the real founding year of Harvard College. Here are just a few things that made Nathaniel Eaton and his regime, well, shitty.
Eaton hired one Nathaniel Briscoe to be an usher (essentially an assistant). Briscoe had been working for Eaton for less than a week when there was some disagreement between the two men and Eaton beat him with a switch. According to John Winthrop’s journal, the switch was “a walnut tree plant, big enough to have killed a horse, and a yard in length.” Briscoe received 200 stripes and the beatings continued for two hours, Winthrop wrote, though Eaton gave him two or three short intermissions.
After the beatings had concluded, Briscoe started praying, thanking God that he hadn’t died. Eaton promptly began beating him for using the Lord’s name in vain.
The incident ended up being taken to court, where it emerged that Eaton routinely would give his students between 20 and 30 stripes at a time, not stopping until they had confessed to the crime of which they were accused.
DUNG IN THE HASTY PUDDING AND OTHER DINING DEPRIVATIONS
Nathaniel wasn’t the only Eaton compromising the health of Harvard students. In her confession during the trial, Eaton’s wife admitted to neglecting the goat dung her servants had slipped into the hasty pudding, a porridge she prepared for students’ meals (it seems that the Hasty Pudding here has always been shitty.)
Eaton’s wife also drew some flak for confessing to feeding the students spoiled fish and sour bread, a far cry from our modern-day luxuries of succulent swai and endless sleeves of multi-grain bagels.
Eaton’s wife was in charge of drink as well as food. During the trial, she revealed that the students were often short on beer for as long as a week at a time. Though HUDS has been short on beer for far longer than a week, the beverage was considered a necessary component of education in the 17th century, on par with books.
EMBEZZLEMENT AND FLIGHT
After being found guilty of beating Briscoe and other misdemeanours, Eaton fled to New Hampshire with a good chunk of College funds in his pocket. Three men from Massachusetts captured him but, in a move that can only be described as Jack Sparrow-esque, Eaton engineered a ruse by which two of his captors were left on the shore while he threw the third into a river from a rowboat.
Once he’d given his captors the slip, Eaton moved to Virginia, carrying debts of over 1,000 pounds. He remarried (his first wife had died by this time), and settled there until he heard that his creditors from the north were on his trail. Abandoning his second wife, he booked it to England and remarried yet again.
He quickly fell into debt and was arrested two times. The first time, he was able to bribe the man arresting him, but after the second booking, he was thrown into debtor’s prison, where he died in 1764.
Harvard was closed during the academic year 1639-1640, after which Henry Dunster resumed operations and became the first man to hold the title “President of Harvard College.” Dunster found a number of Eaton’s former students still hanging around the College, though they were “miserably distracted,” and promptly put them on a rigorous course of study to set the course for their graduations in 1642.
While Dunster improved the quality and reliability of dining services, he, too, was rumored to have had a penchant for beating his students. His presidency lasted 14 years. Though Eaton was long gone, it seems that some of his practices were not as quick to go.