Looking for shelter

Kenyon's nineteenth-century fraternities shared the ideals?and the failings?of their counterparts on other American campuses

For all his wisdom and native ability, Philander Chase may not have understood very much about the needs of a college man. He seems to have expected the Kenyon-bound student to welcome the cloistered life of Gambier where he could pursue his studies without distraction, and to find in wholesome activities, such as chopping wood, all the recreation he could desire.

Before long, though, the students showed Bishop Chase that boredom might lead even the best of them to defy his authority. They regularly sneaked away in search of a bit of fun, and with woods and night offering good cover, they were seldom caught. Sometimes, when they were as brazen as Edwin Stanton, of the College's Class of 1834, who borrowed Chase's horse for one evening's escapade, they were forced to throw themselves at the mighty feet and plead for mercy. If they were lucky, or particularly eloquent, the bishop would forgive them for their youthful recklessness.

The American college fraternity arose out of students' desire for more social outlets and a bit of control over their own lives. When Kenyon was founded, the first Greek letter society was almost fifty years old. It was inevitable that these organizations would invade the isolated campus, where rules were strict and diversions were few. Perhaps the only surprise is that they were nearly thirty years in coming.

The country's first college fraternity was founded in December 1776 in Williamsburg, Virginia. Discussing politics was a dangerous business at a time when everyone was on the lookout for traitors, and students at the College of William and Mary were warned to steer clear of such discussions. But there, so near the seat of the colonial government, temptation was great. It was in this atmosphere that a small group of students formed a society in which they could freely converse and enjoy each other's fellowship without fear of repercussions-and without faculty knowledge or interference.

The students called their society Phi Beta Kappa. The organization exists to this day, but now as an honor society rather than a social fraternity. From the start, this group had most of the manifestations of modern-day fraternities: an oath of fidelity, Latin and Greek mottos, a special handshake, and prescribed rites for initiation, all secret. Within a couple of years, the society began chartering chapters at other institutions.

One of the founders of Phi Beta Kappa, Thomas Smith, was already a member of the Freemasons, a grand old society that took its modern form in London early in the eighteenth century but dated back to medieval guilds. Smith's knowledge of the rites and rituals of Freemasonry probably explains how the first American college fraternity emerged with such a complex and sophisticated shape. But if the college fraternity benefited initially from a kinship with the Freemasons, before long it was to suffer from that same association.

In 1826, as Philander Chase was taking possession of the College's land in Knox County, Ohio, a man in upstate New York was preparing to divulge the secrets of the Freemasons. Though some of his brothers from the order tried to dissuade him, William Morgan persisted. Shortly after his article was published, Morgan disappeared. The case remains a mystery to this day, but the popular consensus at the time was that Morgan was kidnaped and murdered by Masons, and that other Masons used their influence to cover up or otherwise hinder the investigation.

There was such an uproar over this case that, for the first time, a third party, the Antimasons, entered American politics. Antimasons were interested primarily in destroying the Masonic Order, but any sort of clandestine activity was suspect. At the college level, Phi Beta Kappa was singled out for scrutiny. Here was a group that gathered to itself the elite, the future leaders of the country. And furthermore, someone claimed to have discovered a link between one chapter of the fraternity and the Freemasons. In 1831, under pressure from John Quincy Adams among others, first one and then another of the fraternity's eastern chapters voted to reveal their secrets to try to salvage their reputation. Antimason fever died out after about ten years, but it left a legacy of fear and suspicion of secrecy.

Many colleges founded in the nineteenth century were, like Kenyon, sponsored by a Christian denomination, and the church had a special antipathy to secrecy because of its association with the devil. Furthermore, any clandestine activity was a challenge to authority, and higher education in America was still extremely paternalistic. There was a general feeling that undergraduates could not be trusted if left to their own devices for more than a few moments, and the faculty kept sharp eyes on their charges. Thus at Kenyon, and at many another college, secret societies were, from the first, banned outright.

Nevertheless, in 1852 some students at the College managed to obtain a charter from the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity at Yale University, using a Deke from Miami University as a go-between. The students began to hold regular meetings, in the bell room of Old Kenyon or in a distant barn or deserted cabin, stealing off one by one to avoid suspicion. After about a year and a half, the Dekes came out into the open at the Commencement ceremonies of 1853, brazenly displaying showy fraternity pins on their lapels. That was perhaps the true moment when Kenyon entered the fraternity world, for it was then that the stand-off between fraternity and authority began.

The Dekes were immediately presented with a choice: dissolve the chapter or petition the faculty for recognition-recognition that would surely come with strings attached. The brothers could, of course, have chosen to go underground again. But it was something of a miracle that they had managed to keep their association secret for so long, and now that the faculty was on the alert, trying to continue in secrecy would have been all but impossible. And so, in July 1853, the young men presented their petition.

The faculty was willing to grant recognition to the new society with two conditions. They wanted assurances that the fraternity was being formed for a "moral and purely literary" purpose and, in order that the professors might keep tabs on the group, that a faculty member would be given access to the meetings. There was nothing immoral in the Dekes' charter, and "literary purpose" at the time was so broadly conceived that any sort of civilized discussion at their meetings would satisfy that stipulation. But the chief reason to have a fraternity was to exercise a bit of independence, to choose their own associates and enjoy their meetings in private. If a faculty member had to be present, so they must have asked themselves, why bother?

There is a lengthy hiatus in the faculty minutes before the next mention of the Delta Kappa Epsilon Society. Then, in May 1854, a second petition was presented to the faculty. Signed by a different roster of students (for by that time some of the original petitioners had graduated), it included the following assurance: "The objects of this society are of a purely literary character and strictly moral in their tendency in proof of which we are willing to admit a member of the faculty to our meetings whenever desired."

The request was granted; the faculty appeared to have regained the upper hand. But the students had a trick up their sleeves. By the time this second petition was approved, the Dekes already had representation on the faculty, in the person of Henry D. Lathrop, a newly appointed tutor who was also a charter member of the Lambda Chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon. They had their cake and could eat it, too, because Lathrop would never divulge the secrets of their society.

In addition to introducing the Greek letter society to Kenyon, the Dekes are widely credited with another first-that of constructing the earliest purpose-built fraternity lodge in the nation. (As with all "firsts," it is important to be specific about what is being claimed. In the 1840s, a fraternity at the University of Michigan had taken over an existing log cabin for its meetings.) According to Will Tunnard, one of Kenyon's earliest Dekes, the members had grown weary of meeting amidst dust and cobwebs, and so they "bethought them of erecting a permanent hall in some snug and unfrequented spot."

The administration approved of the students' enterprise and resourcefulness when they asked permission to build a lodge with their own hands and at their own expense. The College donated both the lumber and the site, which was north-west of the main campus in an undeveloped area. The twenty-by-forty-foot log cabin had a rough exterior, but inside it was "a model of elegance" with plank ceiling, plastered walls, a carpeted floor, and comfortable chairs. The total expense to the Dekes was less than fifty dollars, not including "the genuine cooking stove, with oven, skillet, griddles, and pots complete, which cost $20." The proud members held an initiatory feast and recounted their "hide and seek" days of roasting potatoes in the ashes of a campfire and cooking chickens on forked sticks.

A few months after the faculty granted recognition to Delta Kappa Epsilon, petitions were presented on behalf of Theta Delta Chi and Sigma Phi. The attempt to establish a chapter of Theta Delta Chi succeeded, but the Sigma Phi hopefuls apparently never received a charter, perhaps because that particular fraternity had from the first maintained a distinctively conservative policy of expansion. Four years passed before another fraternity sought recognition. Although Kenyon had doubled in size during those years, moving from an enrollment of sixty-three to one hundred twenty-seven, the faculty was not particularly friendly to the idea that the fraternity presence should similarly expand. When Alpha Delta Phi requested recognition in November 1858, a faculty member moved "that it is inexpedient to extend any official sanction to any new secret society and that the sanction to those now in existence be withdrawn."

This resolution failed by a single vote, but the faculty did pass a different resolution that would deal a death blow to similar groups that had been popping up at the College's grammar school. In the future every grammar school applicant would be required to sign a pledge that he would not join a secret society. Reading between the lines, it seems that the faculty was most displeased with these organizations for holding their meetings during posted study hours. In order to make their position clear, the professors passed a resolution stating that attendance at secret society meetings was not an acceptable excuse for absence from rooms during study hours. They then extended the Saturday night study hours until 10:00 p.m.!

It might appear that the faculty's extension of study hours unfairly punished the whole student body for the transgressions of a few. However, the three national fraternities were not the only secret societies on campus. They were far outnumbered by home-grown (and usually short-lived) secret societies that devised fancy names for themselves and mysterious mottos, such as Algonquin words that purportedly translated as "I love chickens."

By June 1860, Theta Delta Chi was in deep trouble with the faculty for disregarding study hours. When the members went home at the end of that academic year, the faculty requested their parents to keep them there, unless they were willing to promise to obey the rules upon their return. In 1861, Theta Delta Chi withdrew from Kenyon, apparently due to lack of members.

When Psi Upsilon asked permission to form a chapter at the College in January 1861, the faculty granted it with the usual provisos. With the outbreak of the Civil War, the size of the student body fluctuated wildly for a decade. In 1870, as numbers stagnated at an uncomfortably low level of about fifty students, the fraternity presence began to grow again when Theta Delta Chi reestablished a chapter. Rivalry between fraternities started to heat up. The brothers of Psi Upsilon tried to knock the oldest fraternity down a peg by raiding Delta Kappa Epsilon's lodge and stealing their charter papers. Realizing the now decrepit log cabin could never be made strong enough to fend off such incursions, the members razed the historic structure in 1873 so that they could build a better one.

Beta Theta Pi was chartered in 1879, and afterward competition between the Greeks grew even more fierce. Faculty minutes for June 1880 report the reading of "a petition from the several Greek letter societies, asking that no other association of a literary nature be allowed to be established." There was much discussion when a group of students sought to establish a chapter of Delta Tau Delta in November of that year. The faculty debated the wisdom of allowing this sixth fraternity on campus and decided to deny the request.

The students asked the faculty to reconsider their petition, and this time Prof. George S.C. Southworth carried the day by arguing that if there were too many fraternities on campus the problem would solve itself, because only the worthiest would survive. The students got their wish, but Delta Tau Delta was handled roughly by the other Greeks. In those days it was not unheard of for a man to "jump" from one fraternity to another, and it appears that the older societies ganged up on Delta Tau Delta, trying to convince its members that they had pledged an inferior fraternity and should jump to another. It was many years before the hard feelings subsided.

The small number of undergraduates had its positive side: it fostered student-faculty relationships that helped speed paternalism to its end. "There is probably no college in the country where there is more harmony between the faculty and students than at Kenyon," the editors of the student newspaper wrote in 1881. "Were anyone to ask the reason the answer would probably be, because the students are governed to a great extent by their own sense of honor." The larger question of the College's survival no doubt helped the professors keep lesser issues in perspective. Otherwise they might have been moved, by the recurring interfraternity battles, to abolish the societies.

The Greek societies became the hub of extracurricular life in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Most of them had vocal groups, quartets or quintets, that offered performances. In 1887, Theta Delta Chi completed a new and different sort of lodge, a two-story building in which the upper floor would remain private but the lower floor could be used for dances and other social gatherings.

Kenyon continued to limp along with well under a hundred students. Most of the fraternities experienced frightening lows in their memberships; several suffered through years during which a single man carried the torch. Henry J. Eberth, a member of Delta Tau Delta in the Class of 1889, held one-man chapter meetings in his room and sent glowing reports to the mother chapter of the harmony and good will that existed at the College, where all dues were paid up and there was 100 percent membership in Phi Beta Kappa!

The various societies tried to guarantee a steady flow of new initiates by setting up junior chapters at the Kenyon Military Academy (KMA), the successor to the Kenyon Grammar School. The numbers at KMA waxed strong, but few of the graduating cadets chose to enroll at the College.

In the country as a whole, the Greek societies were struggling more than ever for acceptance. Institutions that allowed fraternity members to live in separate lodges found the policy fostered division and resentment. Kenyon had avoided this particular difficulty by refusing to let students live off campus in fraternity groups. Instead, the administration assigned a section of a dormitory to each fraternity.

Unhappily, the College would not escape a different sort of curse that was following the growth of fraternities. Most societies had initiation rites designed to thoroughly frighten and intimidate candidates for admission. Although no real harm was ever intended, these ceremonies sometimes went horribly wrong, and the list of accidents around the country was growing. On an awful night in the 1870s, the initiation rites of a fraternity at Cornell University led to a student's death and a trial that made national news. A blindfolded initiate had been led by two of the fraternity's brothers to stand on a precipice above a stream. Somehow all three of the men fell over the cliff. The initiate died, but this was not the end of the horror. The two survivors, when testifying about the night's events, seemed confused about whether they should break their vow of secrecy and reveal what transpired.

The days of antimasonry were long gone by this time, but the wisdom of allowing secret societies on college campuses was still much debated. Those who campaigned against them had, in the Cornell tragedy, a powerful example of the way in which the fraternal bond could warp an immature mind. Some predicted that the end of college fraternities was at hand.

Kenyon suffered its own tragedy early in the twentieth century. On Saturday, October 28, 1905, freshman Stuart L. Pierson of Cincinnati, Ohio, who was being initiated into Delta Kappa Epsilon, was spending the night, alone, on or near the railroad track at the bottom of Gambier Hill. Sometime during the night, an unscheduled locomotive struck and killed Pierson. In the ensuing popular frenzy, it was suggested, in newspapers and from pulpits, that Pierson had been tied to the tracks in a hazing ritual. The fraternity maintained that Pierson was not tied down, that he was a heavy sleeper who was startled by the locomotive and fell into its path. Whatever the real explanation, enrollment at the College fell off immediately, and it did not recover until a decade had passed.

But long before that event, it was clear that, no matter what, the Greek system was to be a persistent feature of higher education. With fraternities still hanging on after a hundred years of outright discouragement, college administrators were recognizing that such organizations met a simple human need for fellowship. Some even ventured to argue that national fraternities, compared to the more fly-by-night organizations students might organize in their stead, had a couple of advantages. They were anxious to make and maintain good reputations for themselves, and their alumni exerted a certain pressure to keep up the standards. And the old bugaboo, secrecy, was actually rather illusory, since at most colleges the administration had a good idea of what was going on after a group had been around for a few years.

Fraternities remain controversial on many campuses today, with issues both old and new engendering debates about their value. Should the Greek system be abolished? What would be lost? What would be gained?

The questions are not easy ones. Nor were they easy a hundred years ago. In 1887, Andrew Dickson White, a past president of Cornell, wrote: "A bitter enemy of the great secret benevolent societies of the country [such as the Freemasons] once compared them to the small-pox; if this be just, entrance into the college fraternities might be considered, perhaps, as a vaccination."

For the college fraternity, never in its history warmly embraced, such grudging acceptance might be as good as it ever gets.

Teresa Oden is a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group.

Back to Top