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1850s New Haven hosted two deadly clashes between Yale students and locals, and both times, the conflict was inflamed by a song.
On March 16, 1854, things went sour at Homan’s Atheneum, a theater at the Corner of Church and Chapel. The play that night was a popular tragedy, and the students and townspeople in the crowd, largely seated in different areas, began hissing and booing at each other. Apparently, the students had been repeatedly standing up and blocking the locals’ view.
After the show, the factions brawled on the sidewalk, with police intervening. In a show of defiance, 10 times as many students attended the next night’s performance. A number of townspeople later shadowed the students back to campus, jeering and taunting them.
Then the students began to sing.
“Gaudeamus Igitur,” a popular student anthem, was the tune. Written in Latin, the lyrics speak of the shortness of life as well as the glories of academia. Most of the locals probably didn’t understand the words. But they understood all too clearly what the students were doing: mocking them.
With that, the fight was on. Townsfolk threw stones. Students pulled out knives and guns. In the melee that followed, one of the townies fell to the ground in agony.
Patrick O’Neil, a longshoreman, had been fatally stabbed in the chest.
Seeking retribution, a crowd of hundreds grabbed a pair of cannons out of the city armory. Placing one on Chapel Street and the other on College, the cannons were aimed at what was then Yale’s South College, which had walls facing both roads. The cannons were stuffed to bursting with rocks and chains, and if not for local police chief Lyman Bissell, it’s possible the building—and no few of the Yalies sheltering inside—would have been destroyed.
Bissell and his men managed to sneak over to the cannons and “spike” them, driving metal into the touch-holes to keep any fuses from being inserted. On finding the cannons unusable, locals attacked with rocks instead, shouting for the students to bring out the murderer.
Acting mayor Eleazar K. Foster arrived on the scene to plead for peace, which he got—temporarily. But O’Neil didn’t get justice, whatever that may have meant. A hearing was held, in particular to determine the status of student John Sims, whose hat was found next to the dying man. But no progress was made, in large part because his fellow Yalies refused to testify. As a result, tension between the school and the surrounding community was worse than ever, leading to another violent conflict a mere four years later.
In the long history of secret societies and social clubs at Yale, the Crocodile Club circa 1858 has an ignominious place. The clubhouse was on the corner of High and Elm, near the same fire station Yalies had attacked in 1841, whose ensuing student-firefighter feud was still going strong. The students would march by at night to annoy the firefighters, singing the very same song that’d figured into the death of Patrick O’Neil.
On February 8, 1858, the provocation got a reply from the fighters of Fire Engine Company No. 2: as the students marched by, the firemen poured water on their heads.
The next night, the insulted students confronted the firemen, one of whom managed to sneak away to gather reinforcements. In the fracas that followed, the students, once again armed with pistols, fired a flurry of shots. William Miles, a 19-year-old fireman armed with a wrench, was hit. Two days later, he died of his wounds.
Students were brought to trial, hiring two Yale graduates, Henry B. Harriman and Charles R. Ingersoll—both of whom would go on to be governors of Connecticut—to represent them. Adopting the same legal strategy as their forebears, every last student refused to testify. Combined with the firefighters’ inability to identify the shooter, the result was an acquittal.
In some measure of penance and goodwill, a group of Yale students raised a sum of $375—about $10,000 in today’s money, according to an internet inflation calculator—for the Miles family. And, seeing some patterns it was in a position to stop, Yale paid to have the fire station relocated far from campus, while issuing a prohibition against students carrying weapons. Unsurprisingly, the ban did a lot to end gown-town violence.
But it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly finished the “Twenty-Years War” between gownies and townies. Perhaps the burgeoning outlet of organized sports offered a safer way to relieve the pressures felt by both students and locals. But it seems likelier that deepening nationwide conflict, soon to crystallize into the Civil War, was a more significant factor, by putting town and much of gown on the same side—the Union—while forcing Yalies to confront the North-South divisions within.
War—real war—was coming.
Written by Anne Ewbank. Photographed by Dan Mims. Image shows 19th-century Yale students, as depicted by a plaque at the southeast outer corner of Old Campus.