I'm Gonna Git YOU Sukka: Classic Stories of Revenge at Harvard

In the fine tradition of Lewis, Lamar, Wormser and Booger, nerds have always been the best at getting revenge. Now,
By Vicky C. Hallett

In the fine tradition of Lewis, Lamar, Wormser and Booger, nerds have always been the best at getting revenge. Now, while Harvard has the Harvard Computer Society in lieu of the Adams College chapter of Lamda Lamda Lamda and the A.D. in place of the Alpha Betas, history shows that even without a special potion to ward off Takashi's inebriation, Harvard students can definitely get the job done when it comes to getting `em back.

For years, Harvard's publications have taken pride from their lengthy rivalries. Stealing symbols of the organizations or starting offshoots, the papers and magazines have fought more battles than anyone else on campus. The most storied rivalry, in place for over a hundred years, has been between The Crimson and the Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine.

Back in the day, weaned on watching the colonists soundly whip the British, Revolutionary War babies/Harvard students wanted to teach the administration a lesson when it introduced a new regulation in 1790 calling for an annual public examination of the students. Students, who were decidedly ticked off by the situation, planned a way to get back at the people behind the exam and prevent it from happening.

On the morning of the first day of the exam, April 12, 1790, a group of students dropped 600 grains of tartar emetic into the cooking boilers in the kitchen. When the 150-plus crowd of students and officers showed up for breakfast, their coffee included water with that special twist. With the exception of four or five people, everyone turned ill, including the students behind the plot, who had drunk extra coffee in order to avoid getting caught. Unfortunately for them, they had taken pains, literally, for no reason. They were caught and suspended for their actions.

But this group poisoning is mere child's play compared to what professors have done to each other. One of the best-documented and goriest examples of vengeance occurred in 1849 when two members of the Harvard Medical School (HMS) faculty had a falling out that climaxed in a grisly murder. Former Harvard Magazine editor John T. Bethell, who recently wrote Harvard Observed: An Illustrated History of the University of the University in the Twentieth Century, says the homicide is among the most scandalous incidents in Harvard history.

The drama began when Dr. John White Webster borrowed some money from Dr. George Parkman, both HMS professors. Webster offered Parkman a mortgage on his personal property, which included a precious mineral collection, as collateral for the loan, but conveniently did not tell Parkman that he was using the collection to back another debt. When Parkman learned of the situation, he decided he had to hit up Webster for a payback. But soon after he began his pursuit, Parkman disappeared.

When Parkman had been MIA for a week, a janitor broke into a brick vault under Webster's lab on a hunch and discovered what had become of Webster's former colleague.

"If you can call this revenge, he had cut him up into little pieces and burned him in his lab furnace," Bethell says. After Parkman's remains had been found scattered about the laboratory, Webster gave himself up to authorities, confessed and appealed for clemency. But his pleas did not save him from the ultimate revenge. He was hanged Aug. 30, 1850.

The feelings of animosity did not, however, extend to the families of the two men. Parkman's widow, believe it or not, raised funds to help Webster's wife and children after the execution.

Less gruesome but just as vindictive was William Randolph Hearst, Class of 1886, known better in the annals of history as a yellow journalism trailblazer and newspaper magnate, but back in his Harvard days, just another troublemaker from the Lampoon staff. A practical joker at heart, stories of his antics, especially those aimed at his instructors, were legendary. For one particularly cheeky stunt, he bought a jackass and snuck it into a professor's room. When the donkey greeted the man on his arrival, hanging around the animal's neck was a card that read, "Now there are two of you."

But his boldest move targeted all of his professors. "Hearst was having academic difficulty with his professors, so he had a courier deliver chamber pots to his professors," Bethell says. The recipient's names were ornamentally inscribed on the bottom of each "can." This move did not go over well with the Faculty and he was shortly expelled from the school in 1884.

Getting kicked out may have been nothing new for the rabble-rouser, who had been expelled from St. Paul's a few years earlier "for the good of the school," but some scholars remain thoroughly unimpressed by the pot gesture. "Very unoriginal of Hearst. Louis XVI did the same thing to Franklin," remarks Professor Emeritus Bernard Bailyn, who wrote on Harvard's origins in Glimpses of the Harvard Past.

While Hearst was getting back at his professors, fellow student J.P. Morgan Jr., Class of 1889, exacted his revenge on the members of the Porcellian club. When he wasn't invited to join the prestigious society, Morgan took matters into his own hands...and wallet. He financed the purchase of the Delphic club. There were only a handful of members at the time, so they left the gaslights on at all times so other people would know that the club was now occupied; hence, the club's nickname, "The Gas."

In more recent years, the trail of revenge has continued. Bethell says that athletes at other schools fight for more than their school's pride when they face the Crimson. As they score those touchdowns, fresh in their memories is the thin-envelope-kiss-of-death. "James Perry, the Brown quarterback who had a record day against Harvard last November, was reportedly discouraged from applying because he wanted to play baseball as well as football and the Harvard coaching staff preferred that he stick to football," Bethell says. Bethell also points to Yale quarterback and Harvard reject Joe Walland as a source of rage. "Both those guys must have been pleased with the parts they played in spoiling Harvard's most recent football season, and they'll both have another shot next year."

Probably the sweetest revenge in all of Harvard's history, though, was a direct hit from Cotton Mather, Class of 1678, son of Increase Mather, Harvard's sixth president. Although Cotton Mather had hoped to follow in his father's footsteps, he was rudely passed over for the job three times. Seriously peeved, he joined a group of conservative clergymen (all Harvard alums) who founded the Collegiate School of Connecticut in 1701. "And," Bethell notes, "it was at Cotton's suggestion that the school was renamed Yale College in 1718. So a Harvard man was instrumental in bringing Yale, as we know it, into being. The ultimate payback."