April 1, 2015

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The Joke’s On Us: A History of Pranking at WPI

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Sir Winston Churchill once said,  “A joke is a very serious thing.”  This has proven to be quite true for WPI; the most infamous of pranks on WPI’s campus are a far cry from the typical foolery (think eggs teetering on a cabinet shelf). From stolen clock hands and goat heads to horses paralyzed with fear, WPI’s pranksters and their historic antics not only raised eyebrows but, at times, prompted administrative or police involvement. The serious nature surrounding these hoaxes may have faded with time but the stories of late-night shenanigans, escapades, and rollick live on. In the midst of a joyous sesquicentennial celebration on campus, it seems only appropriate to pause, look back, and enjoy a good, hearty laugh.  In honor of April Fools’ Day, here are the top five most memorable pranks (and an honorable mention) in WPI’s history.

Honorable MentionDrawing Stands Prank

Honorable Mention goes to the earliest prank on this list. On December 31, 1881, students snuck into Washburn Shops and “painted fantastic designs” on several crates of drawing stands that were awaiting shipment. One of the pranksters was apprehended and dismissed from the Institute, even though he had, at one time, held the office of Class President.

A workshop in Washburn Shops with undistrubed drawing boards, circa 1890's.

A workshop in Washburn Shops with undisturbed drawing stands, circa 1890s.

 

#5: Automobile in Dorm 

Coming in at number five is a prank often committed on several American college campuses. In April of 1940, a few pranksters from the freshman class brought an automobile into the dormitory as a practical joke, removing the tires from the vehicle. While points for lack of originality were deducted, this prank took a lot of effort. Plus, a sophomore photographer was able to capture the moment.

This photograph, taken by Burns, class of 1943 and published in the April 30th issue of Tech News, features the automobile used in the infamous stunt.

This photograph, taken by Burns, class of 1943 and published in the April 30th issue of Tech News, features the automobile used in the infamous stunt.

 

 

#4: Weathervane Stolen

You’ll want to brace yourself for the number four spot. One late evening in October of 1975, an unidentified individual climbed Washburn Tower and stole the treasured Arm and Hammer weather vane. A ransom note was received but only after the ransom date had already passed. The thief never being caught nor the weather vane recovered, this infamous trick still remains an unsolved WPI mystery. However, this story does have a happy ending; a local craftsman generously offered to produce and donate a new weather vane, restoring a great WPI tradition.

The replacement for the stolen weathervane from the top of Washburn Shops is held by three men, September, 1977. Left to Right: Richard Johns, William A. Morrill, William Harper.

The replacement for the stolen weathervane from the top of Washburn Shops is held by three men, September, 1977. Left to Right: Richard Johns, William A. Morrill, William Harper.

 

#3: Clock Hands Go Missing

On the morning of March 25, 1925, it was reported that the three clock hands from the clock on Boynton Hall were missing. Being both of high importance to the Institute and expensive to replace, the administration did not take the matter lightly. New clock hands were eventually remounted using wooden replacements but were again stolen in 1950. It was only in the 2000’s that this set of hands were anonymously returned to the Office of the President, apparently as a dying wish from the prankster’s deathbed. The precious Boynton Hall clock hands now reside in the Archives for safe keeping. With it’s significant effect on campus property (and the story’s addition of a guilt-ridden prankster relenting the clock hands a half-century later), this pranks lands at number three.

A memo from President Earle urging the prankster to return the stolen clock hands.

A memo from President Earle urging the prankster to return the stolen clock hands.

 

#2: Goat’s Head

A stir was caused by a prank committed on Homecoming Day, 1957. A member of Tech Senate, a student government body, was performing a routine check on the Goat’s Head when they discovered that the bronze replica was missing. Attached to a concealed cable and hidden beneath four feet of mud, the Goat’s Head was removed in the early hours of the morning on October 19th. A single shingle was left behind with the words, “DONORS RETRIEVED” inscribed. Contemporary accounts state that there were a small group of elderly men hurrying across the campus, leading some to believe that the class of 1893, the alumni that initiated the Goat’s Head tradition, were back to reclaim their glory. Others say that there was a glow that could be seen coming from Alumni Field, insinuating that the bronze Goat’s Head had been entirely melted down. Rumors about the Goat’s Head continue today, with many WPI folk believing the original bronze replica resides with members of Skull in Skull Tomb. Is the modern Goat’s Head the real, original Head? Regardless of its final destination, this story is loaded with tradition and lore, making it number two.

Speculation surrounds the story of the Goat's Head prank.

Speculation surrounds the story of the Goat’s Head prank.

 

 

#1:Horse in Sinclair Hall, a.k.a the Buckskin Incident:

And finally, we have arrived at the number one most memorable prank in WPI History! The honor goes to the riotous rapscallions that lead a horse up two flights of winding stairs into Boynton Hall Chapel in the fall of 1884. One late October evening, pranksters entered the barn of M.P. Higgins and took a horse, named Buckskin. The horse was found sitting in a pew the next morning when students came for their morning devotional. Alarmed, frustrated, and unsure  how to solve the problem, the administration called on the help of a local veterinarian. Once the veterinarian arrived, the horse was blindfolded, had its feet binned together, and was taken down the stairs using a sled. The most curious part of this tale is the interrogation. Rather than asking the pranksters to come forward, the administration interviewed the entire junior class by asking them only one question: did you agree with your classmates to not reveal the truth? Confused by the question, not a one moved, and all were convicted. The punishment was severe, suspension for all but one of the students, that student being Harry Worcester Smith. Smith was dismissed from the Institute and never truly got over the devastation and embarrassment. Years later, when President Hollis took office, the entire class of 1887 was made to pay for renovations to the Boynton Hall Chapel.

In a letter to Professor Butterfield, Harry Worcester Smith attempts to profess his innocence nearly thirty years after the Buckskin Incident occurred.

In a letter to Professor Butterfield, Harry Worcester Smith attempts to profess his innocence nearly thirty years after the Buckskin Incident occurred.

 

Did your favorite WPI prank make the list? If not, please comment below with stories, fables, or tales of mischievous moves you remember from WPI.

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