It’s the first Monday of fall, 1827. You’re standing in a field called “the Delta” where Memorial Hall now stands. On one side of the field, you stand with the entirety of the freshman class. You stare down a sea of sophomores on the opposite end of the field. Suddenly, a ball is set down in between the sides and the game begins. Your miniature armies charge at each other, every student kicking at something—anything—trying to move the ball past the wall of the other class and over the goal line.
The ball is swiftly forgotten as you watch players trip each other and desperately kick at the constantly morphing mass of players’ shins. It’s a free-for-all now, the sophomores and freshmen locked in a physical battle. You get socked right in the eye. Out of your good eye, you see some classmates limping away from the fight while others’ noses gush blood.
Welcome to Harvard.
The game is over now and you gather with the sophomores again, forming rings in the field. Together you sing “Auld Lang Syne,” a song whose title translates to “for old time’s sake,” traditionally sung to commemorate both events of the past year and friendship. You and your peers erupt into loud cheers and the crowd disperses.
You’ve just participated in the now-discontinued annual sophomore-freshman football game.
Described by a New York magazine as akin to “a Spanish bull-fight,” this competition of wills between the sophomore and freshman classes dates back to the late 18th century.
The clash began in the late 1700s as a wrestling match. Eventually, it evolved into an early form of football, and, by 1827, the football fight was captured in a light-hearted epic poem called “The Battle of the Delta.”
American college football of the 19th century bears little resemblance to college football today. Only kicking the ball was allowed, but as R.S. Minot (class of 1877) noted in The Advocate, kicking the ball was “almost impossible” and running with it was “little or no part of the game.” After the opening kick, the ball became nothing more than “an excuse for scrimmages, in which a man showed himself the best player who could kick best, and did most hurt to his adversaries’ shins.”
Minot denigrated this Rugby-esque ball as a “degraded soulless mass,” one often arbitrarily replaced by “paper, old rags, dead leaves, or anything that came handy.” This form of football, as described by J.K. Hosmer (class of 1855), comprised “an artless game without elaborate hard and fast rules” that would likely be unrecognizable to football fans today.
The belligerence of the tradition drew criticism. Notably, Harvard Magazine’s June 1858 issue asserted that students, while playing, were “in that state of irresponsibility and uncontrol which has been the parent of so much evil in the world… few things are more deplorable than to see God’s image mauled and beaten.”
President Cornelius Conway Felton stated that he, Harvard faculty, and Harvard Magazine all agreed that the annual tradition was a form of hazing. Under pressure from parents, the Faculty voted to ban the sophomore-freshman game on July 2, 1860. While informal games on the Delta were allowed, the decree sparked protest within the sophomore class of 1863.
In an act of defiance, the sophomores held a funeral procession for football. The mourning included torch-carrying, drum-beating, and spade-bearing. Six pallbearers carried a coffin containing “a foot ball with painted frill.”
According to John Langdon Sibley (class of 1825), the students formed a circle once the procession stopped at the Delta. The coffin was passed around, and students took turns paying their last respects to the hallowed “degraded soulless mass.”
Meanwhile, the spade bearers began to dig the football’s final resting place. Students even made an inscribed headstone and footstone for the occasion. By the light of the torches, the elegist gave a mock-sanctimonious address, reminiscing about “noses wonderfully distended, of battered shins, the many chance blows anteriorly and posteriorly received and delivered, the rush, the STRUGGLE, the VICTORY!”
As recounted by Sibley, the students’ lamentations, which “might have been heard for a mile,” punctuated the oratory. Finally, the mourners sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”: “Shall 63 submit to see / Such cruel murder done, / And not proclaim the deed of shame? / No! Let’s unite as one!”
The tradition of the interclass fight on the first Monday of each new academic year was not quashed by the Faculty’s vote in 1860. Instead of calling the annual event a “game,” students began to call it “rush.” Without a football, the fight continued on until 1917—but it was held at night, to avoid proctors. Students began to wear masks to conceal their identity and to avoid suspension.
In these days, the game earned the title “Bloody Monday,” as the violence persisted even without goal lines or a ball.
These renewed sophomore-freshman clashes of the early 1900s earned the attention of the New York Times. The Times produced headlines that read like Onion articles: “CLASS RUSH AT HARVARD. Sophomores Win Annual Event of Bloody Noses and Torn Clothes” and “ANNUAL RUSH AT HARVARD. Victorious Freshmen Celebrate by Stopping Trolley Cars and Tying Up Traffic for an Hour.” According to one article, students in 1903 assaulted Harvard Square storefronts with a blitz of eggs. Clearly, the annual “rush” did not end without celebratory pandemonium.
What was the appeal of this chaotic tradition? The elegist of the 1860 football funeral encapsulates the annual match’s value: the “enthusiastic cheers,” “the singing of ‘Auld Lang Syne,’” and “each student grasping a brother’s hand.”