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Nineteenth-Century Student Shenanigans at UNC

Undergraduates have always brought a healthy dose of chaos to college campuses, but the digital collection "True and Candid Compositions: The Lives and Writings of Antebellum Students at the University of North Carolina" reveals that student life at UNC was especially uproarious during the decades before the Civil War. This month, DocSouth remembers an era during which many UNC students indeed acted like heels—the sort that professors and administrators would gladly have done without.

Citing a letter from Elisha Mitchell, a UNC math professor, to Charles Manly, a UNC alumnus and trustee, Erika Lindemann explains that "[i]n mid-August 1840, for a period of three weeks, student rebellions became especially persistent. Students doused faculty members with water when they attempted to enter Old West; stones, bricks, and furniture were thrown from dormitory windows; first-year students headed into the woods after dark for a 'freshman treat' and returned 'hallooing and shouting'; 'the bell was rung indefinitely'; and students stole horses and rode them through the campus late at night."

Illicit behavior did not always remain outside the classroom. In his History of the University of North Carolina, Kemp Battle explains various methods used by students to cheat on exams. "One of the most ingenious plans was to cut a hole in the floor of the recitation room in an upper story under the benches, then to lower the questions by a string, and haul up the answers worked out by a number of good scholars underneath. These were then distributed. This was called 'working the telegraph'" (p. 563). Although such a stunt would almost certainly result in expulsion in today's University, Battle notes that "Cheating on [exams] when the object was only to pass and not to get an honor was not considered dishonorable. It was a trial of wit between the class and the Professor, and it was considered good fun to win."

Miscreant student behavior inspired an entire new vocabulary. The April 1852 issue of the North Carolina University Magazine defined several "local phrases," including "bust"—"the act of giving free vent to the hilarious feelings; immoderate dissipation of any kind, accompanied with a recklessness; a running a horse through the street; a boisterous noise"—and the closely related "devilment"—"a sudden and temporary predominance of the evil spirit; a ringing of the bell by night; a rocking of the Tutors . . . applauding in the college chapel; impudence to Professors." These categories of mischief-making demonstrate the less-than-reverent attitudes of antebellum Tar Heels toward figures of authority.

Of course, the UNC faculty did not suffer these slings and arrows in silence. A large number of students were expelled (or "dismissed") during this period, and many more were called to defend their actions, either judicially or rhetorically. One anonymous letter addressed "To the Young Gentlemen of the University of North-Carolina" in May 1834 asked if loud and unruly student behavior such as "hissing" and "loud vociferations" were harmonious with "academic life and intellectual dignity." The same writer entreated students to alter their behavior so as to preserve "the prevailing gentility of Chapel Hill." While such pleas do not seem to have eradicated wild student behavior in their day (or in ours), with the passage of time, they have come to resemble the conventional wisdom of a university that prides itself on "the Carolina way."

DocSouth's digital collection True and Candid Compositions features 121 documents written by UNC students from 1795 to 1868, depicting students' daily activities, their views of academic work, their social and political interests, and their hopes for the future. Another digital collection, The First Century of the First State University, presents manuscripts and official documents related to the founding and growth of the University from its inception through the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Works Consulted: Battle, Kemp P., History of the University of North Carolina, Vol. I, Raleigh, NC: Edwards & Broughton Printing Co, 1907.

Patrick E. Horn