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When a Yale dean snidely called a recent Eli student stunt "a great deal better than face slapping or eating live goldfish," he revived an issue as dead as--one hopes--are the goldfish.
The most-publicized college fad in history started on March 3, 1939, in the Harvard Union, when freshman Lothrop Withington, Jr., '42, goaded by a bet with his roomates, downed a goldfish never to be upped again. Pocketing a wager of $10 in good 1939 currency for his efforts, the Yardling thus ushered in a two-month period, which "Time Magazine called "among the maddest in the annals of U.S. Undergraduates."
As summed up by Withington, now a conservative businessman, "It was purely a case of mind over matter. I didn't mind, and the fish didn't matter." But the fish did matter to some. The Animal Rescue League was indignant about the situation and shortly thereafter, Massachusetts State Senator George Krapf filed a bill "to preserve the fish from cruel and wanton consumption."
Most of the reaction was favorable, however, and Withington still has a "trunkful" of fan letters and newspaper clippings. Job offers poured in, and he was subsequently elected to his class Smoker Comittee.
Among his correspondence Withington still cherishes a letter from a Kansas man who wrote. "If you ever want $10 that bad again, just let us know and we'll send it to keep you from becoming constipated."
But beneath the surface glamour, there was plenty of hard work and courage. Withington had practiced diligently at his Holworthy aquarium, starting with small fish and gradually working up to the four incher he swallowed at the Friday night Union performance.
In swallowing, Withington followed a definite plan. The Yardling's experimentation proved the immediate mastication process superior to the decisive gulp system, as the latter had to be followed instantly by a fish-killing beverage, like Union ice tea.
At this point, pioneer Withington dropped out of the business, although even today the incident follows him. He reports, "I've never been able to duck it, but I certainly don't regret it."
Taking over where Withington left off in March of '39 was Lowell House sophomore Irving M. Clark, Jr., '42. In 10 minutes, on the evening of March 26, Clark, clad in a Crimson sweater, gulped down 23 of the aquatic animals, his weight climbing from 158 to 165 in the process. During the sprint Clark paused only long enough to suck on an orange between fish. Circus offers followed, but the sophomore was uninterested, preferring to retain his "amateur standing."
The Boston papers naturally leapt on the story as an example of the decadent ways of Our College Youth. In the Boston Herald one Eva Williams Raymond burst into poetry thusly:
To end this paranoiac prank,
O Harvard, how I wish
You'd put the students in a tank
And graduate the fish!
The resulting publicity provoked a torrent of letters one of which, originally printed in the Globe, was re-run by the CRIMSON. The letter to the editor went "I think it is wonderful the advantages boys have who go to Harvard with its background of 300 years of educational preeminence. Those of us who for financial reasons have to send our children to Wesleyan or Bowdoin just can't hope to give them an opportunity to learn how to swallow live goldfish."
The annoymous letter-writer was soon to learn, however, that Harvard men were not the only ones susceptible to spring madness. The local record mounted to 24 and then 33. An M.I.T. man put down his slide-rule to devour 42. A daring Middlesex student followed with 67, and to set the intercollegiate record Joseph Deliberto of Clark University downed 87.
And while Radcliffe girls were studying in Widener, a courageous Missouri University co-ed made the headlines by becoming the first female to swallow goldfish.
Soon the affair added international implications. Citizens of Grammont, Belgium, reported that they consumed 50 at their annual "Feast of Der Krakelinge." No upstarts in the field Grammonters began the ritual in the 14th century.
Back in America, an Intercollegiate Goldfish Gulping Association had been established as a sort of clearing-house for the various claims and counter-claims I.G.G.A. regulations were for the various claims and counter-claims. I.G.G.A. regulations were two--fish must be three inches long and must be retained by participants for at least 12 hours.
Then for love of diversity or lack of goldfish, the fads began to change. A University of Illinois freshman, John Poppelreiter, swallowed five white mice. An Gregon State student preferred 139 angleworms, while at Lafayette College, an eager undergraduate ate an issue of "New Yorker," advertisements and all.
Back at Harvard, the extracurricular diet included phonograph records much to the glee of Briggs & Briggs, and the fad-happy Harvardmen followed this phase by kissing marathons. Debutante teas were raided, and one sophomore kissed 26 Wellesley girls in five minutes Cliffedwellers remained in Widener.
Another College student, enraptured by what he called "these cod-damned fads, kissed 133 fish, "effectively combining the two in one grand gesture." In a speeck that April, President Conant said. "I think the oldtime stunts, such as putting a cow in the chapel steeple and taking the president's buggy apart, were much more fun."
Simultaneously, a Society for the Prevention of Goldfish Eating was formed and the fad-made period was dying a slow death. It was late April, and the rains came and examinations with them.
By May, all was forgotten; the public tongue was no longer wagging Withing ton-but Willkie
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